What is a macronutrient?
Macronutrients are the largest building blocks that make up the foods we eat. Everything you put in your mouth-from a strawberry, to a piece of strawberry cheesecake is made up of one or more of the three macronutrients:
Protein, Carbohydrate, and Fat.
Give me a few minutes of your time and I’m going to provide you with some easy to understand basics of what each of these macros are, why we need them, and how you can make some changes to the foods you eat that can help you to lose body fat or gain muscle.
Alright, let’s dig in. Ready? Here we go…
Proteins contain essential nutrients for the human body. They are fundamental in facilitating tissue growth (ahhem! MUSCLE!) and can also be used as a fuel source for the body. You will find proteins in EVERY cell of our bodies-hair, skin, nails, muscle, etc. They help to carry out many necessary reactions such as muscle contraction, digestion, nervous system function, and more! So…pretty darn important.
The building block of proteins are called amino acids. Although there are over 500 known amino acids, we’re going to focus on two basic types: essential and non-essential. Essential amino acids are much like they sound-ESSENTIAL. The thing about these babies are that they must be obtained from the foods we eat! Yes, your body is able to produce some amino acids, but not all of them. These non-essential amino acids are often present in foods as well, but our bodies can make these if needed so it’s not as imperative that we consume them as a regular part of our diet.
“So how do I make sure I get all of these SUPER important amino acids?” you ask…
Well, let me just tell you. There are these two terms we use to classify protein sources: complete protein, and incomplete protein.
You might be surprised to find out, but did you know that most veggies have some protein in them? Yup! Meat and dairy aren’t the only foods with protein! Vegetables are a great example of an incomplete protein. This means they are lacking one or more of the essential amino acids (and in the right proportion). This isn’t a big deal and we know how important veggies are in a healthy diet, but this means that we should consume another source of protein that has all of these super important amino acids and in the right proportion. This leads me to…
A complete protein. It has a nice ring to it doesn’t it? Complete proteins have (you guessed it!) all of the essential amino acids and in the right proportions. What are the best sources of complete proteins? Animal. Or things made from animal.
Some examples of complete and incomplete proteins are listed below. This is one concern that people living a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle should be very cognizant of. Meat isn’t absolutely necessary, but it’s a one stop shop for all the the essential amino acids. If you choose not to consume any animal products, making sure you strategically combine foods that contain compatible incomplete proteins to get all essential amino acids is very important.
Complete Proteins Incomplete Proteins
Proteins contains 4 calories per gram. Quality and nutrient density of food are something to take into consideration too. Think vitamins and minerals in a cup of ice cream (hey-ice cream has protein!) vs. a cup of grass fed ground beef. There is no comparison when nutrient density is concerned. Sorry ice cream-you lose.
Ohhh…carbs are a touchy subject. They are probably the most loved AND the most hated macronutrient and there is a lot of confusion on this topic.
Let’s get into the basics as well as the good, the bad, and the ugly. Carbohydrates are most basically defined as sugars and starches. Even though they are not essential for our survival (like proteins and fats), they serve as our most easily accessed form of energy for daily functions. Once consumed, carbs are stored in either the liver, or the muscles (as glycogen) until they are needed and utilized by the body for energy. One of the potential “problems” with carbs is not how and when we use them as fuel, but when we DON’T use them as fuel- as in-we eat a lot of them but we don’t USE a lot of them by being active and exercising. When this occurs, body fat accumulation is pretty much inevitable. One of the easiest ways I have found to explain what carbohydrates do to our bodies is that they MAKE THINGS GROW. You can choose-they can make your muscles grow by consuming carbs strategically in preparation for training, exercising, etc, or post exercise to help recover and refuel in preparation for the next workout, or they can make your fat cells grow by eating too many and not being active enough. Can you see now how they can be your best friend or your worst enemy? They can be powerful almost like drugs to enhance performance, or they can be the main source of your anguish over the 15lbs that you put on over the holidays from too many cookies! Which leads me to my next point…carbohydrate sources.
Some fruits and vegetables are much more dense than others as well so this would need to be taken into consideration as well when measuring servings if using a scale vs. a measuring cup.
Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram much like protein. If you choose a variety of whole food sources (fruits and veggies) in a wide color spectrum you will be providing your body with a lot of the vitamins and minerals that it needs to thrive and keep you feeling your best.
Last but not least…the most DREADED macronutrient for so many…
“But doesn’t it cause Heart Disease? And clog your arteries? And make you fat? You shouldn’t eat fat…”
NO, NO, NO, and wrong.
You know what fat DOES do? It satiates us. It makes food taste freaking great. It slows down the digestion (a fat gram has 9 calories vs. 4 for protein and carbs) of foods so we don’t feel like we have to eat every 2 hours (Because don’t get me wrong, this girl LOVES to eat, but I don’t want to be a slave to a grumbling belly because I’m hungry again right after I ate!). All in all, fat does many things, but it does NOT make us accumulate body fat unless, just like any other macronutrient, we eat too much of it. End of story.
Examples of fats are butter, oils, nuts, seeds, egg yolks, and avocado among many other things. There are 4 main types of fats-saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats. Much like carbs, it’s not the type of fat necessarily that we need to be concerned about, but the fact that you want to stick to the NATURAL sources of fat. What does this knock out? The dreaded man made trans fats such as margarine, shortening, and partially hydrogenated oils. Bleh! These sources of man made fat are found only in processed foods, so if you stick mostly to a whole foods based diet, you will get virtually no trans fats in your diet (except for those that occur naturally in some fats, and those are beneficial.) Studies have shown that trans fats can cause more weight gain than a diet with the same amount on non trans fats. The really scary part? Trans fats may also cause a redistribution of body fat into the abdominal area which is not only not an attractive place to carry flab, but also the most dangerous. Long story short? Stick to the natural sources of fat and eat lots of them so that you can stay happy and satisfied.
All in all for the average person, a diet balanced in whole and minimally processed foods containing some sources of healthy of fat, and moderate amounts of protein and carbs should lead you on the path to a long and healthy life. If you want to lose excess body fat, for most people the best bet is to start looking at your overall calorie balance (proteins, carbs, AND fat)-how many calories you are eating in comparison to how many you are burning in a normal day. If you want to lose weight, you need to eat less than you expend.