Do you know much about macronutrients?
Do you consciously incorporate one or more into your dietary approach?
Do you have a favorite macronutrient, believing one type is “better” than the others? (Many people do)
Whether new to the health field or heavily invested, you’ve likely heard the term macronutrients. Interest in nutrition has exploded in the past few decades. Greater insight exists around carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Knowing something exists is a critical first step. But deeper understanding is where the magic lies because this allows you to make better choices and experience better health.
As the saying goes, “Knowledge is power!”
What is a macronutrient?
A macronutrient is a type of food the body needs in large amounts. Thus the “macro” tag. There are three macronutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Let’s look at each one, what it does, how much you need, and where to find it.
The low down on carbohydrates
When you think of carbohydrates, does your mind flash to candy, cake, ice cream, and noodles? Do you avoid this macronutrient because of fears of weight gain or metabolic dysfunction?
Or do you embrace the vast benefits the correct type of carbohydrates can bring?
(Do you genuinely know the difference?)
With the embrace of the Ketogenic diet, carbs have gained a bad rap. Let’s unravel the good from the bad.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are a nutrient that contains carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Yes, sugars. They can be simple, with only one or two sugars, or complex, containing many sugars.
Simple sugars are known as monosaccharides or disaccharides. Monosaccharides have a single (“mono”) sugar. Disaccharides have two (“di”) sugars. Complex sugars are called polysaccharides, with many (“poly”) sugars.
Monosaccharides include fructose, galactose, and glucose. Disaccharides include lactose, maltose, and sucrose. Polysaccharides include fiber, glycogen, and starch.
What do carbohydrates do?
The type of carbohydrate determines its function.
Glucose is an energizing nutrient fueling the body, especially the brain and nervous system.
Fructose, the sweetest carbohydrate, can also provide energy, though it is not essential.
Galactose typically binds with glucose to create the disaccharide lactose.
Lactose is helpful in creating healthy gut microbiota, supporting immunity, enabling mineral absorption, and providing a slow-release energy source.
Maltose is made from the bonding of two glucose molecules. Easily digestible, its glucose sugars can be liberated for use as energy.
Sucrose — whether found in beets or table sugar — is a common energy source.
Fiber is created by carbohydrate, a type the body cannot break down. A compound in plants, fiber can be described in several ways, depending on how it works and what it does…
For example, insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water. This means it helps to “push” the contents within the bowel along, leading to the easier passage of stools.
Soluble fiber does dissolve in water. This allows it to form a gel-like substance which may bring benefits like lower blood cholesterol and reduced hunger.
A review published in the journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition noted that the benefits of dietary fiber include:
— supporting healthy bowel motion
— moderating blood glucose responses
— reducing cholesterol
— influencing the gut microbiota
Glycogen is formed by bonding many glucose sugars in a way that allows for storage. This polysaccharide can be broken down during fasting and muscle contraction to supply the body and brain with glucose.
Starch is also made from the bonding of many glucose sugars. In plants, it acts as storage. For us, digested starch provides the energy needed for fuel.
How much carbohydrate do you need?
This is a somewhat controversial question. People will provide different answers, and they’ll be passionately sure that their opinion is right. So, what should you do?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that carbohydrates form between 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calorie intake. Once you’ve determined your energy requirement, you can determine how many carbs you need.
Where can you find carbohydrates?
There are so many sources!
Fructose is found in fruits, honey, and several vegetables. Apples, artichokes, asparagus, dried figs, grapes, leeks, onions, prunes, raisins, and sweet cherries included.
Tip: High-fructose corn syrup is a highly-processed form of fructose that should be limited.
Glucose is a building block for the monosaccharides, galactose and fructose, the disaccharides, lactose and sucrose, and the polysaccharide, starch. So, we consume glucose from a range of sources.
Sucrose comes from sugar cane.
Lactose is found in dairy products, including butter, cream, cheese, milk, yogurt, and the crowd favorite, ice cream. Because dairy is used in the production of a wide range of products, lactose consumption may come from bread, cakes, chocolate, cookies, mayonnaise, and even medications.
Maltose is found in malted grains.
Fiber can be found almost everywhere! From beans to whole grains, lentils to peas, nuts to crunchy vegetables, berries to fruits like avocado to bananas and pears.
Glycogen is stored in your body, ready to go when needed.
Starch is a favorite staple for many. Bread, cereals, couscous, oatmeal, pasta, potatoes, rice, and tortillas, anyone?
The scoop on fats
As the Keto diet gripped the world, the embedded negative thinking about fat (driven by the low-fat movement) has changed. So, what is the macronutrient, and what can it do for you?
What are fats?
Fats are created by the bonding of different fatty acids and glycerol, an alcohol. There are saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. The difference is found in the bonds a fat has in its chemical structure.
Those without a double bond are dubbed saturated. Those with one or more double bonds are called unsaturated. The former, the single-double-bonded type, is known as monounsaturated fat (“mono” = one). The latter, the two or more double-bonded type, is known as polyunsaturated fat (“poly” = more than one). The omega-3 and 6 fats you’ve heard about are polyunsaturated fats.
Trans fats also exist. Primarily, this type of fat is birthed through a process called hydrogenation. It’s commonly found in bakery goods, fried goods, and spreads. This type of fat is best avoided as it is linked to damaging health effects.
What do fats do?
Fats, like many carbohydrates, are a source of energy. They also insulate our organs and carry crucial fat-soluble vitamins around the bloodstream. Every cell in your body has a lipid membrane — a fatty wall. So, fat is essential for life.
How much fat do you need?
Fat should contribute 30% of your daily calorie intake.
Where can you find fats?
Saturated fats can be found in…
— dairy foods like butter, cheese, cream, and milk
— meat, especially fatty portions of beef, chicken, lamb, and pork
— processed meats
— certain plant products, including coconut and palm oils, coconut cream, and coconut milk
— many processed and packaged foods, including cakes, donuts, fries, pastries, and potato chips
Monosaturated fats are found in avocados, canola and olive oils, nuts like almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, and pecans.
Polyunsaturated fats are found as omega-3 and 6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are found in fish and walnuts. Omega-6 fats are found in avocado oil, safflower oil, eggs, hemp and sunflower seeds, tofu, Brazil, pine, and walnuts.
The basics of protein
When we think about protein, it’s easy to visualize muscular peeps swigging copious shakes and lifting heavy weights. But protein is essential for basic human function and wellbeing.
What is protein?
Proteins are created from many amino acids, building blocks, so to speak. Twenty different types of amino acids can be joined to form a protein. Nine are essential — you must get them from your diet.
What does protein do?
So much! Protein can be thought of as the language and worker bee of the cells. DNA “codes” proteins, determining the effect they have in and on the body. This way, protein is essential for function, regulation, and structure.
As described in MedLine Plus, examples of protein's function include antibodies, enzymes, messengers, transport and storage, and structure and support for our cells.
How much protein do you need?
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein for a healthy adult is 0.8 gm per kg body weight per day. Take your weight (in kilograms) and multiply by 0.8 to estimate your daily average. Saying that there are (at least) two provisos…
- Once you reach the age of 40 and beyond, 1–1.2 gm per kg body weight may help to prevent muscle mass loss associated with aging.
- The RDA is based on minimally active people. If you are an avid exerciser, a regular weight lifter, or are training for an event, you may need to lift your intake to up to 1.2–1.7 gm per kg of body weight.
Where can you find protein?
In many places! Plant sources include beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Animal sources include beef, chicken, dairy, duck, eggs, fish, seafood, and turkey.
Supplementing with a high-quality product will also boost your intake. Our Vegan Complete Pro and Whey Iso Pro each contain 24 grams of protein per serve. They taste delish and can ensure you consume enough!
The macronutrient takeaway
Macronutrients are the large nutrients you need to consume en masse: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Staying well requires sufficient consumption and that you get the amounts — and sources — right.
By understanding what each macronutrient is, what they do, how much you need, and where to find them, you can eat well and thrive!