I'm sure you’ve heard people in the fitness/diet world talk about macronutrients… but how many people really know what they are? And if it matters?
Every human should have a basic understanding of macronutrients and energy balance. I believe a healthy diet is more about nutrients, adherence, and lifestyle choices then it is about calories or macros, but it is definitely important to understand how food works in the body. So, here is the beginners guide to macronutrients.
As words are the building blocks of books, and numbers the building blocks of math; macronutrients are the building blocks of energy. There are three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Macronutrients — protein, carbs, and fats — are in their simplest form; energy.
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that nourish our body. Micronutrients are extremely important for health, growth, and development in the body. But micronutrients have no caloric value; they don’t create energy.
Simply, macronutrients — protein, carbs, and fats — will determine your weight and the overall energy balance in your body. Body weight is determined by the measure of your energy balance over time, or more commonly referred to as calories in vs. calories out. Again, your health and body composition is so much more than simply calories in vs. calories out. BUT, when it comes to body weight, the balance of energy is all that matters at the end of the day. And macronutrients are the breakdown of that energy.
The first and most vital macronutrient is protein. Some people need 200 grams a day, and some people only need 50, but we all need it. Protein is the building block of muscle, and plays a pivotal role in your organs, tissues, hair, skin, hormones, and more. It helps strengthen bones, improves wound healing, and reduces the loss of muscle as we age. It provides the feeling of satiety, and the body uses more energy — calories — to digest protein in comparison to carbs and fats. Meaning, you are burning calories when digesting protein — anywhere from 20-30% of the calories consumed! And there is no junk food protein. Most junk food you find will be in the form of carbohydrates (refined carbs and sugars), and in some forms of fats. Protein = your best friend.
The second macronutrient, fat, is a very calorie dense and satiating food. Remember, fat is 9 calories per gram, in comparison to 4 calories per gram in carbohydrates and protein. The American market has demonized dietary fat (saturated fat) for years due to bad research and misguided guidelines. This unfair criticism is unfortunate, because healthy fats are extremely beneficial for the body.
Fat is a major source of ATP (the body’s energy system) and plays a vital role in the health of the cells in the body. For example, the human brain is 60% fat, and without fat cells would not be able to maintain their structure or integrity. There are two types of fat: saturated fat and unsaturated fat. Saturated fat — think animal fat and butter — appear solid at room temp. Unsaturated fats — vegetable oils like olive oil — are liquid at room temperature. Also, fat is absorbed differently than carbs and protein. It’s absorbed through the lymphatic system instead of through the liver. If you were to only run on fats, then your body would shift its source of fuel to ketones, instead of the more common form of fuel in glucose. This thinking is the basis for the popular low carb diet ‘keto.’
The third and final macronutrient is carbs. Carbohydrates — carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen (CHO) — are highly debated in the health and diet industry. For every athlete who uses carbs to fuel optimal performance, three dieters will swear carbs derive from the devil. Let’s be very clear; there is no such thing as a bad macronutrient. A carbohydrate itself isn’t inherently bad, it is simply 4 calories per gram. It’s energy. The context in which you use and store that energy is what matters.
Carbohydrates are one of the body’s primary fuel sources. They aren’t necessarily essential, but the glucose in your body is. Glucose is what carbohydrates become when digested by the body. Glucose is the fuel that powers most of our exercise and activity for the day. We can hold up to 100 grams of glucose in the liver, and up to 300-400 grams in our muscles. With exception to extreme endurance exercise, glucose alone is able to fuel our training and workouts. When there are no energy requirements, and our liver and muscles are full, we then store glucose as adipose tissue, or more commonly known as body fat.
Carbs get a bad wrap for a few valid reasons. First, most of the carbs we eat today have low nutrient value. Common forms of carbohydrates sold in American stores today — bread, cereals, pasta, oatmeal, candy, and chips — are processed and stripped of the original nutrients. A key goal when consuming food is to consume micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). We would call these foods — foods with a high nutrient value per calorie — nutrient dense foods. For example, fruits and vegetables are majorly carbohydrates, and are a great form of nutrient dense foods. We should strive to consume more of these nutrient dense, and fibrous forms of carbs. Instead of ice cream and cinnamon toast crunch.
The other thing to be aware of with carbohydrates — mainly carbs with a high glycemic index (think simple carbs like cereal and candy) — is the rollercoaster of energy when consumed. Simple carbs and sugars are rapidly absorbed by the body and spike blood sugar. This quick spike in blood sugar is met with insulin to balance the response. When insulin does it’s job, and blood sugar eventually drops, you crash. And with a crash follows a craving sensation — to get blood sugar back up — and that’s where the feeling of being tired or hangry comes in. For most people, this cycle will put them on a rollercoaster of spike and crash — a disastrous sequence when pursuing an energized and enjoyable life.
Humans aren’t zombies or robots with no emotional connection to food, we have to be aware of the psychological effect foods have on us throughout the day. Some people do better with carbs than others do. We are people with feelings, emotions, and we each have our own unique relationship with food. It’s important to be aware of our behaviors — to know which foods trigger our bad eating habits. For most of us, carbohydrates are the macro that triggers the bad emotional cycle of craving and binging.
Again, I want to make it clear that carbohydrates aren’t evil. They are simply the most commonly sold “junk” food, making them the easiest macronutrient to over eat. For example, on the keto diet, most people think they are losing weight because of this magical diet, but it's actually because they've eliminated all the junk. On keto you can’t eat carbs (junk food)... it's hard to find junk food protein or fat. Elimination for the win.
I hope this little article helped you gain a better foundational understanding of nutrition. As always, health is wealth, and much more than the amount of energy we eat. All of our lifestyle choices and behaviors impact how we feel, look, and move.
Keep striving my friends!!!
About The Author:
My goal is to shine a positive light on the world around me while pursuing the best version of myself possible. I wear many hats, I am a PGA professional, podcaster, writer, health enthusiast, athlete, and teacher.
My vision for this blog is to share my personal experiences and knowledge with no agenda, no judgment, and no BS — just positive energy.