Proteins, carbs and fats - oh my!
There has been an increase in focus on macro-nutrient intake and how it relates to overall health. Mainstream diet phrases like “high-fat, low-carb” or “high-protein” h ave taken the internet by storm. Many dietary theories are created around certain macro-nutrient distributions. For example, the keto style diets are high fat intake with low carbohydrates and Atkins diet is low-carb, high protein. With all of the focus on macro nutrient counting, we tend to lose the most important aspect of nutrition - quality.
But, for the sake of this article, I'm going to break down these three key terms that are most commonly related to diet and nutrition to help you understand them a better. There is a lot of information on the internet, and some if it is conflicting. The beautiful thing about nutrition is it is one of the few, if not only, sciences that can have two conflicting theories but be completely accurate in both instances. With that being said, I do not advocate on behalf of just one dietary theory because there is not just one way to eat. I digress - back to the basics!
What are macro-nutrients?
Macro-nutrients are a type of food that is required in large amounts in the body. There are three key macro-nutrients that make up the foods that we eat, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. All three macros have different functions within the body, but overall provide us energy to live and thrive. Each of these categories have different subcategories that further enhance the function and mechanism within the body. Understanding the key subcategories of these macro-nutrients is how we change the quality of the food we eat. Let's start with proteins.
Proteins are required for restoration and regeneration of cells, tissues, muscles, hormones, and much more in the body. Proteins make up 4 calories per 1 gram of the diet and should make up 15-30% of the calories intake daily. They are thermogenic and require energy to be broken down into amino acids, or the building block of proteins.
Proteins vary based on the combination of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids that comprise proteins. The human body is capable of making 11 of them using biological process and nutrients. The other 9 are considered "essential" - meaning, we need these but they have to come from food.
Protein foods can include beans and legumes, meat, seafood, nuts, seeds, quinoa, avocado, and raw greens. Some food has more protein that others, but in different amino acid variations. Having an amino acid deficiency can be related to insomnia, fatigue, poor detoxification, low-thyroid functioning, and more.
Fats have been dietary outlaws for far too long! It is time to make everyone aware that there are beneficial fats which are a requirement for cellular structure, brain and heart health, hormones, and more. Fats should actually make up 15-30% of calories consumed daily. Fats do have more calories per gram than carbs or proteins (9 kCal per 1 g) so a little goes a long way for energy.
There are 4 subcategories of fats: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated, and trans. Not to get "technical biochemist" here but the terms refer to the chemical structure of carbons and hydrogen molecules and the types of bonds they have. Saturated fats are considered potentially unstable molecules (depending on again the type of saturated fat) and should be kept within healthy limit. Mono- and poly-saturated fats are more structurally stable due in part by extra bonds between carbons, and an be highly beneficial. Trans fats are a no-no. Just no.
Back to biochemistry, within each subcategory are multiple types of fats. For examples, alpha linolenic acid (ALA) is one of many types of polyunsaturated fatty acids found in flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. There are, also, "essential" fatty acids. Remember, essential means required by body for health, but only through diet. ALA and linoleic acid are two recognized essential fatty acids. The polyunsaturated fats EPA and DHA are essential by default because they can be made from ALA in the body, but ALA has to be obtained through food.
Foods that are sources of these essential fatty acids include cold water fish like salmon, seeds, nuts (like walnuts), olives and olive oil, and avocados. Having an essential fatty acid deficiency could show up as dry skin and dandruff, inflammation, pain, brain fog, poor concentration, depression, and more.
The most commonly discussed macro-nutrient of them all. This category is often shamed as being a bad nutrient as well because we tend to classify all carbohydrate forms into one lump category as opposed to the multiple segments that it is. Pasta and broccoli are two very different foods, but yet both are well known carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates is a broad term and comes in a variety of forms that include starch, sugar, and fiber. (Insert biochemistry lesson here.) Just kidding. Each gram of carb is equivalent to 4 calories. Healthy carbohydrate intake is roughly 40% of the total daily calories. With that being said, there is important information to take away about carbohydrate needs.
Fiber is one of the most important nutrients we need in our diet. Fiber feeds beneficial bacteria, and promotes healthy digestion and bowel movements. Dietary fiber intake is linked to a reduction of colon cancer risks. Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, and minimally processed whole grains, like quinoa or millet. A deficiency in fiber can manifest into cardiovascular disease, diabetes, constipation, diverticulitis, or even cancer.
Sugar, as in added sugar, is not a necessity of the diet. Change my mind. That is a bold statement, and I agree that it is but here is the reason why. Carbohydrates that are not fiber will eventually break down into some sort of glucose. Whether it be from fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, or whole grains - if it is not fiber it will break down over time into glucose and that is enough for the human body. We are not designed to consume large amounts of sugar, and added sugar is not a requirement. A starch, for example, is another common carbohydrate term that is multiple sugars connected together to be a long chain. Starches will digest and absorb as sugar, although slightly slower than table sugar. Starches can be found naturally in potatoes and some grains, including corn and wheat.
This goes back to the beginning statement about the quality of nutrition being lost. Over time, we have categorized nutrition into three macro-nutrients and have disregarded the key components that make up each macro in respect to nutritional needs. We need to relearn the concept of food. A serving of pasta noodles that is mostly starch with few fortified vitamins is in no way a comparison to a serving a broccoli that is mostly fiber with many more natural-occurring vitamins, minerals, and other phyto-nutrients that heal the body. But they are both fall under the umbrella of carbohydrates.
Macro-nutrients and their subcategories are the bread and butter of nutrition (<-see what I did there). Quality of food matters just as much as macro-nutrient based dietary theories. Many symptoms or disease can be linked to nutritional deficiencies and prevented with a sound diet that uses food for healing. The human body is a working machine that has needs and by giving it the correct fuel, we can operate at maximum efficiency. It is my life mission to help educate society on how the food we eat can service our body, if we let it. We'll talk more on quality of nutrients in the next segment - Dirty Keto.
Until next time, healthy blessings!