Back to Basics: Macronutrients

nutrition -

Back to Basics: Macronutrients

With Guest Blogger, Blair Solberger

Macros (macronutrients) is one of the more commonly used terms in the fitness industry. You may have heard the term before, such as counting macros, if it fits your macros, or readjusting your macros, but how many of us actually know what it means?

I have come to the realization that when someone advances their knowledge in a field, they take for granted what the average person outside of the field understands. When I first started seeing clients, I made up a short quiz to assess the nutrition knowledge of my clients. I figured I would start with an easy question:

“What are macronutrients?”

I was willing to accept a list of the three macros, a basic definition, or any inclination that they grasped the concept.

Out of 30, a whopping 0 got it correct. It was quite eye opening to me. Enough so to lead me to this blog.

Welcome to your intro to macronutrients.

Several definitions for macronutrients exist when you google the term. The most common definition is that they are compounds that the body needs in large amounts for normal growth and development. In the world of nutrition, the macronutrients are generally accepted as the three nutrients that provide energy to the body or those that contain calories.

The three nutrients that provide you with energy are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.

Carbs: Contain 4 calories per gram. The daily requirements are based on activity/physical demand. Higher activity = higher carbs.
Fat: Contains 9 calories per gram. The daily requirements are based on filling in the caloric gaps. Consumption should be the inverse of carbs. Higher carb = lower fat, lower carb = higher fat.
Protein: Contains 4 calories per gram. The daily requirements are based on body weight. Consumption should stay fairly constant.

Carbohydrates

Commonly known as carbs, this is the primary energy source for most people’s diets. Carbohydrates can be classified in many ways, but the most common is simple vs complex. These terms are often misused on social media, so we’ll spend a minute breaking down carbs.

Simple Carbs

Simple carbs are, in essence, sugars. They are small compounds usually consisting of two or fewer monosaccharides, which roughly translates to a “single sugar.” This term has nothing to do with fiber content, nutrient density, or effects on blood sugar.

The main monosaccharides are glucose, fructose, and galactose.

The primary carbohydrate in the world of nutrition is glucose. This little guy is the primary source of fuel for our entire body as well as the building block to almost all carbs. You may also recognize that middle name. Fructose is the sugar from fruit, high-fructose corn syrup, and table sugar.

These monosaccharides will combine to make the common sugars, or disaccharides.

Glucose and Galactose combine to make lactose, or milk sugar.

Glucose and fructose combine to make sucrose, or table sugar.

Sources of simple carbs: sugar, milk, fruit, honey, syrup, sweetened beverages, etc.

Complex Carbs

Complex carbs are our starches and fibers. These compounds are made entirely glucose connected in long chains. The length, presence of branches, and type of bonds in the chain largely determine the name and how they behave.

Complex carbs generally take longer to enter the blood stream for energy because these long chains have to be broken down before being absorbed and turned into energy.

Sources of complex carbs: bread, pasta, quinoa, rice, potatoes, lentils, beans, legumes, etc.

Our bodies store carbs in the muscle and liver to call upon for energy during times of demand (think exercise).

Fats

First and foremost, the fat you eat and stored body fat are not the same thing! They are similar compounds, but the body has many uses for fat when eaten such as vitamin absorption, hormone synthesis, anti-inflammatory properties, and more. Body fat is the result of consuming more calories than you burn from ANY food source.

Fats are often separated into saturated and unsaturated. We can break unsaturated down into a few more categories: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

Saturated

These tend to exist in animal products (milk, butter, meats) and tropical oils, like coconut or palm. Saturated fat is incorrectly named the bad fat, but it is vital to our health. Saturated fat plays a pivotal role in hormone production, immune function, and brain health. It should make up about 10% of our fat intake.

Unsaturated

These primarily come from plants and wild caught fatty fish, like salmon and tuna. These are the big hitters for fighting inflammation, reducing soreness, and making up the walls of all your cells! Unsaturated fats should be the remaining 90% of your fat intake.

You should aim for a minimum of 10:1 ratio of monounsaturated (nuts, avocados, olive oil) to polyunsaturated (walnuts, fish, seeds).

Protein

I always like to save the best for last, and this is no exception. Protein has an enormous number of functions in the body. So many that it’s easier to offer a single phrase: everything in the body is made from, or as a direct result of, protein.

Now, let’s dive a little deeper.

Protein is made up of amino acids. If protein is the house, amino acids are the bricks. The body’s tissue is comprised of 20 amino acids in varying order. Out of these 20, there are 9 that we refer to as essential amino acids. This means that our body doesn’t make them at all, so they must be obtained through diet.

The primary way that protein is separated is complete and incomplete. Complete simply means that it contains all 9 essential amino acids in high enough quantity to support normal human growth and function if it was the only protein source eaten. Incomplete means it does not do those things.

The easiest way to remember it is that animal sources, except gelatin, are complete and plant sources, except quinoa and spirulina, are incomplete. However, we don’t live in a vacuum. We don’t eat only 1 protein source to obtain all the essential amino acids. Complimentary proteins are two foods that are incomplete individually but combine to form a complete protein. Some classic examples are rice and beans or hummus and pita.

Now, earlier I said that protein consumption is based on body weight. The current recommendations to minimally support normal health is 0.8 grams per kilogram or about 0.35 grams per pound of body weight. I believe in a higher protein diet and tell my players to aim for 1-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or roughly ½ to 1 gram per pound each day.

Take Homes

1. Carbs are our source of fuel and should be eaten based on activity. Aim for a mix of simple and complex carbs that are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
2. Fat is a healthy and necessary part of our diet. Eat mostly unsaturated fats. Base the amount of fat you eat on the amount of carbs you eat.
3. Protein is the building block of our muscles, organs, bones, and more. Eating around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight encourages weight loss and helps increase lean mass.

Interested in learning more about how to properly fuel your body? Check out this blog post on micronutrients.