Nutrition 101- Learning About Macronutrients
With all the information and misinformation in the media about what to eat and what not to eat, it is easy to forget that true nutritional information is not just based on current opinions and slick marketing, but on scientific facts. When it comes to improving your health, I always start my clients with the basic information of what the different types of food are and what we need them for. When you understand what these different types of food do for your body, and begin to pay attention to how you feel when you eat them, it becomes much easier to make choices that support your metabolism and your health.
Macronutrients are those nutrients which are required by our bodies and need to be consumed in large amounts every day. The five main macronutrients are: OXYGEN, WATER, PROTEIN, FAT AND CARBOHYDRATE.
We increase our OXYGEN intake through regular exercise and deeper breathing, whether through walking, aerobics, yoga, or even gardening. Any type of exercise allows us to get more oxygen into the body, aiding in detoxification, improving our metabolism, and reducing stress. We just feel better after we breathe and move our bodies, and if we can exercise outside in nature and in the sunshine, that is all the better for increased amounts of oxygen and the many benefits of vitamin D production.
Our need for plenty of fresh clean WATER is well known. Despite the prevalence and over consumption of sodas, coffee, teas and sports drinks, these drinks do not replace the body’s need for water, and in fact act to dehydrate the body.
So that brings us to the three remaining macronutrients that we as human beings require to live and be in good health: PROTEIN, FAT, CARBOHYDRATE. That is it, all foods are either one, or a combination of two, or all three of these macronutrients. Proteins, fats, and carbohydrates do all very different things in our bodies, and once you begin to recognize what type of food you are eating, then you will be able to create balanced meals that satisfy both your appetite and your metabolism. While every nutrition label that you see clearly shows the grams of protein, fat and carbohydrate, the real challenge in our modern world is not having adequate access to all three types of macronutrients in their natural, unrefined and unadulterated form. A healthy lifestyle requires not just learning how to see the quantity of macronutrients, to be able to read the ingredient label and discern the quality of macronutrients in our foods.
PROTEIN is made up of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen – and unlike plant foods or carbohydrates – protein also contains nitrogen. Nitrogen is what gives protein the capacity to help build and repair body tissues (something that carbohydrates cannot do.) Proteins are essentially tangles of amino acid molecules. There are twenty different types of nutritional amino acids, some of which are labeled as ‘essential amino acids’ because our bodies cannot produce them on their own – we must get them from our nutritional intake. We all require daily infusions of top quality proteins just to sustain life because our bodies cannot store them – or their building blocks - in the same way they store fats.
Because plant proteins in general have a lower biological value than animal proteins and often are missing one or more key amino acids or protein building blocks, vegetarians must be especially careful in choosing their proteins. Incomplete protein will keep you alive but it cannot promote growth or even cellular repair and rebuilding. An incomplete protein is therefore a protein that does not contain all of the essential amino acids. Does this mean that incomplete proteins are bad? Of course not. In fact, many vegetables fit into this category and by eating two vegetables that complement the ‘missing’ amino acids in each other’s profile, your dietary intake will then have a complete amino acid profile.
Protein is the main component of every cell and body fluid except bile and urine. In other words we are protein. Our muscles, hair, skin, nails, eyes, blood, enzymes, and many hormones and nerve chemicals are mostly protein. Bones are protein hardened by calcium and other minerals. In addition, protein is required for the formation of infection-fighting antibodies as well as for the growth and maintenance of all tissues. Protein also plays a key role in the regulation of the fluid and salt balance between compartments of the body and acts as a buffer in the maintenance of acid-base balance. Thus, protein is needed in our bodies to function as hormones, hemoglobin, enzymes and antibodies.
As we can see, proteins are used in our cells for a variety of functions. One of the most important functions is the building of muscle tissue. Without proper protein intake, your body will be unable to maintain all of those tiny muscle fibers that make up your muscles and keep you strong, toned, and active. So protein is a pretty important macronutrient when it comes to staying lean and healthy. Our base metabolism (calorie burning furnace) is determined by how much muscle tissue we have in our bodies. The best animal sources for protein include meat, eggs, and dairy products from pastured animals, free- range poultry, wild game, and wild-caught fish and seafood. Vegetable sources of protein include legumes, beans, lentils, split peas, fermented soy products like tempeh, grains like quinoa and brown rice, nuts and nut butters, as well as some in vegetables.
FATS (or lipids), made up of glycerol and individual molecules called fatty acids, perform life-supporting functions in every human cell in the body. Fats support the cardiovascular, reproductive, immune, and memory and nervous system operations, and in the manufacture and utilization of the sterol hormones. The human body needs the essential fatty acids to manufacture and repair cell membranes, enabling the cells to obtain optimum nutrition and expel harmful waste products. A primary function of good fats is the production of prostaglandins, which regulate body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, blood clotting, fertility, conception, and play a role in immune function by regulating inflammation and encouraging the body to fight infection.
Fats are also required for healthy skin, the transport and absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and the regulation of cholesterol metabolism. Essential Fatty Acids (EPA and DHA) are also needed for proper growth in children, particularly for neural development and maturation of sensory systems, with male children having higher needs than females. Fetuses and breast-fed infants also require an adequate supply of essential fatty acids through the mother's dietary intake. Fats, even stored fats, are in a constant, dynamic state of metabolism. So essential to body function are fats that even after starvation, fats are still found in tissues.
One of the most common pieces of nutritional misinformation that is still unfortunately being promoted (marketed) in modern America is that FAT makes you fat- a fallacy that has resulted in a tremendous rise in heart disease, diabetes, obesity, ADD, autoimmune disorders and a host of other chronic conditions. Fats and fatty acids are now considered key nutrients affecting early growth and development, as well as nutrition-related chronic diseases later in life. Not only are fats are a critical part of healthy dietary intake, but they are also allow you to feel satiated, balance your blood sugar levels (balances the “ups and downs” and cravings that happen from consuming refined carbohydrates and sugars), and provide you with long lasting energy.
“GOOD” FATS are absolutely essential to health. In addition to being the body’s most efficient source of energy, “good” fats are critical for a wide variety of metabolic processes. Essential fatty acids fall into two groups: omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-6 fatty acids are everywhere: corn oil, sunflower oil and soybean oil all contain them, and they are known to create inflammation in the body and are common in refined foods. Omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation, are found in natural, whole foods, like dark green veggies, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts, wild-caught salmon, trout and tuna, as well as meat, eggs, and dairy products from pastured animals. Current thinking is that these two fats need to be balanced in the diet at a ratio like 1-to-1 or 2-to-1, rather than the inflammation producing ratio of 20-1 seen in most Western diets. When we eat more whole foods, unaltered and unprocessed the way Nature intended, we can begin to get closer to the proper ratio of omega-3 fats in our diets, but I also recommend increasing one’s ratio with a high quality, high potency omega-3 supplement.
Good Fats do NOT include chemically altered, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, vegetable shortening and spreads, margarine, and most vegetable oils. And because the fats from commercial animals are highly contaminated with a variety of chemicals and hormones, are nutrient deficient, and have a seriously altered fatty acid profile, fat from pastured animals is by far more preferable. This is why butter from pastured animals, especially raw butter, is an exceptionally "good" fat and organic butter is the next best - but not optimal choice. Organic butter, unrefined organic coconut oil, or at low temperatures organic first cold pressed olive oil are the only oils that I would recommend cooking with.
CARBOHYDRATES are sugars and starches, and they serve primarily as a source of energy – or body fuel. They also provide much needed digestive assistance in the form of dietary fiber, and in their natural states contain many vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. As food is being digested, your body is looking to break whatever food comes into the digestive system down by reducing it into manageable blocks. In the case of carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into a simple sugar called glucose (otherwise known as blood sugar). Glucose will be stored in your muscle tissue and liver and held as stored energy (called glycogen). Glucose is also primarily used by your brain – if you’ve ever noticed how your energy levels can drop after spending a lot of time thinking, this shows you how much blood sugar that computer in your head can eat up. Glycogen is broken down into glucose as needed and is stored to keep blood sugar levels relatively steady.
Simple carbohydrates, like table sugar and refined foods, lack fiber and minerals, are digested quickly and hit your blood stream rapidly, while the complex carbohydrates, like vegetables and other foods in their natural states, take a bit longer to digest and consequently the glucose molecules are more steadily released into your bloodstream. All of this relates to terms like glycemic index and glycemic load. The wisdom to get out of this is the same kind of things that you’ve heard before: eat more complex carbohydrates, like fresh vegetables, and less simple and/or refined carbohydrates, like pasta, breads, cakes, cookies, etc.
While dietary fiber is categorized under the carbohydrate section of nutritional labels, it is technically indigestible by humans as dietary fiber is a non-starch polysaccharide. Fiber is primarily used by the body to absorb toxins and help push food through the digestive system, and is a crucial part of healthy dietary nutrition! By eating lots of fresh vegetables, whole grains such as brown rice or quinoa, and beans, and eliminating refined sugars and carbohydrates, you will get a good amount of both soluble and insoluble fiber in your diet.
Many studies show high carbohydrate diets are correlated with hyperglycemia, hyperinsulinemia, hypertriglyceridemia, and hypercholesterolemia. These are all medical terms for too much glucose, insulin, triglycerides, and cholesterol, respectively. Type 2 diabetes is a disease of carbohydrate overload. Don’t be fooled by those who insist that reducing carbohydrate intake will not help diabetes. In my experience, almost everyone benefits from carbohydrate reduction, even if they have had type 2 diabetes for years and are taking drugs to lower their glucose levels. Studies have found that a high level of saturated fatty acids in the blood is reflective of high carbohydrate intake and that SATURATED FATTY ACIDS ARE NOT AN APPROPRIATE MARKER OF DIETARY FAT INTAKE, BUT ARE RATHER A MARKER OF CARBOHYDRATE INTAKE. Reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates, and increasing your consumption of fresh vegetables, legumes, and real “whole grains” will greatly improve your health and vitality.
Know that you have a “working knowledge” of the three different kinds of macronutrients, you can see the value of each, and consider which macronutrients, and foods, that you need more of, and which you need less of, to reach your health goals. As you can see, improving your health is not just making sure that you have the proper proportion of each macronutrient in your diet, but that you have macronutrients and foods in your diet that are in their natural and unaltered states. Thankfully, eating a “original” whole foods diet makes the process of eating quality foods in healthy proportions both easy and delicious!
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Macronutrients Guide – Dietary Facts About Carbohydrates Protein & Fat
Eat Wild.com, Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Products
The Health Advantage, Macronutrients Myths and Facts
Life Without Bread: How a Low Carbohydrate Diet Can Save Your Life by Christian B. Alan, PhD and Wolfgang Lutz, M.D., p 52
Wise Traditions, The Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2004 issue, pg 11