An Introduction to Macronutrients
by Jake Remmert
There are many different dietary protocols out there, each claiming to be the secret to reaching your goals. Intermittent fasting, the paleo diet, the ketogenic diet, the vertical diet, the carnivore diet…all of these have the same foundation: they constrain your food intake in an extreme way. These restrictive plans are incredibly difficult to sustain for most people, and are often accompanied with feelings of guilt and of missing out. Plus, the progress they might offer won’t continue forever – when the body eventually adapts, what change do you make to keep things rolling? How do you know that was the right change to make? Are you going to be able to continue to eat this way for the next few months, few years, few decades?
What if there was a way to ensure results with an ability to make the correct adjustments along the way, still be able to enjoy any food and go to restaurants, and build skills that will create a sustainable lifestyle? There is a way, and while it does require a little bit more effort in the beginning, you will reap the rewards for a lifetime.
The human body is in a constant state of taking in energy and expending it. We take in energy from calorie-containing foods, and then expend that energy to drive nearly every single thing that happens within our body, from keeping our brain working to contracting our muscles. If we are taking in more energy than we need to perform all of our daily functions, then we store that extra energy for later use inside fat cells, resulting in an increase in body weight. On the other hand, if we are not taking in enough calories to do everything we need to do, we will pull from the energy previously stored in fat cells, resulting in a decrease of body weight. So – if we control the total calories we are taking in, we can control whether we gain or lose weight. But, there’s a little bit more to the story.
Foods are made up of a massive collection of different molecules, but a huge proportion of those are known as macronutrients. Macronutrients are so-named because they provide some essential thing to an organism – in this case, energy – and they are larger molecules than things like vitamins and minerals, which would be called micronutrients. Macronutrients are the parts of a food that contain energy, and there are different kinds that each have unique functions in the body and are needed in different amounts. This brings us to a crucial point: if we control the macronutrients we are consuming, we can both control our energy intake (and therefore weight gain/loss and whether that weight is from muscle or fat) and ensure proper function within our body.
There are three main macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Technically, alcohol is a fourth macronutrient because it provides energy to the body, but because it is metabolized quite differently and is not contained within the overwhelming majority of the things we consume, let’s ignore that one for now.
Proteins are used in the body to build and repair, to act as little molecular machines that allow all the biochemical reactions to happen, and also provide energy – although the body will try its best to not break down proteins for energy. Provided the body is receiving adequate calories and carbohydrates, those proteins can be utilized elsewhere, so the body will use carbohydrates and fats for energy first. Maintaining an adequate amount of protein in the diet is essential for the growth and repair of nearly every structure in the body, and when accompanied by resistance training plays a vital role in muscle building, muscle retention, and overall health. Lean meats, whey/casein powders, and dairy products are typically high in protein and contain all of the essential amino acids that the body needs to function properly, but other foods like nuts, legumes, and many grains and vegetables contain protein as well.
Carbohydrates are the preferred energy source for the body – meaning they are the most efficiently broken down to yield energy – and come in a variety of forms within foods like grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Ingested carbohydrates are nearly all converted to a simple sugar called glucose and then used for energy production. Maintaining carbohydrates in the diet is not essential, although it is certainly a preferred energy source over fats and proteins. Carb-based foods also contain many of the vitamins and minerals we need for good health, and also contain fiber which is extremely beneficial. It is worth noting that for many people, a zero-carb diet is simply unrealistic and unsustainable long-term. Because it is excessive calories that causes weight gain and not any specific food group, it makes sense for most people to include a reasonable amount of carbohydrates in their diet for the purpose of sustainability and long-term adherence without any adverse effects. For athletes, however, carbohydrates become much more important and are absolutely vital for performance.
Fats are another great energy source, and are also used in the production of hormones and cell membranes within your body. For this reason, fat is an essential part of a healthy diet. There are several different types of dietary fat, with mono- and poly-unsaturated fats being the most beneficial for health. These are liquids at room temperature and come mostly from vegetable oils, nuts, nut butters, fish… the things you typically hear about as “healthy fats.” Other things like butter, full-fat cheese, fatty steaks and many packaged foods contain a higher amount of saturated fat, which is solid at room temperature and can cause problems in excess, increasing your risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. These things don’t need to be avoided entirely, but limiting them is probably a good idea.
So, let’s bring this full circle. We’ve learned about energy balance and its effect on body weight changes, and that energy from food is contained within the three macronutrients – protein, carbs, and fat – each of which have unique roles in the body.
Tracking total calories will allow us to control body weight changes, but we don’t want to just lose “weight” in general, we want to keep our muscle and only lose fat while maintaining or improving overall health. This is a distinct advantage of keeping track of macronutrient intake rather than solely calorie intake. By consuming sufficient protein, we can ensure our muscles will stick around and we’ll have to lose body fat instead. By keeping an adequate supply of dietary fat, we can help our body continue to operate at a healthy level. By including carbohydrates, we increase gym performance, diet sustainability, and the ability to be flexible in real-life situations.
This approach is advantageous when compared to other “eat these foods, not those foods” diets. Firstly, having quantifiable amounts of each nutrient ensures healthy function of the body, and provides a means to make dietary adjustments when the body inevitably adapts. One of those other diets may seem to just “stop working” after a while, but that’s just because your body has adapted to that current level of caloric intake. The problem is, if you don’t know how much you’re consuming, how can you make the proper change? Knowing your macronutrient intake allows for easy adjustments to keep things running smoothly. Secondly, seeing foods in terms of macronutrients is not only scientifically accurate but also helps to avoid connotations of “good foods” and “bad foods,” and the feelings of restriction and guilt that come along with that. No food is inherently bad and off-limits, so long as we control the amount of our total intake, which is a much more sustainable approach for most people. Thirdly, tracking macronutrients helps to build a skill of mindfulness and – after some practice – being able to look at commonly-eaten foods and estimate their nutritional value. This is an incredibly valuable skill for turning nutrition into a sustainable lifestyle without restrictions. Having this skill of “mindful eating” allows you to eat at restaurants or go periods of time without actively tracking all of your food and still stay on track. No more being “on” or “off” of a diet.
Does it require a bit more effort to track macronutrients than to simply not eat a certain food group or during certain times of the day? Sure. But in exchange for creating a balanced lifestyle, an adjustable plan to keep you on track, and an awareness that will allow you to reach any goal without missing out on life, that’s a small price to pay.