Nutrition is complex. With a myriad of different sources and often conflicting information out there, it can be difficult to get accurate, unbiased, and easily digestible information about the types of foods we should be eating.
If you’re trying to eat more mindfully or take better care of your nutrition and health, you have likely heard of macronutrients. But what exactly are they, and how do they impact your health? In this article, we will break them down and demystify them for you.
What Are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients, or macros, are the three main components of the food we eat that drive all of our bodies’ vital functions. Every single thing you eat contains some combination of these three nutrients, and they are all essential for human life.
The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Let’s look at them one by one and learn about what they do, why you need them, where you can get them, and how much you should be consuming.
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are your body’s main source of energy. They turn food into glucose (also known as blood sugar) and also play a key role in functions such as digestion, gut health, and cognitive function. Starches, fibers, and sugars are all types of carbohydrates.
Carbs are categorized as either simple or complex. Simple carbs consist of one (monosaccharide) or two (disaccharide) sugar molecules. They taste sweet and are broken down quickly by your body. When you reach for a donut to get you through the 3pm slump and experience a quick spike of energy followed by a crash, that’s simple carbs at work.
Foods such as baked goods, soda, and refined sugar are all simple carbs and should be consumed in moderation. However, many healthy foods (including milk and fruit) also contain simple carbs.
Complex carbs consist of short and long chains of monosaccharide units, including polysaccharides such as starch or cellulose. They usually taste savory rather than sweet and take longer for your body to break down, giving you a slower release of energy over a longer period.
Good sources of complex carbs include whole grains, starchy vegetables, potatoes, oats, rice, and pulses.
Dietary guidelines recommend aiming to get 45%-65% of your total daily calories from carbs.
Protein is made up of amino acids, a type of chemical “building block”, and plays a number of important roles in the body including building and repairing muscle, regulating hormones, and aiding digestion. Every cell in your body contains protein.
Protein is often associated with athletes and those who work out heavily. It is particularly important for those engaged in strenuous physical activity to get enough protein, but all of us need this vital macronutrient in our diets.
20 amino acids comprise protein, of which 9 are considered essential (meaning that your body needs them to function.) Foods that contain all 9 are called complete proteins and include fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, beef, pork, and soy products such as tofu. Other sources of protein include nuts and seeds, whole grains, vegetables, and legumes.
The recommended daily allowance of protein is around 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (or 0.36 grams per pound.)
Many people try to avoid fat in their diet, believing it is unhealthy and will cause them to gain weight. However, this is not the case. In fact, fat is an essential macronutrient.
Fats are made up of smaller molecules called fatty acids, which play a number of key roles in your body including giving you energy, protecting your cells, fighting inflammation, and slowing down your digestion (which helps you to feel full for longer and can prevent overeating.)
There are two main types of fats: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature, while unsaturated fats are usually liquid. Both types of fats are essential for your health, but saturated fats can also raise your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels so should be consumed in moderation. Milk, cheese, butter, and some meats including beef and pork are all examples of foods containing high amounts of saturated fat.
Unsaturated fat has numerous health benefits and may help to reduce your risk of heart disease, improve your cholesterol, and promote overall good health. Examples of monounsaturated fats include olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds, while examples of polyunsaturated fats include fatty fish, soybeans, walnuts, chia seeds, and hemp seeds.
Trans fats, which have no nutritional value and can be harmful to health, should be avoided or consumed only occasionally. These types of fats are found in fried foods, processed foods, and baked goods.
Experts recommend consuming no more than 30g of saturated fat per day if you’re a man, and 20g if you’re a woman. Your daily total fat intake should make up 20%-35% of your overall daily calories, with monounsaturated fats making up the majority of this intake.