Education is of utmost importance to making well-informed decisions on your diet and overarching wellbeing. Getting back to the basics, we will look at the bare bones definition of each nutrient, why it is important, how it affects our growth and development, and what percentage of our diet it makes up. So often, as a society, we play into fad diets and what the media portrays as "healthy," but isn't it time that we take our diet and nutrition back into our own hands? That is why education plays such a big part of making healthy choices that are right for us as individuals.
What are Macronutrients?
When we talk about nutrition we normally talk about carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, which are otherwise known as macronutrients, and how they fit into the food pyramid. The lesser talked about, although just as important, factors we need to consider when we are talking about nutrition are our micronutrients, i.e., vitamins, minerals, and water.
Macronutrients are the foundation to our daily diet. The recommendations for consuming macronutrients are given as a range and can vary from person to person based on individual needs and what feels right. The recommended value for carbohydrates is 45 to 65 percent of your daily calorie intake; protein is 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories; and fat intake should total 20 to 35 percent of your daily caloric intake. It is important to note while carbohydrates account for 4 calories per gram consumed, fats equate to 9 calories to every gram and are considered the most energy-dense nutrient. That is why fats when consumed should be high quality, nutrient dense, and in moderation.
Here is a closer look at each macronutrient and how they impact our body’s growth and development.
Carbohydrates for Energy
Carbohydrates, the primary source of our energy consumption, are easy to metabolize and high in fiber; carbohydrates are primarily found in starchy foods, like grain and potatoes, as well as fruits, vegetables, milk, and yogurt. Other foods like beans, nuts, and seeds contain carbohydrates but in lower quantities. Carbohydrates can be simple or complex. This refers to their chemical structure and how they are digested. Simple carbohydrates taste very sweet, like a banana, while complex carbohydrates taste savory, like very hearty tasting whole grain red rice.
Using carbohydrates for energy allows the body to direct the other macronutrients for other internal functions, like tissue growth and repair. The brain, kidneys, muscles, and heart all need carbohydrates to function properly, and carbohydrates aid in the synthesis of certain amino acids. Interestingly, fats can only be properly metabolized when carbohydrates are present and indigestible carbohydrates, in the form of fiber, are vital for intestinal health.
Diets low in fiber have problems with waste elimination, constipation, and hemorrhoids. Diets high in fiber have shown to decrease the risk for obesity, high cholesterol, and heart disease.
In order to get the most value out of any macronutrient, it is important to remember to eat them in combination with one another. For example, eating a handful of cherries while enjoying raw almonds will ensure a carbohydrate and a protein are consumed, and in combination, these two macronutrients and corresponding vitamins and minerals will be absorbed in greater number into the body.
Protein for Healthy Cells
The typical American diet or Western diet contains more protein than is usually required. Europeans normally follow American food trends, which is why we see health problems plaguing Americans (like obesity and diabetes) gaining prevalence across the Atlantic today.
Although, as a society, we consume higher quantities of protein than necessary, it still plays an important role in the diet for a multitude of reasons.
For instance, protein provides the makeup of most cells, accounting for more than 50% of the dry weight. Protein plays a key role in characterizing what an organism is, what it looks like, and how it behaves, because the body is composed of thousands of protein cells.
Proteins are used to produce new tissues for growth and repair and regulate and maintain internal functions. Enzymes used in digestion, protection, and immunity are made of protein, and vital hormones used for regulating certain processes in the body. If carbohydrates are not available, proteins can be used to perform bodily functions.
Protein is found in animal products, meats, poultry, fish, meat substitutes, cheese, milk, nuts, legumes and in smaller percentages starchy foods and vegetables. Vegetarians can easily consume plenty of protein if they manage a well-balanced diet.
Fats for Fullness & Flavor
In recent decades, fat has received a very bad reputation, but research has proven a certain amount of fat is essential for optimal function of a healthy body. Think olive oil and avocados. While there are different types of fats, some have more benefits for your body than others.
Fats help your body absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K, vital to many internal systems. They are crucial to your body's internal signaling system and make up a part of cell walls.
In food, fats make you feel full, contribute to the flavor and richness of a dish, fill up the adipose tissues of your body (fat cells) to help regulate body temperature, and protect vital organs. The main concern is that fats are calorie dense and easily consumed in excess. Consuming too much fat, and/or the wrong type of fat, can have some dire consequences for your heart and waistline.
Finding the right proportion of macronutrients takes diligence and mindfulness. Not everyone will eat the same amount, nor will they have the same effects on every single individual. What might work for your mother, may or may not be the same for you. Checking in with your physical body and how it feels consistently throughout the day, over a period of time will help analyze your nutrition regiment. Take notes. Building a customized diet based on how you feel consuming a variety of macronutrients in the right proportion will create a healthy lifestyle you will easily be able to manage well into the future.