The days of the food pyramid are limited. The disproportionate ratio of grains to vegetables and low-impact protein has resulted in a dietary overload of sugars, refined grains, as well as excess trans and saturated fats. Obesity is up, heart disease claims the life of one in four Americans every year, and type 2 diabetes is rampant amongst youth.
The goal of eating right is to avoid dieting and having to obsess over what you’re putting into your body. Balancing your macronutrients is the foundation of a healthy daily life.
Let’s take a dive into what the macronutrients are and how to structure our diets for our lifestyles. Instead of relying upon an outdated dietary model, the fit and healthy know to eat right – in accordance to their daily activity. It’s all about eating whole foods.
Your Macro Balance
A calorie is a calorie. Unless it’s not.
The calorie is a unit we use to measure energy expenditure. The only time a calorie is less or more is when it comes attached to other unwanted nutritional components.
For example: trans fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium.
It takes energy to process the food we eat and transform the nutrients into calories we can use. But calories don’t need to come with unwanted extras. Weight gain and health problems are a result of poor dietary choices first and foremost.
What humans were designed to eat are macronutrients: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
Protein is the most widely discussed macronutrient these days, so we’ll start here. It’s primary function is facilitating tissue growth and repair. But it’s also necessary for digestion, metabolism, and producing antibodies that fight off infection.
Protein is broken down into amino acids during the absorption phase of digestion. These amino acids are then reassembled into over 50,000 different forms that the body uses for various tasks – hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters.
Not only does protein enable physical functions, but mental processes as well. For example, the protein neurexin is needed to direct new nerve cells to correct locations in the brain. Without this specific protein the brain is unable to move cells to the places they’re needed to make mental connections.
Complete v. Incomplete Protein Sources
Your body needs 22 different types of amino acids to function. 13 of these amino acids are synthesized within the (adult) body. The other 9 amino acids must be obtained from food – and are therefore known as essential amino acids.
Essential amino acids inform what we eat when eating complete and incomplete proteins.
Complete Proteins are those that contain all the essential amino acids in quantities that are sufficient for proper functioning. Complete proteins include:
- Dairy (milk, yogurt, whey)
- Hemp and chia seed
Incomplete Proteins do not contain all 9 essential amino acids – or do not have them in quantities needed to meet the body’s needs. These proteins must be supplemented with other proteins, such as:
- Nuts and seeds
Incomplete does not mean inferior, it just means they require balancing with other foods. Here are some healthy and tasty examples:
- Rice and beans
- Spinach salad with almonds
- Hummus and whole-grain pita bread
- Whole-grain noodles w/ peanut sauce
The current recommended daily allowance of protein is .36 grams per pound of body weight. That’s 64 grams – or just 2.3 ounces – for a 180 lbs man. Protein intake between .8 – 1.0 gram/lb has been shown to increase muscle building potential during strength training – and retain muscle while losing fat during a training program.
Protein is recommended for fat loss programs because it has a high thermic effect (nearly 30% of calories from a protein are burned during digestion) and satisfies hunger.
Takeaways: If you maintain high levels of activity, more protein is recommended. The additional fats incurred from eating animal or fish are easily negated by a routine of exercise. With a diet heavy in red meat and animal products, the average American does not need to incorporate additional protein into their diet. When overdone, protein supplementation has been shown to be stress the kidneys and liver. Eating plant-based sources of complete proteins are also a great way to add fiber, antioxidants, and reduce fat intake in the diet.
Fat is essential macronutrient because it supports numerous functions in the body. For example, certain vitamins can only be absorbed in the body when combined with fats (that’s why oil on your salad is so important).
As a macronutrient, fat is high in calories. And your body will make its own fat if it consumes excess calories. As well, there a different types of fat. Some of these are linked to dietary issues and dangerous health problems.
Focus upon eating healthy fats and you will be healthy. Eat healthy fats and you will become unhealthy. Let’s take a look at what fats to eat and why.
Harmful Dietary Fat
Saturated Fat is a type of fat that comes mainly from animals, such as red meat, poultry, and full-fat dairy. Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. As a result, this increases the risk of heart disease and possibly type 2 diabetes.
Trans Fat occurs naturally in some foods in small quantities. Nothing to worry about here. What’s problematic is trans fat that results of a food processing method called partial hydrogenation.
Partially hydrogenated fats increase LDL (the bad kind of) cholesterol and lowers the levels of healthy high-density (HDL) cholesterol. This will increase your risk of heart disease.
By adding hydrogen to oil, it’s less likely to spoil. Restaurants use partially hydrogenated oil because it doesn’t need to be changed as often as other oils (yuck!). Adding hydrogen also causes the oil to be solid at room temperature. Here’s a list of sources to avoid to help limit trans fats:
- Baked goods: Shortening (present in most sweet, bakery items) is made with hydrogenated energy oil.
- Snacks: If it’s crispy, crunchy, and comes in plastic it likely contains trans fat. Potato, corn, tortilla chips, and popcorn are likely sources. Check the label on the tortilla chips – these can be healthy and without trans fat.
- Fried food: French fries, fried chicken, doughnuts – any food that gets deep fried contains trans fat.
- Creamer and margarine: Check the nutrition label. These often contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
Healthier Dietary Fats
To help you understand the difference, saturated fats are solid at room temperature. They’re the film stuck to bacon pan or your plate after a meal. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature.
Monounsaturated fatty acids are found in a variety of foods and oils. Studies show that a diet rich in monounsaturated fatty acids improves blood cholesterol levels, decreasing the risk of heart disease. Research also shows that these fatty acids are a benefit to insulin and blood sugar levels – particularly beneficial for those with type 2 diabetes.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids are taken mainly from plant-based foods and oils. Research indicates that blood cholesterol levels improve with consumption.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a polyunsaturated fat that have been shown to be anti-inflammatory (as they balance out omega-6 fatty acids) and decrease the risk of all inflammatory, diet-related diseases like diabetes, gout, heart disease, etc. Foods full of this essential fatty acid include:
- Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, white fish, herring)
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
- Help seeds
- Egg yolks
Research indicates that omega-6 fatty acids may cause inflammatory disease, when they are over consumed. Unfortunately, omega-6s arrive from corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, and sunflower oil in very high quantities within the contemporary, processed diet.
Increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids neutralizes the damaging effects of surplus omega-6s. A fish or krill oil supplement is an option – though science has not proven that these artificial sources provide the same benefits as whole foods.
Takeaways: Do not avoid fat – fat is important to your health and making sure that your feel full after eating. But avoiding processed and fried foods will ensure that you intake healthier fats. Incorporating tree nuts, fatty fish, seeds, eggs, olive oil, and sesame oil will combat the potentially harmful effects of omega-6s in the diet. Ultimately, remember to eat whole and fried foods to eat good fat.
Carbohydrates have taken a real beating in the media lately. But they are important to an optimized diet. The National Food and Nutrition Board recommends that 45 – 65% of your diet comes from complex carbohydrates. It’s where you get your carbohydrates from that causes weight gain.
Most carbohydrates occur naturally within plant-based-foods, such a grains and vegetables. But food manufacturers like to add carbohydrates to processed foods in the form of added sugar.
Common sources of natural carbohydrates include:
Three Types of Carbohydrates
Sugar is the one and only simple carbohydrate. Sugars occur naturally in foods such as fruits, vegetable and milk. Sugar comes in three forms:
- Fruit sugar (fructose)
- Table sugar (sucrose)
- Milk sugar (lactose).
Because sugar is simple, it’s most quickly metabolized by the body for use. The phenomenon known as a “sugar high” is a result of eating sucrose or synthetic high-fructose corn syrup in large amounts. Routine intake of sugar throughout the day is shown to decrease the ability to concentrate and execute tasks in between sugar highs. Excess sugar is also shown to cause heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Starch is a complex carbohydrate, which means that it’s made of many sugar units bonded together. Starch is naturally found in peas, cooked dry beans, grains, and vegetables.
Fiber is also a complex carbohydrate. Fiber is essential in eliminating toxins from the body and can be found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and cooked dry beans and peas.
Fibrous foods are a beneficial dietary component because they are slow to digest through the intestines. As they do, they slowly releasing nutrients and keep that satisfied “full” feeling going. 25 – 35 grams of fiber are recommended per day.
Takeaway: Complex carbohydrates that aren’t used for energy are broken down into their base form – sugar. Excess sugars are then stored as fat throughout the midsection, hips, and thighs. Cutting down on sugar and carbohydrate consumption is recommended for immediate weight loss and maintaining a healthy body for life.
When reducing carbohydrate intake, cut out the superfluous grains that are readily available everywhere. These low quality carbs should be replaced with high-impact, quality sources of carbohydrates. Fruits, vegetables, legumes and other dietary sources of carbohydrates offer a diverse array of other health benefits, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Again, eating whole and unprocessed foods will deliver sufficient carbs while also bringing up micronutrient levels.
The Final Word
By eating the proper balance of macronutrients and focusing upon more vegetables, the body absorbs all the vitamins and minerals it needs to maintain it’s most healthy self. Enjoying the occasional soda, fast food, or doughnut won’t kill you but habitually eating synthetic and processed foods cuts directly into the body’s natural health and wellbeing.
You are what you eat (habitually). A good rule of thumb when shopping for healthy foods: have a plan, make a list before, do some research about what you like to eat. Find recipes with those foods you like. How to avoid those sweets and unhealthy foods? Dieticians all say the same thing: if it doesn’t make it in the shopping cart, it can’t come home, and you can’t eat it. So stay strong in the grocery store. You are what you eat (habitually)!