Our bodies require three types of macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. These nutritional categories are further subdivided based on variations in composition and nutritional content. Through understanding these variations, you can adjust your choices to better fuel and recover from workouts and improve your overall health.
Calories per gram/macronutrient:
- Carbohydrates: 4 calories per gram
- Proteins: 4 calories per gram
- Fats: 9 calories per gram
Each macronutrient plays a specific role to aid in healthy bodily functions. This is why eliminating an entire macronutrient category (such as carbohydrates) from your diet can lead to serious health risks. The more you understand the role and function of each macronutrient and its sources, the less likely you will fall prey to lopsided dieting strategies that call for eliminating an entire food category. Oftentimes, these diet strategies carry such stress and health repercussions that they are unsustainable. Instead, focus on “nutrition” not “dieting.” Nutrition means providing your body with what it requires. Optimal nutrition means providing your body with specific nutrients when it needs it, translating to less caloric storage and more caloric burn. This approach involves being selective with sources from each macronutrient, rather than dismissing an entire food group.
Types of Macros
- Simple carbs – Simple carbohydrates can be processed, like white sugar and white bread, but they can also come from natural sources, e.g., fruits and milk. Like the overall category of carbohydrates, not all simple carbohydrates are created equal. The degree of insulin elevation (glucose released into the bloodstream) varies by food source. For example, fruit, which contains fructose, induces a lower blood-insulin rise than white sugar, which is sucrose. Additionally, fruit contains fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. All are beneficial to your health; that cannot be said for some other sources of simple carbohydrates, like candy and other processed foods.
Glucose from simple carbohydrates quickly reach the bloodstream because they aren’t as nutrient and structurally dense as complex carbs. The slower glucose is released into your bloodstream, the more opportunity your body has to burn it, even during times of low physical activity. This is why many diets promoting good health recommend unprocessed carbohydrates, since unprocessed carbohydrates are slow releasers of glucose. This slow glucose release, also makes complex carbohydrates more satiating than simple carbohydrates. However, simple carbohydrates can play a key role in fueling a workout and particularly in exercise recovery. The fast-glucose-releasing nature of simple carbohydrates make them ideal for refueling after a strenuous workout, which kickstarts recovery when combined with a fast-releasing protein, like a protein shake.
- Complex carbs – Unprocessed, whole grain, whole wheat, starchy vegetables. If you’ve heard of these, you then know how to identify a complex carbohydrate. The previous paragraph introduced this category of carbohydrates. Because of their chemical structure and nutrient density, they digest more slowly than simple carbohydrates. And because of their satiating nature and the fact that our bodies store their glucose throughout the day, they are an excellent choice for all-day energy and for fueling high-intensity and strenuous workouts.
- Fibrous carbs – Non-starchy, plant-based vegetables that are rich in fiber, e.g., leafy greens, tomato, celery, cabbage, etc. Because calories from fibrous carbohydrates are not stored by the body in the same way as simple and complex carbohydrates, fibrous carbohydrates can be eaten any time of day, with no need to fear fat gain. However, there is an unideal time to consume these carbs: after strenuous exercise. Fibrous carbohydrates can slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream from your post-workout drink (mentioned above), which unfavorable for recovery.
Protein develops our bodies. It builds and repairs tissues and protects lean body mass (muscle mass). Protein is made of amino acids. Amino acids are broken down into two categories: non-essential and essential.
Non-essential amino acids aren’t required to be consumed through diet because our bodies can actually make them on its own. Essential amino acids, on the other hand, must be gained through our diet.
Protein-rich foods that hold all our essential amino acids include meat, poultry, fish, egg, milk, cheese, and/or other types of animal by-product. This doesn’t mean you have to eat animal products to be healthy, but you should be mindful about what you eat to ensure you receive essential amino acids. It’ll take some planning and dedication, but you can get all the essential amino acids by combining a variety of plant protein sources.
Fat stores energy, cushions organs, creates hormones, absorbs fat-soluble vitamins, and maintains cell membrane integrity. There are three primary categories of fat: saturated, unsaturated, and trans.
- Saturated fat – In large amounts, this type of fat increases our cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of heart disease. Saturated fats are found mostly in animal sources, e.g., beef, pork, poultry with skin, lard, cream, butter, full fat cheese and other dairy products.
Be technical, not general.
Saturated fat is a primary reason meat gets a bad rap as being poor for our health, leading some to banish meat from their diets. Technically, the type of meat you select is the heart of the problem. As with carbohydrates, not all sources of meat are equal. The leaner the source, the lower the health risk from saturated fat. Further, there is a difference between the fat quality in land animals versus fish: saturated fat versus unsaturated fat. Additionally, organic, free-range meat reduces other health risks related to GMOs and other purportedly dangerous farming practices. Be technically minded when it comes to selecting – or perhaps, misguidedly, eliminating – whole sources of protein. The fact is, meat offers unmatched benefits for our muscles, body processes, and primarily, our brains.
- Unsaturated Fat – Known as “healthy” or “good” fats because they can decrease our risk of heart disease. Unsaturated fat is further subdivided into mono and polyunsaturated fats. Omega-9 fatty acids are monounsaturated fats that can be produced in the body; however, they can still be beneficial to one’s health. Omegas-3 and -6 are polyunsaturated fats that must be obtained from food sources. Unsaturated fats can come from plant and animal sources: nuts, vegetable oils, and fatty fish to name a few.
- Trans Fat – Should be eliminated from our diets. A majority of trans fat comes from a process called hydrogenation: the addition of hydrogen molecules to unsaturated fats. Trans fats are found in shortening, margarine, baked goods, doughs, and, of course, fried foods.
Putting it together: Incorporating a macronutrient split
The recommended daily allocation of carbs, protein, and fat one consumes is generally referred to as a “macronutrient split” or “macronutrient ratio.” The USDA recommends the following general macronutrient split:
- Carbohydrates: 45-65%
- Protein: 10-35%
- Fat: 20-35%
Manipulating macros for fat loss, muscle gain, or maintenance
Macros can be manipulated in your favor, enabling you to lose fat, gain muscle, or maintain a desired body composition. Follow the three rules below to manipulate macros in your favor.
- Adhere to a specific macronutrient ratio based on your goal: Consistency = results
Note: The below macronutrient percentages are guidelines. It is unrealistic to believe you can hit any macronutrient ratio perfectly every day. Simply aim for a recommended ratio based on your goal: muscle gain, fat loss, or maintenance. And, feel free to experiment with percentages for a few weeks at a time. Consistency is key. The more consistent you are with your food sources and portions from each macronutrient, the more likely you are to regularly hit close to your desired ratio.
- Baseline Ratios – Goal: maintenance:
- 50-55% – 30 – 15-20%
- Often reduced to 50-30-20
- Fat Loss Ratios: 40% – 30-40% – 20-30%
- Often reduced to 40-40-20
- Ratios to Avoid: extremely low or extremely high percentages of any macronutrient: A carb intake below 30% and above 60% per day; a protein intake above 40% and below 20% per day; a fat intake below 15% and above 25% per day
- Don’t consciously add fat calories, they should fall into place naturally. Because fat is 9 calories/gram versus 4 calories/gram for carbs and protein, fat calories add up quickly. Still, it is not uncommon for an athlete to take an omega 3, 6, and/or 9 supplement(s) for fat loss, heart health, or performance (healthy fat contributes to healthy muscle receptors).
- The most safely manipulatable macro is the carbohydrate. Because carbs are stored by the body throughout the day, they don’t need to be eaten repeatedly as the day goes on. To prevent excess calories storage from carb sources, decrease your carb intake as the day goes on. For a moderate fat loss goal or to maintain a current body composition, it is recommended to eliminate starches by 5pm. For a major fat loss goal, one can eliminate starches after lunchtime, around 12pm. In general, the most effective and efficient use of starches is early in the day and around times of activity, coupled with limiting (or eliminating) starches in the evening.
Knowledge is power. Knowing the role of each macronutrient can prevent you from falling for diet regimes that lead to hitting a brick wall. Eating as nature intended by nourishing yourself from all three macronutrient groups, prevents ailments and can help keep you lean. Being selective should be part of your strategy to fuel your body appropriately for your goal(s). If you know what macronutrient sources to eat and what times are most optimal to eat them, reaching your goal(s) can be stress-free and thus sustainable for life.
TAKEAWAY: Remember: be technical, not general.
There are different types and qualities of carbohydrates:
|Various high-fiber vegetables
There are different types and qualities of protein:
|Biological Value Chart|
Hydrolyzed whey protein
There are different types and qualities of fat:
|Unsaturated Sources||Saturated Sources|
Olive oil, peanut oil, canola oils
|Meat from land animals
Sources Berrazaga, Insaf, et al. “The Role of the Anabolic Properties of Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Sources in Supporting Muscle Mass Maintenance: A Critical Review.” Nutrients, vol. 11, no. 8, 7 Aug. 2019, p. 1825, 10.3390/nu11081825. Brown, PhD, RD, Mary Jane. “Animal vs Plant Protein - What’s the Difference?” Healthline, 17 June 2017, www.healthline.com/nutrition/animal-vs-plant-protein#TOC_TITLE_HDR_3. Accessed 18 Jan. 2021. Dupont, Doug. “Carbs and Protein: Do We Need Both after a Workout?” Breaking Muscle, breakingmuscle.com/fuel/carbs-and-protein-do-we-need-both-after-a-workout Korn, Leslie. “A Little-Known Cause of Depression.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 26 July 2020, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/rhythms-recovery/202007/little-known-cause-depression. Marty, et al. “Natural and Added Sugars: Two Sides of the Same Coin.” Science in the News, 5 Oct. 2015, sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/natural-and-added-sugars-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/. Streit, MS, RDN, LD, Lizzie. “38 Foods That Contain Almost Zero Calories.” Healthline, 11 June 2018, www.healthline.com/nutrition/zero-calorie-foods. Accessed 18 Jan. 2021.
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