The Hierarchy for Dietary Success: Part 2 - Macronutrients

Welcome back everyone!  I hope that you are excited for the second part of the Hierarchy for Dietary Success series.  This week we are going to talk about the importance of macronutrients. By the end of this post, I hope that you will have newfound knowledge to share with your friends, family, and office mates.  

For those of you joining us, I suggest taking a look at The Hierarchy for Dietary Success: Part 1 - Calories before reading this post.  

 

                                                                       Photo Credit: Eric Helms

                                                                       Photo Credit: Eric Helms

 

Macronutrients

We learned last week that when it comes to diet (not the "starve yourself to lose weight" kind, but the sum of the food that you consume), there are 5 main components that influence your dietary success.  The most important being energy balance and calories.  After calories, the next important variable is macronutrients.  

You have probably heard the phrase that a calorie is not a calorie.  While the phrase is technically incorrect because a calorie will always contain the same amount of energy regardless of the food source, the meaning behind it is correct.  Not all foods were created equal.  Nor will they have the same nutritional breakdown and influence on your body. 

Every food source contains a different breakdown of protein, carbohydrates, and fat, which are the three most important macronutrients or nutrients needed in large amounts. 

To really understand why they're important, we'll take a closer look at each of the three.

If you are just interested in how to apply this to your current lifestyle just scroll down to Practical Application.  Although, I highly recommend you understand the why behind it by reading the rest of the post.  I realize that it is a lot of information and I suggest reading each part in separate sittings, if you find yourself without enough time.

 

Protein

                                                                  Photo Credit: Flickr/Imagnum

                                                                  Photo Credit: Flickr/Imagnum

Scientifically speaking, proteins are an organic molecule comprised of amino acids - the building blocks of life.  Put it this way, humans would not exist without amino acids since the majority of our tissues, muscles, and cells are made up of it.  

When it comes to amino acids there are essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids.

Essential amino acids - There are 9 amino acids, which are needed by the human body for a variety of functions, but cannot be produced by it.  So they have to be obtained from food. The 9 essential amino acids:

  • Lysine
  • Leucine
  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Valine
  • Threonine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Methionine
  • Tryptophan

Don't worry, there won't be a pop-quiz at the end nor do you need to remember any of them, it's just more of an FYI, in case you ever need it in a bar trivia contest.

Non-essential amino acids - They do not need to be consumed via food because they are produced by the human body.  The foods that we consume still contain non-essential amino acids, but we do not need to worry about eating enough food to obtain them, since our bodies take care of it.

Both essential and non-essential amino acids are needed by your body to create hormones, repair cells, regulate blood pressure, metabolic rate, and blood sugar, as well as a variety of other important bodily functions.  

In short, protein is extremely important!  Without adequate amounts of protein, our bodies simply cannot function well.  

How much protein do you need?

This is hands down the most frequent question that I get from clients regarding protein.  The answer depends on your goal(s) and activity levels.  

The basic recommendation given by many registered dietitians and doctors for protein intake is .8 grams per kilogram of body mass or 0.36 grams per pound of body mass.  For example, a 165lb male adult would need to consume 60 grams of protein per day.  If this seems like too little, it's because it is.    

The recommendation is supported by scientific research done by the medical community to figure out the minimum amount of protein needed to prevent protein deficiency.  These studies were not conducted on healthy, active adults that go to the gym regularly.  Thus, while the recommendation above will keep you healthy, it is far from optimal.  

So what is optimal for a healthy, active adult that goes to the gym like many of you?  The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, suggests aiming for 1.4 - 2.0 grams per kilogram of body mass each day or .65 - .9 grams per pound of body mass each day.  Generally speaking, I think this a good rule of thumb for those of you, who have largely sedentary jobs, but go to the gym on a regular basis (three to four times a week).  

I personally would recommend shooting for the higher end of the spectrum, which would be .9 grams per pound of bodyweight.  Why?  Unlike, the two other macronutrients, protein has a high Thermic Effect of Food (TEF), which is estimated to be between 20 - 35%.  Simply put, the body requires 20 to 35% of the energy eaten from protein to digest it.  So if you ate 200 calories worth of protein, your body will use between 40 to 70 calories for digestion.  So for optimal body composition, performance, and health, I would err on consuming more protein rather than less.  In fact, some of my clients consume slightly more than .9 grams per pound of bodyweight.  

What are good sources of protein?

When it comes to protein sources, there are complete protein sources, which contain the 9 essential amino acids and incomplete protein sources that do not.  The list below gives examples of complete protein sources.

  1. Eggs
  2. Poultry - turkey & chicken are good, lean, complete protein sources.
  3. Fish - any kind of fish
  4. Red Meat - beef, lamb, and buffalo
  5. Dairy Products - Milk, cheese, yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese

 

Fats

In the past few years, we saw a huge positive shift in the common perception of fats.  They have gone from being vilified, to being seen as absolutely necessary for disease prevention and overall health.

So what are fats?

Fats are organic molecules composed of both carbon and hydrogen.  When it comes to fats, they are classified based on their saturation.  Saturation simply means that the carbon molecule has hydrogen molecules attached to them.  In total, there are three main kinds of dietary fat.  They are saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated.

Saturated Fat - These are fats that are fully "saturated" with hydrogens for each carbon.  As a result, this type of fat is solid at room temperature.  Examples of saturated fat are animal fat and some oils, such as coconut and palm oil.  

Monounsaturated Fat - These are fats that have a chemical structure called a double bond.  In this case, they only have one double bond.  So not all of the carbons are saturated with hydrogens. Examples of monounsaturated fats are tree nuts, avocados, and olive oil.

Polyunsaturated - These are fats that have more than one double bond.  Examples of polyunsaturated fats are canola oil, safflower, and sunflower oil.

Just like protein, the body does not produce all the necessary fats needed, so it must get two essential fatty acids from food.  They are alpha-linolenic acid and linolenic acid.

Also just as protein, fat is absolutely vital for optimal health and bodily functions because adequate amounts of fat are needed for hormone production, absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and cellular activity.  

how much fat do you need?

When it comes to fat intake, there isn't a magic number or specific percentage.  It largely depends on individual preferences and predispositions.  However, in this instance, I generally agree with the FDA dietary guidelines that recommends keeping total fat intake between 20 to 35 percent of total calories.

Generally speaking, I would recommend starting either at 25 - 30 percent of total calories and then adjusting based on hunger level, satiety, and mood.  If you find yourself feeling hungry between meals, then I would increase your fat intake slowly.   

And as always, remember that moderation is key.  If you consume all of your fat from deep-fried Twinkies, that's probably not going to end so well.  I would aim to make sure that you get all three types of fat including saturated fat.  And stick to some healthy fat choices listed above.

CARBOHYDRATES

The dreaded word: carbs!  This might be the most demonized macronutrient of them all.  It strikes fear in the hearts of many, especially those interested in fat loss.  Carbs are what sits in your closet and stitches your pants so that you can't fit in them anymore, right?  Not at all.  Time to de-bunk the carb myth.

So what are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates like protein and fat are organic molecules.  They are classified by their structure, which can be summarized in two categories: simple and complex.  

Simple Carbohydrates - These are typically smaller, more easily processed molecules that consist of one or two sugar molecules linked together.  Examples of simple carbohydrates would be table sugar and maple syrup.  

Complex Carbohydrates - As you can probably guess, these are molecules that have more than two sugar molecules linked together.  Examples of complex carbohydrates would be an apple and oatmeal.  

Now, all carbohydrates regardless of category are digested in the body as simple sugar before they are used by the body.  The only difference comes down to how slowly or fast it is digested.  

DO YOU NEED CARBOHYDRATES?

Theoretically, the answer is no.  Carbohydrates are the odd-man out when it comes to macronutrients because they are not essential to living unlike protein and fat.  This is because your body can utilize both protein and fat for energy to sustain life.  

Does that mean that you should not eat carbs at all?  The simple answer is no way!  If you are a healthy adult, who exercises regularly, then you should absolutely utilize carbs.  Of course, if you have a medical issue that prevents you from eating carbs or have a history of type-II diabetes in your family, then please consult with a medical professional before making any dietary changes.  

In fact, not eating carbs while exercising regularly is not optimal since weight training primarily utilizes glycogen for energy, which is stored in your muscles and replenished by eating carbs.  

how many carbs do you need per day?

Based on numerous studies and research, the amount of carbohydrates that should be consumed by a healthy, active individual varies between 1 to 3 grams of carbohydrates per pound of lean body mass.  This is obviously a large range, but this is because carbohydrate intake is dependent on so many variables such as overall activity levels, intensity of activity, age, and lean body mass.  

To make things easier, I typically have the majority of my clients use the remainder of their calories for carbohydrates after figuring out their protein and fat intake. 

What about fiber?

You may have realized that up to now, I haven't mentioned fiber at all within the carbohydrate section.  This is because I wanted to focus on the basics of carbohydrates before moving on to fiber.  

What is fiber?

Fiber is a non-digestible form of carbohydrate that falls under the complex carbohydrate category.

When it comes to fiber, it can be broken down into two main forms, which are soluble fiber and insoluble fiber.  

Soluble Fiber - This type of fiber attracts water and forms into a gel.  This in turn slows digestion, which keeps you full for longer periods of time and regulates blood sugar levels.

Insoluble Fiber - This type of fiber does not attract nor dissolves in water.  It passes through the intestinal tract without being digested at all.  Overall, insoluble fiber helps with regular bowel movements.

Overall, fiber has a host of health benefits, such as decreasing levels of cholesterol, regulating bowel movements, controlling weight gain due to longer satiety, and helping keep blood sugar levels stable without large fluctuations.

How much fiber do you need?

According to the Institute of Medicine, women should aim to consume a minimum of 25 grams of fiber per day while men should aim to eat a minimum of 38 grams of fiber per day.  I typically require all clients to at least aim for 30 grams of fiber per day as a minimum due to the multiple health benefits.  

The sad truth is that the average American does not eat enough fiber.  How many grams of fiber do you think an average American consumes?  The answer is just 15 grams per day.  

What are some sources of fiber?

                                                                   Photo Credit: Dlife

                                                                   Photo Credit: Dlife

 

PRACTICAL APPLICATION

And we are done with the informational portion!  I realize that it was a lot of information, but I wanted you to understand why I am going to make the suggestions below.  If you skipped directly here, then shame on you! ;)  Nah, I'm just messing with you!

So now that you know the importance, value, and suggested amounts for each macronutrient, how do we fit this in your daily lifestyle in an easy manner?  

I have two suggestions and it is going to be highly individual.  

The first is figuring out each macronutrient amount by using the information that you obtained last week with the calorie experiment and the MyFitnessPal app.

The second is going to be habit based and is going to give simple recommendations that you can easily integrate in your lifestyle to make sure that you are getting roughly the right amount of macronutrients and fiber.

tracking with myfitnesspal

Many individuals simply love to track information.  In fact, more than half of my clients are eagerly tracking their calories and macronutrients.  At first they are hesitant because they feel that it will consume their lives.  However, they soon learn it usually only takes 5 minutes per day using MyFitnessPal.

So, you figured out your estimated calorie intake using the formula from last week.  You have a specific goal in mind, which might be to gain some muscle, lose some body fat, or simply stay at your weight and level of leanness.  You now know how to manipulate calories to achieve that goal.

How do we figure out your optimal macronutrient intake for that goal?

The first thing that you need to know is how to convert your specific macronutrient into calories.

  • Protein - Every gram of protein is equivalent to 4 calories
  • Carbohydrate - Every gram of carbohydrate is equivalent to 4 calories
  • Fat - Every gram of fat is equivalent to 9 calories

Now that we covered that.  It is time to figure out your optimal macronutrient breakdown based on your goal.

  1. Fat Loss
  • Protein: 1 - 1.2 grams per pound of bodyweight
  • Fat: 25% of total calories
  • Carbohydrates: Remainder of remaining calories

Example: Jillian, 130lbs, 23 year old, female

Calories: 1,600 per day

Protein: 130 grams (130 X 4 grams per calorie = 520 calories)

Fat: 44 grams (1,600 X 25% = 400 calories/9 calories = 44 grams)

Carbs: 170 grams (1,600 calories - 520 calories - 400 calories = 680 calories/4 calories = 170 grams)

   2.  Muscle Gain or Maintain Weight

  • Protein: .8 - 1 gram per pound of bodyweight
  • Fat: 30% of total calories
  • Carbohydrates: Remainder of remaining calories

Example: Joe, 180lbs, 30 years old, male

Calories: 2,700 per day

Protein: 180 grams (180 grams X 4 grams per calorie = 720 calories)

Fat: 90 grams (2,700 calories X 30% = 810 calories/9 calories = 90 grams)

Carbs: 292 grams (2,700 calories - 720 calories - 810 calories = 1,170 calories/4 calories = 292 grams)

All you need to do to take it from here is make sure that at the end of the day after logging in all of your food on MyFitnessPal that you are within +/- 10 grams of each macronutrient.  It is quite simple since the application adds all the foods together and gives you the information at the end of the day.  

Habit Based Eating For busy professionals

I totally get that for many of you, crunching numbers and logging in food in your phone seems burdensome, time-consuming, and simply annoying.  I can absolutely sympathize, things get crazy sometimes.  Luckily, you can still achieve awesome results by integrating 7 simple habits in your diet.

  1. Eat breakfast everyday
  2. Eat a lean protein source with every single meal and snack.
  3. Consume at least 5 servings of vegetables or fruit per day.  Make sure to get vegetables with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
  4. Consume fats by cooking in olive oil and drizzling on salads, eat mixed nuts or nut butters for a snack.
  5. For females have 1 fistful of carbs per meal and for males have 2 fistfuls of carbs per meal. Examples would be pasta, potatoes, rice, oatmeal, etc.
  6. Drink water regularly.
  7. As long as you mostly adhere to the points above 85% of the time, then feel free to eat things you enjoy.

As the saying goes, Rome wasn't built in a day.  The number one mistake that I see with habit based eating is that people try to integrate all of the habits at the same time.

Instead, I suggest that you focus on 1 habit every 2 weeks.  If for two weeks, you were able to achieve that habit 85% of the time, then reward yourself with an awesome meal and add on the next habit.  If you feel like one is too few, do two at the same time.  Whatever feels more natural, sustainable, and doesn't make you frustrated.  

By the end of it, you will have easily transitioned into a system of eating that allows you to have more energy at work, more energy at the gym, and look like an athlete.  

 

Wrap-up

I really hope that this post proved useful to you!  As always, if you have any questions or comments, leave it below or e-mail me directly at historicperformance@gmail.com.

If you need additional nutrition help for a particular goal and wanted individualized attention, then check out my Online Coaching service.

Next Thursday, we will learn about micronutrients.  We will learn why they are important and how to make sure that we are getting enough of each.