Relatively speaking, I think it’s safe to assume that if you’re reading this you’re pretty health-savvy. You likely wouldn’t have found this blog post if you weren’t in some way involved in taking steps towards improving or maintaining your health and fitness. So I’m going to make the assumption that you know that nutrition, or the nutrients we consume for energy and survival, is an important part of the equation. If you read my last post, you know that it might be the most important part of the equation when it comes to our health.
I’m not the only one who thinks this. We are pretty much inundated daily with information on what to eat, when to eat, how to eat, where to eat. So how can we make sense of all this information? You can take in as much advice and education as you can handle but at the end of the day, as I’ve said before, you have to figure out what works best for you. You are your own lab rat. Experiment away, my friends (disclaimer: within reason…).
The first experiment I would like you to consider is understanding macronutrients and paying attention to their role in your diet. Macronutrients, simply speaking, are the major organic (being built off a carbon backbone, not in the sense of "organic farming") building blocks of our food. They are major because, relative to their counterparts, micronutrients, because we need a lot of them to survive. You may have already heard of these bad boys, the common shorthand being “macros.” There are FOUR macronutrients. And we are going to touch briefly on all of them today.
Four? Yes, you heard me correctly. Carbohydrates, protein, fats (or lipids) and alcohol. Alcohol is kind of like the estranged brother. We talk about it in hushed voices and usually it’s not mentioned in colloquial discussions about macros. It’s bigger, more popular siblings tend to get all the headlines and attention when we discuss our diet. It’s also likely that we don’t discuss it because we know that it’s most likely not the best choice when fulfilling our caloric needs. However, it needs to be acknowledged and you need to be aware of it’s effect on your diet beyond often resulting in poorer food choices.
Before we get to alcohol though, I want to cover the more popular macros. We will start with protein. Proteins are comprised of amino acids, which are carbon-based molecules that have nitrogen attached to them (as well as other elements). It is this nitrogen that differentiates protein from its cousins, carbohydrate and fat. These structures are most famous for their role in the formation of the building blocks of muscle tissue, though they have other functions as well. As far as your health and performance goes, you need protein. It is the singular macronutrient that is most challenging to synthesize in the body (your body is pretty cool in that it can convert one type of macronutrient into another, but it’s energy expensive and our bodies are cheap and prefer the least expensive means to ends). To support activity, muscle mass and metabolism, our protein ingestion should be our main focus. Calorically speaking, one gram of protein is equal to 4 calories (4 cal/g). Recommendations vary based on activity level, body weight, and age (among other things), but generally consuming 0.7-1.0 g of protein per pound of body weight is ample intake for most people. This should come out to be roughly 30% of your total caloric intake in a given day. I would encourage you to figure out how much protein you’re getting and see if you currently fall in this range.
Second, after protein, we are going to touch on lipids. Lipids are the broad category that is filled by things like fatty acids (there are healthy and not so healthy ones), fats (think triglycerides), sterols (think cholesterol). For our purposes today and to simplify things in this post, I will be referring to fats as what we consume in our food. A later blog will touch on the differences between lipids and what you should pay attention to in your diet. Fats play, as we well know, a huge role in energy storage. But they also form cellular membranes and factor into hormonal pathways and metabolic function. They are critical in your diet. For too long, we have been told that “Fat will make us fat.” This is false and in fact, this message as actually played a major role in our rising obesity rates (more on that in another post). As the low-to-no fat diet has been preached, we’ve gotten fatter. Doesn’t add up. The moral of the story: fat is necessary. There are certainly good fats (mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids, even some saturated fats and cholesterol) and bad fats (transaturated - avoid like the plague) that you should be aware of but, fat should not be avoided. Even the maligned butter, eggs and animal fats can play a critical role in our diet, so long as they are well-sourced and high in quality (and they aren’t the entirety of your diet). As far as quantitative recommendations go, it varies widely from person to person and goal to goal. One gram of fat is equal to 9 calories, over double that of protein (and carbohydrate, as you’ll soon learn). We can create a rough estimate based off our total caloric intake by saying that roughly 30-40% of your total calories should come from fat. For example, if I eat 2,220 calories per day, 660-880 of those calories should come from fat. Using the ratio above, that means I should be consuming roughly 73-97 grams of fat per day. So do you think you're eating enough fat?
Third, we have good ol’ carbohydrates. In recent years, carbs have come to the forefront as the culprit for our current obesity epidemic and Western diseases - coronary artery disease, diabetes, cancer, metabolic syndrome, etc. Paralleling the recommendation for “low fat” also came “high carb.” This is what I was taught in school and, as a result, what I did while in school. At the time, I was a runner and I know that this mantra is still preached to the endurance community. However, further education, mostly through reading, self-discovery and experimentation and now hard evidence from the some of the scientific community, taught me that carbs are not all they’re cracked up to be. Now don’t get me wrong, they are important. In fact, our brain and heart can only function off of glucose, the simple sugar that is primarily the result of the breakdown of the carbohydrate we ingest. However, fun fact, our bodies are actually capable of converting things like fat and even protein into glucose when pressed. Which means that ingestion does not need to be through the roof! If you are training for something, working out at high intensities or are on your feet a lot in your job, you certainly will have higher carbohydrate needs than those who are inactive or who sit most of their day. Carbs are the number one variable to change when trying to achieve weight loss goals. There is a ton of information surrounding this macronutrient - type, timing, starch versus sugar, refined versus unrefined, glycemic index, etc. - and I hope to get to all of it in time. For today, let’s talk recommended intake so you can review your own diet. First, 1 gram of carbohydrate, like protein, is 4 calories. From our protein and fat sections from above, we already know that 30% of our daily intake is coming from protein and 30-40% from fat. That leaves us 30-40% from carbohydrate, depending on your fat consumption. Like fat, the needs vary widely from person to person and goal to goal. However, I would encourage you to assess your current diet and see if you meet these recommendations.
Here is an overall example of our macronutrient breakdown for a 165 pound person:
Protein = 165 pounds * 1 gram protein/pound body weight = 165 g protein per day (660 cals)
Fat = [2200 total cals * .3] = 660 calories of fat; divide by 9 cals/g = 73 g fat per day (660 cals)
Carbs = 2200 total cals - [660 cals P + 660 cals F] = 880 cals from C; divide by 4 cals/g = 220 g carbs per day
Use these formulas and plug your own weight in. I used an arbitrary daily caloric intake - there are more sophisticated ways to determine how much you should be consuming on a daily basis.
Now, back to alcohol. Besides impairing our better judgement, from a nutritional standpoint, alcohol is expensive. One gram of alcohol is 7 calories, nestling it right between carbs/protein and fat as far as it’s caloric cost. That’s nice to know but unless you’re drinking moonshine (more power to you), you can’t just weigh out your drink, divide and get the calorie content. Beer, wine, and booze all have other things mixed into them. This serves to add flavor, bring the alcohol content down to a manageable (for moderate intakes) level and to increase production volume. Guess what macro is added in? Carbs. Sometimes a little fat - think Bailey’s Irish Cream - but mostly carbohydrate. However, most beverages don’t list their nutrition facts. For the most part, we’re in the dark when it comes to how alcohol factors into our nice equations shown above. Easiest way to navigate this? Don’t drink. You’re probably better off. However, enjoying an adult beverage or two in a social setting is not a terrible thing to do. Note: the sentence reads “an adult beverage or two” and “in a social setting.” These are really good guidelines for your consumption. Limit yourself to one or two drinks and try to only do so for a special occasion or event. It’s a slippery slope to have booze on hand at home and use it to “wind down” after work. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, I’m just saying it can be a slippery slope. Use your best judgement, and if you don’t trust your judgement, enlist a friend or coach to help you.
Whether we count them or not, all four macronutrients factor into our diet. Your consumption of them plays heavily into your overall health, fitness and mental well-being. Try out these recommendations, pay attention to what you’re eating. Decide if you need to make some changes and if you’re unsure, let me know. Sometimes having someone else guide you is easier than doing it all on your own.
Until next time,