All calories that we consume come from three sources, protein, fat and carbohydrate. These are commonly referred to as macro-nutrients or simply macros. All three have different and distinct functions within the body, and all three are equally important to maintain good health. In Diet Demystified I gave you some tips on how to structure your diet, today we will be taking a closer look at the science behind it.
Protein: This macro is essential for growth and repair of cells within the body. Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of your cells. Your body constantly breaks down these amino acids to form new cells as required. When you exercise regularly, protein is particularly important. It is what helps you to build muscle mass. Additionally it is what helps your body repair itself and recover when you have that sore feeling. Protein is also associated with increased satiety, meaning it can help you feel more satisfied with your diet in general.
A gram of protein contains 4 calories. It is vitally important that protein be included with each meal. A palm sized portion with each meal is a good guide. So no, a slice of ham in your sandwich isn’t going to cut it. Sources of protein include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, nuts and lentils. If you want to be really specific with your requirements, active people should aim to have 1g of protein per pound of body weight per day. But really, unless you are an elite athlete, or competing, there’s not need to get that exact. I personally struggle to get protein in at breakfast, so I bring two eggs with me to work and have them mid-morning.
Fat: Fat has been much maligned over the years, but the truth is it is essential to the body and performs many important functions. It is import for energy. 1g of fat contains 9 calories, more than twice that contained in protein and carbohydrate, making it an excellent source of fuel. Fat also has an important role to play in the absorption of certain fat soluble vitamins, namely vitamin A, D, E and K. Fat is also important for insulating the body.
Again, fat should be incorporated into the diet on a daily basis. As a guideline we should be aiming to include about a thumb sized portion with each meal. Good sources of healthy fats include avocado, nuts and oily fish such as tuna and salmon.
Carbohydrate: Carbs have been the topic of much debate over the last few years, with some “experts” falling into the high carb or low carb camps. Carbs have become something to be terrified of and reducing them seems to be the advice a lot of people are being given. The fact is that carbs are also essential. They are the body’s main source of energy and maintaining chronically low levels can have a detrimental effect on both your performance and overall health. Carbohydrate also contributes to digestive health and helps the body to remove waste.
1g of carbohydrate contains 4 calories. These calories are the most readily accessible fuel available to the body. As a guideline, we should be aiming to consume about a fist sized amount of carbs with each meal. It’s important to remember, however, that all carbs are not created equal. Most of the time try to opt for whole, natural, minimally processed foods such as sweet potatoes, white potatoes, rice and fruit. Keep the refined flours and sugary treats for special occasions and emergencies.
Eliminate Elimination: In order for our bodies to function and remain healthy we need a balance of all the macro-nutrients. Elimination diets remove one of these from the equation, usually fat or carbs. By doing so you deprive your body of vital nutrients required for optimal health and performance. Furthermore, a diet that is very low in either fat or carbs will be very difficult to maintain in the long term. This is why elimination often results in yo-yo dieting, which can be detrimental to both your health and your sanity.
If it Fits Your Macros and Flexible Dieting: These are expressions that are widely used in the fitness and nutrition world at the moment. What they basically mean is that you can have flexibility in your diet, to the extent that you still reach your nutrition targets for the day. It is a way of thinking about our diet that gets us away from rigid and inflexible meal plans, and moves us towards actually evaluating what we eat.
It does not give us a license to eat crap all day every day provided that if fits our macros. It does, however, give us the ability to swap certain food items for others. An example of this might be having a protein bar and some fruit for lunch instead of meat and vegetables on a day when you are running between meetings and don’t have a lot of time.
The more specific your body goals are, the more regimented you will need to be with your food intake. For anyone competing, I would always suggest you work with a certified professional. For all the rest of us my advice would be to try to maintain balance. If you follow the portion guidelines, you won’t go too far wrong. Your body is unique and a certain amount of trail and error will be required in order to figure out what ratios will give you the best results. Be patient with it, enjoy the process and remember Rome wasn’t built in a day xxx