Macronutrients – important, but not that complicated.
Understanding macronutrients – protein, fat, carbohydrates and, yes, alcohol – is central to healthy eating. But obsessing over them isn’t.
And that can be difficult to believe if you follow the media or spend any time on social networks. Because in the celebrity and influencer world of healthy eating and weight loss, macronutrients have developed Jekyll and Hyde personalities. They’re so complicated!
But in reality, they’re not.
This article separates what matters from what doesn’t. It explains what you need to know about all four macronutrients. And how to use that knowledge to eat a healthy diet, letting you confidently make healthy food choices without sweating over the nutrients.
When it comes to healthy eating, knowledge is power, control and ultimately success. Still, if you just want the Cliff notes version, I get that. Drop down to the takeaway summary at the end. It covers the what without the why.
Getting to know Macronutrients
Every food you eat is a combination of macronutrients and water. And a lot of what you drink is too – just lots more water. Macronutrients are the part of your food that gives you energy. And they provide most of the raw materials your body needs to build and maintain tissues.
Macro – because your requires them large amounts – relative to micronutrients which you need in tiny quantities.
Most nutritionists talk about only three macronutrients. But I’d argue there are four
- Fats and oils
- Carbohydrates (carbs)
Yet most of the foods you eat aren’t uniquely carbs, fats or protein. Most are a mix of macronutrients in varying proportions. Some foods high in a single macronutrient could be described as fat-based (e.g. avocado), protein-based (e.g. steak) or carb-based (e.g. pasta). But that doesn’t do them justice.
Granted some ingredients like sugar and cooking oils are single macronutrient. But you eat snacks and meals not ingredients. Fixating on carbs, proteins and fats isn’t a good idea. Especially when we look at the chemistry of macronutrients.
A little macronutrient chemistry.
You and the rest of life on earth are carbon-based.
Why is that relevant to our look at micronutrients? Because the molecular building blocks of all four are remarkably similar. Their molecules have a carbon atom backbone(s) with an amalgamation of hydrogen and oxygen atoms attached. Proteins include other elements, but their framework is still carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
And that means your body can adapt and thrive on different combinations of macronutrients. It needs a minimum amount of protein, fat and carbohydrate. But once that’s achieved your body can mix and match to synthesis what it needs.
a healthy diet doesn’t have a perfect ratio of macronutrients
Meaning – a healthy diet doesn’t have a perfect ratio of macronutrients. Your macronutrient intake can vary daily, weekly and even monthly. And it can look different from other peoples.
Macronutrients and Energy
Give your body enough protein, fats and carbohydrates to build and maintain its tissues and what’s left will be used for energy.
If you overeat your body stocks up its energy reserves – increasing body fat. If you undereat it dips into your fat reserves for what it needs.
Day to day energy intake fluctuations are normal – it’s why your body has adapted to store energy as fat. But habitual overeating causes excess fat accumulation and weight gain. Not good.
Still, it isn’t necessary to calorie count for health, to avoid weight gain or even lose weight. Instead, the secret is knowing where your calories come from and using that knowledge in the kitchen. And if the aim is weight loss, knowing how to adapt your diet to reduce your energy intake and achieve your goal.
Macronutrients energy per gram
All macronutrients aren’t equal when it comes to energy.
- Fat 9kcal
- Alcohol 7kcal
- Protein 4kcal
- Carbohydrate 4kcal (rounded up from 3.75kcal)
Fat is the most energy-dense macronutrient and carbohydrate the least. And if you scratch cook you can use this knowledge to tweak your energy intake without calorie counting. And without going low-fat extremes.
The difference in energy density between carbohydrates and fats was a big part of the momentum behind the low-fat/high-carb movement of the late 20th century. But that was a misguided oversimplification. Eating patterns, macronutrient quality, satiety index and other factors are also important.
And the questionable success of low-fat diets has led to an anti-carbohydrate backlash. Low carbohydrate diets are trending on the premise that carbs are bad and health and weight control are down to eating the right “macros”.
Again, a misguided oversimplification.
I get why it sounds a bit counterintuitive to some. I’m contradicting gym folklore and social media doctrine. But the reality is counting macro’s like counting calories isn’t necessary for health. Granted, it can make a difference to an elite athlete’s performance or help fine-tune body composition. But let’s be honest – that excludes 99% of us. What’s more, elite sporting achievement, precision body composition and similar goals aren’t analogous to health.
Fixating over the grams of protein, fat or carbohydrate in your meals isn’t helpful. Instead, concentrate on a healthy eating pattern. With a little knowledge, you can choose to eat a wide range of wholesome foodstuffs from all the food groups. You’ll get all the macronutrients you need along with all the other essential nutrients. And your body will look after the rest.
My recommendation for a healthy eating pattern? A plant based omnivore diet.
Why? Let’s take a look at the four different macronutrients in a little more detail and find out. And as protein is the trending healthy macronutrient, let’s start there.
Back in the early 1800s, the French physiologist Francois Magendie did a little research with dogs. He fed them a diet of only sugar and olive oil. And within a few weeks, they died. Magendie’s gruesome experiment was the earliest insight into the importance of dietary nitrogen – and consequently protein.
Because all proteins contain nitrogen along with the omnipresent carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. (Sulphur also gets the occasional minor role.)
There’s an epic cast of protein molecules all with unique roles. Proteins are the workhorses of metabolism. Your’s and every other living creature’s, right down to the smallest microbe. Tissue growth and maintenance, hormones, antibodies, enzymes and oxygen transportation is only dipping a toe in the water.
Amino Acids – Protein’s building blocks
But you don’t assimilate proteins directly from your food. First, your body splits them into their building block molecules, called amino acids. Then it absorbs these amino acids and uses them to build the proteins it needs. Any amino acids you don’t require for protein synthesis are broken down and repurposed or used for energy.
There are twenty different amino acids commonly found in plant and animal proteins. Nine of these are essential amino acids. Essential because your body can’t synthesis them. It must rely on a steady supply directly from your diet.
The internet is awash with discussions on protein quality. Paradoxically more often than not, in bodybuilding and vegan forums.
So what is protein quality? It’s a measure of both the digestibility and the amino acids profile of a protein food source. High-quality proteins sources contain all the essential amino acids in similar proportions to your body’s requirements. And they’re easily digested. Low-quality protein sources, in contrast, are missing one or more of the essential amino acids.
The biological value of proteins
Heated internet protein quality debates – I’m talking to you bodybuilders and vegans – often throw around the term biological value. Simply put, biological value is a measure of how readily your body can use a digested protein to synthesis its own proteins.
What’s the best source of protein? Plant or Animal?
Generally, animal proteins are of higher quality and greater biological value than plant proteins. They have higher concentrations of essential amino acids in ratios more suited to your body’s requirements. But that doesn’t suggest you need to chug down pints of raw eggs like Rocky Balboa. (Actually a really bad idea for all sorts of reasons – including food poisoning.) It just means it’s easier to get all the essential amino acids you require if you include some animal protein in your diet.
Absolutely, you can get enough essential amino acids following a vegan diet – it’s just harder work.
Instead, a plant based omnivore diet effortlessly provides all your essential amino acids. And you’ll get all the health benefits of a high plant food intake.
How much protein do you need?
It depends. Age, activity and protein quality all have an influence. The dietary reference value is 0.75g/kg/day and that should be your minimum. And over 1.5- 2.0g/kg/day is more than anyone needs, no matter their circumstances.
But remember, you eat foods, not macronutrients. Measuring your protein intake time consuming is fraught with difficulties. Better to concentrate on a healthy eating pattern like a plant based omnivore diet and let your body do its thing. Your protein needs will be covered.
What happens if you eat too much or too little protein?
And it’s worth remembering your body has no mechanism to store protein. If your diet is lacking, your body will breakdown muscle and other tissues to source the amino acid building blocks it needs. Functional proteins needed for survival take precedence over tissue preservation.
And in the absence of other energy sources, it will also turn to protein breakdown. That’s not a big deal in the short-term (a day or two). But in the long-term that matters. This is a common issue with severely calorie-restrictive, fast weight loss diets. It’s a struggle not to lose muscle protein.
But equally, your body can’t store extra protein. If you eat more than it needs, it will use the excess for energy. And consuming protein for energy is hard on your wallet! And if it doesn’t have a use for more energy? It’s synthesised into fat. And talking of fat…
Fats and Oils
Thanks to Ancel Keys and others, dietary fat has taken a metaphorical kicking over the last half-century or so. Starting in the 70s, a decade of poor fashion choices and good music, low-fat diets were the healthy choice. Fat was evil. Something to be exorcised from your diet.
But since the early 2000s fat has started a comeback and a revival in its fortunes. From Paleo to Keto there are whole diet movements that extol fats virtues. Mainstream nutritionists aren’t quite onboard with the pro-fat movement, but most are softening their attitude.
The reality? Fats are critical to your body’s structure and function. Eating enough fats is essential for your health. And similarly to proteins, your body breaks down the fats you eat to manufacture the specific fats it requires.
Fatty Acids and the Omega twins
And just like amino acids, there are essential fatty acids. The two twin tribes of essential fatty acids are omega-3 and omega-6. Your body requires them but can’t synthesise them. They have to come directly from your diet. The modern diet is high in refined vegetable oils and tends to be high in omega-6, but lacking in omega-3. Pay attention to getting enough omega-3s and let omega-6s look after themselves.
There are three common omega-3 fatty acids, but only two are biologically active, EPA and DHA. The best source of EPA and DHA omega-3s is oily fish. Salmon, sardines and mackerel and other oily fish should be a regular part of your diet.
The third omega-3 is ALA. It’s found in lots of plant foods and is the most common omega-3 in the diet. But ALA isn’t biologically active. To use it your body must convert it into EPA or DHA. Unfortunately, the conversion process is really inefficient, making most plant foods poor source of omega-3s. Good sources of ALA include flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts.
Fat and Vitamins
Fats are essential to the absorption of vitamins, A, D, E and K. Unlike the other water-soluble vitamins these four are fat soluble. Fat is their delivery system. And without fat in your diet, your body can’t absorb them.
Fats and energy – a double-edged sword?
Fats are a fantastic source of energy. Per gram, they contain more than twice the energy of carbohydrates and protein. It’s why they taste so good. And we love them. It’s an evolved survival instinct hardwired into our DNA.
But when it comes to diet and especially fats our genetics aren’t aligned to the world we now live in. For most of human history, food was scarce and fat a treasured resource.
But in the modern environment of food abundance fats are cheap and easily available. It’s easy to overdo it. And almost impossible to avoid in ready-made meals and snacks. Because food manufacturers use our genetic fondness for fat against us adding it to cheap foods to make them more palatable.
Ultimately, fats aren’t bad. It’s their context in your diet that matters. If you scratch cook you’ll have complete control over your dietary fat. And by making the right fat and oil choices you’ll eat a healthy balance without having to measure, calculate or worry.
Fat Chemistry 101
Fats and oils are part of the larger tribe of lipids that also includes phospholipids and sterols. (Cholesterol, the arguably the most notorious of the lipid tribe is a sterol.)
Like the other macronutrients, fats are built around a carbon, oxygen and hydrogen framework.
The distinction between fat and oil is simple – fats are solid at room temperature and oils are liquids. But fair warning, when I’m talking nutrition or cooking I tend to use the terms oil and fat interchangeably.
At the molecular level fats and oils have the same basic chemical structure – three fatty acids attached to a glycerol backbone. And just as amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, fatty acids are the building blocks fats. And it’s the combination of fatty acids that give fats and oils their unique properties.
What the Poly-Mono-Un-Saturated?
Nutritionists split dietary fats into three tribes – polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated. Polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated refers to the slightly different chemical structure of the fatty acids that make up the fat molecules.
Exciting for chemists and nutritionist, but not hugely helpful to you. Because the fats found in food are rarely a unique tribe of fats, but instead a variable melting pot polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated. For example, sunflower oil, famously polyunsaturated, has over 10% saturated fat. As does the monounsaturated standard-bearer olive oil. And butter, the bastion of the saturated fat tribe, is around 25% monounsaturated fat.
How to tell the fat tribes fats apart
Saturated fats have the highest melting point and polyunsaturated fats the lowest. And the melting point of monounsaturated fats lies somewhere in the middle.
This means is the thicker or firmer a fat is at room temperature, the more saturated fat it contains. Generally, animal fats are higher in saturated fats and tend to be solid. Think of the marbling in a top-quality rib-eye steak.
With a lower melting point than saturated fats, monounsaturated fats are liquids at room temperature. On your kitchen shelf, olive oil is liquid. Put the bottle in the fridge (or even in a cool room) and it will thicken, solidify and refuse to pour. That’s because olive oil is high monounsaturated fat.
Polyunsaturated fats have an even lower melting point than monounsaturated and are also liquids at room temperature. Do the same “bottle in the fridge experiment” with sunflower oil and it remains liquid reflecting its high polyunsaturated fat content.
Polyunsaturated, Monounsaturated and Saturated health.
And when it comes to health, these fat tribes have earned the respective reputations as innocent, virtuous and evil. And dietary fats and oils have gained their health credentials based on the fat tribe that holds the majority of their real estate.
But are the fat tribes deserving of their respective health reputations? Are polyunsaturated fats so innocent? What about the virtue of monounsaturated fat? And the tainted health reputation of saturated fats?
As ever, the answer isn’t black and white. The truth is more subtle than their caricatures suggest. Not least, because the fats and oils we eat in any single food aren’t uniquely from one tribe.
The truth is your overall eating pattern is far more important to your health than your fat choice. If you eat a plant based omnivore diet obsessing over saturated and polyunsaturated fats simply isn’t necessary.
Using the right fat for the correct purpose is what counts. For example, ghee or olive pomace oil is a superior choice to extra virgin olive oil for fast frying in a skillet. A better choice for health and flavour. Because ghee and olive pomace oil have a high flash or burning point and can handle the heat. Unlike extra virgin olive oil with its low flashpoint. High heat destroys extra virgin olive oil’s delicate flavours and antioxidants and produces bitterness and carcinogenic hydrocarbons. But use extra virgin olive oil in a salad or warm sauce Vierge and you don’t lose any of the health benefits or delicate flavours.
Mary Shelley’s margarine
But there’s one area where it’s worth obsessing over fat choice. Industrial trans, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats. Fat hydrogenation is a chemical process to transform cheap vegetable oils into solid fats and spreads. These Frankenstein versions of vegetable oils have no place in your diet. Tubs of margarine filled with frankenfats started appearing in our family fridge when I was a kid. All allegedly better for your health than butter and other animal fats. But with hindsight, we know that not to be true. Consuming trans fats is now linked to cardiovascular disease. You’ll still find these frankenfats in most processed foods, especially baked goods like biscuits and cakes. European legislation is set to limit, but not ban, their use from 2021.
Cholesterol and the other lipid bit players
Phospholipids – Ubiquitous in all living species, phospholipids are an essential component of cell membranes. Yet they’re only around 4% of your total dietary fat intake. Still, dietary phospholipids are linked with increased HDL cholesterol and reduced inflammation. Good sources of phospholipids include eggs, meat, seafood, cereal grains and oilseeds.
Cholesterol – Mud sticks. And there’s no better example than dietary cholesterol. In the 1950s raised blood cholesterol was linked to cardiovascular disease. A decade later we were being told to limit our dietary cholesterol to keep our cholesterol down and avoid heart disease.
We now know dietary cholesterol only has a very small effect on blood cholesterol. Because your body makes its own cholesterol. It’s essential to your bodies functions, from digestion to hormones. Your diet can affect your blood cholesterol, but it’s down to the fats and carbohydrates you eat, not your cholesterol consumption.
But dietary cholesterol’s reputation still hasn’t recovered.
Sterols – Plant sterols and their close cousins, stanols, are members of the same tribe as cholesterol. They’re found naturally in limited amounts in fruits, vegetables, nuts and cereals. Eaten in larger amounts, they can reduce blood cholesterol prompting a proliferation of products fortified with plant sterols.
Sterols work by blocking the normal reabsorption of cholesterol released into the gut for digestion. It’s the same mechanism behind the cholesterol-lowering properties of oats.
Fat Dietary Reference Values
In the UK the Dietary Reference Value (DRV) is no more than 35% of your total energy from fats. To make this more practical often the DRV is given as no more than 70g/day. (Based on energy consumption of 2000kcal per day. The energy requirement for a moderately active middle-aged woman)
The DRVs are a guide for the population. A largely sedentary population eating the average British diet – not a great starting point. Better to be active and concentrate on a healthy eating pattern and let the fat intake look after itself.
How much fat should I eat?
To be sure your diet can include enough of the omega fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins at least 20% of your energy should come from fats.
At the other end of the spectrum, if you’re following a keto diet 75% of your energy could come from fat. But that severely restricts the range of nutritious plant foods you can eat. And missing out on the benefits of a varied plant-based diet for the questionable benefits of ketosis doesn’t make sense.
A fat intake ceiling 50% of energy is more reasonable. But that’s a guideline, not an invitation to start counting macros. Eat a varied healthy diet and your day to day fat intake will vary.
Fats aren’t bad. It’s their context in your diet that matters. If you scratch cook you’ll have complete control over your dietary fat. And by making the right fat and oil choices you’ll eat a healthy balance without having to measure, calculate or worry.
Fats and the Plant-based Ominvore
Follow a plant based omnivore diet and scratch cook and you can liberally use healthy fats and oils in their best context. They’ll provide energy and the fatty acids your body needs. And they’re an essential ingredient for any cook, transforming otherwise dull dishes into mouthwatering meals.
But, full disclosure, a well thought out, healthy plant based omnivore diet can have a fat intake as high as 45% of total energy. Well above the 35% DRV. But that isn’t a concern.
The relative energy contribution of carbohydrates in a plant based omnivore diet is less. Lots of and lots of carbs for sure. But low energy, nutrient-rich carbohydrates. And healthy fats and oils pick up the energy slack.
“Carbs” are the current pantomime villain of the diet and weight loss industry. The popularity of keto and other low carb diets spawned the fallacy that carbohydrates are unhealthy, even unnecessary. And we need to address these beliefs because the grain of truth they’re based on has germinated into misguided doctrine. But we can’t do that without understanding the carbohydrate basics.
In reality, carbohydrates are the backbone of a healthy diet. Found almost exclusively in plant foods, cabohydrates are a combination of the ever-present triumvirate carbon, oxygen and hydrogen.
And glucose, their primary building block, is your bodies preferred energy source.
Glucose and other Monosaccharides
Glucose is a monosaccharide. Apart from glucose, the two other important monosaccharides are fructose and galactose. But glucose is the main player.
Monosaccharides are to carbohydrates what amino acids are to proteins and fatty acids are to fats. They are the building blocks of carbohydrate molecules. The combination of monosaccharides in a carbohydrate defines its character. And to enable absorption, your gut dismantles large carbohydrate molecules into their monosaccharide building blocks.
When two monosaccharides bind together they form a disaccharide. Sucrose, the ubiquitous sugar found in so many manufactured foods is a combination of one glucose and one fructose building block. Lactose, of lactose intolerance infamy, is another disaccharide (glucose + galactose).
Confusingly, the term sugar is often used to describe any simple saccharide. Adding to the muddle, sugar and glucose are used interchangeably when discussing blood glucose levels. Blood sugar and blood glucose are the same things. For the love of Beira! I swear they do it on purpose.
Any more than two saccharide building blocks join together are known as polysaccharides. The digestible polysaccharides are called starches.
The longer and more complex the polysaccharide chain the more time it takes your gut to digest and absorb the starch. Wholefood sources are full of these slow-energy-releasing, complex carbohydrates.
When a grain is milled and refined the complex starches are removed. All that’s left are the simple easily digested polysaccharides. And these refined flours are digested and absorbed almost as quickly as sugar.
A word on fibre
Fibre is carbohydrates made up of complex, indigestible polysaccharide chains. But just because your gut can’t digest fibre doesn’t make it unnecessary. A diet with plenty of fibre is essential for your health. It prevents constipation, reduces your chances of piles, lowers your colon cancer risk, lessens your obesity risk and decreases the risk of heart disease. And it nourishes the beneficial bacteria of your gut microbiome improving your gut health. What’s not to love?
Broadly speaking there are two types of fibre – soluble and insoluble.
- Soluble fibre feeds those beneficial bacteria and your gut health benefits from their by-products.
- Insoluble fibre adds bulk and speeds the passage of indigestible waste through the gut, making it easier to go to the loo. And that’s a good thing.
The recommended fibre intake is 30g per day. And the easiest option to get at least 30g a day is a plant based omnivore diet. It’s a high fibre diet with a balance of both soluble and insoluble types. But don’t expect to be chewing your way through bland, bran based breakfast cereals and dry, cardboard crackers. (Ok, you can if that’s what you enjoy!). Instead, you can eat loads of fibre in all sorts of delicious ways if you scratch cook.
So, are carbs bad for you?
No. The truth is carbohydrates are the easy whipping boy for the failings of the first world diet. Trending diets demonise all carbs without intelligently discriminating between them. And sugar is the current bogeyman of nutritionists and public health campaigns. But the real issue, the grain of truth that germinated into the anti-carb backlash, is we overeat refined carbohydrates.
Refined carbohydrates are ubiquitous in the food chain. And there are two main forms,
- Sugars High sugar-containing plants are industrially reduced to almost exclusively simple disaccharides. They include white table sugar (sucrose), brown sugar, fructose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, maltose, agave syrup, golden syrup, treacle and other sugar analogues. Then there are “natural” refined sugars like maple syrup, agave nectar and honey.
- Refined grains Whole grains milled and stripped of the nutritious germ and bran to leave only simple starches. The most common is white wheat flour. But they include white rice, rice flour and cornflour.
And one last refined carbohydrate that doesn’t belong in either group yet merits a mention is potato starch. A common gluten-free wheat flour substitute.
Refined carbs are empty of nutrients
Apart from calories, refined carbohydrates are empty of nutrients. Yes, refined wheat flour is fortified with calcium, iron, thiamine and niacin by law. But fortification doesn’t replace the wide array of nutrients stripped out during milling.
Pasta, bread, cookies and sodas are obvious places to find refined carbs. But they’re a universal ingredient of the food manufacturing industry. Read packaged food ingredient labels and you’ll find refined carbohydrates everywhere.
Essentially, the refining process “pre-digests” carbohydrates for you, depriving your gut of the hard work it’s designed to do. And your gut quickly finishes the job, rapidly breaking down refined carbs into glucose for fast absorption.
Glycaemic Index is a relative measure of how long a meal takes to turn up as glucose in the blood – as measured and compared to a high-speed reference food. The higher the glycaemic index the faster glucose is absorbed. And fast absorption is generally less desirable. The two go-to glycaemic index reference foods are glucose and white bread. That tells you just how quickly white flour products can be digested and absorbed.
Small quantities of refined carbohydrates as part of a healthy eating pattern are a good thing. They enhance the gastronomic experience. Their intelligent use in the kitchen is an essential part of your culinary skill set. Refined carbs only become an issue when they’re a staple of your diet.
3 reasons refined carbohydrates shouldn’t be a staple of your diet
Refined carbohydrates make up a large part of many peoples everyday diet. They’re a dietary staple. And that isn’t healthy because…
- A steady stream of rapidly digested carbohydrates floods the bloodstream with glucose. And your glucose regulation system may struggle to cope. In the short-term, this causes your energy to spike and then crash. (If your day is an energy rollercoaster take a look at the carbs in your diet.) More serious are the potential long term effects. The glucose regulation system can buckle under the strain leading to insulin resistance – when the body doesn’t respond to the system’s major hormone, insulin. And unaddressed, insulin resistance eventually develops into diabetes.
- A diet high in refined carbohydrates bereft of nutrients leaves less room for other nutrient-rich foods. And your body can’t thrive. Because a diet without adequate micronutrients can leave you fatigued or worse.
- Refined carbohydrates are stripped of fibre. And without fibre, your beneficial bacteria are robbed of the nourishment they need to flourish. And in turn, they can’t nurture your gut and keep it in optimal health.
But just because a diet high in refined carbohydrates is unhealthy, it doesn’t mean carbs are universally bad.
A healthy diet contains lots of complex carbohydrate foods
Complex carbohydrates are both satisfying and healthy. A diet high in complex carbohydrates from vegetables, whole grains, pulses and other whole plant foods is packed with nutrients, fibre and slow-release calories. It’s a low glycaemic diet with all the health and energy benefits.
But all too often complex carbs are unjustly clumped together with their industrial, refined cousins. It’s the origin of carbs phobia and the unnecessary avoidance of “carb-heavy” whole plant foods like pulses and whole grains. Low-carb advocates recommend sticking to vegetables and fruits with minimal carbohydrate content. And their followers miss out many of the health benefits of plant foods as a result.
But do we even need to eat Carbs?
Do we even need carbs in our diet? Die-hard keto enthusiasts will tell you no. Once you’re in ketosis or “fat adapted” you no longer need carbohydrates.
True, without a dietary source, the body can synthesis enough glucose. Enough to supply the tissues that can’t survive without it – the brain and red blood cells. And other tissues will adapt to use fats as their primary fuel. But is it optimal? The body evolved to burn glucose as the primary source of energy, but also fat as the secondary source. But neither exclusively. Your body seamlessly mixes, matches and switches between fat and glucose depending on your activity and when you last ate. And flexing that adaptability is good for your metabolism.
How many carbs should I eat per day?
It depends. What’s your protein intake? How much fat are you eating?
Fat and protein provide essential nutrients and energy. But they don’t provide all the energy and non-essential raw materials your body needs. Carbohydrates fill the gap and simultaneously provide other health-promoting nutrients. How big a gap there is to fill depends on your fat and protein intake. Anywhere from 35-65% of the energy in a healthy diet can come from carbohydrates.
Instead of counting carbs concentrate on including plenty of complex carbohydrates from a variety of whole foods. And don’t ban refined carbohydrates. Just include them in your diet intelligently.
Carbohydrates and a Plant-based Omnivore Diet
A plant based omnivore diet goes big on carbohydrates from a wide variety of whole plant sources. Mostly complex carbohydrates. And the natural simple sugars in vegetables and fruits don’t have the same impact on your blood sugar because they’re delivered as the “whole package”. They’re less concentrated and the gut has to work to release them.
But there’s an interesting phenomenon if you’re a plant based omnivore. You eat lots of carbohydrate foods. But because the majority are from whole foods your energy intake from carbs is around 35-45%. Lower than the Dietary Reference Intake of at least 50%. And this is despite eating a much greater volume of carbohydrates than the average Brit.
An added bonus – eat a plant based omnivore for any length of time and you’ll discover your body doesn’t respond as violently when you do eat refined carbs. The energy highs and lows are gone.
Alcohol the 4th macronutrient. It’s been a significant source of energy in most human societies for as long as they’ve existed. Granted it’s not an essential macronutrient. And unlike the others, it doesn’t hold any nutritional benefit aside from energy. And we need to recognise too much alcohol is harmful.
Distinct from the other three, alcohol isn’t a group of macronutrients. It’s a single chemical – ethanol – that your body can use as an energy source.
And like fats and carbohydrates, ethanol contains only carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Pure ethanol is toxic. Consequently, alcoholic drinks are mostly water with varying percentages of alcohol. Depending on their origin they can contain small amounts of other nutrients, from the carbohydrates in beer to the antioxidants in red wine. But realistically alcohol provides only energy. And you need to compensate for that energy intake by reducing other more nutritious foods.
The Daily Recommended Intake is less than 5% of calories from alcohol. That translates to around two units per day. In other words a pint of beer, a decent measure of whisky or proper glass of wine.
Should you drink alcohol?
Am I recommending you drink alcohol? No, not if you don’t already drink. Starting a drinking habit isn’t beneficial for your health. The early studies that suggested alcohol in moderation was good for you – including the benefits of red wine – have been largely discredited. Although the legend lives on – which says more about our culture than our health.
But is alcohol in moderation (i.e. within the government guidelines) bad for you? Yes. Or at least there’s a small increase in health risk. But you have to decide if this is outweighed by the social and psychological benefits and enjoyment you get from alcohol. For me the choice is easy. My life would be poorer without beer, red wine and the odd malt whisky.
Getting the right balance of macronutrients in your diet isn’t that complicated.
But some basic knowledge of macronutrients vital to successfully maintaining a healthy diet. Not least to avoid the tumult of unhelpful noise in the media – social and mainstream.
Macronutrients provide your body both with energy and most the raw materials for growth and maintenance. And that makes getting them right vital for health. But humans are remarkably adaptable omnivores. You don’t need to obsess over micronutrients.
The three mainstream macronutrients are protein, fat and carbohydrates. Alcohol is the fourth macronutrient and it provides significant energy. But alcohol has no other nutritional value.
You need fats and proteins in your diet to synthesise the structural and functional components of your body. Once your diet has covered the basic requirements for these two, including essential amino acids and fatty acids, your body can mix and match macronutrients cover its total needs.
All four macronutrients are used for energy, but carbohydrates are your bodies first choice. Carbs also supply raw materials for synthesising fats and proteins. And wholefood carbs come packaged with other vital nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fibre. In contrast, refined carbohydrates are stripped of their valuable nutrients leaving only calories.
How do I get my macronutrients right?
- include high-quality protein in your diet to make sure you get the full complement of essential amino acids your body needs
- animal proteins are the best source of all nine amino acids
- plant proteins have a lower biological value than animal proteins, but with a little more planning it’s possible to get the amino acids you need on a vegan diet
- choose high-quality fats and oils in the kitchen
- use the fat best suited for the cooking task at hand
- actively include omega-3s in your diet – the best sources are oily fish like salmon.
- avoid or minimise hydrogenated Frankenfats and the processed foods that include them
- whole plant foods are the backbone of a healthy diet
- include lots of vegetables, pulses, grains, fruits and nuts in your diet and you’ll be well supplied with high-quality complex carbohydrates
- refined carbohydrates like white flour and sugar are useful in the kitchen but don’t let them become a staple of your diet
- restrict the refined carbohydrates in your diet. Too many will cause fluctuations in your energy levels as your body struggles to manage your blood glucose. And in the long-term your diabetes risk increases.
- limit your consumption of ready-made foods to avoid overconsumption of refined carbs
- drinking alcohol contributes a significant amount of calories to your diet
- alcohol supplies energy but no other nutrients
- there’s a small increase in health risk associated with moderate drinking and no direct health benefit
- drinking is one of the pleasures of life and you must decide if the risk is worth it
And the simplest way to cover all your macronutrient needs? Eat an intelligent plant based omnivore diet. And scratch cooking most of your meals.
Hi, I’m Ralph
I’m an Associate Registered Nutritionist with over 25 years’ experience as a professional chef.
My passion is helping individuals gain control of their diet to achieve food freedom and health in today’s broken nutrition environment.
I’m based in Edinburgh and provide 1-2-1 online nutrition coaching and support across the U.K.