A macronutrient is a type of food that is required in large amounts in the diet. There are three types of macronutrients that make up our foods: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Most foods contain a combination of all three.
So, while we might call chicken a “protein”, or bread a “carb”, it is important to note that these foods also contain the other macronutrients, just in lesser quantities. It is important that our bodies have ample sources of all three types because each type of macronutrient provides different building blocks, vitamins, minerals, energy, and more for us to function at an optimal level.
Let's break down the important role that carbohydrates, proteins and fats all play in having a balanced diet!
When people think of carbs, they often think of bread, potatoes, rice, oats, cookies, etc. However, fruits and vegetables are made up almost entirely of carbohydrates as well. Carbohydrates are chains of sugars, starches, and fibers in our foods. They are important because they provide our bodies with a quick source of glucose. Our brains run almost entirely on the energy derived from glucose, so it is very important to have this sugar available. However, our bodies are smart, and even when carbohydrates are low, we are able to convert other sources- such as protein- into glucose if we need to during times of starvation or illness. Starches and fibers are also very important sources of carbohydrate (think whole grains, beans, sweet potatoes, etc) because they provide “bulk” in our diets, allowing us to feel more satisfied after our meals and helping our food to move through our digestive tracts. Fiber is notable because it binds to cholesterol in our intestines, helping to lower our blood lipid levels and reducing our risk for cardiovascular disease.
Make sure that your diet includes ample sources of carbohydrates including whole grains (rice, barley, quinoa, whole grain bread), a variety of fruits, vegetables, and lentils/legumes.
Our bodies use protein to form body tissues, blood, hormones, enzymes, and more. Proteins consist of building blocks called amino acids. While our bodies can make most of the amino acids, there are nine amino acids that are considered “essential”. Essential amino acids must be obtained by the foods that we eat- we cannot make them ourselves. If we do not eat enough protein, or if we don’t eat proteins consisting of all of the amino acids, our bodies will start to break down our muscle tissue in order to fill in the gaps. Therefore, it is important to consume enough protein- current USDA recommendations are .8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, so a person who weighs 68 kg (150 lb), needs to eat a minimum of 54 grams of protein a day. When choosing protein sources, it is also important to choose sources that are lean. Full fat beef, bacon, sausages, etc. contain a lot of saturated fats, and these sources have been linked to heart disease, cancer, and obesity. It is ok to eat small amounts of full fat animal products, perhaps just not everyday.
Chicken, turkey, pork, lean beef, eggs, and fish are all excellent sources of lean protein. Dairy also provides an impressive amount of protein. Look for yogurts, cheeses, and milk with only a few ingredients on the label, and consider sweetening your yogurt with natural fruits or honey instead of sugary compotes.
For vegetarians, beans (black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, black eyed peas...), whole grains (quinoa, bulgur, brown rice), soybeans, tofu, seitan, tempeh, nuts, and seeds are all excellent sources of protein.
Fats are a critical element to human health. They form our cell membranes, allow nerve impulses to travel to our brains, protect our bones and organs, and are a major storage warehouse for fuel during times of low calorie intake. There are several different types of fats- saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature for the most part- a few examples include butter, ghee, and coconut oil. These are also the fats that hide in animal products such as steak, beef, and cheese. Saturated fats should only be eaten occasionally because they are known to build up in our arteries. Over years, this can lead to heart attack or stroke. Pure unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. A few examples of sources of these fats include canola oil, sunflower oil, walnuts, flaxseeds, fish and avocado. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats. They are beneficial because unlike saturated fats, they form little carriers in our bloodstream that take the plaques in our arteries back to our liver to be excreted. They essentially help to keep our arteries clear and clean so that our hearts can work at an optimal level. Trans fats are formed by manufacturers in a process by which liquid unsaturated fats are changed in chemical structure so that they are solid at room temperature instead. Because of the nature of the new chemical compounds that are formed in trans fats, these fats have been found to be highly detrimental to human health and should be avoided.
Work towards replacing saturated fats in your diet with unsaturated sources in order to improve your blood lipid levels and overall health.