What we know about the basics of nutrition hasn’t really changed much over the years. The food we eat provides us with the energy we need to carry out our daily routine and this energy is in the form of calories which are gleaned from carbohydrates, fats and protein - the macronutrients (or ‘macros’). Here's everything you need to know about macros.
Because little energy is required to break it down to glucose, carbohydrate is considered to be the most efficient source of energy compared to protein and fat. As a result, it has long been advised that carbohydrates should make up about 50% of the calories we get from our diet (although modern thinking is that we should be eating a little less carbohydrate). Most of the carbohydrate-rich foods we eat come from plants in the form of starches and sugars.
Natural starches are found in carbohydrate foods that do not undergo any processing (such as brown rice, potatoes, porridge oats, lentils, beans, nuts and root vegetables). As such, these foods contain high amounts of fibre. Processed or refined starches such as wheat are found in foods such as white pasta, white bread, biscuits and cakes.
Natural starches are broken down slowly in the body as a result of their high fibre content, meaning that they have less of an effect on blood sugar and help to keep us feeling fuller for longer. These are commonly referred to as complex carbohydrates, and they should make up the majority of the carbohydrate we get from our diet.
Examples of complex carbs include brown rice, buckwheat, oats, quinoa, lentils, beans, nuts and root vegetables such as squash and sweet potato.
Simple carbohydrates have usually had some or all of their fibre removed, which reduces their nutritional content, and they are broken down quickly in the body. Examples include white bread and pasta, baked goods and sugary breakfast cereals.
An excess of this type of carbohydrate in the diet can lead to a high level of the blood-sugar regulating hormone insulin, which will promote fat storage, raising the level of triglycerides that are associated with coronary heart disease, diabetes and fatty liver disease. Maintaining a healthy body weight and opting for complex carbs will help keep the body’s fat levels in check.
Protein plays an essential role in the growth, development and repair of every cell in the body. This includes brain development, healthy hair and nails, bone growth and hormone production, including insulin, which helps to regulate blood sugar and mood-enhancing endorphins. We only require 15% of the calories we consume to come from protein, and the daily requirement for women is set at 45g per day (55g for men).
Proteins are made up of smaller molecules called
amino acids. The human body needs 20 different amino acids in order to build the required proteins. Eleven of the amino acids can be made within the body, but the remaining nine must be obtained from the diet and are referred to as ‘essential’ amino acids.
Although plant-based foods contain protein, they’re known as ‘incomplete’ because they don’t contain all of the essential amino acids as are found in meat. For this reason, non-meat eaters must ‘combine’ plant sources of protein to get what they need, such as mixing rice and peas in a meal.
Protein is useful when trying to lose weight as it’s very satiating. However, the trend to cut carbohydrate out of the diet in favour of large quantities of protein may lead to poor nutrient balance (especially of B vitamins) and variety, and unlikely to be sustainable long term.
Some of our favourite food sources of protein include eggs, poultry, fish, oats, broccoli, quinoa, lentils, nuts and seeds.
Fat has a key role to play in the normal functioning of the body. It is primarily used to store energy, but also provides insulation and protection to vital organs, produces essential hormones that promote growth and development, and is required for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K (you need a minimum of 25g per day to absorb these nutrients).
Fats are made up of fatty acids, of which there are two main types: saturated and unsaturated. Its recommended that total fat intake should account for about 35% of the calories in our diet.
Of the three macronutrients, fat provides the greatest number of calories – twice the number per gram compared with carbs and protein. However, it’s a misconception that eating fat will make you fat. Including excessive fat in your diet may mean you’re getting too many calories, but too much of any food beyond your energy requirements can have the same effect.
The particular problem with fat is that lots of high-fat foods are processed and come in partnership with refined sugar and salt. Also, certain fats are associated with an increased risk of disease. So, it is important to make the right choice of fat to get a healthy balance.
Saturated fatty acids are found in foods such as butter, full-fat dairy products and animal fats, and in processed foods. Excessive intake of saturated fat is associated with high cholesterol. Cholesterol, a waxy substance similar to fat, plays a number of important roles in the body, including the production of hormones and vitamin D. High cholesterol, however, is a condition that can lead to blocked arteries, which is a risk factor for heart disease.
This type of fatty acids, often referred to as ‘healthy fats’, can be found in liquid oils as well as foods such as nuts, seeds, oily fish and avocado. There are two kinds: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. The body is able to make monounsaturated fatty acids (these are found naturally in extra virgin olive oil) in the same way it makes saturated fatty acids, but polyunsaturated fats must be obtained from the diet. Both kinds should make up the majority of fat in the diet and can benefit your health in a number of ways, such as helping to balance levels of cholesterol.
Essential fatty acids
Omega 6 and omega 3 are the polyunsaturated fats that must be obtained from the diet. The most significant nutritionally are the omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which can be found in oily fish (mackerel, trout, salmon and tuna) and have a protective effect on the heart as they help to balance cholesterol levels, prevent clotting and reduce triglyceride levels in the blood (a risk factor for heart disease).
Another type of omega 3 fatty acid, known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), can be obtained from plant foods such as flaxseeds and chia seeds and their oils, as well as walnuts and dark green leafy vegetables such as kale.
Omega 3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation in the body, which can benefit a number of heath conditions and protect us against disease. It’s important to get a good balance between omega 3 and 6 as the former acts as an anti-inflammatory whilst the other can increase inflammation. We tend to get too much omega 6 in the diet as its main source is from oils, so regularly eating plenty of omega 3 rich foods will help to balance out the ratio.
Non-essential fatty acids
Monounsaturated fats, which can be made within the body, are referred to as ‘non-essential’ fatty acids. One of these is omega 9, the main type of which is called oleic acid. This fatty acid contains some unique antioxidants
known as polyphenols, which are especially heart protective as they help reduce blood clotting. The highest source of oleic acid is extra virgin olive oil, which is often considered to be the healthiest of all oils and research suggest that it may help to lower LDL cholesterol in the blood.
Trans fats, which are artificially produced by a process that turns liquid vegetable oils into more solid fat, have been used by the food industry for their ability to prolong shelf-life and maintain the texture of food without affecting taste. They really are the ‘bad guys’ of the fat world and we would recommend trying to exclude them from your diet altogether. Avoiding processed foods is the best strategy.
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