The Complete Macronutrient Guide: Understanding Carbs, Proteins, and Fats

One timeless phrase that has transcended generations is keep it simple.

When it comes to dieting people tend to overcomplicate the basics and as a result end up with lackluster results.

In order to properly understand dieting we need to remove all the extraneous information and white noise found in the world. We hear so many diet related terms nowadays - organic, non-GMO, grass-fed - that people tend to lose sight of what counts.

Let’s go through a quick physiology lesson before we start.

People are living organisms. Living organisms need energy (food) to survive. We eat food. We continue living.

There are endless amounts of food choices in the world, but no matter how you cook it, season it, cut it, or slice it - all foods can be broken down into one or more nutritional categories used for energy, growth, and bodily functions.

In fact, all food is made up of one (or more) of these three chemical elements - macronutrients.

The three main macronutrients are - proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Whether you’re eating a cheeseburger, a rice bowl, or a piece of cake, all of these foods contain macronutrients.

Before you get the wrong idea this article isn’t designed to help you calculate your macros. We’re trying to get you to see macronutrients at a much deeper level beyond the numbers printed on nutrition labels.

In this article, we’ll take a deeper look into each of the different macronutrients, how they work, and what foods contain each one.

Carbohydrates: The Scapegoat Macro

In recent years carbohydrates have unfairly received a bad rap as they have been viewed as a dieting pyorrhea responsible for obesity, diabetes, and a host of other problems.

Some people believe eating fewer carbohydrates can result in better long term health, while others insist a higher-carb diet is more sustainable. No matter what your individual beliefs are, it's impossible to deny the role carbohydrates play in the body.

What are Carbs?

Carbohydrates a primary source of food your body uses for energy (unless you’re on the keto diet of course). Carbs provide 4 calories per gram. They are biological molecules that contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They occur either as single units (monosaccharides, e.g. glucose), two conjoined molecules (disaccharides, e.g. sucrose), or chains of molecules (oligosaccharides and polysaccharides).

Many will argue that carbohydrates are not an essential macronutrient as the body can function efficiently without them (ketosis).

How do Carbs Work?

Carbs act as a source of energy for the body. They also maintain blood glucose concentrations and provide a main fuel source for the brain.

When you consume carbs, your body breaks them down into simple sugars (glucose) which are then absorbed by the bloodstream. As glucose levels increase, the pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin. Insulin is used to drive glucose from the blood to the cells where it can be used for energy.

Typically, most of your body’s cells are biologically programmed to use carbs as their main energy source. If your body has enough glucose to meet its current needs, excess glucose is saved in the body for later use (glycogen). Glycogen is stored primarily in the muscle and liver.

Once your body has enough glucose to live off and glycogen levels are full, excess carb intake can sometimes be stored as fat.

Carbohydrates in the form of fiber can provide several health benefits including:

What Foods Contain Carbs?

  • Fruits and juices
  • Bread
  • Rice
  • Crackers
  • Cereal
  • Beans 
  • Legumes 
  • Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn, and carrots
  • Dairy sources such as milk, cheese, and cream
  • Pasta
  • Oatmeal
  • All processed sugary foods such as chips, cookies, candy, cake
  • Condiments such as ketchup and BBQ sauce
  • Soft drinks
  • Alcohol

The list doesn’t stop here. Many other foods not listed may contain carbohydrates. The key is practicing moderation and making conscious food choices.

Protein: The Muscle Macro

Generally considered the most well liked macronutrient, protein has the reputation of helping people become bigger, faster, and stronger. It’s no secret protein plays a vital role in the human body helping work at a cellular level to improve bodily function.

Although protein gets the reputation of being a chemical to help muscles grow, it also performs several other functions within the body.

What are Proteins?

Proteins are large molecules that perform several critical roles in the body. Proteins provide 4 calories per gram. They are made up of hundreds or thousands of smaller units known as amino acids. There are 20 different types of amino acids that can be combined to form a protein.

The specific sequence of amino acids determines each protein’s specific structure and function. Proteins also make up about 42% of the dry weight of our bodies in the form of protein collagen which holds skin, tendons, muscles, and bones together.

How do Proteins Work?

Protein is used in the body for building structural and functional components of cells. Although it is possible to be used as fuel source for the body, it isn’t considered a primary function.

Proteins help sustain other metabolic processes and do most of the cellular work required for the function, structure, and regulation of the body’s various tissues and organs.

Some examples of protein functions include:

  • Antibodies which protect the body from harmful viruses and bacteria
  • Enzymes that carry out chemical reactions occurring in cells
  • Messenger proteins which help to transmit signals and coordinate biological processes between cells, tissues, and organs.
  • Transportation proteins bind together atoms and molecules within cells throughout the body.

What Foods Contain Proteins?

Some of the best sources of protein include:

  • Beef 
  • Chicken  
  • Turkey  
  • Pork  
  • Fish  
  • Black beans 
  • Lima beans 
  • Pinto beans 
  • Eggs 
  • Tempeh
  • Legumes  
  • Peas
  • Chickpeas  
  • Quinoa  
  • Greek yogurt 
  • Milk 
  • Cheese 
  • Nuts
  • Whey protein powder

This is not considered an all-inclusive list of foods containing protein. In fact several of the foods above all fall into one or more other macronutrient categories.

Fats: The Misunderstood Macro

For years fat received a bad rap in the dieting world. Many people considered dietary fat to be the root cause of obesity and weight gain. Luckily, feelings on dietary fat have shifted in recent times as people have become more educated on health and nutrition.

Many diets such as keto and paleo not only welcome fat, they base their entire diets around it.

What are Fats?

Fats are dietary macronutrients made up of triglyceride molecules. People often mislabel the word “fat” as something that its not. Unlike carbs and proteins, fat provides 9 calories per gram.

Lets distinguish between the types of fat so we have a better understanding of it.

  • Adipose tissue: stores energy as fat inside adipocytes (fat cells). This is what we consider to be body fat
  • Lipids: organic compounds that are fatty acids or their derivatives
  • Triglycerides: lipid molecules made up of a glycerol backbone joined to three fatty acid molecules
  • Fatty acids: a chain of carbon atoms bonded together

As you can see the word “fat” can be used to describe a number of biological functions. The main thing to realize is dietary fat does not cause fat gain. Only a caloric surplus results in excess fat gain.

How do Fats Work?

The main function of dietary fats are to act as a consistent source of energy for the body and provide key functional and structural parts of the human system.

Dietary fats are essential for supporting cell growth, protecting your organs, and keeping your body warm. Fats help the body absorb nutrients and can also help produce hormones. Fat is needed to keep skin and hair healthy as well as help with the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K.

There are four major types of dietary fats contained in foods we eat including:

  • Saturated fats: fat molecules with no double bonds between carbon molecules
  • Trans fats: primarily from processed foods in the form of partially hydrogenated oils
  • Monounsaturated fats: fat molecules with one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule, also called a double bond
  • Polyunsaturated fats: fat molecules with more than one unsaturated carbon bond

Each of these types of fats have different chemical structures and physical characteristics. Fat should not be feared as part of your diet, but rather should be consumed in moderation just like any other macronutrient.

What Foods Contain Fats?

Most foods contain fat, but some obviously more than others. Common foods with dietary fat include:

  • Avocados 
  • Cheese 
  • Milk
  • Yogurt 
  • Chocolate
  • Eggs
  • Fatty fish 
  • Beef 
  • Chicken 
  • Pork
  • Nuts 
  • Seeds
  • Olive oil 
  • Coconut oil
  • Avocado oil
  • Processed foods such as candy, cookies, cakes, etc

Outside of fruits and vegetables, almost all whole food sources contain some amount of fat. Don’t be afraid of eating fatty foods, just consume in moderation.

Are all Macronutrients Created Equal?

All macronutrients - carbs, proteins, fats - play a crucial role within our bodies. They act as a piece of a larger dietary puzzle with each having defined roles.

The key to finding the right balance is understanding your own body. It may take a bit of trial and error, but eventually you will have a better understanding of how macronutrients affect your body and physique.

If you have any other health or nutrition related questions, feel free to reach out to me via email. I am here to help you meet and exceed all of your health goals.

 

Kindest regards,

Sean Torbati

 

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