Welcome back to Nutrition 101! Last week we talked about calories
[Click here to see last week’s email]
. This week, we’re focusing on macro and micronutrients.
If you’re just starting out, just tracking calories or using a point system, like Weight Watchers, will get you pretty far. However, at some point you’re going to stall out, and that’s when you need to take your nutrition knowledge to the next level.
Macronutrients (macros for short) is a term that describes proteins, carbs, and fats. These are things our bodies need a “lot of to function properly. Each macro has a different effect on the body. The average person should make sure to eat all three. Eliminating one whole group can set you up for possible nutritional deficiencies if you don’t properly monitor your diet or supplement, so for the typical person, it’s best not to cut out anything.
Protein is an important substance found in every cell of your body and is the second most abundant substance in your body, water being number one. Protein goes beyond just building muscle; it’s also important for maintaining many of the structures in you body, acts as messengers (signaling proteins and hormones), transportation (think of hemoglobin), form part of the immune system, and so on.
Foods high in protein are: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, dairy, tofu, etc.
Animal sources are a complete source of protein, providing all the essential amino acids, while plants are considered incomplete because they are too low in certain essential amino acids and must be combined with other plant (or animal) sources to provide all of the essential amino acids.
Not all protein sources are created equal. Lean cuts of meat, fish, egg whites, and protein powders contain the most protein for the fewest calories per ounce. Most animal proteins contain fat, which bumps their calorie content up (such as peanut butter and eggs). Dairy products often contain some fats and carbs, and plant protein sources are usually carb heavy (except for nuts and seeds, they’re higher in fats).
Before you jump on the fish and egg white plan, also realize that those ultra lean sources of protein are usually the lowest in micronutrients. Animal fats contain fat soluble vitamins and plant protein sources contain fiber and/or healthy fats along with vitamins and minerals.
When it comes to how much protein you should have at a meal, to fully activate what is known as protein synthesis (a fancy word that means your body is creating proteins) you need about 25 grams of animal protein at a given meal. Vegetarians and vegans, you probably need a little more. Protein synthesis needs about 3 grams of leucine (an essential amino acid) and plant proteins tend to be lower in this amino acid, though one cup of cooked lentils will hit the 3 gram mark. If you’re trying to build some lean muscle tissue or recover for a sports event, pulsing your protein into 4-5 evenly spaced doses seems to be the best way to optimize protein synthesis according to current research.
How much protein? 0.8-1.2 grams per pound of lean body mass is a good start for most people. If you’re fairly lean, you can use bodyweight instead of lean body mass. You can push protein as high as 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight without any negative side effects. In healthy individuals, short term levels as high as 3 grams per pound body weight had no negative health consequences (though none of the participants enjoyed the diet in the study)
Final note about protein: it’s really hard for your body to convert excess protein into body fat. The process is so efficient that if you actually tried to eat only protein you’d end up dying of what’s called “rabbit starvation.” If you’re trying to lose weight and are really hungry, over eating lean protein probably won’t affect your results.
Fats still get a bad rap from some circles, and other circles are dumping butter and MCT oil in their coffee. Fat is higher in calories per gram than protein or carbs (9 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram), which is why many people think they need to eliminate it from their diet.
While fat calories can add up really quick, they are also really important for the body. This is one of the most complex areas of nutrition science, so I’m not going to go into a ton of details on the differing effects of the 30+ different fatty acids in the human diet. To simplify it, there are three types of fat: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. You need some of each type of fat in your diet, fortunately, most foods are made up of a combination of them. For example, the fat in a ribeye steak is roughly 39% saturated fat, 41% monounsaturated fat, and 20% polyunsaturated fat.
Sources of saturated fat include: animal products, dairy, eggs, coconut (oil, flesh, and milk)
Sources of monounsaturated fat include: olive oil, nuts, avocados, peanut butter.
Sources of polyunsaturated fat include: fatty fish like salmon and trout, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds (note: omega-3s and 6s are polyunsaturated fats. Never cook with these oils, they’re unstable and will breakdown).
Fats are an important source of energy, they help the body absorb and carry fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K), and provide structural components to the body, and a variety of other functions that go way beyond this email.
It’s important to eat a variety of these foods throughout the week to get a variety of fats in your diet. Higher fat, whole foods usually contain fat soluble vitamins, which can be low in the standard American diet.
So, how much fat?
Most people can do just fine with 20-40% of their calories coming from fat. Keto and ultra-low carb diets typically push this percentage well over 50%. It really depends on what types of foods you enjoy. If you like lots of fatty foods (cheese, avocado, prime steaks, etc) you might want to start with around 30% of your calories coming from fat.
Fat and carbs (the next thing I’ll be talking about) are fuel sources for the body, and providing too much fuel would be like overfilling your car’s gas tank and spilling gas everywhere, only the spilled gas is the body fat you gain. After you get your calories and protein figured out, you have to balance out how much fat and carbohydrate you want in your diet, otherwise you’ll end up putting on body fat.
Carbohydrates are a source of energy for the body, especially when it comes to high intensity activities like lifting weights, running (not jogging), or playing most sports (basketball, tennis, football, ultimate frisbee, etc.)
Your brain also needs a minimum amount of carbohydrates to function because some of those cells only run on glucose. For keto people, you get this glucose by breaking down protein structures if you don’t have excess protein in your diet.
Carbs affect your hormones, the most notable of which is insulin.. Under healthy conditions, insulin is nothing to worry about, and actually stops protein breakdown. This is one reason you should have both protein and carbs after your workout– protein to start the building process, and carbs to stop the breakdown process.
Carbs also help with your leptin levels. Leptin is a hormone that decreases ghrelin (your hunger hormone) and tells your body to burn its fat stores for energy. To increase your leptin levels, you need an insulin response.
Carbs also help to feed you gut microbiome. Fiber is basically a giant carbohydrate and humans lack the enzymes to break that down in the digestive system. But the bacteria in your gut love it! So, make sure you get some fiber in your diet to improve your gut health. A healthy gut leads to an overall healthier body.
How many carbs? Well, remember what I wrote about fat? Typical recommendations will range from 30-50% of calories, with low carb diets going a little lower and ultra high-carb, high-calorie diets pushing close to 60%. Typically, for someone losing weight, I set them up at 40% fat and 30% carbs if they like more fat in their diet, or 40% carbs and 30% fat if they love carbs (the rest is protein).
Micronutrients (micros for short) are vitamins and minerals. In terms of weight loss or building muscle, this isn’t the most important thing to focus on. However, if your health is important to you, you should be paying attention to how much you’re getting.
Tracking all of these would be next to impossible for a person who works full time, but it is important to try and figure out where you might be falling short. You can do this by tracking your food intake in an app like MyFitnessPal and looking at the vitamin and mineral breakdown.
You can have a perfectly healthy looking diet from a calorie and macronutrient standpoint, but if you don’t get the micronutrients you need, you’re going to be setting yourself up for issues later in life. For example, if you don’t get enough calcium, you’re setting yourself up for osteoporosis later in life. Or maybe you’re not getting enough vitamin C, which could set you up for issues with connective tissues (skin, tendons, ligaments, etc) and lead to decreased immune function and accelerated aging.
Micronutrient deficiencies can take months or years to show up. The body is really good at keeping itself alive with what you give it, so if you only give yourself 80% of the B12 you need each day, it might be awhile until you finally run out of all the B12 stores you have.
Let’s break down some of these micronutrients:
A vitamin is an organic molecule that is required in small quantities because the body cannot synthesize it itself. Vitamins come in two main types: water-soluble and fat-soluble.
Water-soluble vitamins are your B vitamins and vitamin C. These are easy for the body to absorb because they dissolve in water.
Fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E, and K.
Vitamins work in balance with one another. Too much of one might decrease another vitamin. This usually happens only when taking supplements, so be careful when you see 500+% of the RDA on the label, because you’ll also be getting more of that vitamin in your diet. Taking single vitamins (and minerals, discussed next) should only be taken if you have done your research and know you need it.
Since vitamins can be sensitive to heat, they are broken down during the cooking process. Vitamin C is very sensitive to heat, so any foods high in vitamin C will have very little left by the end. This is why I recommend you eat some raw fruits and vegetables in your diet.
Vitamins from animal sources are usually the best absorbed since they do not have to be converted like in plants. Plants often times contain vitamin precursors, which your body then has to convert into a usable form. An example of this is beta-carotene (a plant version of vitamin A) needing to be converted into retinol (animal version of vitamin A). With that being said, these vitamin precursors often times have antioxidant or other health benefits. An example of that would be lutein.It’s poorly converted into retinol, but is known for supporting good eye health.
Minerals are elements that the body needs to create structures, help with chemical reactions, and many other functions. They are split up into two categories: macro minerals and mico (trace) minerals
Macro minerals include: calcium, phosphate, sulfur, sodium, potassium, chlorine, and magnesium. They’re needed in larger amounts.
Micro minerals include: iron, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, molybdenum, and cobalt. You only need a tiny bit of these in your diet.
Like vitamins, minerals are a balancing act. Too much of one may decrease the effects of other ones. An example of this is copper and zinc.Too much zinc can deplete copper levels and vice versa. Calcium competes with magnesium, zinc, copper, iron, and manganese for absorption, so large doses may impair absorption of others.
Typically, absorption issues only happen with supplements but you should still know about it if you’re trying to bring certain mineral levels up.
Minerals in animal sources are the best absorbed, but can be tricky to get if you don’t eat a nose-to-tail diet (most people don’t). Minerals in plants are often bound up in anti-nutrients like oxalates and lectins. This impair your absorption of the minerals, unless you can find ways around these chemicals.
For example, while spinach does contain a decent amount of calcium, the bioavailability (what you can absorb) is only 5%. A serving contains about 115 mg of calcium, but you only absorb about 6mg of that 115mg, so you’d need to eat 16 servings to get the same amount as one glass of milk (FYI, the RDA for calcium is 1000-1300mg a day for adults).
Ways to get around these chemicals include: using acids while cooking (like citrus juice, wine, or vinegar), fermentation, and sprouting. While it’s not going to free up 100% of the minerals, it’s better than the raw product.
To wrap this up, after you figure out calories, track your protein and make sure to be fairly consistent with the amount you eat each day. From there, you can adjust your fat and carb intake, but as long as your calories and protein are the same, the actual ratio of carbs and fats doesn’t matter all that much for most people, so do what you like.
Vitamins and mineral deficiencies can happen over time, especially when you’re trying to lose weight and eating less. So tracking these every once in awhile is a good idea to make sure you’re not setting yourself up for long term health issues.
These concepts are oversimplified in this email. If you’d like to know more, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. You can reach me at: [email protected]