Updated: Dec 22, 2019
Proteins, fats and carbs – the macronutrients – are the basic building blocks of life. They provide the energy we need to survive, and the material to build, repair and maintain our bodies. Anyone who has ever followed a nutrition or diet plan will likely have focussed in some way on ‘macros’. This may have been through following a calorie controlled plan and thus the total macro intake, or more specifically by setting the amount of each macro to be consumed in a day.
There is no doubt that macros are essential. Without eating them, we die. There is also no doubt that manipulating the total amount and proportions of macros we eat changes our body weight and composition. Consuming less energy (macros) than we expend results in weight loss, and consuming more results in weight gain. A high protein diet can promote the addition of lean mass (muscle), and calorie for calorie when energy intake exceeds energy expended, a high carbohydrate diet can promote greater addition of fat mass.
But macros are not all we need. Optimal health requires appropriate hydration, vitamins and minerals, and other stuff that promotes gut health.
Fluid is needed to transport things to and from the right places, and is necessary directly or indirectly for pretty much every one of the chemical reactions that occur in every one of our cells just to ensure our basic survival (we are basically one big liquid based chemical reactor every moment of the day). Thus, hydration is essential.
Vitamins and minerals are needed for, well, pretty much everything in some shape or form. Some are needed by the enzymes that drive the chemical reactions, some directly mop up and remove nasties such as free radicals that can harm our cells, some are needed to make our bones strong, some are needed to carry oxygen and food around, some …. the list goes on! This is why vitamin and mineral deficiencies can cause disease.
And then there is the other stuff that promotes gut health. Fibre, to ensure our food passes along our digestive system smoothly and with limited harm to our gut lining, and the prebiotics and probiotics that help support a healthy gut biome (the bacteria that live in our gut and play a role in digestion, and also immunity, hunger and potentially much more).
Those paragraphs might have dragged on a bit (apologies!), but the point is … optimal health requires a diet that considers much more than just proteins, fats and carbs!!
And if you are an athlete – be you a weekend warrior or the elite of the elite – pushing your body to the limits running, weightlifting, dancing, fighting or the like, these other factors have increasing importance in ensuring you utilise the energy (macros) you are consuming effectively, adapt physically to perform better in your chosen sport, and bolster your immune and antioxidant systems so that you can continue to perform to your best.
And the optimal amount you need of all these things, as well as macros? Well, that depends. What is an optimal diet for your friend / mum / brother / other, is not necessarily optimal for you. Even if you are following the same training schedule. Because every body is different. Just in the same way that you won’t necessarily respond to alcohol or drugs in the same way, or respond to a training programme to get identical split times or Personal Bests, so too you won’t necessarily perform optimally on the same dietary fuel.
What your body needs is impacted by your gender, age, physiological state (stress, sleep, hormones, disease) and genes, as well as the type and amount of physical training you do and the lifestyle you lead in between. If you have little sun exposure, you are likely to need more vitamin D, if you are female you are more likely to need an extra dose of iron, if you are in a period of intense training then more antioxidants and the vitamins used in immune function are required … and so on.
What this also means is that what is optimal for you also changes over time – as you age, undergo different stresses in your life, change your lifestyle, alter your training etc. In short, there is no ‘one size fits all’, and no ‘one size fits one’. Of course, there are general principles and factors we all need – and if you eat a diet rich in a variety of fruit, vegetables, and protein and fat sources, it is likely you hit a lot of the good stuff at least to some level without even trying. But to ensure you fuel optimally for your performance in life, and to meet your goals, you do need to assess, and then reassess periodically, what your body needs and whether your diet meets those needs.
In short, anyone can feed but effective fuelling takes some thought.