Food = macronutrients + micronutrients
The macronutrients are the things we need in large quantities, and the micronutrients are the things we need in small quantities (kinda logically named when you think about it!!). Both are essential to long term health and performance!
· Carbohydrates and fibre
This blog focusses on the macronutrients that provide energy and building blocks: Protein, Fats and Carbs. The term ‘calories’ simply describes the energy (fuel) contained within the macronutrients. By focussing on macronutrients, we take care of ‘calories’.
First things first. What is the function of each macronutrient?
Protein is first and foremost a building block. It has calories and can be used to produce energy, but the body typically tries to avoid doing this as it is such an important building block and so shouldn’t be ‘wasted’ on energy when the other macronutrients are available.
Protein can’t be stored for later use (excess is converted to fat and carbohydrates) so we need to eat it regularly to ensure a steady supply for the tissue growth and repair.
Protein can be found in plant and animal products. Plant proteins are not complete proteins, which means that no single plant source contains enough of all the essential amino acids to build significant functional tissue. What does this mean? Amino acids are the individual ‘lego pieces’ in a protein. There are 20 different amino acids and they are combined in different orders to make all the different proteins in our body. Essential amino acids are those we can’t make in the body from other amino acids, and so we have to obtain them in our food. So when we eat plant proteins, if we aren’t also eating an animal protein in that meal, we need to combine them with other plant proteins containing different essential amino acids in order to make a complete protein.
Carbs are primarily an energy source, and they fuel high and low intensity activity. In fact, they are really required to fuel high intensity activity beyond a minute or so as fats (and protein) can’t directly fuel the energy producing pathway that is needed to power high intensity activity. Small stores exist in the liver and muscle as glycogen, to help maintain blood glucose levels and provide muscle with carbohydrates to fuel work in between meals!
There are two types of carbohydrate: Simple sugars and complex carbs. Sugars are the individual lego pieces of carbohydrates, which means that when we eat them they don’t really need to be digested and can be absorbed from our gut when they reach it. This means they can provide energy to the body more rapidly than complex carbs that need to be broken down to these individual lego pieces before they can be absorbed from the gut. Complex carbs therefore provide a slower supply of energy over time.
Sugars further divide into intrinsic and extrinsic sugars. Intrinsic sugars are found in fruit and veg. The fibre and complex structure of the fruit or veg slows their digestion a little. Extrinsic sugars are those found ‘free’ in foods, i.e. not attached to anything like fibre. Milk extrinsic sugars are those found in dairy products. Non-milk extrinsic sugars are those added to food products (typically labelled as sugar, glucose, dextrose, syrup). We typically try to limit non-milk extrinsic sugars as they can cause a rapid spike in blood sugar, do not provide sustained energy and may contribute to impaired blood sugar and hunger control.
Fibre is also a carbohydrate, but it is one that humans cannot digest (although the bacteria in our gut can!). Fibre is, however, essential to health as it is important for digestion, gut health and also appears to support blood sugar and cholesterol control. It is present primarily in wholegrains, fruit and veggies so by ensuring these form part of the carbohydrates in your diet you hit these too!
Fats are both building blocks and an energy source. As an energy source they fuel lower intensity activity. They also form an energy store (i.e. we store any food we don’t immediately use as fat!), an insulator for vital organs and against the cold, and carry the essential fat soluble vitamins into the body.
Naturally occurring fats can be divided into ‘Saturated’ (primarily animal fats) and ‘Unsaturated’ (primarily plant fats). Both can have their place in a balanced diet. ‘Trans’ fats, however, are synthetic fats, Our body cannot process them effectively and there is increasing evidence they may be harmful to health. They are found in some processed food products and so always read the label and avoid foods containing them.
Where to find your macros:
Here is a simple summary of common sources for you!! You can see that many food sources are a mix!!
How much of each of macro we need depends on our age, gender, weight, body composition, training, lifestyle, and genetics. There is no one size fits all in nutrition!! But for most people, building a meal with high protein, lots of veggies, complex carbs and some fats will go a long way to a diet that is healthy for you. Focus on switching up which proteins, fats, carbs, veggies and fruit you eat to help also ensure a variety of micronutrients and fibre for proper functioning of the body!