Macronutrients and A Well-Balanced Diet

By Bentz Tozer, Jr., B.S., CPT

This month, we are talking about macronutrients: what they are, what they do and how to balance them to achieve optimal health.

Macronutrients are substances that provide calories or energy to the body and keep our metabolism running for muscle growth and repair as well as for our brain, heart and kidneys to function properly. They are the fuel for all body functions. There are three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fat.

Carbohydrates are the main energy source for the body and, according to the USDA, should be 45 to 65 percent of our daily caloric intake. Carbs are broken down inside the body and turned into glucose, which is the preferred energy source for our muscles, brain, heart and central nervous system. There are two types of carbohydrates – simple and complex. Simple carbs are sugars, the kind found naturally in vegetables and fruits as well as the sugars that are refined as table sugar and added to sodas, desserts and many other foods. Complex carbs contain more than two sugar molecules, such as potatoes or brown rice.

Protein is necessary for muscle growth, maintenance and repair. This is especially important to people who are physically active, as the body’s muscle tissue is continuously in need of repair. Protein is also necessary for immune-system function and the production of essential hormones and enzymes. The USDA recommends that 10 to 35 percent of our daily caloric intake comes from protein. Some examples of quality protein sources are beef, poultry, fish and beans.

Fat has a negative connotation, but some fat is required for survival. The USDA recommends that 20 to 35 percent of our daily caloric intake comes from fat. This fat intake provides energy to the body, provides cushioning for the organs and helps maintain cell membranes. There are three main types of fats – trans, saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fat (for example, butter or lard) and trans fat (which is found in fried foods and snack foods like chips) have been shown to increase the risk for heart disease. Unsaturated fat, which is found in olive oil and avocados, can decrease this risk.

Each of these macronutrients provides calories to the body. Protein and carbohydrates each provide 4 calories per gram, while fat provides 9 calories per gram. It is important to have a balance of all three in your diet. A registered dietician is a good resource to help you determine the proper balance for you – no two people are the same, and one person’s dietary needs may be completely different from another’s. To create a balanced diet, it’s important to understand what foods are made of and which of the three macronutrient categories a food falls under.

Some foods are simple. A 3-ounce chicken breast has approximately 16 grams of protein, just under 4 grams of fat and 0 grams of carbohydrates, which makes it a quality source of protein. One medium size apple has 25 grams of carbohydrates, 0.3 grams of fat and 0.5 grams of protein, which makes it a quality carbohydrate source. Lastly, one tablespoon of butter has 11.4 grams of fat, 0 grams of carbohydrates and 0.1 grams of protein, which classifies it as a fat.

There are also foods that can be classified as “combo” foods, where protein and carbohydrate grams are fairly equal. Yogurt would be an example of a quality “combo” food.

It is not uncommon to come across misconceptions about the nutrient content in food – for example, peanut butter being a quality protein source. While there is some protein in peanut butter (about 7 grams in two tablespoons), there are 16 grams of fat in that same two tablespoons (and 8 grams of carbs), so I think that peanut butter should be primarily classified as a fat.

Reading labels and understanding macronutrients is important to create a well-balanced diet. Again, a registered dietician can help you create the best plan for you based on your caloric needs and your personal wellness goals.

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