Making Sense of Macros: Understanding Macronutrients
Whether we are on the fitness bandwagon or are running breathlessly behind it, we have all heard about carbs, proteins, and fats. And not just in school mind you. In our routine, daily conversations – “I am on a low carb diet”, “Oh I am off rice, carbs you know”, so on and so forth.
So almost everyone knows ‘proteins make muscles’, ‘fats are bad’, and ‘carbs hinder weight loss’! Yet, they couldn’t be more wrong.
A definition of a truly ‘balanced diet’ conflicts with almost every social dietary advice your friends and peers have fed you. The media, and sometimes even health and fitness experts get it wrong, because rarely have any of them dived deep into the vast topic of nutrition. A fact that India’s fitness diva Rujuta Diwekar stresses on all the time.
So What Are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients, as the name suggests, are nutrients required by our body in large quantities, the nutrients that form the body’s energy sources. Macronutrients comprise of three main food groups, namely proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Contrary to popular belief, all there are necessary for good health as each of these three have their own specific roles and functions.
Let’s delve deeper and explore all three in greater detail:
Carbohydrates or carbs have been cast as the main villains to contribute towards obesity and while there is definitely some truth behind the idea, it is mainly overconsumption, not consumption, that’s the truth behind the problem.
Carbs are made up of three things, starch, sugars and fibre. Hence, the reason for weight gain often lies with someone consuming the wrong kinds of carbohydrates or worse, consuming too many of the wrong kinds, especially in the case of packaged, processed foods with hidden carbs.
Though carbs get a bad rap, there are some people who are indeed more susceptible to carb consumption related weight gain, such as people with high insulin resistance. Since insulin regulates blood glucose levels, people with insulin resistance find that they gain qeight much quicker than others, despite eating the same carbs.
The best way to keep obesity under check while eating carbs, for both the insulin resistant as well as the insulin-sensitive people, is to choose carbs with low GI (Glycemic Index) whenever possible. High GI food are more easily absorbed and digested, and thus cause blood sugar spikes that leave you fatigued and craving for more food!
Examples of low GI carbs are sweet potatoes, oats, wholewheat pastas and breads and brown rice.
For regular people, the daily, healthy requirement of carbs is about 2 to 4 gms of carbs per kilogram of body weight.
For active people that exercise regularly and even athletes, the carb requirement goes up to 5 to 10 gms of carbs per kg of body weight per day.
Your body needs this macronutrient in significantly larger portions because proteins are required to develop, maintain and repair muscles, especially after exercise. Proteins are broken down by the body to form 21 different amino acids, out of which 9 are absolutely essential for healthy living.
Proteins can come from plant-based sources such as lentils and legumes, or they could come from animal-based sources such as meat and eggs. Contrary to common perception, you can get all 9 amino acids from plant-based proteins, if you are vegan. Plant proteins are lean proteins by nature, while animal proteins, even the lean meats, are of course, fattier.
Normal, health-conscious people require 0.7 to 0.9gms of protein per kilogram of body weight, per day.
Active individuals require a daily intake of 1.2 to 1.7gms per kilogram of body weight and this can go as high as 3gms per kg during bouts involving heavy training.
Despite what you think you know, fats are a non-negotiably essential part of your daily diet. So much so, that your body cannot function efficiently without the intake of fats. And if you link fats with weight gain, it is more about the type of fats than about fats in general.
The right fats consumed in the right quantities are essential for growth and normal biological functions too. So what are the right fats?
Fats that come from natural sources such as nuts and avocados, also known as unsaturated (monosaturated and polysaturated) are fats that are good for you. Saturated fats or trans fats are those found in processed foods and meats and dairy. Controlled intake of saturated fats is still better than consuming trans fats which are the worst of the lot. Trans fats are found in processed convenience foods.
Some oils that are not meant to be used for cooking at high temperatures also become bad fats when used inappropriately. And bad fats are linked to arterial clogging, systemic inflammation and more.
Normal, healthy people require a daily intake of 0.5 to 1.5gms of good fat per kilogram of body weight.
Atheletes and active individuals require a daily intake of between 5 and 10gms per kilogram of body weight.
Healthy Macronutrient Ratios
A common healthy diet approaches these macronutrients in a 40:30:30 ratio between carbs, proteins and fats. The same ratio for an endurance athlete is 60:30:10, and the same for someone following a ketogenic diet for health reasons is 80:15:5. As you can see, even in the severest of ratios, one cannot eliminate fat altogether.
If you are someone who counts calories, 1 gm of carbohydrates gives you about 4 calories, 1 gm of protein also results in 4 calories, while 1 gm of fat gives you 9 calories. In other words, fats are more calorie dense than both carbs and proteins. And in the content of healthy eating, it is not the nutrient that matters, but rather, the quantity and the source is what counts.