You’ve no doubt heard of proteins, fats and carbs but how much do you really know about them? Fact is, most countries manage to spend zero time explaining nutrition to their young people (but you can probably use a2+b2=c2 to tell me what the third side of that imaginary triangle is, so it’s okay…) Here’s a crash course in the basics of food. Don’t worry, the math is way easier too.
Protein is what your muscles are made from, of course, but it also is a key player in producing enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and antibodies. So, even if you don’t want to look like Arnold, your body still needs protein to look, feel and perform at its peak.
Where do you get it?
Mostly animal products: Meats, eggs, dairy. Protein shakes are a great way to up your protein intake if you’re struggling to meet your daily requirements, which we’ll cover in a second.
But first… Someone out there just got upset with me for leaving out nuts and legumes… Are nuts and legumes a “good source” of protein? Let’s break that down.
Let’s start with legumes. Hummus is a popular thing right now, so let’s use that. If you take 6oz. of Aladdin’s Plain Hummus the macros look like this:
Yes, there is protein in hummus… but the ratio of carbs and fat to protein don’t make it a good source of protein given the amount you need to consume to get a reasonable amount of protein.
How about almonds? Those are a popular nut right now, right? Well, a half cup of whole almonds have the following macros:
Again, there’s protein in this food, but it’s not really a good source of protein given the ratio of fat to protein.
If you’re a vegan, obviously you need to use these as sources of protein and I have no issues with that, but for the average person on a non-restrictive diet nuts and legumes really aren’t an ideal source of protein because you need to consume a lot of the other macros to get a substantial amount of protein.
That doesn’t make these foods “unhealthy” by any means, but calling them out for their protein content specifically when they provide two to three times more of another macro is more about buzz word marketing than anything.
Are we good? Still friends? Awesome. Moving on.
How much protein do you need?
The “bare minimum” recommendation for protein intake is around 0.41 grams per pound of lean body mass (or 0.9 grams per kilogram to my friends outside the US) in untrained, generally healthy adults. For instance, a 150 lb. (68 kg) person with 12% body fat would consume around 54 grams a day. (Or roughly 30oz. of hummus… Yikes!)
I say “bare minimum” because this amount is only what you’d need to prevent protein deficiency. Once you turn on beast mode though, your body will be left wanting if that’s all you’re taking in.
For those who engage in exercising hard enough to actually progress their appearance and performance, protein requirements jump up to 0.71 to 1.1 grams per pound (or around 1.4 to 2.4 grams per kilogram) of lean body mass. Notice that’s about 2 times more. This hypothetical 150 lb. (68 kg) monster rocking 12% body fat would thus require about 94 to145 g of protein each day to effectively crush their goals.
One final note on protein: You can have too much of it. Contrary to what you may have heard, your body can break down protein into glucose (sugar) and store it as fat. It’s a very inefficient process, but it is possible so don’t overdo it.
Fats get a bad rap, but they’re actually an extremely essential part of your nutrition. Lipids (fats) make up your cell walls for starters, they’re essential for organ health and also support your metabolism, immune system, hormone production and absorption of many minerals (such as vitamins A and D).
“Okay, but there are good fats and bad fats, right? Which ones do I need?”
For decades we were confused about the answer to this. In fact, if you would have asked your doctor as recently as the 80’s they’d have told you to cut back on saturated fats (think bacon, steaks and butter) and pump the unsaturated fats (think canola oil and avocados).
Recently, mostly because of advancements in scientific testing methods and a lot of studies being done around this topic, that advice has changed. It turns out that your body handle both saturated and unsaturated fats well. In fact, the most up-to-date research tells us that we should get about 1/3 of our fats from saturated fats, 1/3 from monounsaturated fats and 1/3 from polyunsaturated fats.
This is why you’re starting to see bacon and burgers making a comeback. They’re no longer being blamed for high cholesterol, obesity, cancer, global warming and the unrest in the Middle East.
So, are there bad fats then? Yes. It turns out the fats that actually deserve the blame are trans-fatty acids (or “trans fats” that appear in many processed foods) and hydrogenated fats (think margarine).
I could (and others have) write an entire book on where they come from and why these fats are bad for us, but I’ll keep it short for now by saying this: These types of fat exist because food manufactures are always trying to find ways to increase appearance, texture and/or shelf-life of their products (and thus profits). They’re “bad” for us because they don’t occur normally in nature and thus our bodies don’t utilize them effectively, causing some bad side effects.
Where do you get them?
I touched on this a bit earlier, but to break it down a little more:
Most saturated fats are solid at room temperature and a lot of them come from animals (i.e. butter, meat fat), but many tropical oils (i.e. coconut oil) fall into this category as well.
Monounsaturated fats come mostly from avocados, nuts and olive oil.
Polyunsaturated fats come mostly from flax and chia seeds, and marine life (think fish or algae oil).
Trans and hydrogenated fats are in everything from no-stir peanut butters to frozen waffles to potato chips to ice cream to granola bars to… well, you get the idea. The public catching wise to this is the reason for the big organic food surge lately.
For my chefs out there, many shelf-stable cooking oils also contain trans fats, so make sure you’re using a minimally process cooking oil at home. Look for words like “extra virgin” and “unrefined” on the label.
How much do you need?
Well, I hope I’ve made it clear that you need zero of these “funky fake fats” that are being snuck into almost everything even though food manufactures know they’re unhealthy. When it comes to healthy fats this will again vary based on your activity level.
The “bare minimum” would be around 0.32 grams per pound (or about 0.7grams per kilogram) of lean body mass in untrained, generally healthy adults. If you’ve flipped the beast mode switch your fat needs go up to about 0.5 to 0.7 gram per pound (or around 1.1 to 1.5 grams per kilogram) of lean body mass.
Just make sure you’re getting the proper mix of healthy fats. Don’t drive yourself nuts (pun intended) trying to get each type to be exactly 1/3 of your fat intake, but do be conscious of it.
It seems like right when fats were proven innocent, carbs became the next macro locked away to keep the public safe. This is tricky because technically you can survive with zero carbs in your diet.
The question is, do you want to crash your metabolism, screw with your hormones, starve your brain, kill your performance abilities and generally hate life? No? Well, then you need to forge a healthy relationship with carbs and keep them in your diet.
Dropping your carb intake too low can severely reduce your T3 hormone (think thyroid ON) production and increase your rT3 hormone (think thyroid OFF) production. It can increase your cortisol levels (think stress/catabolic hormone) and decrease your testosterone levels (yes, this is bad for you too, ladies, as testosterone is very anabolic).
Low carb intake can also cause mood swings and decrease your cognitive and immune function. Plus, it’ll kill your 1RM on, well, everything (that’s short for “one rep max”). If you’ve ever wondered what life as a zombie would feel like, try the Atkins diet for a few months. But, really, don’t…
“Okay, I get it… I need carbs. But are there good and bad carbs like there are good and bad fats?”
Sort of. Again, this is tricky. There are simple carbs (monosaccharides and disaccharides) and complex carbs (polysaccharides), but no matter which you eat your body is going to digest them and break them down into monosaccharides before they’re absorbed into the bloodstream.
If you ingest a food source that’s already a monosaccharide, it doesn’t have any breaking down to do, so it’ll hit your bloodstream fast. If you eat a complex carb it’s going to need to be broken down first which slows down the process of absorption
This is where we get the terms “fast digesting” (or high glycemic) and “slow digesting” (or low glycemic) carbs. Neither are inherently bad, it’s more about timing with carbs than anything else.
If you’re eating slower digesting carbs most of the time, that’s ideal… Things like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables will protect your insulin response (think avoiding type II diabetes), increase energy levels and performance all while keeping you lean. Without even trying you’ll also be getting better vitamin and mineral intake, more fiber, and you’ll feel fuller longer.
If you’re eating simple sugars and refined carbohydrates (processed crap) all the time, it’s going to elevate your blood triglyceride levels, bad cholesterol, and lower your insulin response. Plus, they digest super fast so you’ll be hungry again in no time. This cycle of carb spike and carb crash is the reason a lot of people are overweight. They’re just not choosing the right things to keep their body feeling fueled up so they’re constantly going back to the fridge for more.
However, there is a time for fast digesting carbs! Before and after your workouts is best. Faster digesting carbs are great for giving you energy to get through a tough workout and to replenish your glycogen (think stored glucose/sugar) levels post workout. Spiking your insulin post workout helps with recovery as well.
That said, you have to live your life. Is only eating cheesecake right after a workout practical? Probably not. But if you make simple carbs into a “sometimes thing” and consume most of your carbs through complex sources you’re doing it right in my book.
How many carbs do you need?
All of them! Just kidding… Like I mentioned earlier, technically you need none. This makes the range pretty broad so I’m going to break it down by goal or activity level.
Trying to lose weight or sitting at a desk 40 hours a week? You only need about 0.5 to 0.7 grams per pound (or around 1.1 to 1.6 grams per kilogram) of lean body mass daily.
Happy with where your body fat is and hitting the gym a few days a week? Depending on your metabolism you can consume between 0.8 and 1.2 grams per pound (or around 1.8 to 2.7 grams per kilogram) of lean body mass each day.
Trying to gain some muscle and working hard four to seven days a week in the gym? Or maybe you’re a manual laborer with a great metabolism. You can probably jump up between 1.5 and 2.25 per pound (or 3.3 to 5.0 grams per kilogram) of lean body mass.
As you may have guessed, you can survive with zero alcohol as well, even though you may not feel that way sometimes. There are some studies that show that consuming one to two glasses of red wine daily can increase the “good” gut bacteria and that having one drink (of any kind) a day correlates with a decrease in heart disease, but there are other factors in play that lead some to believe it may not actually show causation.
That’s about all you’ll get for positives of drinking alcohol. It damages liver cells, can throw your hormones out of whack, dehydrate you, deplete you of nutrients, hinder protein synthesis, make you think that 3 asking for your number at the bar is actually a 10 (I’ll let you decide if that’s a pro or con), etc. The biggest concern for most that drink moderately is the calorie intake though. Alcohol is the only “nutrient” that has no nutritional value.
All that being said, again, you have to live your life. Alcohol consumption is a major part of adult social events and consuming in moderation occasionally isn’t going to kill you any faster than refusing to be social. If you want to brave the family or office holiday party sans-alcohol, more power to you, my friend. That’s good with me too.
Just be smart and about your consumption and make sure your alcohol habits don’t derail your professional, relationship or fitness goals.
Here’s an example…
There are 200 calories in 2 tbsp. of Smuckers Natural Peanut Butter.
There are 16 grams of fat.
There are 6 grams of carbs.
There are 8 grams of protein.
There are 0 grams of alcohol. (Though that could be fun. Hm…)
Here’s the math:
See, no coincidence.
So, counting calories is kind of the lazy way of counting macros
Much like counting “points” is just a lazy way of counting calories. (That pissed some people off but I’m not going to defend myself this time.)
Can you get results counting calories? Sure. Can you get results using a points system? Sure, many have. Often times though, the most precise tool is the one that offers the most precise results and also offers you the most control.
Macros also offer a lot of freedom
Some people work with “coaches” that give them meal plans. If you’re not familiar, usually meal plans say eat X amount of Y food at Z time. Sounds pretty simple… as long as you have that food, in that amount, at that time with you.
But what if you left your lunch at home and you’re stuck at work? Or it’s a friend’s birthday and you want to go out to dinner. Or you just really wanted a damn doughnut this morning… None of that is on the plan!
With macros you can pivot. You can adapt and improvise and you never feel like you’re failing. If anything you feel in charge. No food is off limits and you never have to feel bad about treating yourself as long as you keep it in check and inside your numbers.
Now when a coworker suggests you get burgers for lunch at the new place down the street you don’t have to have a panic attack or feel morally convicted. Just go eat the damn burger and adjust your meals to accommodate your social life instead of letting your diet dictate your social life.
Dialing In Your Macros
Alright, I’m sold. Now how do I do it?
First thing’s first, you need to calculate your lean body mass. Lean body mass is just the opposite of body fat percentage. I’ll use myself as an example.
I weight 200 lbs. and I’m 12% body fat at the time of writing this. That means I have 24 lbs. of fat on my body. If I subtract 24 from 200, I have 176 lbs. that is not fat. We call this lean mass.
Why do we use this instead of just body weight?
Good question. Let’s assume we have two people that are both 250 lbs. One is 6’2” and is the star athlete of your favorite sports team. The other is a rather rotund gentleman (no hate) who’s 5’8″ and works at a desk 40 hours a week. As you can imagine, these people don’t require the same amount of nutritional intake.
Fat doesn’t do a whole lot. It just kind of hangs out. Muscle on the other hand is like a furnace, it’s burning calories constantly. The more lean mass you have, the more calories you need. It’d be a mistake to goal an athlete and an inactive, overweight person with the same macros just because the scale shows the same number when they step on. There’s a lot more going on here.
Got it. Now what?
Once you have your lean body mass, you can use the numbers above to calculate your daily requirements for proteins, fats and carbs.
Multiply out the calories for each macro and add them together you’ll get your daily calorie intake. If there’s more than or less than one comma in there you need to check your math, my friend…
What Are These “Veggies Don’t Count” Diets?
Some people will advise you not to count veggies (the non-starchy ones) when tracking your macros. Though I’m as OCD as anyone when it comes to tracking everything, I’m actually a fan of this approach for two reasons.
First, most of us do not get enough vegetables in our diets and are thus lacking on vitamins and minerals. We tend to go for the chicken and rice but leave the brussel sprouts where we found ’em. Honestly, if veggies are properly cooked and seasoned, they taste great.
Most people who hate veggies grew up eating grandma’s steamed broccoli that was basically the consistency of Play-Doh. (I have a good story about a bad second date that ties in here but I’ll spare you.) By not counting them it’s an incentive to include them in your diet. Trust me, you’ll find a bunch you love if you just look.
Second, let’s talk fiber. In addition to vitamins and minerals, there’s a lot of fiber in veggies. Even though fiber counts as a carb, soluble fiber (think stuff we can digest) only yields 2 calories per gram instead of 4. Insoluble fiber (think stuff we can’t digest) yields, well, zero. Because you can’t digest it. Simple enough?
Fiber also reduces the absorption of proteins and fats so it dials back the caloric intake from those as well. (To the meatheads: That still doesn’t mean you can skip them, bro… There’s more to gains than protein.)
One more word on fiber. “Net carbs,” is this new thing the health food industry is pushing lately. “Subtract the fiber from the total carbs! See, our food is basically carb free!” That’s not entirely true.
Only cellulose and some but not all pectins and hemicelluloses (think fruit and veggie fibers) are insoluble. Inulin, raffinose and some pectins and hemicelluloses are partially soluble. If it’s starting to sound confusing, it is. Stick to whole foods and don’t fall for these fad bars and foods with “5 net carbs!” on the front. If it’s on the nutritional label, count it. If you don’t want to count your veggies that’s okay, but don’t kid yourself with this other stuff.
There’s a Range For a Reason:
Everyone body is different. Your body type, your metabolism, your previous eating habits, your activity levels, the type of workouts you do, medication you’re taking, your sleeping habits and your genes will play a roll into what works for you. Eat to your calculated macros for 2-4 weeks and then reassess your body and see how it’s responding. Stay in tune with your body and if you feel over your head reach out to a professional for help.
That being said, there are health considerations to take into account here. For example, if you are suffering from a disease that negatively effects your kidney function you may want to slowly increase your protein intake. Your kidneys do have to filter out more nitrogen with higher protein diets. The average person can handle it just fine with proper hydration, but every body is different and if you know your kidneys are struggling be smart while adding more protein to your diet.
The same goes for fats. If you’ve had gallbladder issues, gout or other ailments that could negatively be effected by a higher fat diet then perhaps a ketogentic diet is not something you want to experiment with. At the same time, it has been shown that these diets can be helpful for people with epilepsy.
You have to listen to your body and be intelligent about the changes you make to your diet. Always reach out to a professional if you’re not feeling confident or something doesn’t feel right. We can’t help if you don’t ask.
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