Yes I am borrowing a phrase from The Wizard of Oz! This phrase conveys confusion with a little fear. Many people feel that way when faced with the plethora of guidelines regarding how to decide what to eat. Many “diets” today limit macro –nutrients, ingredients, food groups, or even specific foods. How do you know what makes sense? It is important to understand macronutrients: what they are, what they do and how they work together, to help figure out what makes sense!
Lets begin with some definitions. ‘Macronutrient’ refers to Carbohydrate, Protein and Fat as nutrients. All the rest of the nutrients (mostly vitamins and minerals) are considered micro-nutrients because the amount needed is tiny compared to the macro-nutrients. In a perfect world, the balanced consumption of Carbohydrate, Protein and Fat provides balanced intake of the micronutrients. Even more important, many of the vitamins and minerals require association with other nutrients, both micro and macro, to be absorbed properly.
Many food and nutrition fads focus on the macronutrients. Avoid fat!!! Be afraid of carbs!!! Protein is magical!!!!! Many other trends emphasize naturally occurring components of food – Gluten Free – currently the most popular! However, popularity doesn’t mean healthy or pertinent for any one person.
Carbohydrates are found in many foods and beverages. Also, there are different types of carbohydrates. The most important bit of information about carbohydrates is that they are the primary source of energy for the human body. And they are the only source of energy that the brain can use. Why, then, do so many books, headlines and web pages include restrictions on carbohydrate consumption? In part, this is because of the variety of carbs. There is a big difference between a slice of whole wheat bread and a donut, for example. Each has approximately the same amount of carbs, but the bread has more complex carbs and the donut has more simple carbs or sugars. The complex carbs generally have more fiber and more micronutrients than the simple carbs. This does not mean that you can never have simple carbs, but it makes sense that given a choice, a complex carb is often the healthier choice. What about fruits and vegetables? Most contain simple carbs, but they are naturally occurring and contain loads of vitamins and minerals.
Protein in the body is used for muscle development and maintenance. It is also used as building blocks to make enzymes that promote the necessary chemical reactions In the body. Protein comes from meats and fish, cheeses, legumes, soy, seeds, nuts and dairy products. It is not challenging for most people to eat enough protein., although protein deficiency does exist in the world. What most people don’t realize, however, is that if a person does not eat enough carbohydrates, the body will convert protein to carbohydrates so that the brain has energy. Also, there is a wide difference between the fat content of the different sources of protein. Maybe this does not matter for everyone, but if it does, choose, lower fat proteins most of the time and enjoy higher fat selections once in a while.
Fat is by far the most mis-understood macronutrient. While it is somewhat easy to consume too much or unhealthy fats, there are some advantages of fat consumption. First, eating fat helps you to feel satiated. Why does this matter? Feeling full sends a natural message to your brain to stop eating. You may have to learn to pay attention to this, but it can be very helpful. Also, fat makes food taste good. And who does not appreciate good tasting food? Fats also provide Vitamin E. Most scientific recommendations for nutrient intake say that 20-35% of a person’s food intake should come from fat.
Food intake does not have to be balanced at every meal or even every day. However, food intake in terms of macronutrient intake, over a few days should balance out. There is no ‘perfect’ way to eat. Lions, Tigers and Bears or Carbohydrate, Fat and Protein, they all serve a purpose and need each other to survive!