Last macronutrient of the three! If you have stuck with me over the past couple weeks then I hope you have gained enough knowledge about carbohydrates and dietary fats to understand what kind of role each play in a healthy lifestyle and what some of the healthy & unhealthy examples are. Last up is Protein!
It doesn’t matter what kind of diet or lifestyle you lead, all humans need protein. It can get tricky finding quality sources and consuming an adequate amount though, especially if you are participating in certain eating styles like intermittent fasting or a vegan/vegetarian diet. Below you will learn how to hurdle these obstacles and much more about why protein is so important for our survival and growth.
What is protein?
Protein is a macronutrient necessary for building muscle. It is mostly found in animal products but can also be found in other products like nuts & legumes. Each gram of protein contains 4 calories per gram making it just as calorie dense as carbohydrates. Chemically speaking, all protein is made up of nine essential amino acids (we will refer to them as EAA’s), and amino acids are made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. If one of these nine essential amino acids is missing, then the protein isn’t considered a complete protein. They are considered essential because our body cannot produce these on our own, so we must consume them through food and supplements. These nine essential AA’s are: leucine, isoleucine, lysin, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, valine, and histidine.
Roles & benefits of protein
Protein has multiple purposes and benefits. From building muscle and strong bones, increasing metabolism & burning fat, and even surpassing hunger and increasing satiety. Check out the list below for plenty of reasons to put a few extra bites of protein on your plate each meal.
1. Increase of muscle mass and strength
Protein are the building blocks of your muscles. When we strength train, an adequate amount of protein in our diet will help our muscles recover faster and stronger than before. If you are on a weight loss program then extra protein in your diet will help in preserving your hard earned muscle while still burning fat. Higher protein intake not only aids in building muscle, but also repairing muscle more quickly after an injury.
2. Great for bone health
Long term studies show people who have eaten an adequate amount of protein each day have greater bone mass as they age. As we age, our bodies do in fact whither away in many areas. Bones are one of those areas and protein can help prevent this. There are also fewer cases of fractures and bone related medical conditions such as osteoporosis.
3. Increases fat burning and metabolism
When you eat, metabolism is increased. Not by how frequent you eat like the old meal frequency myth says, but it’s the amount of food and what kind of food you eat that increases your metabolism due to the thermic effect of food (TEF) digestion creates. Protein creates a higher TEF than fats or carbohydrates. The difference in the amount of calorie (energy) expenditure is small and the results may be minuscule at first, but over time the small impact may lead to a big change.
Another way a high protein diet can help you burn fat is the increased muscle mass paired with strength training protein will provide. The more muscle we have on our bodies, the more calories our bodies burn each day due to the demand of calories we require to keep this muscle around. So protein helps us build more muscle, more muscle burns more calories and helps us workout more intensely for a longer period of time (burning even more calories), and both lead to a greater calorie expenditure and possible deficit at the end of the day. Resulting in potential fat loss.
Pro fat burning tip: For healthy, affective, and consistent fat loss while retaining muscle, restrict no more than 500kcal from your daily expenditure. If you are considered to be obese (+30% fat of your total body mass) a 1000kcal calorie deficit at the end of the day should be your top end deficit (we can use the fat on our bodies for fuel). Too much of a calorie deficit at the end of the day may increase muscle loss and negatively affect energy levels, hormones, mood, and plenty of other variables you would like to be operating smoothly.
4. Reduces appetite, hunger levels, and cravings
Some macronutrients (primarily carbohydrates) increase the feeling of hunger and appetite because of the increased secretion of a hormone called ghrelin (the "hunger hormone") and suppression of an appetite suppressing hormone called leptin. Protein does the opposite, decreasing the secretion of ghrelin postponing the feeling of hunger until you actually need the fuel. The feeling of hunger doesn’t always equate to the need of more food to perform. Understanding this and occasionally fighting the feeling is important for weight loss and avoiding overconsumption. Another reason for the extended period of satiety is the fact that proteins from meat take longer to fully digest, so they remain in your stomach for longer. Both of these facts lead to a reduction in appetite & hunger and an increase in satiety.
5. Keeps you stronger for longer
Just like our bones weaken as we age, so do our muscles. Some people are even plagued with muscle deteriorating/weakening illnesses. Illness or not though, increased protein intake will slow the process of age related weakening of muscles. High protein intake coupled with consistent activity over ones life will greatly enhance the affect of long lasting, healthy muscles.
Healthy examples of protein:
Protein rich foods come with all different nutrient make ups. Some with a high fat content, low fat content, nutrient dense, and also not so nutrient dense. So they are not all equal, but they all do provide a good serving of protein. Check out the notes on a few of these examples for additional info.
**Organic doesn’t always mean its 100% antibiotic & hormone free. In America, organic means the animals themselves aren’t being shot up with hormones and antibiotics, the food they are fed may very well still be full of them though. Making the animals…well, not the healthiest. In Europe, organic means both the animal and the food are hormone and antibiotic free. Be aware of this and do your best to locate your local farmer to ensure the quality of your animal products.
Vegans/Vegetarians and protein intake
If you are like many people in the world today following a vegan/vegetarian diet, then consuming an adequate amount of protein may be a concern of yours. Above we learned a complete protein is made up of nine EAA’s. Unlike animal products, not all grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes are a complete protein by themselves, so it is important to understand which foods to pair together to be certain you are covering all of your amino acid bases and making a complete protein on your plate. This way you will be reaping all of the benefits of protein like your carnivorous friends (give or take a few micronutrients like vitamin D and B12).
How much is enough & the bottom line
Like the previous two blog posts on macronutrients, everyone is different and has different nutritional requirements. An athlete would most likely require much more protein than someone who lives a more sedentary lifestyle due to the need to repair and build muscle. A good window to shoot for would be 15-25% of your diet to consist of protein. The top end being the athlete or the injured person. A moderate to high protein intake can have multiple benefits to your health regarding muscle & bone preservation, fat loss, increased metabolism, and building muscle. Get creative and try adding some of the healthy examples above and reap the benefits!
Dietary fats have been recognized as a nutritional villain over the years, perhaps even the biggest of them all. From the 1960’s to the early 2000’s the “fat-free era” was at large and there was a major increase in the production of highly processed, “fat-free” foods with the misconception that all fats are bad. Today we know this is not true. Just like carbohydrates, or any food for that matter, there are plenty of healthy sources and they can all play a part in a healthy lifestyle. We just must learn to recognize them and where they fit in our lifestyle.
So, what are these sources of healthy dietary fats? What’s the difference between unsaturated & saturated fats? Should you be on a high fat diet? If you’ve been on the fence about introducing more healthy fats into your diet, read on to learn why choosing healthy fat sources may enhance your quality of life and which fats we should completely avoid.
What is Dietary Fat and what is it’s function?
Like the other two macronutrients, carbohydrates and protein, fats are an important for our health providing us with energy to efficiently function both mentally & physically when we make the right choices in reasonable amounts. Dietary fats are made up of triglycerides. Our bodies break these triglycerides down into fatty acids that we either use for fuel or store for later use. Carbs & protein provide us with 4kcal/g of food while fats provide us with 9kcal/g making them the most calorie (energy) dense food available to us. That’s more than twice the amount! This also gives reason to closely monitor your consumption if you’re following a calorie restricted diet. Our body typically uses fat as a fuel reserve and not so much the preferred fuel that carbohydrates have claim to. We are always using both fat and stored glycogen (product of carbohydrates) to fuel our activities, but fat is primarily used to fuel activities of a lower intensity like aerobic activities such as walking or minimal effort jogging. When our physical activities begin to get more intense, the ratio of our bodies fuel choice shifts toward utilizing stored glycogen from carbohydrates over (but still along with) fats to fuel the activity.
Fats have several other functions such as aiding in the absorption of necessary fat-soluble vitamins (so next time you drink your green smoothie try adding some healthy fats for greater benefits), healthier hair, skin, & nails, controlled inflammation, protects organs, fills fat cells (we do need some fat on our bodies to live believe it or not), improves insulin sensitivity (aids in fat loss, yes eating fat helps you burn it too), and even prevents forms of cancer. It’s almost like all this healthy food we are talking about does the same thing medicine does! Sorry I can get a little smart sometimes...
Types of Dietary Fat
There are a few different kinds of dietary fat. Each of these fatty acids contain an even number of carbon atoms along a chain of hydrogen atoms. Whether the carbon atoms on the chain have zero, one, or multiple double bonds of carbon atoms determines whether a dietary fat is saturated or unsaturated.
Saturated fats are the fatty acids with no double bonds on the hydrogen chain and have had an especially bad reputation over the years considered to be unhealthy and artery clogging. However, they have now been proven to be a small part of a healthy diet if from a healthy source. So maybe don’t go to town on them everyday, but try keeping saturated fats to about 10% of your total daily fat intake and you will be completely fine. They are primarily found in dairy, butter, cheese, coconut oil/coconut meat, fatty cuts of meat, and lard & cream. Just like all foods, there are healthier versions of saturated fats. Organic forms free from hormones & antibiotics most animals are raised with today. Examples are: Grass-fed/grass-finished cuts of meat, dairy from your local farmer, 100% dark chocolate, grass-fed butter at your grocery store (I like Kerry Gold), and coconut oil are all healthier sources of saturated fat.
Unsaturated fats are defined as fatty acids with at least one double bond in the chain. You may also see them titled as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats based on the number of double bonds they have (“mono” meaning single and “poly” meaning multiple). These are considered to be the “healthy fats” and what you want most of your fat intake to consist of. The primary benefits of unsaturated fats are lower cholesterol levels, protection against heart disease, and a strong anti-inflammatory agent.
Trans fat (Trans fatty acids)
Trans fats are the dietary fat you want to completely avoid. These fats wreak havoc on your body encouraging inflammation, rapidly raising cholesterol levels, and just priming your body to hold on to extra body fat. Trans fats were produced by the food industry to increase shelf life of the product. This is done by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils making it a solid. If you’ve heard the name “partially hydrogenated oils”, this is exactly it and it’s no good. In 2015 the FDA deemed trans fats unsafe and banned trans fat from all products in America. The grocery stores & restaurants were allowed a grace period of three years until 2018 to toss absolutely everything containing trans fat understanding it couldn’t all be done in the snap of a finger, so there should be no worries of trans fats being in your food any longer. You were able to find trans fats in deep fryers at restaurants, baked goods, margarine, creamers, convenient frozen foods, fast food, anything with an impressive shelf life really. Although they aren’t legal anymore, it may still be a good idea to keep an eye out for “hydrogenated oil” on the ingredients list and any amount of trans fat on the nutrition facts label.
So, that’s the skinny on fats! (see what I did there?) You have saturated, unsaturated (monounsaturated & polyunsaturated), and trans fatty acids. A little saturated fat is okay, lots of unsaturated fat is encouraged, and trans fat should be completely avoided. Benefits of healthy dietary fats range from external benefits like healthier hair, skin, and nails, to internal benefits like improved insulin sensitivity, healthier heart & blood, and a strong tool to fight inflammation. Like all macronutrients, they have their place in a balanced diet, and consumption should be monitored & tailored to your lifestyle. Two macros down! One to go.
Welcome back! For the next 3 weeks we are going to tackle Macronutrients. Breaking each one down one week at a time so we can really go in depth with them. We are starting off with the delicious….always tempting….always satisfying….CARBOHYDRATES! **round of applause for carbs**
What are macronutrients?
We talked about how to read the Nutrition Facts Label 2 weeks ago. Now let’s learn about the listed nutrients on the label. Nutrients can be broken down into smaller categories like micronutrients and even to the very particles they are made of. Right now, we are looking at the bigger picture of the nutrients. Macronutrients. A macronutrient is defined as a type of food that is required in large amounts (Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins). Or in other words, one of the three main ways our body's obtain energy (calories). Our body’s cannot produce macronutrients on their own, so we must consume them through food. We’ve all read and heard plenty about macronutrients, but probably only know so much about each. Let’s change that! Still with me?!
Macronutrients are the three basic components of every diet (again, carbs, fats, & proteins). When you hear someone talk about their “macros”, they are talking about the ratio of each of these three nutrients their diet consists of which ultimately should reflect on what kind of lifestyle you’re living (Active, sedentary, etc.). When these macros are strategically in order with your lifestyle, you are fueling your brain & body for optimum performance. Although there are suggested ratios, there is no one perfect macro ratio just like there is no one perfect diet. It’s the ratio that best aids you in your lifestyle and goals.
Almost every food is a combination of all three macronutrients. When the majority of a food is made of one specific macro, it is considered as such. For example, an avocado has healthy fats, carbohydrates, and protein in it. It is a well balanced & nutritious food. However, it is about 80% fats. So it is considered a fat. When keeping track of counting your macros, be sure to check out the rest of the macronutrients of the food and not just the one from the category you are placing it in. Let’s start breaking these macros down!
Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches, & fibers found in grains, fruits, milk products, and vegetables. Although you can train your body to efficiently utilize other sources of fuel like healthy fats, carbohydrates are our body’s preferred source of fuel. They are called carbohydrates because, on the elemental level, they are made of Carbon, Hydrogen, & Oxygen. The National Institute of Health says the RDA (recommended daily amount) of carbs are about 135g. This RDA is based on the average amount of carbs we need for our brain to function properly. This means hormone production, mood, memory, etc. Like I stated earlier, there is no one perfect amount for everyone. Some follow lower carb regimens where they have a re-feed every so often, some are athletes who require a large amount of carbs, and some barely eat any at all. Different strokes for different folks. Generally, the higher your activity level is, the more carbohydrates you should consume. You can also strategically consume them closer to your most physically strenuous part of your day for improved performance & insulin sensitivity. This equates to higher fat loss for most. We’ll talk about fat loss another day though, I’m getting off track. Where were we?
Simple Carbs v.s. Complex Carbs
Carbohydrates are classified as either simple or complex. Our body breaks both of these down into glucose (sugar) during digestion. The difference between the two are their chemical structure and how quickly our body metabolizes the sugar. Generally, complex carbs are digested and absorbed slower than simple carbs. Each have their place in a healthy diet, so no need to fear the faster metabolizing simple carbs even though they spike blood sugar a bit more. They still have a seat at the table when making heslthy choices.
Simple carbs are made up of just one or two sugar molecules called monosaccharides & disaccharides. Monosaccharides are galactose (sugar found in dairy) and fructose (sugar found in fruit). Disaccharides are sucrose (found in table sugar), maltose (in beer and some vegetables), and lactose (also in dairy). Simple carbs are also found in candy and other soft drinks like soda. The simple carbs found here though are not our friend. These are highly processed & refined sugars that lack nutrients and fiber. We call these “empty calories”. They can still fuel your body for a short time, but will leave you with elevated blood sugar, a crash soon after w/ less energy than before, and ultimately leading to weight gain, inflammation, and and an unhealthy gut biome. All things we try to prevent in a healthy lifestyle.
Examples of healthy simple carbs:
Examples of unhealthy simple carbs:
Complex Carbohydrates are made up of three or more sugar molecules and called Polysaccharides. Because they are made of longer saccharide (sugar) chains, they take longer to break down. Thus, keeping your blood sugar under control, keeping you fuller for longer, and making it a smarter choice for anyone trying to manage or lose weight. In most cases, it’s just smarter to prioritize complex carb intake over simple carb intake. Complex carbs are also often referred to as starchy foods like beans, lentils, potatoes, pasta, legumes, whole grain & sprouted breads, oats, rice, quinoa, and some cereals.
A couple things to be aware of when looking for a healthy complex carbohydrate choice:
Vegetables are considered complex carbs. Any vegetable is fair game. Of course it’s necessary to have food in our bellies to live, but another reason we eat is also for the nutrition (the MICROnutrients we will touch on in the future). Vegetables are FULL of it. Not “full of it” like full of…well…I guess they technically grow in "it". ANYWAY, vegetables are full of fiber & micronutrients. Fiber is considered a carbohydrate and doesn’t give us much energy, but is necessary for our digestive system to work smoothly. So, as well as choosing smart carbohydrate choices, always throw vegetables into the mix to ensure you are getting a proper amount of nutrition & fiber. Probably a good idea if you like have a regular bathroom schedule as well!
How are Carbohydrates Digested, Absorbed, and used?
Carbs breakdown into smaller forms of sugars like fructose & glucose that I mentioned above. The breakdown of these sugars actually begins in our mouth because of an enzyme in our saliva called salivary amylase. Pretty cool huh? Another reason to prioritize chewing our food well. After digestion, the next stop is the small intestine where the broken down sugar units are absorbed in our bloodstream and shuttled to our liver. The sugars are then converted to glucose and carried by our bloodstream for general body function and physical activity. Our body stores this glucose as glycogen in our liver and muscles for when it is needed. Glycogen is always necessary for basic body function, but especially during more intense bouts of physical activity. Think 50% intensity and higher. This doesn’t mean the glycogen isn’t put to use outside of physical activity, Im only stating the higher the intensity level of your exercise, the more glycogen depletion occurs. We still need a minimal amount of glycogen for our body’s to function optimally.
Fiber is a different story. Fiber is not absorbed in the small intestine and is not converted to glucose like our sugary & starchy friends. It is instead sent to the large intestine where it is converted in carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and some fatty acids. Like stated before, fiber is necessary for healthy bowel movement. Lots of fiber equals a healthy heart, stabilized blood sugar, and easy bathroom breaks. I think we can all hop on board with that!
The Bottom Line on Carbs
There are obviously countless articles bashing and praising carbohydrates everywhere over the past few years. Are they good, are they bad? Bottom line, there are several beneficial & healthy carbs out there, but we are all different. Crappy answer I know, but it’s true. So it’s up to us to research and listen to our own bodies. I do know glucose is necessary for our bodies to function. Without glucose, certain body functions fail that we need to optimally live. Carbohydrates give us this glucose. So it makes the most sense to at least get the minimum amount required for these basic functions, right? So what is the minimum requirement then? After checking out multiple sources from medical centers, universities, and national health organizations there are answers ranging from the 85g - 150g being the minimum required amount of carbohydrates for our body’s to perform it’s basic functions to optimally live. Of course where you might fall in this range depends on body weight, muscle mass, activity level, and other variables. It would be safe to say that if you are a smaller framed person, not very active, and not very muscle bound, the bottom 50% might be your target area for this minimum requirement, and vice versa for the larger, highly active, more muscle bound person. Regardless, aim to fall somewhere in this range to help your body do it’s job and thrive if you’re following some sort of balanced diet and eat more if necessary for your lifestyle.
One macronutrient down! I hope you stuck with me on this one. I know it was a lot, but there’s plenty more to cover! See you next week, and as always, thank you for your support!
About the author Cole Monahan
Small town boy from Lenoir City, TN learns about the importance of mental, physical, & spiritual health in his late teens and turns international model at 21. After traveling the world and becoming a certified personal trainer/nutritionist, he is now on a mission to use his platform to educate the world about living a fuller, healthier life.