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.