back to basics | macronutrients cocktail
What do I mean by “macronutrients cocktail?” I’m not talking about the ratio of gin to vermouth or cream and sugar to coffee. March is National Nutrition Month, and so our Back to Basics theme continues with a deeper dive into secondary foods nutrition—the value of the (whole) foods you put in your mouth.
As I mentioned in last week’s post, a lot of us get very hung up on the right mix of macronutrients, also known as our “macro percentages.” This is where the danger of sliding into nutritionism looms large, and we can spend way too much time worrying about whether we’re getting too much or not enough proteins, fats, and carbs.
Some of us go so far as to severely restrict or entirely eliminate entire categories of macronutrients. Fats and carbs have been particularly vilified over the past few decades.
Here’s why you might want to be careful about this practice: proteins, fats, and carbs all play different roles in our nutrition.
Proteins are made up of a long chain of amino acids, of which there are 20 combined in different ways. Think of the amino acids as 20 different beads that you can combine into a variety of necklaces.
Importantly, our bodies create some of these chains themselves—and some of the beads need to come from our food choices. Remember the whole food-combining craze? (Always eat beans with rice to get perfect protein, etc.) Much of that has been disproven: you can get “perfect protein” combinations over the course of the day.
It’s no wonder we are so concerned with protein intake! Take a look at what these “necklaces” are responsible for in our bodies. (And don’t forget that whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds contain protein.)
growth + maintenance
Protein’s primary job is taking care of the body’s growth and maintenance, so your need for protein varies based on your health and activity level.
Under the following conditions, your protein needs increase:
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding
- Recovery from injury or surgery
- In older adults and athletes
enzymes + hormones
Enzymes are types of proteins that help a variety of biochemical reactions to happen in our bodies. Some enzymes require micronutrients (vitamins or minerals) for a reaction to take place. Remember: if you’re not eating your vegetables, you’re short-changing your body irrespective of how much protein you ingest.
Bodily functions that depend on enzymes include:
- Energy production
- Blood clotting
- Muscle contraction
Joining together with some types of fats, proteins make up our hormones, the chemical messengers that help our cells, tissues, and organs communicate.
Certain types of proteins make up the structure and vary the stiffness and flexibility of our tissues.
- Keratin is found in your skin, hair and nails.
- Collagen, the most abundant protein in your body, forms your bones, tendons, ligaments, and skin.
- Elastin, the most flexible of these proteins, helps parts of your body—such as your lungs, arteries, and uterus—to return to their original shape after stretching or contracting.
other functions of protein
Some other functions of protein include:
- Helping our bodies maintain proper pH (acidity/alkalinity) and fluid balance
- Keeping our immune system strong
- Transporting and storing nutrients
- Providing energy, if needed
You’ll notice that while proteins have 4 calories per gram, providing energy is not one of their most important functions. Protein is used in so many other important ways that it is the last place the body turns for energy.
Your body will pirate protein from your muscles in situation where it has exhausted the energy from carb and fat storage, usually when you are practicing extreme fasting and/or exercise or you don’t eat enough calories.
Like protein, our bodies create some fats (yes, including cholesterol!) on their own. Others we must get from our food choices.
And like proteins, fats are like long chains—made up of fatty acids rather than amino acids.
In recent decades, fat vilification was rampant. (Be careful of condemning the “whole foods plant based no oil” eaters as fat-phobic, though: they get their fats from whole foods rather than from processed oils.)
And we haven’t necessarily gotten healthier by reducing or eliminating it from our food choices!
I remember well a regular visitor to a health food deli where I worked. She absolutely refused to eat any fat of any kind. And wow, did she look absolutely terrible. She also had a lot of health issues, many of them brought on from malnutrition.
What do fats do for us?
Fats have more than twice as many calories per gram (9) as proteins and carbs (4). So they are a very dense form of energy intake.
Fat storage in the body (for creating energy during lean times) is extremely efficient—which can be a problem! Whenever we take in more calories than we use in a day, the remainder are stored as fat in the fat cells … which can expand, apparently without limit. Yup, that’s where we get into overweight and obesity.
It’s important to note, though, that it’s not a simple matter of calories in vs. calories out as we once believed. There are a LOT of factors at play in the fat storage process. Yes, eating the right amount of calories and moving our bodies are two important pieces of the puzzle—and they’re not the only two.
The fat between our muscle and skin is our bodies’ way of staying warm (and cool). Ever noticed how you might gain a few pounds of “winter weight” every year? That’s your body trying to stay warm! When we’re mindful of this, it ceases to be such a shock, and we can be less judgmental. The trick, of course, is to be aware that spring and summer are a time to trim back down, or those 3–5 pounds are like interest that keeps compounding!
Think about your vital organs: heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, digestive tract, reproductive organs…. Other than the heart and lungs, so cunningly protected by the hard cage of our ribs, most of them are at the mercy of the outer world and lie just beyond a fragile layer of muscle, fat, and skin.
Our abdominal fat (as opposed to the fat beneath our skin) acts as a cushion for those organs, protecting them against the jostling of everyday life—whether we walk or run, jump or climb, or are prone to bumping into things.
enzymes + hormones
Fats help proteins to do their jobs, combining with them to act as hormones, the messengers of the body. They also start chemical reactions that help manage growth, immune function, reproduction, metabolism (how we use the nutrients in our food).
Fats help the body absorb and “stockpile” the fat-soluble vitamins—A, D, E and K—which are stored in the liver and in fatty tissues. So if you’re not getting enough (beneficial) fats, you’re not absorbing these vitamins properly, which causes a chain reaction that can lead to malnutrition.
You’ve seen how important proteins and fats are to the body. What about carbs?
Carbs are the body’s most important source of quick energy. It’s a complex process that is more science than I can explain easily.
Suffice it to say that carbs break down into the glucose that fuels our body, most importantly our hungry, hungry hippo of a brain. The body will always turn to this energy source first, and only lacking it will turn to energy stored in our fat tissues.
It’s important to get our carbs in complex form—more on that next week. Simple carbs will give you a jolt of energy—and that will be followed by an energy crash requiring more simple carbs, which, well, you get the idea.
A limited amount of excess carbs in the body can be stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles—the second place the body looks for energy. After that, they get converted into fat and go into the fat cells.
digestion, heart health, blood sugar management
Fiber is a form of carbohydrates that helps with digestion—remember, it’s sort of an odd “other” nutrient.
One type of fiber (soluble) combines with water to soften your stool. Aha—there’s that second “other” nutrient: water.
The other type (insoluble) produces the bulk that makes up your stool so that you can rid the body of waste products.
Appropriate amounts of fiber (both kinds) help the body manage heart health and blood sugar levels.
make the connection
We’ve taken a look at what the basic nutrients are and what they do in our bodies. It might feel like a lot of vague and squishy information, so next week, we’ll get practical about it and learn, what are the best choices for proteins, fats, carbs?
We can figure out what the best combination of macronutrients is for you right now—schedule a YOURstory session if you want to get started; in the meantime, spend some time thinking about how marvelously interconnected all these nutrients are. Talk about synergy! Our bodies are truly miracles in motion—only if we give them what they need to thrive. And yes, that means a (bio-individual) macronutrients cocktail.