Your body needs nutrients to survive and thrive. On a micro level, specific nutrients like vitamins and minerals play important roles in your health. We refer to these as micronutrients. While there are many micronutrients to consider for an optimum diet, the key for most of us in our attempts to have a balanced diet is to focus on macronutrients, also referred to simply as macros.
What are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients are the energy sources that our bodies need to function, to grow, and to repair. There are three types of macronutrients: Carbohydrates, Fats, and Proteins. This triad of nutrients constitutes the calories that you consume each day. To manage your diet and to control your weight gain or loss, you should consider tracking the amounts of each of these macros you consume. The best tool you can use is Macronutrient Calculator.
Carbohydrates, or carbs for short, are the body’s first responders to energy needs. They are a quick source of energy, and the body uses these first to preserve the other macros for other uses. There are two types of carbohydrates: simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbs are the quickest of energy sources, as they break down the fastest due to their simple chemical composition.
These would include, for example, fructose (from fruit), galactose (from milk), sucrose (table sugar), and more. They can provide you with a burst of energy, but the consumption of too many of them can lead to weight gain and health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. Complex carbs on the other hand include your starches (grains and starchy vegetables) and fiber (which is helpful with digestion).
They take longer to break down, but once broken down into simpler sugars, they provide the energy you need for most tasks. If they are not all needed, carbohydrates are stored in the muscles in the form of glycogen for later use.
Fats are the body’s doomsday preppers. Like carbs, they are an energy source, but as long as carbohydrates are available to meet your energy needs, fats store up in the body for the times when the carbohydrate stores (glycogen) are depleted and no longer available as a sufficient source of energy. These are the macros that lead to weight gain if consumed in large amounts.
There are many types of fats, from unsatured to polysaturated, and several in between. Fats are found in meat and other animal products such as cheese and butter. These are your saturated fats, and they can be detrimental to you health if consumed in large amounts. Unsaturated fats, found in fish, nuts, and various oils (e.g. olive oil, vegetable oil) are a better source for your body.
After extended periods of exercise, such as the later miles of a marathon, the body depletes it’s glycogen (carbohydrate) stores and starts burning fat as a source of energy.
Proteins are the body’s supply house for essential amino acids. Being made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins, the body needs dietary proteins for their supply of the amino acids essential for creating other proteins essential to life. Everything from enzymes, collagen, hemoglobin, and insulin find themselves dependent on the consumption of proteins.
This macronutrient is also a source of energy, when carbs and fats are in short supply. The burning of proteins, however, as a form of energy can impact the body by diverting from the structural uses of such proteins. One result of this is muscle loss. Dietary sources of protein include meats, cheeses, beans, nuts, etc.
Keeping Macronutrients in Balance
It is important to maintain a good macro ratio between the three macronutrients. Dieticians talk about the importance of calories in weight gain or weight loss. Whereas carbs and proteins each carry 4 calories per gram, fat carries 9 calories per gram. In a normally active individual, the ratio of carbs, proteins, and fats contribute to a balanced caloric intake. A recommended ratio of caloric intake (and macro count) for which to strive is 50% from carbohydrates, 30% from fats, and 20% from proteins.