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What are Macronutrients? The Basics of fat, protein and carbohydrates.

Learning about macronutrients is the foundation for understanding proper nutrition. It is the basics for how I shape meals as a Dietitian and can be a great tool for building a healthy relationship with food.

A salad made with bright red tomatoes, cucumber, crisp green lettuce, red onion, olives and an olive oil dressing. Text overlay that says What are macronutrients? The basics of carbs, protein and fat.

What Are Macronutrients?

Macronutrients are the nutrients we need in the largest amounts from food. These include carbohydrates, protein and fat.

What are macronutrients? Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the bodies main source of fuel or energy, specifically for the brain. If we’re not eating an adequate amount of carbohydrates, which is 45-65% of our daily caloric intake or a minimum of 130 grams a day for an adult, then we will likely feel fatigued and not be able to think clearly. If we stop eating carbohydrates our body can use a backup energy system called ketosis, where fat can be used for energy in place of carbohydrates. However, we don’t want to use this long term as it is a lot of extra work on our bodies and is not its preferred energy source. According to Cleveland Clinic there are potential side effects of ketosis such as high cholesterol, kidney stones, osteopenia (low bone density), insomnia, constipation, dehydration, headaches, fatigue, and more. Sounds pretty uncomfortable to me, but we can talk Keto in another post. So let’s learn why carbohydrates are good for us and part of a well-rounded diet! First, let’s chat about the two types of carbohydrates there are: simple and complex carbohydrates.

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates digest quickly and send a burst of glucose (or blood sugar) to your blood stream. They can give you quick energy but then you might notice your energy dip down shortly after, as the glucose is taken up into cells. You’ll then be hungry shortly after eating and if you continue to reach for these simple carbohydrate sources without pairing them with a component that will slow digestion, it could leave you on a blood sugar roller coaster. In addition, simple carbohydrates are usually refined where micronutrients and fiber are stripped from them. Here are some examples of simple carbohydrates:

  • White rice
  • White bread
  • White pasta
  • Candy and baked goods like cookies, cakes and muffins
  • Soda pop
  • Coffee that is full of sugar creamer or syrups
  • Table Sugar
  • Juices (even fresh pressed)
A multi layer graphic of simple carbohydrate sources: pepsi, white pasta, white breads, white rice, muffins, cookies, candies, coffee and juice.

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex Carbohydrates are digested slower than simple carbohydrates because they still have their fiber and starches intact. They are full of micronutrients (which we’ll talk about in a later post) as they are usually unrefined sources of carbohydrates. Some sources of complex carbohydrates are:

  • Whole grain pasta
  • Brown Rice
  • Whole Wheat Tortillas
  • Whole grain bread
  • Beans and Legumes
  • Oatmeal
  • Quinoa
  • Amaranth
  • Rye
  • Teff
  • Triticale
  • Milk and yogurt
  • Fruits
  • Starchy Vegetables like sweet potato, broccoli, green beans, carrots, etc.
  • Smoothies > juice, because they still have the fiber intact
A graphic of complex carbohydrate sources: whole grain bread, chickpeas, a bowl of oatmeal and blueberries, brown rice, whole grain pasta, quinoa, mangeo, strawberries, blueberries, grapes, oranges, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, squash, fruit smoothies with fruit bowl in the back.

What Are Macronutrients? Fat

Fats are made up of lipids or fatty acids, making a triglyceride molecule. It used to be thought that eating dietary fat would make us gain weight, but that’s simply not true. We need fats in our diets to help us absorb fat-soluble nutrients like vitamin A, D, E and K. Fats help to keep our skin and heart healthy too. In fact, research says that unsaturated fats from plants can help us to lower low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. LDL is known for being the bad cholesterol because it can raise our risk for heart disease and stroke.

Unsaturated Fats:

There are 2 types of unsaturated fats and most fat sources contain a combination of different types of fat but are higher in one or the other.

Monounsaturated Fats

Research says that monounsaturated fats can help decrease ldl cholesterol, which can reduce our risk for heart disease. Some sources are: Olive, Canola and Peanut oils. These oils are typically liquid at room temperature but start to turn solid when chilled. Also, avocados and nuts like almonds, hazelnuts, pecans and seeds like pumpkin and sesame seeds are good sources of monounsaturated fats.

Poly-unsaturated Fats

Similarly oils that are poly-unsaturated are liquid at room temperature but then when you chill them they begin to turn solid. Sources include canola oil, flaxseed oil, soybean oil and corn oil. Nuts like walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seed and hemp hearts. Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, trout and sardines are also good sources. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated should be our crutch for fats in the daily diet.

unsaturated fat sources 12 images: almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, avocados, olive oil, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, salmon, a can of tuna, and avocados.

Saturated fat:

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature (unlike mono and polyunsaturated fats, which were liquid). Some sources of saturated fats are coconut, coconut oil, palm oil, cocoa butter. It is also in animal fats like: corned beef, ground beef, bacon, sausage, palm kernel oil, palm oil, breaded or battered foods, whole milk, yogurts with more than 2% fat, butter and creams. It is worth noting that almost all fat sources contain some saturated fat, even nuts, but these are sources with more concentrated amounts.
Saturated fats used to get a bad rap for raising LDL (the bad cholesterol) but now research shows that there is inconclusive evidence to conclude that a diet with saturated fat would increase ones risk of stroke or CVD/CHD. If you want to decrease your LDL it is encouraged to replace your saturated fat intake with unsaturated fat sources, as that remains the health-promoting type of fat and is also chalk full of micronutrients.

Trans fat:

There are two types of trans fats: naturally occurring such as in beef fat or dairy fat and artificial. Artificial trans fat is typically made by heating liquid oil through a process called hydrogenation, which turns it into a solid. This makes the product more shelf stable and is commonly found in foods under the name “partially hydrogenated oil”. This sucker is found in foods like fast food, baked goods, processed snacks and ready-made meals. This type of fat, according to Harvard University creates inflammation related to diabetes and heart disease, by raising LDL (the bad cholesterol) and decreasing HDL (the good cholesterol in our bodies). Obviously, something we want to avoid but I am a fan of moderation not deprivation so we can just be cautious about it, which is also something research supports.

What are macronutrients? Protein

Protein that we eat breaks down into 20+ amino acids in our bodies. Some amino acids are essential for us to get from the food we eat, and others are non-essential, as our bodies can make them. Our body uses protein to build muscle but it is also found in hair, skin, bones and almost every other body part as well as making up enzymes that carry out chemical reactions necessary for life. So yeah, protein is a big deal but maybe not as big as some people make it out to be? We need protein and carbohydrates and fat! Some sources of protein are:

  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Soy (tofu, tempeh, soy milk)
  • Dairy milk and yogurt
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grains
What are macronutrients? Protein graphic with a variety of pictures: salmon on a plate, a glass of milk, a whole roasted chicken, tuna in a small white bowl, edamame with salt, assorted tricolor beans, roasted tofu, a yogurt bowl with berries and granola and a swiss cheese block.

That’s macronutrient 101 in a nutshell. It may seem like a lot of information but I like to focus on adding things to my diet, rather than restricting myself from any one food, macronutrient, etc. If you have any questions leave them below in the comments, follow along on Instagram or read more about me here.