The Ultimate Guide: Macronutrients for Beginners

The Ultimate Guide: Macronutrients for Beginners

I never heard the word “macronutrient” once in my entire schooling.

It’s a travesty how misguided the curriculum is.

Good nutrition is woefully covered, but is the most important component of a healthy life. 

So what is a macronutrient?

You have undoubtedly heard this term before, but what does it mean?

Calories 

Let’s start with a calorie:

A calorie is how we measure the production and usage of energy. It allows us to quickly determine and quantify how much energy we need (how much to eat) and how much energy we use (activity levels).

Each of us has different calorie requirements. Depending on our goals (gain, lose, or maintain weight), we require a consistent amount of calories that are either more or less than the amount of calories we burn daily.

Macronutrients for Beginners

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If you are trying to lose weight, you will take in fewer calories.

If you are a bodybuilder and/or competitive athlete, you will eat 2-3 times the daily recommended values.

It takes time to figure out what your body needs and the amount of calories necessary to achieve your optimal health.

Macronutrients 

A macronutrient consists of fats, carbohydrates, or proteins – the “big three.”

This is how a maconutrient relates to calories:

  • 1 gram of carbohydrates has 4 calories
  • 1 gram of protein has 4 calories
  • 1 gram of fat has 9 calories

Macronutrients are chemical or organic compounds and are consumed in large quantities and they give us the energy and nutritional value we need to survive.

The scope of this article will include the basics of the “big three” and  the right balance of fats, proteins, and carbs we need for optimal health.

Understanding the ins and outs of macronutrients is the first step to developing a solid eating plan to help you meet your goals. 

Let’s discuss protein, carbohydrates, and fats.

PROTEIN

Composed of many types of amino acids (20 to be exact), proteins are essential nutrients for the human body, the “building blocks” so to speak.

9 of those 20 amino acids cannot be made by the human bodies, thus needing to be supplemented by our diets.

The importance of this nutrient is extensive, but at a simple level, our bodies need a steady dose of protein intake daily to function properly (and survive).

Protein is especially important for athletes and those who are physically active, as it is directly responsible for repairing tissue and building new muscle tissue.

Debates have raged on as to how much protein we actually needs (everyone is different).

Macronutrients for Beginners

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According to the Food & Nutritional Board, the recommended daily intake of protein for an average male should be 56 grams per day.

However, this is based on an average weight of 156 lbs.

Obviously this is completely unrealistic if you are an active male who runs and works out 3-5 times a week. It’s even worse if you an athlete.(International Society of Sports Nutrition).

Recommendation: I take in about one gram per pound and I recommend that as a rule of thumb for those who consider themselves very active.

Even 2 grams per pound of body weight should not affect you in a negative way.

I have never felt the effects of too much protein. Studies can’t definitively conclude there is such thing as too much protein – certainly not definite enough to determine side effects.

Healthy Sources of Protein

  • Meats (especially turkey and chicken, fish, beef)
  • Cheese
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Protein Powders

CARBOHYDRATES

Carbs fuel the body and brain.

Carbs also give us the energy we need during an intense workout.

They can be broken down into two general categories:

Complex and Simple carbs

Simple Carbs: Sugar molecules that are quickly digested and give us a fast energy boost.

Examples include:

  • Pure sugar
  • Soda
  • Honey
  • Fruits

Simple carbs should be kept to a minimum.

I don’t need to tell you that soda and candy are bad for you.

Sugar is fine in moderation, but it’s overused in most products we buy.

Always make sure you are reading labels and checking out the nutritional facts of items you regularly buy.

Complex Carbs: Whole foods and plants, which contain high contents of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Macronutrients for Beginners

Steven Depolo via Flickr

Examples include:

  • Beans
  • Whole grains (pasta, rice, breads, oatmeal)
  • Vegetables (both green and starchy).

Complex carbs digest in our bodies slower than simple carbs.

Complex carbs should be the primary source of your carbs, especially if you are looking to maintain low body fat while increasing muscle mass.

Carbs are one of the most hotly debated topics when it comes to weight loss.

You’ll find theories, research and diets for all types of carb intakes.

Carbs are not considered “essential nutrients,” so the human body could technically function with low/no carbs, but not for a substantial period. Our bodies would turn to fat and protein to burn, and our energy levels would be low.

I am not a believer in a low/no carb diet. Carbs play a vital role in energy and muscle growth, and are needed in solid doses.

The “too many” carbs argument is deeply flawed.

The issue is less about carb intake and more about one’s activity level.

How much energy is being burned a day?

All too often, people take in way too many carbs for their activity levels.

If you are not consistently working out in some way or form, then your carb intake needs to be limited and closely monitored.

Overdoing it on carbs (especially high sugar food and drinks) will cause weight gain.

When carbs are not used up, they are stored in the body as fat. If you are active and take in the proper amount of carbs each day, you will be fine.

RecommendationFor active men who exercise 3-5 times a week, carbs are essential. Most recommendations are 2-3 grams per pound.

My diet consists almost entirely of complex carbs, however, I do incorporate simple carbs pre & post workout or for a quick energy spike (usually combined with caffeine).

I stay away from sports drinks, as there are tons of sugars in those products.

I recommend avoiding sugar all together after 8pm.

To develop an proper nutrition plan, be sure to familiarize yourself with the Glycemic Index, which ranks carbs according to the effect on one’s blood sugar.

Sugary carbs that are easily digestible are high on this index, while complex carbs that slowly digest are low.

Healthy Source of Carbs

  • Oats
  • Potatoes (Sweet & White)
  • Brown rice
  • Any vegetable (especially greens)
  • Fruit (modest amounts due to excess sugar)

FATS: 

Fats can be either liquid or solids and are broken down into two main groups – Unsaturated and saturated fats.

Fats are essential for humans, as Vitamins A, D, E, and K can only be consumed as fats.

Fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) are also essential.

Fats are mandatory for the body.

Let’s also clear up a widespread myth.

Fats are not bad for you. Not all fats are created equal.

Knowing the difference will help you decide where fat fits into your daily meals.

The word “fat” has a negative connotation in today’s world, so people naturally extend it to the nutritional meaning as well.

Dietary fat is not the same as body fat.

The fats in your diet are not only essential, but offer extensive optimal health benefits and go a long way to building muscle and developing a top notch nutrition plan.

Recommendation: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 recommends the average adult take in 20-35% of their calories from fat sources.

Macronutrients for Beginners

Ruocaled via Flickr

There are four main types of fats:

  • Monounsaturated Fats
  • Polyunsaturated Fats (including Omega-3 and Omega-6
  • Saturated Fats
  • Trans Fats

Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated are known as the “good fats.”

These fats are great for optimal health; keeping your cholesterol in check and your heart healthy.

Saturated and Trans are known as the “bad fats.”

These fats increase cholesterol and increase your risk for diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Some products which fall into this category are not entirely bad for you when consumed in moderation.

Examples of Monounsaturated Fats

  • Avocados
  • Nuts (most types)
  • Oils (olive, sesame, canola, peanut, sunflower)
  • Peanut Butter

Examples of Polyunsaturated Fats

  • Soy milk
  • Walnuts
  • Seeds (sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, flax)
  • Oils (Safflower, Soybean, Corn)
  • Eggs (omega-3)
  • Tofu
  • Fatty fish (trout, sardines, salmon, herring, tuna, trout)

Examples of Saturated Fats

  • Cheese
  • Butter
  • Ice cream
  • Oils (tree – coconut and palm)
  • Whole fat dairy (cream and milk),
  • Fatty meats (lamb, pork, beef, salami)

Examples of Trans Fats

  • Candy
  • Fried foods
  • Margarine
  • Processed foods such as packaged pastries, muffins, cakes, brownies
  • Packaged snack foods
  • Vegetable shortening*

(*Vegetable shortening is when vegetable oil gets chemically transformed (or shortened) into a solid state. The process is called hydrogenation, and is found in most of the above “foods”. DO EVERYTHING POSSIBLE TO NOT EAT FOODS WITH THIS.)

Macronutrients for Beginners

COD Newsroom via Flickr

Trans fats should be completely eliminated from your diet for optimal health.

The exception is a cheat meal once or twice a week.

All the items on the above list are garbage and will not only make you fat, but severely impact your general health over time.

Not surprisingly, this is most of the stuff one finds in a food store.

Avoid it all!

Saturated fats are okay as long as you do not go overboard.

Try switching to skim, 1%, or 2% milk (or even soymilk), and do not consume expansive amounts of cheese or butter.

Red meat should also be eaten in moderation due to the high fat content.

Monounsaturated fats are great for optimal health and help lower your cholesterol (found mainly in vegetable oils).

Polyunsaturated fats are like monounsaturated fats, except that poly fats are the type of fats found in seafood.

Omega-3 and Omega-6

These fatty acids are found in polyunsaturated fats and differ from one another in their chemical compound. The “omegas” provide an abundance of health benefits such as enhanced energy levels, happier moods, and a sharper memory (Read more on the benefits HERE ).

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential and can only come from the foods we eat.

There are two critical omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Eicosapentaenoic or EPA
  • Docosahexaenoic or DHA

Fish such as herring, salmon, and sardines are great sources for omega-3 fats.

You also need to take a  quality fish oil supplement to make sure you get the recommended daily intake.

Omega-6 fatty acids come from plant oils, nuts, and seeds; and are plentiful in our daily diets.

Most people take in too much Omega-6 in comparison to Omega-3, leading to a skewed ratio of Omega 6:3 fatty acids.

Before the mass production of processed foods, it was believed that most humans consumed an Omega 6:3 ratio of 1:1. That is no longer the case, and is why you need to supplement with fish oil supplements. 

Bottom Line

In order to optimize your health, you have to develop a strong nutrition plan.

Knowing the basics of calories and macronutrients are the first step.

You will have to tinker with things and learn how your body responds to different foods and different macronutrient ratios.

Once you get to a point where you feel healthy and begin to see progress physically, assuming you are working out 3-5 times a week, you will have arrived at your ideal eating plan.

Talk soon,

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