The first step to take in learning the basics of nutrition is knowing how foods are classified and impact your well-being or fitness goals. All the foods you buy or grow can be categorized as macronutrients or micronutrients.
These nutrients are substances necessary for growth, metabolism and other vital functions. So let’s start with the major group of nutrients:
What Are Macronutrients?
Macros are energetic nutrients representing the biggest portion of our daily calorie intake. Our body needs them in a larger quantity than micronutrients. They represent the carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids (fats). Water can also be considered a macronutrient because we need it in a large quantity as well, although it is not a caloric nutrient.
Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are caloric nutrients:
|Macronutrients||Energy [Kcal./gram]||Main Function|
|Lipids (fats)||9||Energy, for growth and development etc.|
|Proteins||4||Growth and development, also energy|
Because macronutrients give calories, that means you can count them. When you want to know how many calories a product has, sum up all the macros displayed on the food label.
Judging from the energetic point of view, the number one fuel the body prefers is carbohydrates. Lipids play an energetic role as well, but the excess is usually stored in the body as a form of visceral fat, subcutaneous and abdominal fat. Yet, do not think for a second that lipids are harmful. They are important when they are consumed in normal quantities.
Proteins are less useful as energy. The body only converts them into energy when it doesn’t get the first two in a sustainable quantity (carbohydrates and lipids). Proteins are utilized mainly for maintaining or developing the tissues.
This dispersion of macros is generally valid for everybody who is not following a strict diet. The quantities of each vary based upon the energy requirements of the individual, which are related to physical activity, age, sex, etc.
For the same reason that we are all different, it doesn’t matter how many meals a day you have and how you split this up as long as it serves your purpose.
The Types of Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are a major macronutrient and one of your body’s primary sources of energy. Still, there is a constant weight loss buzz that discourages eating them. The key is finding the right carbs, not avoiding them altogether. It is also true that the excess is deposited as body fat if the required calorific intake for a day is surpassed repeatedly.
There are two types of carbohydrates:
- Simple carbohydrates
- Complex carbohydrates
What differentiates carbohydrates is their chemical structure. Simple carbs have a simpler structure than complex carbs. The problem is that nutrition labels don’t tell you whether the carbohydrate content is simple or complex. You can distinguish them by taste, simple carbs taste sweet. For this reason, they get digested a lot faster than complex carbohydrates. Athletes usually consume simple carbs as snacks or as energy boosters with approximately 30 minutes before a rigorous training session.
Main sources of complex carbohydrates:
- acorn squash, einkorn wheat, whole grains (buckwheat, brown rice, corn, wheat, barley, oats, sorghum, and quinoa), lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, soybeans, pinto beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, green beans, yellow pea
Sources of simple carbohydrates:
- table sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, and fruits
|Complex Carbs||Simple Carbs|
|Foods||whole wheat bread, cereals, pasta, rice, potatoes, beans, chestnuts, lentils, chickpeas, sweet potatoes||chocolate, cookies, biscuits, candies, ice-cream, donuts, chips, jam, jelly, honey, table sugar, sodas, brown sugar, coke|
Fruits are classified as simple carbs. However, they contain fiber, which is a complex carbohydrate as well as lipids (some of them), proteins and micronutrients. They are rich in natural energy unlike sweets, cookies, and chocolate that contain added table sugar. If your goal is to lose weight then you should never eliminate fruit from your diet. Eat them during the first part of your day or as a snack. Another method is to look for fruit low in calories.
It is confirmed that frozen fruit can provide the same nutrients and benefits as fresh fruit. Canned fruit and fruit juice typically have more calories because of the added syrup and table sugar. Dried fruits, such as raisins and prunes, are higher in calories than fresh fruits as well. They are more compact and calorie-dense, unlike regular fruit, which is high in water content.
An oleaginous fruit is the part of a plant that is used to produce vegetable oil. It can be a fruit (olives), seed (sesame) or nut (walnuts). Include them in your diet, but eat them with moderation as they are very rich in lipids. And as healthy and beneficial as unsaturated lipids may be, they usually contain hundreds of calories for every 100 grams.
Remember, fruits and vegetables are simple carbohydrates that contain fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals, so they are more complex in nature. These are nutrient-dense foods that should be eaten daily.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate the body can’t digest. It helps regulate the body’s use of sugar, helping to keep hunger and blood sugar in check. The best sources of fiber are:
- whole-grain foods, fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts
To increase fiber intake, which is recommended for everyone, especially for those looking to lose weight, you can:
- Eat whole fruits instead of drinking fruit juice
- Replace white rice, bread, and pasta with brown rice and whole-grain products
- For breakfast, choose cereals that have whole grains as their first ingredient
- Snack on raw vegetables instead of chips, crackers, or chocolate bars
The most important ones are complex carbohydrates and thus, they should be eaten first instead of simple carbs which come second. They come first because they help ensure a gradual release of energy preventing the glycemia to rise.
Even among starches some of them are a lot easier to digest. For instance, white bread has a higher Glycemic Index than whole-grain bread and cereal like oats. Corn pasta or whole-grain pasta both have a low Glycemic Index too when compared to cheap wheat-white kinds of pasta. This happens because those foods undergo a lot of processing and they do not have the same raw and complex structure anymore.
The devil will not come after you for choosing to eat sweets on occasion. I believe in the principles of moderation and variety when it comes to food choices, as in training.
Be smart and choose sweets with better nutritional values. Dark chocolate, for instance, contains around 85% cocoa and can be eaten as a snack. It is a better choice over another type of chocolate.
How many carbohydrates you should eat on a daily basis is not that relevant because on a macro scale the only important thing is the caloric intake from all three macros: fats, proteins, and carbs. However, for a balanced diet, you should eat more carbs than proteins and fats in almost every meal with few exceptions.
The Types of Lipids/Fats
Lipids are concentrated energy, which our body uses when the energy coming from carbohydrates is not enough. Lipids are classified in many ways but the major categories are:
- Saturated Fats (bad fats)
- Unsaturated Fats (good fats).
Saturated fats can be found in a solid-state at room temperature and they are represented by animal fats (butter, fats from milk, fats from meat, cheese). Cocoa and palm oil make an exception. They are the only vegetal source to actually contain saturated fats.
Unsaturated fats can be found in fish, olive oil, almonds, walnuts, seeds, and nuts. They have a liquid form at room temperature. The unsaturated lipids are considered to be good and healthy fats because they fight bad cholesterol and help reduce its level. They’re also rich in omega fatty acids.
Lipids are higher in calories than the other macronutrients, though they do not make you fat necessarily if you respect the thermodynamic law:
More OUT than IN over time = lose weight
Lipids contain 9 kcal per 1 gram. Cheese that is mostly composed of fats can have more than 400 kcal per 100 grams. In comparison, oils have 900 kcal per 100 grams. You can figure out that all the high-fat containing dairy products will have hundreds of calories that your body doesn’t need. However, skimmed dairy products could contain less than 90 kcal per 100 grams -which fits your goal of losing weight if that is the case.
Anyway, do not eliminate them entirely even when dropping weight is the main goal. Fats actually allow the protein to fulfill its structural purpose by not using them as fuel. To top it all, fats have a role of maintenance over our health in several ways: they help absorb vitamins, create various hormones, keep our hair and skin healthy and much more. A diet that includes cutting all the necessary lipids will harm you in the long term.
My first recommendation is to pick foods containing more unsaturated lipids. The recommended daily lipid consumption for an adult shouldn’t surpass 20%. That depends a lot on many factors, and from that 20%, less than 8% should consist of saturated lipids. The percentages should only be seen as an estimate. Depending on your current weight, lipid intake for a day could drop a bit if the body fat percentage is too high.
The best sources of good fats (unsaturated lipids) are:
- olive, peanut, and canola oils
- nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans
- seeds such as pumpkin and sesame seeds
- sunflower, corn, soybean, and flaxseed oils
- flax seeds
Omega-3 and Omega-6 are important types of fat. The body can’t produce them, so they must come from sources such as walnuts, flax seeds, soybean, or fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna). Most people don’t eat enough healthful good fats. The American Heart Association suggests that 8-10 percent of daily calories should come from unsaturated fats, while The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consumption of saturated fats of no more than 7% of calories.
In the USA, the biggest sources of saturated fats in the diet are:
- Pizza and cheese
- Whole and reduced-fat milk, butter and dairy desserts
- Meat products (sausage, bacon, beef, hamburgers)
- Cookies and other grain-based desserts
- A variety of mixed fast food dishes.
Proteins can be classified into two categories:
- proteins from animal sources
- proteins from vegetable sources
Based on their quality there are 3 types of proteins:
- complete proteins: represented mostly by the ones coming from animal sources, having all the essential amino acids up to an optimal level: eggs, meat, milk, soy (the only complete vegetable protein source)
- partially complete proteins: they contain all the essential amino acids but in inadequate levels. Hence a twice biggest portion may be necessary to guarantee the optimal level of amino acids (grain, vegetables, and legumes)
- incomplete proteins: they do not contain all the essential amino acids or are present in abnormal levels (corn and collagen).
Based on the previous principle of choosing the complex carbs because they include fiber and other nutrients as well, the same principle applies to proteins. When you choose them, don’t just hurry to grab the complete ones, because they come in a package with saturated fats that you only need in the smallest amount possible.
Choose both of them, coming from animals and vegetables in equal proportions. The best combination is offered by legumes and grains with meat.
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How much should you eat though?
Nutrition is a big player when it comes to getting results in fitness. We train our muscles, we damage the muscle fibers and we need nutrients to build them up stronger and bigger. Along with recovery, nutrition represents at least 50% of the process of body recomposition.
The standard recommendation for athletes regarding daily protein intake is 1 gram per pound of body weight or 2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. However, I recommend that you build your muscles and strength by aiming to eat more carbohydrates than the recommended protein intake.
For any persons who are uninvolved in fitness activities, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is a modest 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (for adults). The RDA is the amount of a nutrient you need to meet your basic nutritional requirements. In a sense, it’s the minimum amount you need to keep from getting sick, not the specific amount you are supposed to eat every day and more so how much protein is required for muscle growth.
Recommendations from HARVARD T.H. Chan:
Choose protein sources low in saturated fats.
Protein powders and shakes are unnecessary for you, especially at this time. But, when you aim to build mass, then know that they provide amino acids offering limited nutritional value. Ready-to-drink shakes may also contain added sugar and other caloric sweeteners, so make sure to read the nutrition label.
Eat protein-rich foods like beans, nuts, tofu, fish, chicken, or eggs in place of less-healthy options like red and processed meats. For example, slice up a fresh-roasted chicken breast or salmon for sandwiches instead of using processed high-sodium lunch meat.
Don’t stress too much about protein quantity. Eating a variety of healthy protein-rich foods-for example an egg with breakfast, some turkey or beans on your salad for lunch, and a piece of salmon or tofu with a whole grain side dish for dinner will ensure that you get all the protein you need.
Try a meatless Monday-or more. Diets high in plant-based proteins and fats can provide health benefits, so try mixing some vegetarian proteins into your meals. Going meatless can be good for your wallet as well as your health, since beans, nuts, and seeds, and other minimally-processed vegetarian protein sources are often less expensive than meat.
Eat soy in moderation. Tofu and other soy foods are an excellent alternative to red meat. In some cultures, tofu and soy foods are a protein staple, and we don’t suggest any change. But if you haven’t grown up eating lots of soy, there’s no reason to begin eating it in large quantities. And stay away from supplements that contain concentrated soy protein or extracts, such as isoflavones, as we just don’t know their long-term effects.
Scan the Nutrition Facts label before you buy highly-processed vegetarian fake meat foods since these are often as high in sodium or higher in sodium than their processed red meat counterparts.
What Are Micronutrients?
Micronutrients are present everywhere, especially in fruits, veggies, legumes, cereals, dried fruits, but also meat, eggs, and dairy. You can consume as many of the micronutrients you want.
They will never make you get fat. They are indispensable and you should consume them with every meal. Yet, regarding fast food or foods like French fries, sandwiches, sweets, appetizers etc., they contain insufficient micronutrients.
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. They are responsible for our general health and we cannot survive without them. We can find vitamins in all kinds of foods. That’s why we need to eat various foods: vegetables and leafy salads or whole-grains and whole-food starches or meats of all kinds.
Minerals are sodium, potassium, chloride, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc and sulfur, etc. The first four are also called electrolytes.
Minerals are important for nerve signaling, muscular contraction, and tissue structure. Calcium supports muscle function and transmits nerve impulses. It can be found in yogurt, milk, cottage cheese, and dark leafy greens. Magnesium is involved in protein synthesis, blood glucose control, blood pressure regulation, and bone formation. It can be found in dairy products, seafood, meat, and fish. Phosphorus is an essential part of living cells and is found in meat, poultry, fish, and plants. Potassium is an electrolyte that is necessary for muscle contraction, nerve impulses, protein synthesis, transferring nutrients through cell membranes and can be found in spinach, potatoes, yogurt, meat, nuts, tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots. Iron is important in blood proteins and can be found in beef liver, chicken liver, oysters and lean meats. Zinc supports our immune system, helps wounds to heal and cells to divide and grow. Oysters are the most zinc-potent food.
The easiest way to make sure that you get a good amount of vitamins and minerals in your daily food intake is to eat various fruits and plants. You won’t have major vitamin and mineral deficiencies if you eat a balanced and diverse diet.
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