Why Macros Matterby Hilmar Wagner, MPH, RDN, CD
As I mentioned in the post called Why does nutrition advice always seem to change?, there always seems to be some nutrition craze that tempts us to change what we eat or how we eat it. It is important to understand the science behind these trends so we know whether they’re worth our attention, or if they are more likely to result in an unnecessary, or even unhealthy, preoccupation with food.
“Counting your macros” is something I have been hearing a lot about lately. The macronutrients--carbohydrates, fat and protein--are called “macro” because we need large amounts of them in our diet. Micronutrients--vitamins and minerals--are called “micro” because our bodies only requires them in small amounts. The deal with macronutrients is that the body uses carbs, fats and proteins in very different ways--ways that are not interchangeable. Thus, we really do need to eat adequate amounts of each “macro” for our bodies to function properly--physically, mentally and emotionally. Here’s what these VIP “macros” do for our bodies.
Our bodies are designed to run on carbs. They are, by far, the preferred fuel. Once digested, carbohydrates are readily available for energy. Our brains, which accounts for 20-25% of our total energy expenditure, rely on a steady supply of blood glucose, primarily provided by carbohydrates. In general, about half to two-thirds of our food should be carbohydrate-rich foods such as grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes. Because different sources of carbs provide varying levels of energy, vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals, you really need to vary your carb intake. Cutting out or severely limiting carbs can cause stress on the body as it works overtime to make protein and fat do the job that carbohydrates should be doing. This stress could keep your body from performing at its physical and mental peak.
It's easy to understand why people get hung up on protein. The protein we consume provides the building blocks for bones, muscles, cartilage, hair, nails, skin and blood. Protein also supplies key components for enzymes and hormones, which perform thousands of essential body functions. However, despite popular belief, more is not better. Our bodies get all the protein they need when 25% of our diet consists of protein-rich foods such as meats, dairy, soy, nuts/seeds and legumes. If our bodies have more protein than they need, they can’t store it, and instead break it down for energy.
Fat has long been feared, avoided and maligned. Truth is—fat is as important and essential for our bodies as protein and carbohydrates. The lining, or membrane, of each of the millions of cells in our bodies is made up primarily of fat. Our brain is 60% fat. Fat is necessary for absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K, as well as essential components our body cannot make in any other way. Emerging research shows that some types of fats may play a role in helping people deal with depression.
Although macros aren't something the typical person needs to obsess over if they are eating a healthy diet, we do need to have a balance of fat, protein and carbohydrates in our usual eating pattern so our bodies function properly. Restriction and overconsumption can both occur as functions of disordered eating. When an eating disorder is present, it's best to work with your dietitian and health care professionals so you can make sure that you are getting the proper balance of these macronutrients to support your body, mind, mood and recovery.
About the Author
Hilmar Wagner is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist (RDN) and Certified Dietitian (CD) in the state of Washington. Hilmar joined the Emily Program in 2006, and currently serves as the Training Coordinator for Nutrition Services and Clinical Outreach Specialist. In this role he initiates and coordinates training of new dietetic staff, dietetic interns and continuing education for nutrition services for all Emily Program locations. He has presented on a wide range of nutrition topics at local, regional and national conferences. Hilmar received his Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition/Dietetics and Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from the University of Minnesota. He has worked in the field of eating disorders for the past 12 years. Hilmar has extensive experience working with clients of all eating disorder diagnoses in both individual and group settings. He has a particular interest in mindfulness and body-centered approaches to eating disorder recovery.