This is part 1 of 3 in a blog series in which we’ll be discussing each of the main macronutrients. These macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
But first, we should probably explain exactly what a macronutrient (or “macro”) actually is before we take a deep dive into carbs.
Simply put, macronutrients are the 3 nutrients that we human’s use in the largest amounts.
“Macronutrients are the nutritive components of food that the body needs for energy and to maintain the body’s structure and systems.” MD Anderson Wellness Dietitian Lindsey Wohlford.
Macros are in EVERYTHING you eat. Everything is going to be some form of carbohydrate, or protein, or fat, OR some combination of both (like Oreos, which are a magical and whimsical combination of fat and carbs). You’ve more than likely heard of a friend that’s “tracking macros” or “doing macros” or “yada yada gotta make sure my carbs and proteins and fats are in order…” and the reason they’re doing that is to help accurately track calories in an easier and more achievable way.
Here’s the calorie breakdown for macronutrients:
- 1 gram of Carbohydrates – 4 calories
- 1 gram of Protein – 4 calories
- 1 gram of Fat – 9 calories
Alright, enough about all the macros. Let’s focus on the one that gets the most flack and is demonized the most – carbs.
What IS a carbohydrate? The super nerdy dictionary definition: any of a large group of organic compounds occurring in foods and living tissues and including sugars, starch, and cellulose. They contain hydrogen and oxygen in the same ratio as water (2:1) and typically can be broken down to release energy in the animal body.
And now for a normal person definition: breads, pastas, fruits, sugars… you know what? Here’s a table that’s more visually appealing.
There. Those are carbohydrates (and some other goodies).
Now why do we need them? Wait, DO we need them? Are they important? What do they do to me?! Why do so many people cut carbs and lose so much weight? But I love carbsssss!
Easy, killer. I’ve got you.
Carbs are ENERGY.
Firstly, carbohydrates are not necessary for our survival unlike fats and proteins. You can literally never eat another carb as long as you live, and you’ll live just fine assuming you eat enough calories from fat and protein to maintain your base metabolic rate.
Throughout 2011 and beyond, we’ve seen a historic rise in the low carb (and even “anti carb”) fad diets out there like paleo, KETO, a resurgence of Atkins, etc etc. Most of the quacks and gurus trying to pedal this form of eating will try to prioritize a hormone “reset” as the reason why so many people will lose weight on these kinds of diets. But the truth is, restricting carbs will lead to a very simple and easy way to reach a calorie deficit, and will also allow your body to shed water weight quickly. That’s all fine and dandy, and there are actually studies and evidence that shows cutting out carbs can help a portion of the population (specifically people who suffer with epilepsy).
However, for the majority of humans, we can utilize carbohydrates for unmatched levels of energy and performance. Carbohydrates are easily digestible for our body, and we can therefor easily recruit and utilize them for energy (go back to the nerdy definition above… “and typically can be broken down to release energy in the animal body”).
Quick sidenote: I wrote a blog post about performance nutrition that deals with a lot of food timing things. If you want to read that, check that out here.
Want to know why endurance athletes use “goos and gels” during their long runs? Quick energy from glucose and sugar (aka, carbohydrates). Carbohydrates convert to glycogen in our muscles, and our glycogen storages (often known as “water weight”) are what our bodies will naturally use for energy.
So yeah, your friend might have lost 5 pounds of water weight in a few days by doing KETO, but without a doubt their energy was low, performance was low, and they didn’t have the ability to eat freshly baked bread (Life’s too short to do keto).
Let’s reframe our thinking around carbohydrates. These can be used for ENERGY, and they should be thought of in that way. We eat them to fuel performance and energy levels throughout the day!
Carbs help you consume MICROnutrients.
Carbohydrates and carb based foods contain important nutrients, minerals, vitamins, and fiber that prove to be useful for a healthy life. Fruit is a carbohydrate. While not essential to eat for survival, a daily serving of fruit can help you achieve all of the daily recommended vitamins and minerals without needing to take a multivitamin supplement.
Take an apple for example. We’ll use the nutrient facts of a Granny Smith apple, because those are the greatest apples ever.
An average size Granny Smith (around 245g whole), will contain approximately:
- 95 calories
- 24 carbohydrates
- 19 grams of sugar (which will be used as energy)
- 2 milligrams of sodium
- 4 grams of dietary fiber
And it’s important to note all of the smaller nutrients that are involved in a simple apple as well. The top 4 would be:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
With it’s high concentration of dietary fiber and nutrients, incorporating 1 Granny Smith apple a day has been linked to lowering LDL cholesterol, reducing the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes, and promoting digestive health due to a compound called pectin found in the apple. Pectin acts as a prebiotic which promotes health gut bacteria, and helps you be more regular!
But yeah, your neighbor selling a pyramid scheme said that apples are bad? Miss me with that ‘ish!
Lists like this can be found for almost all fruits, and other carbohydrate sources. Shoot, even my HEB tortillas have 2 grams of dietary fiber, along with calcium, iron, and potassium. Carbohydrates are a fantastic way to get some health and nourishment for your body.
Carbs are… well… delicious. Delicious foods can help you stay consistent.
If you’ve been around me for more than 5 seconds, you’ve probably heard me say something along the lines of “consistency is key.” This cliche is right on the money, and something that I firmly believe in.
Sure, you could go keto for 21 days and lose a lot of water weight, but as soon as you even sniff a piece of pizza on day 22, your glycogen storages will fill right back up and that water weight is here to stay.
However, if we can incorporate a manageable amount of carbohydrates into our diet each week (I’m a big fan of 30-40% of your daily calories coming from carbohydrates), then we can stay consistent with our food intake and not feel like we have to crash diet our way to health only to be met with the inevitable rebound.
70-80% of your diet should consist of whole, nutrient dense foods. These would be fruits and veggies, animal proteins, and naturally occurring fats. But that other 20-30%? That can be some delicious food that some people might view as “bad.” In reality, they aren’t bad as long as they’re fitting in your daily calorie requirement, and ya know, aren’t laced with rat poison. Most of these “bad foods” or “treats” are demonized at large by people, but they don’t realize that if incorporating these foods (usually carbs) help you stay on track with your overall calorie intake each week, you are actually far healthier than the person that feels the need to avoid anything that looks like fun.
Your weekly consistency with your calorie intake over years and years of time is far more important for your overall health than doing a white-knuckle challenge that leaves you feeling deprived, angry, resentful, and in the perpetual state of yo-yo crash dieting.
By embracing carbs, you can literally change your entire relationship with food, and live a much happier and objectively healthier life.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this series when we take a deep dive into protein.