Wellness Wednesday: Fat, Protein & Carbs - Understanding Macronutrients

Although I like to focus on food, rather than nutrients, fat, protein and carbohydrate are confusing topics for many people. Get simple, rational and realistic answers to all your questions about the role macronutrients play in the diet and how to figure out what eating pattern is right for you. 

There must have been something on Dr. Oz, because lately I've gotten a ton of questions about fat, protein and carbs, namely, people wanting to know which one is best. With various talking heads praising the benefits of diets ranging from paleo to ketogenic to 80/10/10, it's no wonder there's confusion. Even though I like to think of food as food, not as nutrients, I think understanding the basics of the macronutrients - fat, protein and carbs - is important for digesting (pun intended) all the different diet advice you hear.

So, I decided to write a post to answer all those FAQs! If you have a question you don't seen included, let me know in the comments and I'll be more than happy to answer it for you.

First of all, what are fat, protein and carbohydrates?

Fat, protein and carbs are three macronutrients. All macronutrients break down to provide energy, or calories. The term "macro" means large, meaning these nutrients are needed in large amounts. This is opposed to micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, which are equally important, but only needed in small amounts for health.

Fat is a compound made from fatty acids. Besides being a rich source of energy, fats play many essential roles in the body. Fat is needed to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E and K. The body also needs fat to form hormones. Fats also supports healthy skin and hair and is essential to brain health, since the brain is made of 60% fat.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Most people are aware that protein is needed to build muscle, but it has many other functions as well. Protein is sometimes called the action molecule, since proteins carry out the duties specified by genes and as enzymes.

Carbohydrate is made of sugar. Not table sugar, but the chemical compounds monosaccharides and disaccharides. It is the main source of energy for the body. It's also a component of many structures within the body including RNA and DNA.

Where are fats, proteins and carbohydrates found?

Generally speaking, most foods contain a combination of macronutrients, rather than being made of only fat, protein or carbs. For example, although carbohydrate is the main macronutrient in kale, it also contains protein and even a small amount of fat. But as a general rule of thumb, these are the foods most associated with each macronutrient.

FAT // butter, oils,meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, avocado, nuts & seeds, olives

Most nutritious choices: extra virgin olive oil, nut oils (i.e. peanut, walnut, etc), fatty fish, coconut oil, avocado, nuts & seeds, olives, grassfed/pastured and organic animal foods

CARBOHYDRATES // grains (both whole and refined), vegetables (both starchy and nonstarchy), dairy, beans, fruit, added sugars

Most nutritious choices: intact whole grains, starchy vegetables, nonstarchy vegetables, beans, fresh whole fruit

PROTEIN // meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts & seeds, dairy, beans, tofu/tempeh, meat alternatives

Most nutritious choices: beans, nuts & seeds, fatty fish, pastured eggs, tofu/tempeh, grassfed and organic animal foods

How much fat, protein and carbs should you eat?

I hate this question, because honestly, I don't know, nor does anyone else. According to the Daily Reference Intakes developed by the Institute of Medicine, this is the percentage of calories from each macronutrient recommended in healthy diets:


PROTEIN: 10-35%

FAT: 20-35%

As you can see, these are pretty wide ranges. A larger, more active person with higher calorie needs aiming for 65% carbohydrates would have much higher needs than a smaller, less active person aiming for 45%. Then, to mix it up even further, calorie needs are pretty close to impossible to estimate, and change on a daily basis based on sleep, activity levels and stress.

Also, these percentages are debatable. Various diets recommend ranges higher and lower than these basic recommendations and some people not only survive, but thrive on these eating patterns. For example, the low fat, vegan diet recommended by Dr. Ornish is so successful at treating and reversing heart disease that it's one of the few dietary interventions covered by insurance. But, it's higher in carbohydrate and lower in fat and protein than the those ranges. And the ketogenic diet, successfully used to treat epilepsy in children, contains almost no carbohydrate and a whopping 85% fat.

Here's my take: for most people, the majority of your calories should come from carbohydrates. It's the body’s main source of energy, plus, carbohydrates are found in the actual foods we should be eating the most of - plants. Although different things might increase our needs for different nutrients, for example, recovering from an injury or surgery would increase protein needs.

That said, I don't recommend counting grams of carbs, protein, fat, or even calories for that matter. We eat food - not nutrients. Counting grams of fat, protein and carbs, even when an online food diary is doing the math for you, is distracting, tedious and promotes disordered eating habits. Aim for balance within meals, practice some gentle nutrition, and over time, you’ll get the right amount for you.

Which is best - fat, protein or carbohydrates?

That depends on what you mean. If you're asking which nutrient we should be eating most of, for the majority of people, that's carbohydrate (from nutritious, unprocessed plants of course!). Plants should be the bulk of what you eat, and plants all contain carbohydrate, so it makes sense. But are carbs healthiest? Or is it fat or protein?

We all need adequate amounts of fat, protein and carbohydrate for our body to function and feel it's best. A well-balanced meal contains fat, protein and carbs. Each plays different roles in the body and are essential for health. So, I would say fat, protein and carbohydrates are all equally important.

But then there's the question of what's right for you. Different people with different bodies and different activity levels and different genetics thrive on different macronutrient balances. For example, I feel my best when I'm getting plenty of fat and carbs in my diet. Because of that, I tend to emphasize foods that contain these macronutrients. That's why I love things like avocado on sprouted grain bread, cook with copious amounts of olive oil, and snack on fruit with nut butter on an almost daily basis (that is, if my hubs doesn't get to the nut butter first :) )

And that's not to say I eat high fat/carb every day, or exclusively eat high fat/carb foods. I choose foods I enjoy that make me feel good. Some days I might eat higher in protein and start the day with a tofu and veggie scramble and end with roasted salmon on a bed of greens. It depends on what I want and often times, what I have on hand.

Although a registered dietitian can give you guidance by looking at your health, activity levels and other factors, only you know what balance is right for you. And you can learn this by tuning into your body with mindfulness. Slow down when you eat. Pay attention to how you feel not just while you're eating, but afterwards. Don't be afraid to experiment with your diet, not with the aim of losing weight, but to see how you feel. It's one thing to try a low carb diet to drop pounds (a strategy that generally backfires) but reducing your carb intake to see how you feel might help you determine a pattern of eating that works for you.

Prescribing to the the rigid rules dictated by diets forces you to ignore your individual needs. The human body has evolved to adapt to a variety of diet patterns - that's arguably the reason we've become so successful as a species. As a whole, there's no one right diet or eating pattern. Maybe one day we'll get to the point where a simple blood test or cheek swab will tell you exactly what's right for you to thrive and feel your best, but science isn't there yet. Even if it was, the test wouldn't take into account what foods you love and bring you joy, something I think is equally important for health and wellbeing.

The moral of the story? Pay more attention to what your body is telling you than macronutrients.

Kapeesh? What other lingering questions about protein, fat and carbs do you have?