I think understanding the basic principles of nutrition is important for anyone, seeing as how everyone presumably eats every day. I see people who are completely ignorant of nutrition and give it zero thought, just putting whatever into their bodies. I figure a good starting point is to understand the information given to you on packages, which I will try to explain here. Reading this will let you understand what someone means when they are counting their macros. I won’t give specific diet advice because I am not knowledgeable in that area. I just know the science behind it.
Here is an example from 2% milk. Make sure to look at the portion size and compare it to the package. This is what is in 250 mL of milk and might be placed on a 500mL carton. Companies like to list nutrition information for only a part of the package because the amount of calories will not look as big. You might need to adjust the information based on how much you are actually going to consume.
Calories is at the top and is the piece of information most people are familiar with. You need a certain amount of calories everyday to maintain your weight, if you eat less than this you will lose weight, if you eat more you will gain weight. It is recommended you eat only slightly above or below based on what you want your body to do. If you try to drastically cut your calories your body will find ways to conserve energy lowering your maintenance calories making it harder to lose weight. There are online calculators that can give you a good idea of what you’ll need but everyone is different. If you want to figure out your maintenance calories track what you eat normally while you maintain the same weight. Then if you want to lose or gain weight start increasing your daily calorie consumption by a 100 or so and seeing how that affects your weight change.
Calories are given far too much attention in marketing though. While it is true that you can cut out calories and lose weight that doesn’t mean we will look good or be healthy and strong. Not only do we want to weigh a certain amount we also want to have a proper proportion between fat and muscle. This is why counting calories is not enough and we need to pay attention to macros.
The three macros are fats, carbohydrates and protein. A good rule of thumb to know is that 1g of fat has 9 calories and 1 g of carbohydrates or protein has 4 calories. If we keep track of our macros we indirectly keep track of our calories as well.
The most misunderstood macro is fat. Since fat is dense in calories removing it from food can bring down the calorie content making it easy to market as “healthy”. This is unfortunately misguided, fats are an essential part of a diet. Your body uses fats to make cell walls and important hormones. Also vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat soluble vitamins and might not be absorbed properly without fat. Further more your body is more likely to burn fat instead of store when compared to carbohydrates. There are many different types of fat and the details are beyond the scope of this post. Saturated fat is bad and trans fat is the worse. These are found in processed foods because they stay good for longer since they are harder for bacteria to digest. They are also harder for you to digest. We want unsaturated fat, which can be inferred by subtracting saturated and trans fat from the total fat.
Since fat is so important for your body it may still feel hungry if you don’t eat it. If you want to lose weight don’t cut out fat because it means fewer calories. Fat is important for good health and makes you feel full making your diet easier to stick to. Fat free foods are not ideal to lose weight with, despite the advertising.
Carbohydrates are the second macro. This includes sugar and starches. Generally if you want to lose weight you will want to reduce your carbohydrates while keeping you fat and protein constant. If you want to gain weight increase your carbs. Carbohydrates are your bodies preferred fuel and are generally broken down to give you energy. There are two types of carbs, starch and sugar.
A starch is a bunch of sugar molecules linked together in a chain. Since your body has to break down this chain a starch slowly releases sugar into your body giving you steady energy. Sugar is already broken down causing a sudden spike in your blood stream. Your body must maintain a careful balance of sugar in your blood stream at all times so causing a sudden spike is not a good thing. If your body sense there is too much sugar in your blood stream it will push it into cells where it will get turned into fat instead of being burned. This means we want to eat starch instead of sugar for our carbohydrates. Generally starches are found in whole grains and sugar in processed foods. This will help give us steady energy, prevents us from making fat and places less stress on our body.
Note that diabetes is a disease in which your body has difficulty regulating your blood sugar. Considering the terrible consequences if it is left untreated shows why its not good to cause sudden spikes in our blood sugar.
Nutrition info might not list starch content directly but it can be inferred by the total carbs and sugar content. A food with lots of carbs but little amount of sugar will be high in starch.
The last macro is protein. Generally there aren’t different types of protein from a nutrition stand point, unlike fats and carbs. From a chemical point of view proteins are much more complicated. Carbs and fats don’t do that much, they form cell walls or are burned as fuel. Protein makes all the moving parts of your body like muscle and enzymes which digest your food. A protein is like a starch in that it is a chain and each link is called an amino acid. There are 20 different types of amino acids and protein does different things based on the order of amino acids it is made out of. Any protein you digest will be broken down into amino acids and your body will then reassemble them into the proteins it needs. If you’ve been lifting it will decide it needs muscle and will use amino acids to make more muscle tissue (gains!).
If you want to put on muscle you will want to consume lots of protein since muscle is made from protein. I think the 1g of protein per day per pound of body weight is a bit much, but you certainly want to be eating enough of it. Protein will also help you feel full while not containing many calories itself. There are benefits to a high protein diet, especially if we are active.
Unfortunately protein is usually the most expensive macro to buy. If a bodybuilder ever tells you how he spends a lot on food that money is mostly going to dense protein sources. The best source of protein is meat which has a very high protein content with some fat and very little carbs. A good adage is “If you want to put on meat you have to eat meat”. The easiest way to increase your protein intake is to eat more meat. This might not be viable for everyone’s budget however.
I think eggs are probably they cheapest source of protein and have a similar protein density as meat does, making them a good food to include in your diet (they are also tasty). Milk contains a good portion of protein, although it does contain a good deal of sugar (lactose) so its not ideal if you are on a strict diet but is a good option otherwise. Also some carbs like oatmeal and beans have relatively high protein contents, by getting your carbs from these foods they can help you get a little extra protein in your diet cheaply.
Protein supplements are also a good source of protein (who’d have though?). Protein powder is generally way too expensive when I’ve seen it in stores but can be found for a reasonable rate online. Its an easy and quick way to get more protein in your diet. Understand protein powder is nothing special, its just another food that happens to be high in protein.
To eat healthy we want to eat enough of all 3 macros, fat included. We also want to ensure we are getting carbs mainly from starch and fat mainly from unsaturated fat. By controlling our macros and exercise we control our body composition. Understanding macros is the key to understanding diets.
Of course macros are not the only nutrients our body absorbs, there are also many vitamins and minerals it needs for good health. To get these we need to eat our fruits and vegetables and have good variation in our diet. Micro nutrients are important but we can’t track them with the same care as macro nutrients. If we eat healthy we should not have any issues with micro nutrients thanks to the diverse range of food made available to us by modern technology.
Personally, while I may know this stuff I don’t really apply it directly. I try to make good food choices informed by my knowledge but I’ve never followed a formal diet before. I can usually tell if I am going to be losing or gaining weight based on how I feel. If I want to gain weight I still eat when I feel full and reverse it to lose weight. I do however feel it is important to understand the basics of nutrition so we can make informed decisions about what we eat. Also I feel this knowledge can save you from being deceived by fancy marketing.
I hope you found this article informative and now better understand food nutrition labels a bit better. Feel free to leave a comment if you want clarification on anything.