Proteins, Carbs & Fats….Oh my!
You’ve heard that a balanced meal contains appropriate serving sizes of proteins, carbohydrates (carbs) and healthy fats. But….so many questions are swirling in your head…..What is protein? What function does protein serve in my body? Which foods are rich in protein? Why do I need carbs? What are “smart” carbs? What fats are healthy/unhealthy? What is an appropriate serving size? Arggghhhhh!
So you give up and go back to winging it. Sound familiar?
This guide will help lead you out of the “spooky dark forest” of unanswered questions so you can become a wizard at building healthy, balanced meals and know why you’re doing it.
The basics of proteins, carbs and fats and how to determine appropriate serving sizes of each for a healthy, balanced meal:
- Proteins are critical for nearly every metabolic process in your body from the provision of energy to the creation of structural and functional components in your cells.
- Structural proteins form most of the solid material in the human body including muscles, bones, hair, nails, tendons, and skin.
- Functional proteins help carry out activities and functions in the human body; for example hemoglobin is a functional protein in red blood cells to transport oxygen in the blood.
- Proteins are made up of many different combinations of 22 basic building blocks called amino acids.
- When we consume foods containing protein they are broken down in the digestive tract into individual amino acids which are then absorbed into our bodies. These amino acids are then recombined into proteins specific to each individual person in a process called protein synthesis.
- Essential amino acids are those that our bodies cannot produce; we need to get these 10 amino acids from the foods we eat.
- Consuming enough protein helps promote satiety and maintains a healthy body composition and immune function.
- Animal sources of protein are generally “complete”; in other words they contain all 22 amino acids needed to build new proteins in the body. These complete proteins rank the highest on protein quality measures and come from meat, fish, poultry, eggs & dairy products.
- Vegetable sources of protein (beans, legumes, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts & seeds) are generally “incomplete”; they lack one or more of the “essential” amino acids. However, these food items also offer healthy fiber, vitamins and minerals. Generally a complete protein can be created by combining different incomplete proteins such as rice and beans.
- Carbohydrates are the main energy source for human activity and proper organ function.
- There are three main categories of carbohydrates in foods; Sugar, fiber & starch.
- All carbohydrates are made up of units of sugar. There are two types of carbohydrates, those made of simple sugars (containing only one or two sugar units) and complex carbohydrates (made of long-chains of simple sugars bonded together).
- Simple sugars are sweet in taste and are broken down quickly in the body producing a rapid increase in blood sugar levels. As blood sugar levels rise, the body produces insulin which is a hormone that signals cells to either use the excess sugar as energy or to store it. Simple sugars are found in fruits (fructose), vegetables (fructose), and milk products (galactose & lactose). These natural sources of simple sugar contain other healthy benefits including the supply of essential vitamins and minerals. Simple sugars are also abundant in less healthy processed food choices (cake, candy, cereal, fruit juice, pop etc.) which provide a lot of energy but offer very few healthy nutrients.
- Complex carbohydrates (starches and fibers) generally break down more slowly in the body, and thus create a much lower insulin reaction than simple sugars.
- The digestive system breaks most carbohydrates down into single sugar molecules called glucose. Glucose is the only form of sugar that can enter a cell and be used by the body. Once absorbed into the bloodstream, the human body distributes glucose to the areas where it is needed for energy or stores it as glycogen in the liver for later use. Glucose is essential to life. The brain and central nervous system prefer glucose for fuel and benefit from a continuously available supply.
- As a general rule of thumb if a product is plant-based, it would be predominantly a source of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are dominant in a large variety of foods including rice & other grains, bread, beans, pasta, dairy products, potatoes, fruits and vegetables (as well cookies, candy and pastries).
- The best sources of carbohydrates – fruits, vegetables, and whole grains – deliver essential vitamins and minerals, fiber and a host of important phytonutrients.
- The main purpose of fats in the body is to serve as a storage system and reserve supply of energy. During periods of low food consumption, fat reserves in the body can be mobilized and broken down to release energy.
- Fats are essential for the production of hormones. They are also necessary for proper digestive-tract function, proper brain function, vitamin and mineral assimilation, and for healthy cells, skin and hair.
- Eating the proper kind and quantity of fat is important for controlling body fat levels. Choose your fats carefully and eat them in moderation.
- Avoid hydrogenated fats and consume as few saturated fats and trans fats as possible as they increase the risk for certain diseases. Fatty cuts of meat, poultry skin, butter and other full-fat dairy products are high in saturated and trans fats.
- Healthy (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) fats have anti-inflammatory effects, help reduce LDL cholesterol, help control blood sugar levels and can reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes; These healthy essential fatty acids (EFA's) are found in fish, seeds, avocados, olives & nuts.
How much proteins, carbs & fats should I have in each meal?
- The answer to this question is different and unique for every individual. The most appropriate amount and combination of macronutrients to include in your daily diet depends on a multitude of factors including your age, gender, body weight, height, activity level, medical conditions as well as your personal goals.
- As a general rule of thumb, proteins should make up 10% - 35% of your daily calories; carbohydrates should form 45% - 65% of your diet (vegetables and starchy carbs combined); and healthy fats should constitute 20% - 35% of your daily nutritional intake.
- To make life simple, use your own hand as a guide for a starting point (based on 3 meals per day) then adjust portions up or down according to your meal frequency, activity levels, your goals and your results.
- For men:
- 2 palm sized portions of protein in each meal
- 2 fist sized portions of vegetables in each meal
- 2 cupped hands worth of starchy carbs in most meals
- 2 thumb sized portions of healthy fats in most meals
- For women:
- 1 palm sized portion of protein in each meal
- 1 fist sized portion of vegetables in each meal
- 1 cupped hand worth of starchy carbs in most meals
- 1 thumb sized portion of healthy fats in most meals
There you have it. You've made it to the end of the yellow brick road and now you know why it's important to include proteins, carbs and healthy fats in your diet. You also have an easy way to get started on figuring out "appropriate" portion sizes.
Feel better now?