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Food Chemistry Basics: Proteins, Fats, and Carbs (part 1) - Macronutrient Ratios - The Ole 30-50-20 Maneuver

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1. Empower Yourself

The nutrition world is certainly a moving target, in terms of the debates that rage on about which of the macronutrients are healthier as foci for your diet. In my humble opinion, neither the status quo public health recommendations nor the latest inflammatory food blogs are reliable enough to slavishly follow. There’s never been a better time to take the bull by the horns and do your own research.

Most geeks who are aiming for fitness have some kind of goal in mind (e.g., getting leaner, building muscle, building a baby). While we all understand that eating doesn’t require a preparatory biochemical analysis (in fact, that preoccupation would probably ruin the meal before the waiter ever brought it—particularly for your dinner partners), dietary matters do entail the constant launching of complex chemical reactions in your body, as well as providing the materials for your own cells over and over again as they are regenerated by the trillions.

Therefore, understanding some of the basics behind food constituents can only be empowering. All knowledge without coercion or propaganda is a form of personal enlightenment.

In fitness terms, by eating, you’re basically rebuilding yourself, and your level of fitness starts with nutrition.

2. Macronutrient Ratios

We’ll start by discussing what a macronutrient ratio (MR) is, because this term comes up a lot in food discussions and provides a snapshot of the contents of your typical food intake.

Some people want to fine-tune their MRs, for example, in order to add lean mass (a bit more protein and calories in general), lose some extra fat (tightly connected to the previous goal), or subtract some carbs because they’re not doing the “Race Across America” bike race anymore. The ratio falls into the “good to know” category; check on it once and you’re good to go, unless you have to radically change your dietary components.

After discussing MRs, we’ll move on to descriptions of each of the three macronutrients and what happens during digestion (because the carbs, fats, and protein that go into your mouth are reformulated—mostly ripped apart—by the time they hit your bloodstream and body cells).

2.1 The Ole 30-50-20 Maneuver

When you eat a typical meal or snack, you usually consume portions of all three macronutrients: carbs, fats, and protein. Unless you’re nibbling on a stick of butter (100 percent fat by calories), for example, your breakfast might contain carbs and maybe a tiny bit of protein (fruit); carbs and some protein (toast); or fats, protein, and perhaps a few carbs (meat and eggs).

Note

You generally don’t have to obsess over your macronutrient ratio if you aim for a variety of real food: veggies, fruits, eggs, cheese, fish, meats, sweet potatoes, nuts, rice, etc. These choices should allow for settling into a sensible and healthy ratio without knowing exactly what it is. It’s not as if a hawk ever flies up into the air with the aim to “bump up the fats in my macronutrient ratio.” With some nudging in the right direction, it should come naturally.

The MR is the breakdown of the percentage of calories taken up in the food by each nutrient, as in 30 percent carbs, 50 percent fats, and 20 percent protein. As the lingo goes, this would be a 30-50-20 ratio. Various essential micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, are in there too (hopefully!), but they are tiny by weight compared with the macros .

Figure 1 shows a FitDay (www.fitday.com) breakdown of what I had for breakfast this morning, about 460 calories worth of fried eggs, fruit, and cheese. Each of the fat grams is worth about 9 calories, while carbs and protein add up to about 4 calories each.

Note

The term kcal or “kilogram calorie” is a more precise term in nutrition than “calorie.” It means the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of a kilogram of water 1 degree Celsius. “kcal,” however, has the same meaning as “calorie” in the context of this discussion.

Eggs, fruit, and cheese for breakfast

Figure 1. Eggs, fruit, and cheese for breakfast

The MR for this small meal was 19 percent carbs, 64 percent fat, and 17 percent protein, as shown in Figure 2. The shorthand way to describe this ratio is 19-64-17. A macronutrient ratio is generally one piece of data out of a big nutrition picture. If you really wanted to analyze your nutrition inputs, you would be better off calculating the MR for a typical week of eating, along with your calorie intake (i.e., 2,400 calories per day) and perhaps your activity levels, to put all the data into a proper context.


The macronutrient ratio for a small meal, displayed on FitDay

Figure 2. The macronutrient ratio for a small meal, displayed on FitDay

In this small 460-calorie meal, the ratio of fats was much higher than carbs, even though I ate less than 10 more fat grams, because fats have more than twice the calorie or energy content of carbs. They are thus considered energy-dense foods. The wine, beer, or other alcohol you might drink (actually containing the chemical ethanol) has about 7 calories per gram.

As you may already know, recommendations for an ideal macronutrient ratio range all over the map. Figure 3 shows the MRs for a number of popular diets, including the Mediterranean, Zone, DASH, South Beach, Atkins, and Ornish eating plans. They range from high-carb diets (e.g., Ornish) to low-carb, higher protein plans, which is often another way of saying high-fat diets, because the majority of calories are obtained from fat (e.g., Atkins). Figure 3 is derived from a 2008 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition called “Alternatives for macronutrient intake and chronic disease.”

The featured eating plans differ wildly from each other; just look at Ornish (75 carbs-7 fat-8 protein) compared with Mediterranean (46 carbs-38 fat-16 protein). Each specially designed diet seems to spawn another one. I’ve often wondered why no one has invented the “Symmetrical Diet” or “Perfect Synchronicity” involving an exact partition of calories for all three macronutrients: 33-33-33. Not catchy enough? Or maybe I just haven’t looked hard enough; it must be out there.

The macronutrient ratios for several popular diets (www.ajcn.org/content/88/1/1.full.pdf+html); original caption: Macronutrient profiles of popular diets, the OmniHeart and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) study diets, the American Heart Association Therapeutic Lifestyle (AHA TLC) guidelines (5), and typical US macronutrient intakes as reported in the third Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III; 24). The eating patterns are ordered with the highest-carbohydrate diet starting on the left and the lowest on the right. The Atkins diet profile is for the life-long maintenance phase, and the South Beach diet profile is for phase 3. Small amounts of alcohol (0.2–0.8% of energy) were also present in the Ornish, Mediterranean, Atkins, Zone, and South Beach diets. Percentages may not add up to 100% because of rounding.

Figure 3. The macronutrient ratios for several popular diets (www.ajcn.org/content/88/1/1.full.pdf+html); original caption: Macronutrient profiles of popular diets, the OmniHeart and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) study diets, the American Heart Association Therapeutic Lifestyle (AHA TLC) guidelines (5), and typical US macronutrient intakes as reported in the third Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III; 24). The eating patterns are ordered with the highest-carbohydrate diet starting on the left and the lowest on the right. The Atkins diet profile is for the life-long maintenance phase, and the South Beach diet profile is for phase 3. Small amounts of alcohol (0.2–0.8% of energy) were also present in the Ornish, Mediterranean, Atkins, Zone, and South Beach diets. Percentages may not add up to 100% because of rounding.

If the numbers begin looking more and more like the offerings of a roulette wheel, then maybe constantly pondering and switching between them is equivalently meaningful to playing casino games with your food. Meanwhile, the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, a US public health authority, has produced its own guidelines involving MRs. They are called Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDRs).

Note

These are ranges of percentages that the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine recommends for each macronutrient, as follows: carbs, 45 to 65 percent for all age groups; fat, 20 to 35 percent depending on age; and protein, 10 to 35 percent. These numbers leave room for all kinds of diets, including ones dominated by carbs (65 percent), even though the accompanying comments point out that “the higher range” of carb intake leaves you open to high triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol.

For example, based on these recommendations, you could have a diet that is 65 percent carbs-20 percent fat-15 percent protein, or one that goes in a dramatically different direction: 45 carbs-30 fat-25 protein. In other words, there’s a lot of wiggle room within the conventional wisdom.

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