Food Chemistry Basics: Proteins, Fats, and Carbs (part 2) - Macronutrient Ratios - RDAs

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2.2 RDAs

The US public health authorities also publish Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for each macronutrient (such as the RDA for carbohydrates—130 grams per day for adults).

You’re probably familiar with the RDAs for vitamins and minerals. They are essentially a suggested “minimal amount for health.” For example, the RDA for carbs is based on the brain’s need for glucose.


Your brain accounts for around 5 percent of your body weight, but grabs about 20 percent of your calories—mainly glucose, but also ketones, a byproduct of metabolizing fats for energy. That’s a very impressive, “greedy” detail of our metabolism; if you take in 3,200 calories per day, your brain is getting about 640 calories.

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Now we’re going to move into a discussion about each of the three macronutrients.

Food molecules are like Legos. They are small molecules bonded or stuck together to make more complex ones. Starch, for example, is a big polymer or chain containing many monomers, which are glucose or sugar molecules. When you eat and digest these substances, the digestive enzymes split apart the connections between the pieces and separate them so that they can be absorbed into the body through the small intestine.

The small intestine cannot absorb whole protein, carb polymer, and fat molecules; they all have to be split up by digestive enzymes first, so the substances you are actually absorbing are glucose and other sugar monomers, amino acids (from proteins), and fatty acids (from triglycerides, the storage form of fat).

Carbs are polymers of glucose molecules. Proteins are made up of an often-complex configuration of amino acids. Fats, when you eat them in food, are composed of a glycerol molecule attached to three fatty acids in an “E” shape. These are the original Lego structures.

What about Coffee?

If you’re like me, coffee is almost a major macronutrient for you. But can you stay fit drinking a lot of coffee? It depends what you define as a lot. A moderate amount—a couple of cups or a to-go mug early in the day—is probably harmless. In fact, many studies say it’s good for you.

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Coffee is metabolized very quickly and obviously is stimulatory for the central nervous system. Caffeine is actually considered a kind of supplement for athletes. A strong cup of coffee or tea is a suitable supplement before a sprint, a weightlifting session, or even a longer event. Caffeine mobilizes free fatty acids and acts as a central nervous system stimulant.

People who drink coffee seem to have “reductions in the risk of several chronic diseases,” according to “Coffee and Health: A Review of Recent Human Research,” a 2006 article in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. Coffee actually contains some micronutrients in small amounts, such as the all-important mineral magnesium.

Coffee’s downsides? The obvious jitteriness you get from too much caffeine and too little kicking up of the heels.

Coffee also decreases the heart rate (in my own experience, my resting heart rate (RHR) might go from 52 to 46 or lower after a few cups of joe) and increases blood pressure—so if you’ve got a little hypertension, coffee might not be a great thing.

Coffee is also very addictive (with its own withdrawal symptoms—people talk about headaches, but I haven’t experienced them because I haven’t withdrawn yet), like that other bean, chocolate. Coffee will really mess with your sleep, and people differ in their sensitivity to it. Try drinking a big mug after 3:00 PM and see what it does to your sleep waves on a Zeo chart; you might have less REM or deep sleep, or you might simply have less sleep.

Given the number of studies they’ve conducted on coffee and caffeine, “the most popular drug in the world,” it seems like researchers have had plenty of opportunities to find something really bad about it, and so far they haven’t. As long as they don’t, I’m going to continue to enjoy my morning dark roast.

We’ll start our more specific introduction to food chemistry with carbs.

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