Macros, macros, macros. There is many a hashtag and catchphrase associated with this term across social media, especially on Instagram. But what exactly are ‘macros?’ Do you know? I’m sure many people are aware that macros = macro-nutrients, i.e. the basic building blocks of our diet, of which there are three – carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. But I think what’s missing is an understanding of what macro-nutrients are, and more importantly, why each one is as essential as the other in our diet.
I decided to do this post because there seems to be SO MUCH confusion and false messages around what ‘macros’ you ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be eating. For example, people adopting a ‘low-carb’ diet simply because some magazine article tells us its the secret to healthier eating and the ‘perfect’ body. Newsflash – it isn’t, and on a side note, there is no ‘perfect body’, that’s why we’re all unique! In recent months there has also been a big trend towards consuming ‘enough’ protein, and I really think this has lead to an unnecessary over-emphasis on and over-consumption of protein in our diet. And as if that wasn’t enough, for years we were told ‘fat’ was the source of all of our chronic diseases, especially high cholesterol and heart disease – but over the past decade its come to light that this isn’t the case at all. Instead, ‘low-fat’ varieties of food were pumped full of sugar to increase palatability, we over-consumed sugar and obesity rates sky-rocketed. And actually, eating the right type of fats are good for us!
So you see my point! A total headache right? So many mixed messages being thrown at us without any actual basic explanation of what exactly carbohydrates, proteins and fats ARE, where we get them, and why we need to eat all three. You might be eating a ‘low-carb, high-protein’ diet but do you actually know what means and how it affects your body? I’m sure many reading this blog do, but I wanted to post a basic explanation on the topic, because the wider we can spread honest messages about food the better in my opinion! Because this is such a meaty area, I’m gonna do a post on each ‘macro’ over the coming weeks, starting with the mostly hotly debated one – CARBS. Let’s get into it.
Disclaimer: Like I’ve said before, I’m a qualified doctor, not a nutritionist or dietitian. I have completed two online diploma courses in Sports and Exercise Nutrition (beginner and advanced) with Shaw Academy in the past 6 months, purely for my own interest and development in this area. I also read a LOT of articles online and listen to a serious amount of Podcasts and Ted Talks on many topics related to health, fitness, nutrition and metabolism. So I definitely don’t pretend to be an expert, but I am working on expanding my knowledge on these topics for my own learning and to develop these posts for you guys! 🙂
Carbohydrates: The Demonised Macro-Nutrient
(A.K.A. The one with the funniest memes about it)
Carbohydrates. The macro-nutrient that we have been given the most mixed messages about without a doubt. So the biggest questions I want to answer for you guys are:
- What ARE carbohydrates?
- What TYPES of carbohydrates are there?
- Why do I NEED them in my diet?
So let’s get into it. Carbohydrates are basically sugars, which can be simple (e.g. glucose, lactose) or complex (starch, glycogen). Some foods contain both! Carbs are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Simple sugars can be made up of one or two sugar units, while complex sugars are composed of anything over 2 sugar units up to thousands arranged in chains. The key thing I want you to understand is that carbs are our main source of ENERGY. Not only that, but our bodies find it easiest to break down and use carbs during exercise compared to protein or fats.
The more complex the carbohydrates are, the more difficult they are to breakdown, and the slower the release of this energy. We breakdown complex carbs into simple ones via our digestive system, so that we can absorb them more easily into our bloodstream for use. As a result, complex carbs tend to keep you fuller for longer, and don’t cause the same rapid spike in your blood sugar that simple carbohydrates do. The reasons carbohydrates are important are multiple, but here’s some of the big examples:
1. They are our major source of energy (both immediate and stored)
2. Adequate carbohydrate stores prevent us using our protein for energy (i.e. protein-sparing effect)
3. Carbohydrates aid fat metabolism
4. Complex carbohydrates are our main sources of fibre (see note below on fibre)
How much carbohydrate we need depends on SO many factors, and has been a topic of research for many years, which is why its definitely beyond me to discuss that here. Carbohydrate intake is measured in grams, and 1 gram of carbohydrate equates to 4 calories. It’s definitely fair to say that if you are a person who is active and exercises regularly, you will have a higher dietary carbohydrate requirement than a person who doesn’t. More than that, there are countless studies proving that adequate carbohydrate intake is a crucial factor in optimising athlete performance. But what I care more about is promoting the message that the TYPE of carbohydrates you eat is as important as how much. Let me give you some examples of what basic types there are:
- Complex Carbs: Oatmeal, brown rice, sweet potato, whole-grains, beans, nuts, seeds
- Simple Carbs: White bread/rice/pasta, cakes, biscuits, fizzy drinks, juices, fruits
Based on that list, you can see why ‘simple carbs’ are usually seen as the ‘bad carbs’, and ‘complex carbs’ the ‘good’. The exception I want to highlight here is that FRUITS are actually made up of simple carbohydrates, but they’re also packed with micro-nutrients and fibre, so in moderation, I view them as an essential part of the diet.
Why do we divide carbohydrates into ‘good’ and ‘bad’?
To answer the above question, I want to first highlight that I think we need to move AWAY from labelling carbs as good or bad, and instead understand the difference nutritionally between simple and complex carbs. The issue with simple carbohydrates is that much of these foods are highly processed with little nutritional value, and cause a rapid spike in our blood sugar levels when consumed. This would all be fine and dandy if we viewed them as an occasional ‘treat’, but in the Western diet, many of these foods have unfortunately become the basis of our meals, when really they need to be the 20% to our 80:20 rule. I do believe that the widespread availability of these ‘bad carbs’ in the form of both snacks and perceived dietary staples have been a key factor in the rapid rise of obesity rates, and the chronic diseases associated with it. But that’s for another day. Suffice it to say, I don’t believe in dividing foods into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, because that sort of attitude doesn’t promote balanced or sustainable attitudes to healthy eating. Instead, we need to focus on changing our carbohydrate intake to comprise a predominance of wholefoods – I’m talking whole-grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, etc. And lucky for you, these are mostly all sources of complex carbohydrate. To sum this up, I’ll share a brilliant quote I heard recently – ‘Real food doesn’t have ingredients. Real food IS ingredients.’ Think about it. What’s in quinoa? Quinoa. What’s in a biscuit? About 10-15 things I can’t even pronounce the name of. Let’s focus on REAL food guys, and recognise that we are also only human, and are allowed a treat now and then too!
A side note on fibre – a very good friend to your GUT:
Fibre is the fibrous substance found in fruits and vegetables, and the main thing to know is that its divided up into two types – soluble and insoluble fibre. Soluble fibre (e.g. oats, lentils, beans, fruits) CAN be digested by the body and increases the water content in your large bowel. Not to be gross, but basically this softens the ‘number twos’ (sorry). Insoluble fibre (or ‘roughage’) is made up mostly of something called cellulose. This means for the most part it passes through your bowel undigested, keeps you fuller for longer, and gives the ‘number twos’ bulk, promoting a good regular bowel habit. Examples include dried fruits, or wholegrain cereals. General advice is that we eat about 30g of fibre per DAY minimum. If that sounds like a lot, it isn’t, its a very achievable figure. For example, 1/2 cup of chickpeas has 7g of fibre. A decent fibre intake has been long-associated with a wide range of health benefits besides a healthy gut, such as lower rates of cancer, heart disease and obesity. Equally relevant to this is the fact that gut health and its effect on our general health, as well as how we think and how we respond to certain foods is a rapidly expanding area of exciting research. Keep your gut happy guys – the word out there is that it will prove more than worth your while in the future.
SO. Enough talk about guts and poop. Have I convinced you that you need carbohydrates in your life yet? As regards my own diet, I try to make sure to include a serving or two of carbohydrates at every meal, and I eat a LOT of fibre. I’m not getting into how many grams per day or any of that, because what works for me isn’t a guide for someone else. We’re all different. Plus I don’t track it. What I will say is that I stick to predominantly complex carbohydrates – my favourites are oats, sweet potato, quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice and bread varieties like rye, pumpernickel and sourdough. I’ll be honest, I steer pretty clear of simple carbohydrates with the exception of fruits (because hello, frozen banana smoothies? YES). I eat a LOT of vegetables and legumes too. And I always make sure to have carbohydrates in my post-workout meal with some protein because that’s when my body needs it most. That formula is what fuels my body best, and makes me feel healthy and happy.
And that’s a wrap guys! Hopefully that makes some sense to you all. I could rant for days about how much I DESPISE hearing people talk about ‘low-carb’ diets, because all that means to me is restricted eating and a lack of understanding. However, I’m gonna end this piece here.
I would love your feedback on this topic guys – did you find this post helpful? What’s your take on the mixed messages we get about carbs? There are SO many side-notes I could have included (e.g. carbohydrates for athletes, glycaemic load, glycaemic index) but I think it’s better to save them for another day. I am also planning to do a post on my ‘Healthy Food Swaps’ so I’ll include some carbohydrate-based options in that too. Stay tuned for coming posts on protein and fats!
Ciara 🙂 x