It’s safe to assume you know that proteins, fats, and carbs are essential–they provide the energy we need to thrive in our daily lives, and you need these macronutrients to function. But what do they each do, and how much of each should you be eating?
There’s a lot of info out there, and not all of it is true. Here’s what you need to know.
This highly coveted nutrient is the one responsible for repairing and building muscle post-exercise. Generally speaking, you can consume a hefty amount of protein every day, regardless of your goals–which is not always the case for carbohydrates or fats. Protein is beneficial for those looking to lose body fat and for those looking to gain muscle. Why? Because protein has been shown to improve a variety of health markers as well as body composition (1), and it’s also been shown to improve satiety (i.e., feelings of fullness). Last but not least, the body cannot make protein on its own, which means you must get it from food.
How to eat the right amount: A majority of research suggests that in order to build or maintain muscle, you should eat between 0.68 and 1.00 grams of protein per pound of body weight (2). So, if you’re 200 pounds, you should eat between 136 and 200 grams of protein a day.
If you’re very active, you should be closer to 200 grams than to 136 grams.
What about meal frequency? Try your best to spread out your protein consumption throughout the day. Protein distribution isn’t more important than protein quantity by any means, but it may help slightly improve how much muscle you gain (3). For instance, having 150 grams of protein in your first two meals of the day may be less effective for muscle growth compared to having 150 grams spread out more evenly across all four of your meals.
Don’t track calories or macros? Not to worry. You can use your hand to determine portion sizes; the great thing about using your hands to measure portion sizes is that it will automatically adjust for your structure. Larger people will typically have bigger hands than smaller people, and so portion sizes should accommodate your body type (in most cases.)
For instance, one palm-sized portion of protein is equivalent to 15-30 grams of protein (depending on the source and leanness.)
For women, look to get one palm of protein with EVERY meal.
For men, look to get two palms of protein with EVERY meal.
The takeaway: Protein is in just about everything–not only the obvious sources like chicken and steak. Vegetables, beans, and other legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains all contain protein to varying degrees. Eat a variety of proteins, in appropriate portion sizes, spread out across all of your meals, and you’ll be golden.
Carbs provide us with energy in the form of glucose (or other varieties like fructose), and although they’re important, we wouldn’t classify carbs as essential, per se. You see, your body can make glucose from protein and fat, which is why low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diets can be sanely recommended in the first place.
Before you start to think you’d be better off without them, know that carbs are not the enemy in healthy eating. Whole foods that are higher in carbohydrates tend to be the most healthful. Many carbohydrate sources are chock-full of micronutrients, phytonutrients, and fiber. These are veggies like broccoli, kale, and spinach; fruits like blueberries and apples; legumes like black beans and lentils; and whole grains like amaranth and oats.
How to eat the right amount: There doesn’t appear to be an optimal intake concerning grams per pound of bodyweight. In fact, some people seem to thrive on a lower-carbohydrate diet, while others need carb-overload to be successful.
In my next article on daily caloric needs (coming soon!), I will discuss how to calculate, with some accuracy, your carbohydrate intake for the day.
Ideally, you should consume vegetables with every meal, while eating fruits, legumes, and whole grains with some meals.
For women, look to get one cupped-hand size of carbs with MOST meals and at LEAST one cupped-hand size of veggies with EVERY meal.
For men, look to get one cupped-hand size of carbs with MOST meals and at LEAST two cupped-hand size of veggies with EVERY meal.
The takeaway: Don’t fear carbs. Instead, find what works for you and your body through trial and error. Choose whole veggies, fruits, legumes, and grains, and skip processed carbs like cereal, pasta, and sweets when possible.
Fat is healthful, plain and simple. Much like carbohydrates, fats tend to get a bad rap even though they’ve been proven healthy time and time again. Dietary fats play a huge role in the manufacturing and balancing of hormones–and they also help build and maintain the cells in the brain and nervous system.
Saturated fat (e.g., butter, coconut oil), monounsaturated fat (e.g., olive oil, peanuts, avocados), and polyunsaturated fat (e.g., salmon and other fish, nuts, seeds) all have health benefits when consumed in moderation. The big one to steer clear of is trans fat, found in products with long shelf lives like crackers, donuts, and frosting.
How to eat the right amount: Consume all fats in moderation relative to carbohydrate intake. Ensure you’re getting adequate saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats from whole food sources, preferably from naturally-farmed livestock (e.g., grass-fed cows), raw nuts and seeds, and extra-virgin oils.
For women, look to get one thumb-sized portion of fat with MOST meals.
For men, look to get one to two thumb-sized portions of fat with MOST meals.
The takeaway: Like carbs, there isn’t necessarily a research-proven recommendation when it comes to how much fat one should consume. But since carbohydrates and fats primarily act as energy sources, it’s safe to assume that when carbohydrate intake is high, fat intake can be lower, and vice versa.
The Bottom Line:
- Consume whole foods, in moderation, and pay attention to how those foods make you feel.
- Don’t overemphasize the importance of one macronutrient over the other–they’re all important.
- You can find evidence to condemn practically any food if you try. Instead, focus on balance, picking foods from each category, and eating a wide variety.
Brian Murray, FRCms, Pn2