There’s some conventional wisdom about diet: Calories control your weight, macronutrients control your body compensation, and micronutrients control your health.
By now, everyone knows weight loss and weight gain are simply a matter of calories in versus calories out. Eat more than you need to gain, eat less to lose.
Macronutrients, on the other hand, control what that weight is going to do. For the average adult, the FDA recommends 50 grams of protein per day (based on a 2,000 calorie diet). Bodybuilders, however, have been consuming as much as a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight for quite a while. Why the difference? Because bodybuilders are attempting to build muscle, which is made of protein. While swimmers and long-distance runners, for example, have been “carb-cycling” for just as long to help their endurance. They are the building blocks of our body, and our energy sources.
Let’s look a little deeper at macronutrients.
PROTEIN is broken down into amino acids. These are the structures that bind with the glucose in your body to repair muscles – the same muscles you’ve torn down during a bit of strength training. It’s found largely in meats (including fish) and eggs, as well as legumes, which might take the form of tofu or other vegetarian-friendly fare. Each gram of protein is worth 4 calories. When building or maintaining a high amount of muscle, you should eat more than you normally would. It promotes repair and upkeep. The general rule is 0.8 to 1 gram per pound of lean body mass (your weight minus the body fat). Protein also helps satisfy hunger. Anyone who’s tried to choke down 12 ounces of chicken breast can attest to that.
CARBOHYDRATES are the main energy source of the body and also 4 calories per gram. As noted previously, carbs are the go-to fuel endurance athletes have been using, aka “carb-cycling.” Essentially, you eat a low-carb diet while training, then the day before your event you “carb load.” Your body adapts to the low-carb diet, so the instant shot of carbs puts the whole thing into overdrive. Personally, I’ve found high-carb diets difficult to maintain. I’m constantly hungry and I experience mood swings. Some newer studies have shown that high-carb diets do not promote weight reduction or maintenance in real-life scenarios. They’re primarily found in grains and vegetables, with veggies being the best source.
DIETARY FATS, the most interesting of the bunch, offer more calories per gram than the other two, weighing in at 9 calories per gram. People have generally figured, “Fat in the food is fat on the body.” Simply not true. The misconception is based on the many extra calories found in fat. Fat is very important to the body as it regulates cholesterol and testosterone production. There are, however, caveats. You don’t want to overdo saturated fats, as those do lead to high cholesterol.
RATIOS is a term you will hear tossed around where macronutrients are concerned. This relates to the portion of your intake dietary occupied by each macronutrient. Ratios are usually listed as “Carbs/Protein/Fats.” The most common recommendation is a straight 33-33-33 percent split. That makes sense from an overall healthy standpoint: enough protein to maintain muscle, carbs for energy, and fat for the regulatory factors. Bodybuilders, however, typically go for a split along the lines of 50/30/20 for bulking, or 15/45/35 for cutting. This is because you can get your protein requirements while still consuming a lot of carbs. When cutting, on a lower-calorie allotment, you eat fewer carbs, but still want to maintain the protein.
Each of these nutrients is important to building and maintaining fitness goals. Sadly, it’s also one of the hardest things to do. I use an app on my phone, My Fitness Pal, with custom ratios set up to help track all of this information. It really lessens the sting of constant math.
Brandon Harrison covers Health and Fitness for Metro Weekly. Follow him at @ttrbrandon on Twitter.
Illustration by Christopher Cunetto.