Macronutrients In Every Meal

I always say that the term “healthy diet” is a political term.  After all, the USDA Food Pyramid is nothing but politics.  Whoever lobbies the hardest, or pumps the most research into biased “scientific” studies gets their desired place on the pyramid.  Of course, things are getting better (in my opinion), in regard to the pyramid, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to promoting quality and strategy.

Without going into another rant about denatured “bastardized” foods available on the market, I’d like to write about the roles of macronutrients in the diet, and how they should be a part of every meal.

A macronutrient is an essential substance required in relatively large amounts by a living organism.  A micronutrient, on the other hand, is a substance required in relatively small amounts–like vitamins and minerals.

What qualifies as a human macronutrient varies according to who’s talking about it, but the list looks something like this: fat, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, and water.  In this article, I will focus mostly on the first three.  By focusing your attention on the first four, and eating them from quality sources, as few people need a better understanding of water.

Fat (Lipids)

Fats/lipids are a group of compounds that are generally soluble in organic solvents and generally insoluble in water.   The include triglycerides, phospholipids, and sterols.  In the diet, 95% of lipids are fats and oils (in the body, 99% of stored lipids are triglycerides, that is, three fatty acids attached to a glycerol backbone.

Fatty acids come in three forms: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated.  These levels of “saturation” are determined by how many hydrogen atoms are attached to the chain of a particular fat–and chains vary in length as well.

No need to concern yourself with the chemistry.  Think of it this way: saturated fats are solid at room temperature, unsaturated fats are liquid.  Keep it simple.

Lipids are the most concentrated source of energy, packing 9 calories per gram (because of this, many people try to avoid fat in order to lose weight, since it is easy to overeat on certain types of fat).  Fats are involved in the following:

  • Cellular membrane structure and function
  • Precursors to hormones
  • Surrounding, holding, and protecting organs
  • Regulation and secretion of nutrients in cells
  • Insulating the body from environmental temperatures and preserving body heat
  • Initiating the release of the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK), which contributes to feelings of satiety*
  • Prolonging the digestive process by slowing the stomach’s secretion of hydrochloric acid*
*Fat is digested and absorbed quite slowly (by without great digestive effort), and therefore remains in the stomach longer than carbohydrates or proteins.  For this reason, it leaves you feeling fuller, longer.  When you eat fat, it’s like throwing a big log on the fire–it is slow to burn, and gives you hours of lasting, consistent heat (energy).

Protein

Proteins are polymer chains of amino acids linked together by peptide bonds.  They must be broken down into their separate amino acids before the body can make use of them.  Of the 20 essential and nonessential amino acids, only 8 essential amino acids (ones the body cannot make on its own) are necessarily derived from the diet.

A “complete” protein is any protein source that contains all 8 essential amino acids.  Animal sources of protein are complete–plant sources are often incomplete (or low) in some amino acids.

Amino acids from protein are needed for the following:

  • Synthesizing body-tissue protein
  • Providing glucose for energy (if needed)
  • Contributing to fat stores (not always)
Amino acids will not be used to build protein if:
  • There is not enough available energy from carbohydrate or fat
  • If essential amino acids are lacking or consistently too low
  • There is an excess of too much necessary protein (and they will be excreted from the body instead)
Chronic high protein intake diets can lead to:
  • Calcium depletion
  • Fluid imbalance
  • Hunger
  • Slower metabolism (due to insufficient fat and carbohydrates)
  • Energy loss
Protein is found in the majority of foods.  While animal sources are “complete,” plant sources are cleaner sources of protein, promote better health, and should never be discounted.  In any diet, it is important to consume a variety of foods, in order to consume a variety of vitamins and minerals.  Under the same concept, it is important to consume a variety of plant foods, to ensure a variety of essential amino acids–if one chooses a meatless or vegan diet.
With each meal, be sure to have a variety of foods, to ensure sufficient amino acid consumption.
Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the chief source of energy for the body and all of its functions.  They are compounds consisting of a carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.   They fall under three classifications: sugar, starch, and fiber.
Sugars are carbohydrates, and they come in two forms: monosaccharides (single units–glucose, fructose, galactose) or disaccharides (double units–sucrose, lactose, maltose, etc.).  Sugars digest quickly and are typically burned up rapidly in the blood stream and by the brain, unless consumed in excess .
Multiple sugars can connect together to make starches–longer chains of carbohydrates.  These typically take longer to digest (unless “pre-digested” through processing), and provide longer, steadier burning energy.  Starches, particularly refined ones, are easy to over-consume and as result, contribute to fat storage.
Because they are the chief source of energy for the body, rapid depletion (burning) of carbohydrates, or carbohydrate restriction, will lead to continual cravings for this macronutrient.  
Fiber is a non-digestible form of carbohydrate and is essential for optimal health:
  • It provides bulk in the diet, thus increasing satiety (some fibers delay the emptying of the stomach, subduing a potent hunger hormone, ghrelin)
  • Prevents constipation
  • Maintains good intestinal mobility
  • Aids in prevention of bacterial infections
  • Reduces risk for heart disease by lowering blood cholesterol (certain fibers bind with cholesterol compounds and sweep them out of the body; may also inhibit production of bad cholesterol)
  • Regulates body’s absorption of glucose (sugar)
With every meal, it is important to include a carbohydrate that has not been stripped of its fiber.  White flours, added sugars, and peeled starchy root vegetables should be avoided, as the removal of fiber adulterates normal digestive breakdown of these foods, leading to numerous metabolic externalities within the body.  Never remove the fiber from food.
In Sum:
Every meal should be eaten in balance.  Carbohydrates, fat, and protein should be eaten with every meal.  This ensures slow, consistent digestion and energy throughout the day.  Carbohydrates should not be avoided, as they are the body’s primary fuel source.  Avoid carbohydrates that have been stripped of their fiber.  Fat should accompany the meal, to slow the digestive process and increase levels of satiety.  Protein is present in most foods, but it is important to eat a variety of foods, so that all essential amino acids can be obtained (as well as vitamins and minerals).

Training Your Metabolic Pathways (part 1)

Here’s a crash course in exercise physiology.

Whatever you eat, and however you exercise, your body ultimately gets its energy from a molecule called ATP, which stands for adenosine tri-phosphate. Imagine a little three-leaf clover; each leaf is a phosphate.  Your body pops one of these leaves and energy is released, rendering that clover a di-phosphate (only two phosphates are left).  Your metabolism looks around for something to replace that third leaf.

You may think that you get energy from calories–”fuel”–and that you burn whatever goes in when you’re exercising.  While this is true in a broad sense, it is far more complicated than that.  The metabolism (the rate/way in which you burn energy) is a very sophisticated and complex thing.  It is dynamic, and it has different strengths and weaknesses, depending on who you are; it can also be trained and adapted, just like your body.

There are four metabolic pathways for energy production:  aerobic liposis, aerobic glycosis, anaerobic glycosis, and ATP-CP. Depending on your demand for energy, your metabolism will select one or two metabolic pathways.

When your body is looking for ATP, it can derive it from different complex chemical processes (pathways).  The first and most basic of these is aerobic liposis.  (Liposis>lipid>”fat”).  Your metabolism finds free fatty acids circulating in your blood, combines it with oxygen, and can convert it into energy. This process, however, is complicated and time-consuming, and will not suffice when the body has a high energy demand.  Hence, aerobic liposis is used during non-exercise (that is, day-to-day life and activities), and very low intensity exercise (your heart rate can be elevated only a little bit).

The next pathway is aerobic glycocsis.  (Glycosis>glycogen>glucose>”sugar”).  Glycogen is sugar stored in your muscles and a few of your organs, and the average person can store about 1,500-2,000 calories of glycogen.  Glycogen is combined with oxygen to derive ATP.  You can think of glycogen as your fuel; and your muscles and organs, as your fuel tank. When exercising, your body depletes this fuel.  After exercising, you must eat (carbohydrates) to re-fill the tank.

The third pathway, anaerobic glycosis, generates ATP without the use of oxygen.  You can imagine red-lining your car, ripping through your fuel reserves, and smelling something hot and dirty from your vehicle’s effort.  The amount of glycogen needed for this effort is significantly higher, but because oxygen cannot be utilized, you get a nasty, burning by-product called lactic acid.  Lactic acid is what makes exercise burn; the effort from this kind of exercise can significantly wear down muscle tissue (this is not necessarily a bad thing).  At home, you’re exhausted, your body is humming, and you are hungry.  This “afterburn” from exercise is when weight loss and body re-composition happy. Your body scrambles around, looking for something to convert into glycogen (whatever carbohydrates you eat), and also goes around building and re-arranging proteins, to make your lean tissues bigger and stronger–more prepared, in case it ever has to do that exercise again!

The final pathway, ATP-CP, provides the most explosive energy to your body.  ATP stands for adenosine tri-phosphate. CP stands for creatine phosphagen. Basically, when that third leaf on the clover pops (ATP turns into ADP), the body goes immediately to rob that “P” from CP, to rebuild ADP to ATP.  Unfortunately, the body has extremely limited amounts of CP.  Energy from this system is provided for seconds only.

So, how can you train these systems?

Aerobic glycosis is any sustainable activity lasting anywhere from 20-90 minutes.  Even longer, if you are a seasoned endurance athlete. This system is trained by exercise like running, rowing, swimming, or general bodyweight and resistance exercises with high repetitions.

Anaerobic glycosis is a much less sustainable activity, that can last minutes only.  This can be anything from strength training (8,10, 12 repetitions) to intervals, to Fartlek training, Tabata intervals, to sprinting, to jumping.  Each effort is full tilt,and recovery time between efforts is ample.

The ATP-CP system provides energy for merely seconds.  Explosive and full-body recruitment exercises train this system.  Examples include some plyometrics, max-out lifting, 10 second sprints/intervals, throwing, etc.

**Note: seldom is the body ever exclusively in one pathway or anotherIn fact, the body has a tendency to blend them.  For example, at rest, the body taps into its aerobic lipolitic (fat burning system), but might rely on the aerobic glycolitic system for up to 30% of its energy needs as well.  A multi-step full out effort, such as a Turkish get-up, might switch between ATP-CP and anaerobic glycosis.  Endurance lifting will certainly spread over aerobic and anaerobic glycosis.

Each system can be trained and adapted.  The more endurance activities you do, for example, the more you will be able to do later.  By keeping your body on a bobble between aerobic and anaerobic intensities, you eventually condition your body to accept more work (hence, you become more fit).

How?  One way is by increasing the number of mitochondria in your muscles.  Mitochondria are basically the “lungs” of your cells, and accept more oxygen.  The more oxygen your muscles can accept, the more energy they can deliver towards an effort.  This is one reason why it is important not to do the same exercise all the time, as your body becomes more and more efficient.  To make gains in fitness, you must always seek new ways to challenge yourself.

To be continued…

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