Nutrients You Need: The Big Three
Are you confused about what you should be eating? With all the contradictory information out there, who can blame you? So let’s set the record straight, starting with a closer look at carbohydrates, fats, and protein, a group also known as the macronutrients.
To function, the human body needs the nutrients in food. Your digestive system breaks down what you eat and delivers the nutrients via the bloodstream to cells throughout your body. Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are key nutrients we obtain from food, along with fiber, water, vitamins, and minerals.
Breakdown of the Big Three
But what exactly are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and why are they so important? Let’s take a closer look at each one:
- Carbohydrates are sugars and starches found in foods like vegetables, fruit, cereal, sugar, pasta, bread, rice, and beans. Often called carbs, they are the body’s primary fuel source. One key to healthy eating is understanding the difference between favorable carbs (vegetables and fruits) and unfavorable carbs (sugar, candy, cookies, pies, cakes, and refined foods like white rice).
- Fats, like carbohydrates, have unfairly acquired a bad reputation. Fats are essential to good health, and it’s not an overstatement to say we cannot live without them. Like carbohydrates, fats provide energy, and some fats are better for us than others. Our bodies cannot produce essential fatty acids (EFAs), so we must obtain them from food or supplements containing omega-3s and omega-6s. I’ll explain these in more detail shortly.
- Protein is an essential nutrient found in every cell of the body. Your body requires a steady supply of protein to create new cells and repair old ones. In addition, protein helps to regulate many bodily functions, playing various roles, such as enzymes and hormones responsible for certain chemical reactions. Protein can also yield energy during a shortage of fats and carbs.
Clearly, each of the macronutrients is vitally important for our health. This is why I do not recommend excluding any one of these categories in diets such as the no- or low-carb approaches often touted for weight loss. Eliminating or drastically reducing carbs is a recipe for disaster, as my patient Ava discovered.
Balance Nutrients for Better Health
Based on a 2000-calorie diet, here are the target numbers for each of the three macronutrient categories, according to the federal government’s Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) guidelines. (By the way, you can find details on the nutritional content of food at this federal government website: http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/list.)
- Carbohydrates should equal 50 to 60 percent of your total daily calories. You should consume about 300 grams of carbs each day. Focus on favorable carbs from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans.
- Fat should equal 20 to 35 percent of your total daily calories. You should consume about 45 to 80 grams of fat each day. Americans tend to overdo it, so watch your fat intake. For cooking, focus on good fats, such as olive, coconut, or grapeseed oil. I also recommend omega-3 supplements to ensure you’re getting sufficient quantities of healthy essential fatty acids. For your convenience, I formulated my omega-D3 to be a stable, toxin-free source of these important nutrients.
- Protein should equal 10 to 15 percent of your total daily calories. Adult men over the age of 25 should consume about 63 grams, and women should aim for 50 grams. (For a more detailed look at protein guidelines, see below.) Most Americans consume about 100 grams of protein daily, far more than they need. If you don’t work out, the extra protein does not build muscles and is not stored; it’s simply eliminated when you urinate.
Now let’s take a closer look at each of these categories.
Confused About Carbs?
You’re not alone. Every day, I field questions from patients about carbohydrates, stemming mostly from the differences between unfavorable and favorable carbohydrates.
Unfavorable carbs include various forms of sugar and starch. Bread, white rice, pasta, candy, syrups, sodas, most cookies, prepared juice, cakes, chips, and crackers fall into the unfavorable category. These foods digest quickly and turn into sugar, so you’re likely to be hungry again soon.
Favorable carbs also consist of sugars, but they’re structured in longer, more complex chains that digest more slowly. Favorable carbs also provide fiber, which helps prevent hunger, lowers cholesterol, and aids in regularity, among other things.
I encourage my patients to eat unrefined carbohydrates, such as fruit, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. These foods are loaded with nutritious vitamins and minerals as well as fiber. Refined foods (such as prepared meals and processed, packaged fare) contain mostly unfavorable carbs with few nutrients. They are likely to digest quickly, leaving you hungry for more. Hunger from eating unfavorable carbs often leads to carb cravings, problems with blood sugar management, weight gain, prediabetes, and type 2 diabetes. In other words, a healthy diet should focus primarily on favorable carbs.
Avoiding all carbs is a popular way to diet, but here’s the problem: Carbs are closely connected to production of serotonin, an important neurotransmitter. Serotonin plays a major role in a number of areas, including the following:
- Regulating blood pressure
- Encouraging healthy sleep
- Maintaining a positive emotional state
- Moderating sensitivity to pain
- Preventing overeating
Bottom line: Complex carbohydrates are your friends and should not be eliminated from the diet.
Befuddled by Fat?
Don’t worry, most people struggle to understand if fat is good, bad, or simply confusing. And no wonder! For decades, we’ve been told that fat is bad, period.
Nowadays, we’re told to keep saturated fat (the kind found in animal products, such as meat, dairy, and vegetable shortening), to 10 percent of our total daily calories. Consuming more than that puts you at risk for significantly higher cholesterol levels, weight gain, heart disease, high blood pressure, colon cancer, and other serious health conditions. And trans fats, which are the result of hydrogenating polyunsaturated oils (e.g., shortening and stick margarine), should be avoided altogether.
Instead, focus on getting more of the good variety of fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated). But remember, all fats are high in calories and should be consumed in moderation, which means no more than 20 to 35 percent of your total daily calories.
Monounsaturated fats (from olive and canola oils plus some nuts) are more healthful than saturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats include omega-6s (found primarily in soybean, corn, sunflower, and safflower oils) and omega-3s (found abundantly in oily fish, soybeans, and flaxseeds). Most Americans already get plenty of omega-6s in the Standard American Diet (SAD), so we should make an effort to balance our polyunsaturated fat intake to include equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Yet something like 80 percent of Americans are deficient in these nutrients.
Ingesting too few omega-3s can seriously affect your health for the following reasons:
- EFAs provide the body, especially the heart, with energy.
- EFAs play a major role in the creation of healthy cell membranes, nerve cells, and hormone-like substances called prostaglandins, which we need to help deal with inflammation and pain.
- EFAs are vital to multiple bodily functions, including proper brain functions, nutrient absorption, and healthy skin and hair. Here’s a partial list of conditions caused by a deficiency of EFAs:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- High blood pressure
- Kidney disease
- Certain types of cancer
- Mental and emotional disturbances
- Digestive disorders
- Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment
EFAs are considered essential because our bodies can’t produce them, so we must obtain them from foods or supplements. Fish is the best food source of omega-3s, but the fish in supermarkets today is loaded with mercury and other toxins.
Because of this, some health authorities suggest limiting fish intake to no more than two meals per week. I’ve taken a different approach and formulated a stable product combining toxin-free EFAs with vitamin D3, another nutrient that’s often lacking among my patients. For those who don’t like fish or worry about contamination, supplementing with a product like this eliminates those issues. Simply take two grams (2,000 mg) daily. Vegetarians or those who are allergic to fish can substitute flaxseed oil. A typical dose is 1 to 2 tablespoons daily.
Bottom line: Make sure you’re getting enough EFAs, either through diet or supplements, and work on minimizing saturated fat consumption.
Perplexed by Protein?
Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are simply basic ingredients, often compared to building blocks. The 20 different amino acids can be combined in various ways. Nine of them are considered essential, meaning they must be obtained from food. The other 12 amino acids are nonessential because the body can produce them.
Fish, poultry, meat, eggs, dairy products (milk, cheese, butter, and yogurt), and soy each provide the nine essential amino acids our bodies require, which labels them complete proteins. Incomplete proteins (found in leafy greens, legumes, nuts, and grains) contain some essential amino acids, but not all.
But you don’t need to eat complete proteins, like meat or dairy, to maintain good health. Legumes, such as peas and beans, nuts, and seeds, contain many of the same amino acids, as do grains and quite a few vegetables. So you can combine these foods to make complete proteins. And no, they do not need to be eaten at the same time. So, for example, the protein in a serving of rice and beans could replace meat without shortchanging your protein needs, even if you eat the rice for lunch and the beans for supper.
As for how much protein you need, here are the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):
Recommended Dietary Allowance for Protein
Most Americans eat too much protein because we center our diets on meat and dairy products. Excessive protein can harm the kidneys and contribute to weight gain. Furthermore, protein from meat and dairy generally contains fat along with antibiotics and other chemicals fed to livestock to encourage growth, not to mention contamination that leads to food poisoning. As I mentioned earlier, I recommend eating fish for protein; but here, too, you’re most likely getting unhealthy amounts of mercury and other toxins from polluted water.
While organic meat and dairy are better choices, they can be difficult to find and may cost considerably more. To avoid those problems, I tracked down a safe and delicious, quality whey protein powder sweetened with the zero-calorie, natural sweetener stevia, and I’m now making it available to my readers.
Whey protein is derived from milk, so it contains complete amino acids and is the most readily absorbed protein you can buy. Studies show it can do the following:
- Promote fat loss when combined with fewer calories
- Protect against bone loss
- Increase or maintain lean muscle mass
- Help maintain healthy blood sugar levels
- Strengthen the immune system
Bottom line: If you’re concerned about getting sufficient quantities of quality, digestible protein, I recommend looking into whey protein powder as a healthy alternative.
Nutrition can be a confusing field rife with contradictory studies and experts who seldom agree. But I’ve found that my patients benefit from increasing their intake of essential fatty acids and complex carbohydrates. Additionally, using whey protein has helped many of them eat less meat and other animal products, resulting in better overall health. Try these simple steps to improve your diet, and see what a difference they can make.
Last Updated: August 16, 2018
Originally Published: November 27, 2012