Macronutrients are what we call the chemical compounds that make up the foods we eat. You’ve probably heard of them before - the major macronutrients are carbohydrates ( “carbs”), proteins, and fats. Along with micronutrients (minerals and vitamins) and water, macronutrients provide the energy we need to live and grow.
Let's talk carbs
Carbohydrates are the primary macronutrient that make up grains, fruits, and starchy root vegetables, like potatoes.Carbohydrates provide 4 calories of energy per gram (remember to check out this week’s Ask Dr. Bcolumn if you need a refresher on what calories are!).
Carbohydrates are our bodies’ preferred source of energy - carb-heavy foods are easily converted to glucose (sugar) to provide our tissues and cells with quick energy. We need to maintain a diet with enough carbohydrates in it to keep up the function of our nervous system, kidneys, and muscles.
Fiber - The unsung hero
Importantly, there are some carbohydrates that are indigestible - we call them fibers. Foods that are high in fiber include beans, whole grains, non-starchy vegetables (like broccoli), and fruit. Fiber is the unsung hero of the digestive system - it’s what keeps waste moving out of our bodies and helps regulate our blood sugar levels. That’s why it’s important to look for high-fiber foods when choosing which carbohydrates to eat.
Protein is the main macronutrient in meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products, and can also be found in vegetarian sources, like nuts, seeds, legumes (think peas, lentils, and chickpeas), and soy products. Like carbohydrates, proteins provide your body with 4 calories of energy per gram. It’s very important to get enough protein in your diet to maintain growth, repair damaged tissue, keep up the function of your immune system, and to provide the foundation for essential hormones and enzymes.
Proteins are unique in that they are made up ofamino acids- chemical compounds that are sometimes known as the ‘building blocks’ of proteins. Amino acids can be classified asnonessentialandessential- but that’s not to do with how important they are in our bodies. Instead,nonessentialamino acids are those that our body can produce on its own, even if the food we eat doesn’t contain them.Essentialamino acids, on the other hand, are those that our bodycannotproduce on its own - we must get them from food.
Finally, fats (also known as “fatty acids”) make up asubstantial number of the calories we eat on a regular basis. Fats are found in foods like dairy, seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds, and meat. There are two types of fats found in our diet - triglycerides andcholesterol. Triglycerides are important as an extra energy source when there’s no glucose in reserve. Cholesterol is less common in our diets, but it's also important. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that exists in all cells of our bodies and its responsibility is to make hormones, vitamin D, and molecules that facilitate food digestion.
There are four different types of fatty acids.
- Saturated fatis found in foods like meat, dairy, and coconut oil. Saturated fat is distinct because it stays solid at room temperature.
- Monounsaturated fatis found in foods like olive oil, nuts, and avocados. Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and start to solidify when cooled.
- Polyunsaturated fat is found in foods like seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils. Polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and when cooled.
- Trans-fatoccasionally occurs naturally in meat. However, for the most part, trans-fat is created by people by infusing vegetable oil with hydrogen.Artificial trans-fats should be avoided because they’ve been linked to illnesses like heart disease and various cancers. Be on the lookout when looking at ingredient lists for “hydrogenated oils.”