I was recently at a social gathering enjoying the beautiful weather and company of friends and family when I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation from nearby.
“…so like, how do I make my smoothie nutritious? Strawberries? Are they good? That’s a carb… right?”
At first I was taken back by hearing this. Wha… I mean… of course a strawberry is a carb! It’s one of the most densely nutritious fruits out there!
How do you not know this?!
But then it dawned on me… after being in the health and fitness industry for so long, what I deemed to be common sense from a nutrition standpoint… wasn’t all that common! Not everyone knows where carbs from, that protein is super important, or that fat isn’t evil.
So after this epiphany, I decided to take things back to basics. Let’s learn about nutrition, shall we?
There is an overwhelming amount of information available to you regarding nutrition. You can do a quick google search and find out all about the ketogenic diet, gluconeogensis, the thermic effect of macronutrients, and all sorts of confusion inducing terms and ideas. But before you dive deep into the nutrition rabbit hole, there is one thing you need to be aware of.
Total calories matter most. I repeat, the total number of calories you eat in a given day trumps everything else.
This is by far the most important thing you need to be aware of when it comes to eating. You can have a weight loss, weight gain, or maintenance goal… if your total calorie consumption is out of whack, nothing else matters.
So knowing this, here are a few ballpark numbers you should be aiming to eat depending on your goal.
Weight loss goal: 10 calories per pound of your ideal weight
Maintain current weight: 10-15 calories per pound of your ideal weight
Weight gain goal: 12-20 calories per pound of your ideal weight
Obviously, you can see there’s quite a range for each goal. This is because there are many factors that contribute to every individual’s caloric needs… basal metabolic rate, age, gender, activity level, genetics. No two people are alike, which is why these are just ballpark figures. Take them with a grain of salt!
So if after a few months you’re not reaching your goals, just take a look at overall calories. You might just need to make a simple adjustment to your portion sizes.
Macronutrients: the breakdown
Macronutrients are the big players when it comes to nutrition. You’ve got carbohydrates, protein, and fat. And they all have their own specific role when it comes to what they do.
Protein – 4 calories per gram
Protein is the king of the macronutrients as it is comprised of amino acids, which are essentially the building blocks of everything you’re made of. Without an adequate supply of protein, you would basically slowly but surely wither away to a shell of your current self. You’d lose muscle mass, get sick more often, and experience a severe dip in the quality of your overall health.
Protein helps build your muscles, bones, skin, organs… basically everything. So a high protein diet certainly goes just beyond looking good for the beach come summer time. It’s just an added bonus that eating more of it also helps you look better naked.
When it comes to finding quality sources of protein, the highest quality stuff will usually always come from animal sources, aka meat. Eggs, steak, ground beef, chicken, turkey, pork, lamb shank, tuna, bacon, tilapia, salmon, flounder, sea bass, cod, trout, swordfish (or any fish), crab, and shrimp are all good choices.
Essentially, if you can hunt and kill it in the wild, it’s a quality source of protein.
Now I know what a lot of you are thinking… well what about vegetarians and vegans? They can still get quality protein through plant based foods, but it’ll require a bit more effort on their end. Unlike animal sources, plant based proteins don’t contain all the essential amino acids (amino acids that cannot be made by the body), so they have to combine certain foods, like rice and beans, to ensure they get them all.
Tofu, lentils, beans, quinoa, nuts, and soy protein supplements are all quality sources of plant based proteins.
Now in terms of how much protein to eat on a daily basis, it’s a safe bet to eat 1 gram of protein per pound of your ideal bodyweight. Eat a touch less if you’re not particularly active… around 0.7 – 0.9 grams per pound of your ideal weight.
Example 1: a 170lb male who regularly strength trains, plays recreational sports, has a manual labor job, etc would need 170g of protein per day.
Example 2: a 130lb woman who has a desk job and who rarely exercises would need about 104g of protein (give or take a few grams) per day.
But if anything, it’s usually a safe bet to stay on the side of a higher protein intake as higher protein diets have been proven time and time again to help people maintain healthier weights and body compositions.
Fat – 9 calories per gram
To the uninformed, fat might come across as something to be avoided. Eat a lot of fat and you’ll get fat… can’t deny that logic, right?
But that’s far from the case.
Fat has numerous benefits in the body from fighting against heart disease, decreasing inflammation, providing your body with an ample energy source, helping you stay fuller for longer… just to name a few. Eating more fat has actually been proven to help individuals maintain healthy weights and even, brace yourself, burn more body fat.
But not all fat is created equal. Fat can be subdivided into saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and then the downright bad for you trans fat.
Right off the bat, just know trans fats are fats that should be avoided whenever possible. They are the creation of scientists looking to increase the shelf life of food and they have absolutely zero benefits for you or your body. Be on the look out for ‘partially hydrogenated’ or ‘hydrogenated’ on the ingredients list. If you see these words, that food has trans fat in it, even if the label says 0g (if a food contains less than 0.5g per serving size, the FDA doesn’t require companies to list it on the nutrition label… but it’s there!)
Next up we have saturated fats, which are solid at room temperature, like coconut oil, cream, and cheese. Saturated fats have gotten a bad rep in the last 20 or so years as claims have been made that it can increase your risk for heart disease, but it’s important to know that there is no such thing as a bad nutrient. Saturated fats have all kinds beneficial impacts on your body such as proper nerve signaling, heart health, and a functioning immune system. The important thing is to just keep those numbers in check to avoid over consuming them.
Typically you’d like around 10% of your calories to come from saturated fats on a given day. But again, take this recommendation with a grain of salt, as higher fat diets can actually be very beneficial for certain individuals based on their genetics, carb tolerance, and fitness goals.
These are the healthy fats that most of us need to consume more of. These can be further classified into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, the reasoning for which is better suited for a chemistry textbook rather than this ‘basics’ post. So for the sake of avoiding discussing double bonds between carbon atoms, just know these are good for you 🙂
Breaking things down even further, these can be broken down into omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. These fatty acids are to fat what amino acids are to protein. Some of these fatty acids are essential, meaning your body can’t produce them on its own, so it needs to obtain them through your diet. Omega 6 fatty acids are found in things like plant based oils, cooking oils, nuts, and many types of salad dressings. Omega 3’s are found in many types of fish, like salmon and tuna, as well as nuts, like walnuts.
However, many Americans over consume omega 6’s, which is why you hear so much about omega 3’s these days. An imbalanced ratio of omega 6’s to omega 3’s in your diet can be pro-inflammatory, which is believed to be a major factor of many health related issues and diseases. Supplementing your diet with a quality fish oil can help rebalance things.
But in the spirit of simplicity, just aim to consume more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated in your diet. Fatty cuts of fish, avocados, nuts, seeds, nut butters, whole eggs, and grass fed beef are all quality sources of fat.
Calories from fat should make up anywhere from 15-40% of your total daily calories. Again, it’s a sizable range because everyone is different. Genetics, gender, activity level, basal metabolic rate… all these things will determine your ideal fat intake.
*Note: fat contains nearly double the calories per gram when compared to protein and carbs. So even if you’re eating a healthy fat, still be cautious of portion sizes. Calories from fat can add up quick!
Carbohydrates – 4 calories per gram
Ah, finally we have arrived at carbs… the misunderstood stepchild of the nutrition world.
Carbs have been demonized lately. They’re to blame for obesity, unexpected weight gain, low energy, traffic on your commute home…it’s ALL CARB’S FAULT.
But carbs aren’t really all that bad.
Carbs did not cause the obesity spike. Carbs did not cause your unwanted weight gain. CALORIES caused obesity. CALORIES caused your weight gain. Carbs are just an easy scapegoat.
Just like protein and fat, carbs have their role in the body. It’s the main fuel source for your muscles, brain, and nervous system, plus, it can help aid in digestive health when the right types, like fiber, are consumed. And just like protein and fat, carbs come in different types as well: complex and simple carbs.
Complex carbs, or starches, are made up of longer chains of sugar molecules, so your body takes longer to break down and digest them. Consuming these carbs tends to leave you feeling fuller longer, as well as provide a longer lasting supply of energy. Plus, complex carbs contain higher amounts of fiber, which will also aid in digestion health as well as help keep you fuller and satisfied for longer.
Simple carbs, as you might expect, are only comprised of one or two sugar molecules so your body can make light work of these guys.
The problem with simple carbs is that because they’re broken down so easily, they tend to raise your blood sugar levels which carries with it a spike in insulin. Insulin is a hormone whose job is to basically clear the blood of excess sugar and store it in muscles, the liver, or fat stores. So when you eat a boat load of simple carbs, insulin puts in overtime to clear the bloodstream of all that broken down sugar. This causes insulin levels to jump and then rapidly fall, resulting in the ‘crash’ many people can experience. Hunger also returns quicker because your body has already digested and cleared the blood of all the simple carbs.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing after a hard training session or a long day of manual labor, as all those carbs will likely go to replenishing glycogen (the storage form of glucose) in the muscles, as glycogen depletes with exercise. Where most people run into issues with carbs is that they eat too many when their muscle glycogen stores are already full. Confused?
Think of it like this.
Carbs are to your muscles and body what gasoline is to your car.
If you train hard, exercise often, or have a physically demanding job, you’re totally fine with eating carbs to help replenish muscle glycogen stores. This is just like how if you drive your car hard and often, you’ll need to refill the tank with gas. If you don’t drive your car that often, aka exercise, you really don’t need to fill your tank often, aka eat too many carbs.
When it comes to carbs, as long as you match your activity level to your carb intake, you’ll be fine. Exercise a lot = you’re ok to eat carbs. Don’t exercise = you don’t need a lot of carbs.
Without getting overly complicated, simple carbs found in the form of cakes, cookies, chips, crackers, most breads, pasta should typically be avoided.
Focus more on fruits, white or sweet potatoes, beans, legumes, white and brown rice, vegetables, buckwheat, quinoa, chick pea pastas, and old fashioned oats.
So… how many carbs is the right amount?
It depends. Plus, carbs tend to be the last thing you figure out when it comes to your diet. Figure out how many total calories you need first, protein needs second, fat intake third, and then all remaining calories come after. Those remaining calories will make up your carb intake. Here are two examples.
For sedentary individuals (people who don’t spend a lot of time exercising)
Total calories: 10-12 calories per lb of lean body mass
Protein (4 calories per gram): 0.7-0.9g per lb of lean body mass or target weight
Fat (9 calories per gram): 20-40% of total calories
Carbs (4 calories per gram): All remaining calories
So with a little simple math and experimenting with how much fat intake you see the most results with, this is right around where you need to be. Again, these are ballpark figures. These numbers are not an exact science.
For active individuals (regular exercisers, people with physically demanding jobs, athletes)
Total calories: 10-15 calories per lb of lean body mass (or target body weight)
Protein (4 calories per gram): about 1g per lb of lean body mass or target body weight
Fat (9 calories per gram): 15-25% of total calories
Carbs (4 calories per gram): all remaining calories
Note the lower fat (and therefore higher carb) intake. This person ‘drives their car’ more often, so they need to ‘fill their tank’ more often. It’s important to note: fats and carbs have an inverse relationship. If you consume more fat in your diet, you generally should eat less carbs. This is done to help keep overall calorie consumption in check. Remember, total calories trumps all.
When all is said and done, you need to find what works for you. Maybe you do well on a very low carb diet (less than 50g per day). Maybe because you run 10 miles per day, you need a TON of carbs (400g per day). Who knows! Everyone is different and the numbers we’ve laid out are just guidelines. Try some things out, experiment, and go through a little trail and error. It will be worth it in the end.
Generally speaking, most of the general population will see tremendous results on a diet that consists mostly of animal proteins and non-starchy veggies.
FYI: non starchy veggies are the colorful ones… think broccoli, peppers, carrots, radishes…etc.
These are high protein, higher fat, lower carb meals that are packed with nutrients. Since a vast majority of Americans nowadays are largely sedentary, these lower carb, higher fat options tend to work well with their lifestyles.
But again, if you’re a bit more active than that, just swap in some carbs for some of the fat.
Still confused? Drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be happy to help you sort things out!