Now that you’ve got a solid start on clean eating, we want to help you learn a little more about how the foods that you eat affect your body. And that all starts with macronutrients (macros).
In this post, we’ll break down the individual macros for you and explain what they are, how your body uses them, and which delicious and healthy foods provide them. Everyone needs a different macro balance—based on our age, gender, weight, health status, and fitness goals—so if you want to learn more about how to adjust the balance of macronutrients in your diet, we recommend meeting with a qualified nutrition or fitness professional.
Firstly, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are the three macros that make up the foods we eat. Each one is an essential part of your diet and you need all a balance of all three to perform and feel your best.
Here’s the breakdown of each macronutrient:
Carbohydrates play a huge role in determining our body’s health. Carbohydrate-rich foods contain crucial vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients (plant compounds with health-protecting qualities), and provide the body with energy.
Here are a few more reasons why carbs are so important:
- Provide the body with rapidly-utilized energy
- Needed for proper function of the central nervous system, kidneys, brain, muscles, and heart
- Readily stored in muscles and liver as glycogen for future use
- Promote better digestion and gut health because they contain fiber
- Prevent the breakdown of bodily proteins (muscles) for energy production
- Improve mood and reduce stress by helping balance hormones
Carbohydrates are either “simple” or “complex” and can be found in both healthy (unprocessed) and unhealthy (processed) foods. To fuel your body and brain, the best sources of carbohydrate are those from unprocessed—or minimally processed—foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
Simple vs. Complex Carbohydrates
Simple carbohydrates contain small, simple structures, so they are rapidly broken down into glucose (sugars) in the body. They produce energy quickly, but that energy only lasts for a short period of time. Fruit is a healthy source of simple carbs. As a general rule, we recommend limiting your intake of simple carbohydrates to two to three servings of fruit per day.
Complex carbohydrates have larger structures, so they take longer for the body to digest and absorb. It takes these longer-form complex carbs to produce energy, but that energy lasts for longer periods of time. Sweet potatoes and whole grains are all healthy sources of complex carbs.
Some of our favorite whole-food sources of carbs are:
- Berries (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries)
- Potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams
- Winter squash (pumpkin, butternut squash, acorn squash)
- Root vegetables: parsnips, turnips, carrots, and beets
- Sprouted grain breads and tortillas
- Whole grains (rice, quinoa & oatmeal)
Wondering about the veggies, such as broccoli, zucchini, cabbage, and leafy green that you don’t see here? Many veggies contain small amounts of complex carbohydrates and should be consumed liberally. Refer to the Eat Clean Foods List for the full list of starchy and non-starchy carbohydrates.
As we mentioned earlier, refined (processed) carbohydrates lose their nutritional value, and are essentially empty calories. These carbs don’t contribute to feelings of fullness or provide health benefits. If you do eat them, do so in moderation—meaning only every once in a while. Some processed carbs to watch out for are: white bread, pizza, pasta, cakes, cookies, and chips made from refined flours. Remember, the bulk of a clean eating diet should consist of whole foods!
Proteins are the main building blocks of the body. They are used to make muscles, tendons, organs, and skin as well as enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters.
Here’s the full list of why your body needs proteins:
- Building blocks for bones, muscles, tissue, cartilage, skin, and blood
- Building blocks for enzymes, hormones, and vitamins
- Essential for muscle growth and repair
- Help the body release energy
- Play a vital role in the function of the nervous system
- Aid in the formation of red blood cells
- Aid in weight loss by reducing appetite and boosting metabolism
- Help to maintain healthy blood sugar levels, which are optimal for good health and disease prevention
As you can see, proteins have a pretty important job, but there’s no need to go crazy with them. More protein isn’t necessarily a good thing! It’s all about balance.
When consumed, proteins get broken down into amino acids (unique building blocks) in the body. Our bodies need 20 amino acids to carry out all of the functions we’ve listed above. The body can create 11 of those amino acids on its own (it cannot produce the other nine). We call the amino acids the body can’t produce “essential amino acids,” which we have to get them from the food we eat.
Different foods provide different amino acids. When a food contains all of the nine essential amino acids, it is considered a ‘complete’ protein. Animal proteins, like red meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy, are complete proteins. Plant-based proteins, like most grains, nuts, most seeds, vegetables, and legumes, are ‘incomplete,’ proteins, meaning they lack one or more of the nine essential amino acids. Incomplete proteins are still worthwhile sources of protein, but this supports the argument for consuming a balanced and varied diet.
If you follow a plant-based lifestyle such as a vegan diet, eating a variety of the plant-based proteins throughout the day is especially important, because each plant-based source of protein contains different amino acids—so in order to consume all nine essential amino acids you’ll need variety in your diet. For example, one meal may contain legumes for your source of protein while another meal may contain chia or hemp seeds.
A few of our go-to quality protein sources are:
- Whole eggs (whites + yolks)
- Poultry (chicken and turkey)
- Red meat (beef, bison, or lamb)
- Fresh or canned fish (tuna, salmon, whitefish, scrod, tilapia, halibut, mahi mahi, trout, walleye, etc.)
- Shrimp and shellfish
- Nuts* (almonds, pistachios, cashews, peanuts, etc.)
- Seeds* (pumpkin, sunflower, chia, and sesame)
- Cottage cheese
- Yogurt (regular or Greek-style)
- Whey, hemp*, pea* or brown rice protein* powders
*Plant protein sources
When possible, we recommend choosing grass-fed beef or lamb, pasture-raised pork, and organic and/or free-range poultry over conventionally raised products. When these quality proteins aren’t available (or not in your budget), choose lean cuts of meat and poultry instead of fattier cuts.
But what about bacon? Bacon and other processed meats like sausage, bratwurst, deli meat, and hot dogs should be considered ‘sometimes’ foods because they’re not as health-friendly. When you do eat these foods, we recommend choosing products that are made without nitrites or nitrates, and that are organic, grass-fed, or pasture-raised.
Fats, also known as “lipids,” are an essential part of your diet. Not only do fats provide you with energy, but they help you absorb many nutrients found in the foods you eat. Not to mention, they improve the texture and enhance the flavor, taste, and smell of food. Fats can be present in either liquid or solid forms, such as oils, animal fats (butter, lard, cream), and vegetable fats (olive oil, coconut oil).
Now, the real question… “Are Fats Healthy?”
For many years people thought a low-fat diet was the key to achieving weight loss, managing cholesterol, and preventing heart disease, cancer, and stroke. However, the increased rate of those conditions appears to prove that this theory is wrong. Fats are healthy—the key is to use the right fats in the right amounts. There are ‘healthy’ fats that support heart health, help with weight maintenance, and are essential for physical and emotional health. But there are also ‘unhealthy’ fats that can increase your cholesterol and risk of chronic disease.
There’s a lot more to say about this macronutrient, and we’ll break down more information about those ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ fats below, but the point we want to firstly drive home is this: Fat is not to be feared.
There are three main types of fat you should know about: saturated fats, omega-3 fats, and omega-6 fats.
Saturated fats like coconut oil and grass-fed butter and ghee have been pretty controversial over the years. But, as a part of a balanced diet, they can support healthy cholesterol levels, immune function, bone health, and weight loss.
Omega-3 fats are unsaturated fatty acids found in fatty fish (like salmon and sardines), leafy green vegetables, walnuts, and flaxseeds. These fats play a role in cell membrane structure, help regulate blood clotting, support the immune and cardiovascular systems, and promote healthy blood sugar and mood.
Omega-6 fats are unsaturated fatty acids found in vegetable oils like canola, soybean, safflower, peanut, and cottonseed oil, and nuts and seeds. Because they promote inflammation in the body (potentially leading to issues like joint pain, headache, brain fog, and increased risk for chronic disease and weight gain), they should be consumed in moderation.
Although both omega-3s and omega-6s are important for overall health, it’s best to consume more omega-3s than omega-6s to keep inflammation (and all those other symptoms!) at bay.
Below are four of our go-to healthy fats, and our best suggestions for using them in the kitchen:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, omega-3s and omega-6s, vitamin E, and vitamin K
- Contains antioxidants
- Supports healthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels
Use olive oil in salad dressings, to sauté or roast vegetables, to grease pans, or in marinades.
- Good source of monounsaturated fatty acids
- Supports healthy blood pressure
- High in lutein, an antioxidant that supports eye health
Use avocado oil in salad dressings, to sauté or roast vegetables, pan frying, grilling, to grease pans, or in marinades.
Virgin Coconut Oil
- Contains MCTs, which provide a fast source of fuel for increased energy and metabolism
- Promotes satiety and suppression of cravings
Use virgin coconut oil to sauté or roast vegetables, fry eggs, top sweet potatoes or potatoes, bake with instead of butter.
Grass-Fed Butter or Ghee
- Contains Vitamin K2 which is important for heart health and bone density
- Contains Vitamin A to maintain thyroid, adrenal, and cardiovascular health
- Contains Vitamins A, D and E which are antioxidants that protect against disease
- May decrease the risk of heart disease when consumed as part of a balanced diet
Use butter or ghee to fry eggs, sauté vegetables, grease pans, bake with, or spread on vegetables, toast, or potatoes.