This is a subject area that many people struggle with but once you understand it, it’s very easy. I guess it’s the same with most things but there is absolutely no reason to be baffled by the nutritional content or macro-nutrients of the food we eat.
Protein. Protein food sources consist of 20 amino acids and are essential to life. We need protein for repair and recovery and the muscles in our body are primarily protein and water so both nutrients are essential daily.
Fat. It gets a bad rap but it isn’t the villain that most people think it is. There are three broad categories of fat and this is what many fail to understand.
Firstly, there is saturated fat. Examples are found in cream, cheese, some animal fats and are best avoided. There are exceptions when Saturated fat is beneficial like that found in coconut oil, but to keep things simple avoid the animal ones in any volume.
Secondly, we have monounsaturated fats. These can be found in foods like avocados, olives and nuts. The widely touted “Mediterranean diet” suggests ample amounts of monounsaturated fats.
Thirdly, we have polyunsaturated fats and within polyunsaturated we have EPA and DHA which are both EFA’s (Essential Fatty Acids). Basically, that means our body needs them in abundance (the clue is in the Essential part of the name). Great sources are cold water fish like salmon, anchovies and sardines and of course high quality fish oils.
If you like having soft skin and silky hair then make sure your intake of these EFA’s is high. Most of your organs are made from these fats, including your brain, so if you are deficient in them then don’t expect to be operating on full mental capacity.
Just to note, keep away from trans-fats and partially hydrogenated fats completely – remember to look on labels, these are killers and are not counted as saturated fats, more info HERE
Carbohydrates. These are the least understood of all the macronutrients. Do we need them, how much of them do we need and what types should I eat? All valid questions that I hear every day in the gym. Within carbohydrates we have starch (complex) and sugars (simple). Examples of carbohydrates are rice, pasta, bread, cereal, potatoes and of course sugar itself.
Ok. That’s a very brief look at the food we consume but I want to really focus on the breakdown of those foods in our diet and how counting calories is not very accurate if weight loss/body fat loss is your goal.
I had a chicken breast, a small portion of brown rice and a load of steamed broccoli. The chicken breast contained 36 grams of protein so contained 144kcal (4 x 36g). The brown rice contained 23 grams of carbs. 23 grams of carbs is 92kcal (4 x 23g). The broccoli is harder to measure but I had half a plate full so I guess I had no more than 6-8 grams. 4 x 8g is 32kcal. I then had a tablespoon of virgin olive oil which is roughly 15ml. 15ml contains approx 14grams of fat with the majority of that being monounsaturated. 14grams of fat is 126kcal (9 x 14g).
Total calories for the meal – 394kcal. With me so far? Good. This meal contained over 30% of its calories from protein, just under 30% from carbs and about 30% from fat, give or take a bit here and there. This is more carbohydrates that I would normally eat at one time but I trained yesterday and I needed the CARBS post workout 🙂
Lets compare this to a favourite treat snack of mine, the good old snickers bar. A snickers contains 323kcal with 18grams of fat, approx 38grams of carbohydrates and about 4grams of protein. If someone was on a calorie controlled diet and their daily allowance was 1400kcal we can see that by eating 4 snickers they would be within their daily calorie allowance. Great stuff!
Lets look at 4 meals like my dinner last night. If I ate that same meal four times in one for example. 4 x 394kcal is 1576kcal so going slightly over the 1400kcal daily allowance.
Wrong. It just doesn’t work like that. 4 snickers would provide 152 grams of carbohydrates with the majority of them being simple sugars. 72 grams of fat, mostly saturated, would provide a whopping 648 kcal and 16grams of protein would yield 64kcal which is hardly worth mentioning. The four snicker a day diet would leave you feeling awful. Hungry, tired, irritable with severe mood swings to start with. A distinct lack of energy to do anything and your body composition would be terrible. One word. FAT.
The diet consisting of chicken, rice, broccoli and a serving of good fats would produce exactly the opposite results. 144grams of protein and 124 grams of carbohydrates with all of these coming from slow release carbohydrates with a good supply of fibre to boot.This would also contain 56grams of monounsaturated fats, which would actually help with many bodily functions like speeding up your metabolism to name one.
Energy levels and mentally acuity would be high. Mood swings would be non-existent as a slow steady release of energy would be available to your body keeping you well fuelled until your next feed.
Here we can see the difference in results produced from two meal plans with similar calorie content. Of course, I’m not suggesting you eat four snickers per day or even four meals of chicken, rice and broccoli…I’m just using extreme examples to clarify my point.
Calorie counting is important but what is more important is where those calories come from. Start reading labels on the back of food. Look for high protein, low carbohydrates and be aware of the source of the fat. Aim for the majority of your fat intake to be from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Watch out for low-fat food. Unless it’s an animal source of protein, low-fat usually means high carb or high sugar. Food companies want you to buy their product. Low fat is a buzz word meaning it will get your attention and persuade you into buying it. Look for carbohydrate content and protein content. Aim for foods that contain more protein than carbohydrate as a general rule of thumb.
I hope this has helped many of you with this confusing topic. Forget calorie counting but look for the content and quality of those calories and you will soon be on your way to achieving your goals in the gym.
Gavin @ UCF