By Erica Haag, Master Nutrition Therapist
You have probably heard the word macros before as it pertains to nutrition. Macronutrients refer to the protein, fat and carbohydrates that are taken in as part of a daily diet. There are many diet plans out there that require specific breakdowns of macros in order to lose weight. While following these guidelines may result in weight loss, it can also make a big difference in overall health beyond losing a few pounds.
Not all foods are broken down the same way or at the same speed in the digestive tract, nor do they provide the same benefits to the body. The foods most quickly broken down by the body are carbohydrates known as simple sugars. Examples of these foods would be soda, fruit juice, table sugar and candy. These foods release sugar into the bloodstream quickly and cause a boost of energy quickly after consuming them, often within 5 minutes or so. Complex carbohydrates, such as whole-grain pasta or rice, sweet potatoes, and non-starchy vegetables, are broken down more slowly than simple carbohydrates. The digestive tract can start to extract energy from these foods within about 15-30 minutes. The main role of carbohydrates in the diet is to provide energy to the cells in the body.
Protein’s main role in the body is not to produce energy – rather it is to provide the building blocks for muscle and tissue called amino acids. Protein sources with complete amino acid profiles include red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt. Protein takes a lot longer for the body to digest – up to 12 hours. This means that protein containing foods will stay in the digestive tract longer than carbohydrates.
Of the three types of macronutrients, fat takes the longest for the body to break down. It also remains in the digestive tract for up to 12 hours. Examples of dietary fat include avocados, nuts, seeds, whole eggs, fatty fish and olive oil. Dietary fat is a very important part of a person’s diet. Dietary fat provides the body with energy, supports cell growth, helps to protect organs, helps the body absorb nutrients, and helps the body produce important hormones. It is also extremely important for brain health because the human body cannot synthesize fatty acids, such as omega-3s, on its own, therefore it needs to get them from food.
Blood sugar levels vary as a direct result of food that has been eaten. When food composed of primarily simple sugars is taken in, blood sugar levels rise very quickly and this is how energy is created so rapidly from these foods. The downside of this is that blood sugar levels rise very high and then also fall very low, very quickly. A prime example of this is when you eat a donut for breakfast. You may feel great at first, but most likely by mid-morning you will feel sluggish and starving.
Now imagine that you ate a breakfast that included two whole eggs, half an avocado and an apple. This breakfast has a good balance of macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates). The combination of all three macros slows down the digestive process for all of the foods, including the apple, because of the presence of the protein and fat. The effect on blood sugar with this meal is a slow but gradual rise followed by a slow and gradual decline. If you eat this breakfast, you would most likely feel steady energy levels up to lunchtime without needing a snack at mid-morning.
What is eaten at breakfast sets the stage for blood sugar fluctuations for the day. Eating a poor breakfast high in simple sugars will most likely cause you to feel hungry and fatigued for the remainder of the day. Often this is most pronounced mid-afternoon when people feel tired and tend to go to candy or other carbohydrate-based snacks as a way to make it through the day. The way to combat this is to eat a breakfast with a good balance of macronutrients. Doing this will also help control food cravings during the day.
To get the best blood sugar balance throughout the day, all meals and snacks should include a good balance of macros. Instead of just an apple for a snack, also eat 5-10 almonds to add protein and fat to the mix. An example of a good balanced dinner might include a grilled chicken breast with a side of roasted vegetables drizzled in olive oil.
Avoiding extreme blood sugar highs and lows will not only help you feel better, it will also help prevent disease. Chronic spikes and drops in blood sugar can lead to Type II Diabetes. In turn, this can lead to kidney disease, neuropathy, heart disease, stroke and other issues.
If you want to feel better, have more energy and reduce food cravings, try focusing on eating a good balance of macronutrients at every meal and snack!