An optimal diet is a balance of complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats.
All food is composed of one or more of the following: carbohydrates, protein, or fat. These are known as macro (or “big”) nutrients. Each macronutrient plays an important role in how our body functions. For optimal health, it’s important to include all macronutrients in our diets.
Carbohydrates: The main function of carbohydrates is to provide your body with energy. Carbohydrates are the preferred source of energy for our bodies, particularly our brain and nervous systems. Carbs are usually categorized into two groups: complex or simple. Complex carbohydrates (starches and fibers) take longer for your body to digest and thus produce a smaller rise in blood glucose. Simple carbohydrates are sugars that may cause a sharper spike in blood glucose. These spikes make it harder for us to maintain an even energy balance, and over time can contribute to chronic health issues such as obesity. Carbohydrates are also commonly categorized into whole or refined products, typically in reference to grains. Whole refers to the grain in its natural state with the fiber and nutrients still intact. Refined refers to a grain that has been processed with most of its nutrients and fiber stripped away.
Carbs to choose more often: Whole grains (i.e. brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, barley), whole grain products (i.e. whole wheat bread, whole grain tortillas, whole grain crackers), fruits, legumes, and vegetables.
Carbs to choose less often: White bread, white rice, refined grain products, cake and other sweet baked goods, high sugar breakfast cereals, syrups, candy, and soda.
Protein: Many people associate protein only with muscle building. In reality, protein provides the building blocks needed for many types of cells in the body – blood cells, skin, hair, etc. When we eat protein, it is broken down into amino acids; these amino acids are then used to build new proteins in our body that serve incredibly important roles as enzymes, hormones, acid-base regulators, transporters, and antibodies. Most Americans consume plenty of protein through diet alone.
Proteins to choose more often: Fish, legumes, nuts, low-fat dairy, poultry without skin, lean cuts of beef and pork, eggs.
Proteins to choose less often: High fat cuts of beef and pork, processed meat (i.e. bologna, sausage), organ meats.
Fat: Thankfully, our society has overcome the widespread fat-phobia that occurred in the 90s. However, I still find myself reminding people that fat in the diet is not necessarily fattening. Excess calories, regardless of the source (fat, protein, or carbs), is what results in fat storage. Fats actually serve many vital roles in the body. Fat is a vital energy source for the body. In fact, the majority of the energy needed during rest comes from fat, and helps the body use carbohydrate and protein more efficiently. Fat also serves as insulation, cushions vital organs, and promotes healthy skin. The important point to remember about fat in the diet is that the type of fat makes a difference. Unsaturated fats (aka healthy fats) are liquid at room temperature and come primarily from plant and fish sources—olive and canola oils, nut butters, fish oils. Saturated fats (unhealthy fats) are solid at room temperature and primarily come from animal sources—butter, whole fat dairy, fatty meats. Trans-fat (also an unhealthy fat) is an artificial fat found primarily in processed foods. Stay tuned for a blog post devoted solely to dietary fat—it happens to be one of my favorite nutrition topics!
Fats to choose more often: Plant based oils (olive, canola, safflower, sunflower, etc), nuts and seeds, avocados, trans-fat free margarine.
Fats to choose less often: Butter, cream, lard, fatty meats, poultry skin, desserts.
The bottom line—What this means for you.
An optimal diet is a balance of complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats. Guidelines exist about what percentage of total dietary intake should come from each macronutrient, but unless you are tracking your dietary intake, the percentages are usually fairly meaningless to people. Here’s what I generally recommend:
-Focus on the best choices within each food category. Choose whole over refined carbohydrates, lean protein over sources high in saturated fat, and healthy, unsaturated fats over saturated fats.
-Think about it proportionally. For optimal weight and blood sugar control, balance the amount of carbohydrates and protein with each meal. Think about your dinner plate: Fill half the plate with non-starchy vegetables (lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, etc). Then take the other half and divide it into quarters. One quarter fill with healthy carbohydrates, the other quarter fill with a source of lean protein. Add in some healthy, plant based fats (i.e. olive oil), low-fat dairy to drink, and fruit as dessert and you are well on your way to healthy eating. —CS
Sources: Whitney, Ellie and Sharon Rady Rolfes. Understanding Nutrition. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.