Macronutrients—proteins, carbohydrates, and fat—are vital to health and well-being. Regardless of whether you are a meat-eater or follow a plant-based lifestyle, it is important that you get the full range of what your body requires to function properly.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) create dietary guidelines for Americans, listed on the Nutrition Food Labels on packaged foods and also found online at ChooseMyPlate.gov. These amounts are fairly arbitrary—not to mention often confusing—and do not take into account a person’s life stage, level of physical activity, or existing chronic conditions. Thus, understanding your own habits will help you make the eating choices best for you.
Proteins, which break down into amino acids when eaten and serve functions in metabolism and immunity, are critical components of all tissues in the human body. Protein is in everything from lean ground beef (22 g per serving), skinless chicken breast (29 g), and plain yogurt (13 g) to tempeh (18 g), kidney beans (8 g), and oatmeal (6 g). Diets with too little protein can lead to low energy and illness; too much protein may worsen chronic diseases like osteoporosis and kidney failure. Protein functions best with adequate amounts of carbohydrates and fats.
Carbohydrates are mainly found in plant foods and break down into sugar molecules (most abundantly, the monosaccharide glucose) during digestion. Carbs are the primary source of energy for the body’s red blood cells, brain, and other nervous tissues. They also deliver fiber, which may reduce the risk of some cancers, prevent digestive problems in the colon, and provide satiety. Fiber can be found in foods like navy beans (10 g per serving), blackberries (8 g), broccoli (6 g), and whole wheat bread (2 g). Too few carbs in the diet can lead to ketosis, an unhealthy metabolic state; too many carbs—especially if the food is considered “high-glycemic,” as in white starches, candy, and dried fruit—may cause spikes in blood-sugar levels, especially detrimental for anyone with diabetes.
Fats (and oils) turn into fatty acids when digested, provide the body with energy, transport the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K to cells, and are found in everything from butter to walnuts. The main issue with a low-fat diet is that the fat, which contributes to the flavor and texture of food, is usually replaced with sugar or salt to make the food more palpable. High-fat diets, especially those high in saturated or trans fats, can lead to obesity and heart disease.
Everything you eat plays a role in running—or ruining—your body. Incorporating varied, balanced, and high-quality forms of energy is the best path toward a long and healthful life.
- Look back. What are the primary foods you’ve been eating? Were there plenty of proteins, but not enough nutrient-dense carbs? Did your lunches consist only of what was in your office mate’s candy bowl?
- Look down. Check your plate and be sure each macronutrient group above is represented in some way. Add what’s missing or include it as a snack in between meals.
- Look forward. Every season, replace the foods you seem to be eating most often with others that you haven’t tried yet.