You’ve probably heard that weight loss is 80% diet—and it’s true! No matter how much exercise you do, eventually eating poorly is going to catch up to you. That’s why it’s important to eat a healthy, balanced diet containing high quality carbs, proteins, and fats.
I learned this principle years ago when I read Bill Phillips book Body for Life. I did his 90 day exercise challenge, and the simple diet of balancing carbs, fats and proteins with every meal. Within weeks I felt amazing, and had measurable improvements in body, smaller waist, bigger muscles… I looked and felt better than I had in ages. Since then I have experimented with many diets and programs, but I always end up coming back to just trying to get the right ratio of healthy carbs, proteins and fats, and when I do I’m at my best.
And yet, there are so many fad diets out there leading to mass confusion. You’ve probably come across people who shun carbs and others who are terrified of eating fat. Others are obsessed with large amounts of protein. This can lead to a lot of confusion, so we’re here to set the record straight.
What’s the best Carb, Protein, Fat ratio? Well, that’s a loaded question and depends a lot on who you are. A small elderly woman will have different needs than a body building college age man. But here’s some great info on macro nutrients generally, and thoughts on the Carb, Protein, Fat ratio, and why you ought to get it right with EVERY MEAL.
Here are some great guidelines:
According to My Fitness Pal’s “Ask the dietitian:
And from Bodybuilding.com:
Our recommendation? Simplicity itself! With each meal, go with these serving sizes:
-Healthy Carbs: The size of your closed fist.
-Healthy Protein the size of your palm
-Healthy Fat the size of your thumb.
Bottom line: to see the results you want, it’s smart to fuel your body with the right combinations of healthy foods. And when you’re trying to lose weight and get healthier, it’s important to get a good balance of each macronutrient: carbohydrates, proteins, and carbs.
Eating a Balanced Diet: Macros 101
Carbs, proteins, and fats are all known as macronutrients (foods that the body requires in large amounts) and they provide energy for the body in the form of calories:
- Carbohydrates contain 4 calories/gram
- Proteins contain 4 calories/gram
- Fats contain 9 calories/gram
There are also differences in how quickly each nutrient supplies this energy. For example, carbohydrates are meant to provide the body with energy very quickly, while fats provide a more slow-burn energy.
When we digest each nutrient, they are broken down into more basic units to be used by the body for energy, development, and maintenance:
- Carbohydrates break down to sugars
- Proteins break down to amino acids
- Fats break down to both fatty acids and glycerol
To better understand each, let’s take a closer look at carbs, proteins, and fats individually before talking about how we can use them daily as part of a healthy diet.
Carbs get a really bad rap. And while there are types of carbs (mainly: processed ones) you want to stay away from, there are also good carbs that can act as be a pillar of your diet along with proteins and fats.
There are two main types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates are small molecules the body can break down and absorb quickly. Some examples of simple carbs include:
- Table sugar
- Corn syrup
- Cakes and cookies
These are the “bad carbs” that you want to limit for weight loss and health because they are highly processed and don’t offer any real nutrition. Plus, it’s easy to eat a lot of them because they taste good yet aren’t filling. They also increase our blood sugar levels.
Complex carbohydrates are made up of long strings of simple carbohydrates, which they must be broken down into before they can be used by the body. That means they’ll provide energy for the body more steadily than simple carbohydrates and are less likely to be converted into fat. Aim to only eat carbs that are complex in each meal.
Complex carbs include fibers and starches that are found in whole foods like:
- Breads and pastas
- Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, corn, and rye
- Fruits and vegetables
- Beans and legumes
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
Carbohydrates are also categorized into refined and unrefined. Refined carbs have had the fiber and bran stripped off, along with most of the vitamins and minerals they contain. If you see products that are enriched, such as white bread, it means manufacturers have added some vitamins and minerals back into the product because the refining process removed the original nutrition. This might sound good, but the overall nutritional value is still poor.
When we eat more carbs than our body needs to use soon, it stores some as glycogen in our cells, which can be converted to energy quickly, and the rest is converted to fat. If you’re doing intense exercise, your muscles will turn to your glycogen stores for energy.
What matters most when it comes to carbohydrates is how quickly they can be broken down by the body and how much it will raise your blood sugar levels. This is measured by the glycemic index (GI).
People used to turn to a low-GI diet for weight loss because they believed it would control insulin levels. There is truth to this, but really it’s more important to just eat a good amount of healthy foods to charge up your metabolism and help you burn more fat. And that means you DO need some carbs, especially if you do intense exercise.
If you don’t eat any carbs for your body to use for fuel, it will start to break down your muscle tissue for energy instead—which is no bueno, especially if you’re trying to build muscle.
Protein is a big part of the conversation with bodybuilders, athletes, and fitness buffs—and rightly so! The body uses protein to grow and repair bones, muscles, hair, skin, and teeth, along with many other things. It’s also helpful in fat loss.
The body needs protein to function properly and support the structure of the body, so it definitely shouldn’t be overlooked.
Protein is made up of amino acids. There are a total of twenty-two amino acids, but nine of them are known as essential amino acids. Like with essential fatty acids, “essential” means we can only get them through our diets. The essential amino acids are:
Amino acids are what bear direct responsibility for the growth of our muscles and the rate of our metabolism. They also help in regulation of blood sugar and blood pressure as well as the creation of hormones. Protein also provides the biggest benefits for those trying to lose weight because it stimulates the body’s use of energy, keeps you satisfied, and helps preserve muscle during weight loss.
All proteins either fall into the category of a complete protein or incomplete protein. Complete proteins contain all nine of the essential amino acids and are found in animal products (like meat, cheese, and eggs) as well as soy products and grains like quinoa.
An incomplete protein does not contain one or more of the essential amino acids. These types of proteins are contained in most vegetarian protein sources like beans, grains, and legumes, and they can be combined to form a “complete” essential amino acid profile.
A Note on Protein Powder
Many people like to use protein powder for their smoothies or with just milk or water during the day. Although it’s best not to rely on these powder too often each day, they can be a great way to add some extra protein to your day, or even to have at night to keep yourself satisfied while you sleep.
Just as carbs are vilified often today, fats were in the same position up until lately. Some people still base whether or not a food is safe to eat on its amount of total fat or saturated fat.
But as people started lowering their fat intake and buying more low-fat products, the nation’s numbers of obese people steadily increased, CDC data shows us. Besides the fact that we’re eating meals far larger today than 20+ years ago and probably snacking more frequently, those eating packaged products deemed low- or no-fat usually replaced the fat they would normally use with more sugar, meaning they often had more calories than the original product.
The main point to take away from this is that fats are good for you, and you need them to be healthy:
- Fats are good for your heart.
- They coat your nerves to make sure all signals are sent from the brain throughout the body efficiently.
- Fat is a substrate for eicosanoids, the set of hormones that are crucial for body functions that regulate inflammation, blood pressure, blood clotting, and more.
Now, let’s break down the different types of fats and how they factor into your meals.
Monounsaturated fats, also known as MUFAs, help raise HDL (good) cholesterol in the body and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. They might even be able to help reduce overall body fat.
You can get monounsaturated fats from nuts like walnuts, cashews, and almonds, avocados, and olive oil.
Polyunsaturated fats, also known as PUFAs, are found in foods like fish (especially salmon), fish oil, nuts, and seeds.
PUFAs contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are essential fatty acids (EFAs), meaning the body cannot make them itself, but it needs them to function correctly so we have to get them through our diet.
Like MUFAs, PUFAs also help raise HDL cholesterol and lower LDL cholesterol.
Saturated fat is found mostly in animals foods, especially meats, and in coconut and coconut oil.
Saturated fats are a little more tricky than the other fats. There are studies showing that higher saturated fat intake is linked to heart disease. However, later analysis of that data has shown no actual link between death from heart disease and consumption of fat and that saturated fat might not be as bad as we once thought.
The best approach seems to be focusing mostly on the MUFAs and PUFAs but not completely shunning saturated fats.
This is the one type of fat you want to stay far away from. Trans fats can be found in fast foods and processed, packaged foods, and they’re one of the worst things you can eat.
You see, trans fats are man-made fats. They’re made by manufacturers through partial hydrogenation, meaning hydrogen atoms are added monounsaturated fats (vegetable oils) to make them solid and shelf-stable. But they are also terrible for your health.
Creating Meals With Each Macronutrient
As you can see, carbs, fats, and proteins each have their specific roles in promoting a healthy body and healthy weight—therefore, it’s important to get a good amount of each. A great way to do this is by making sure you include a good balance using healthy sources of each nutrient in every meal.
Note that this doesn’t mean you need to count calories, portions, or percentages at each meal. Just focus on getting healthy carbs, proteins, and fats each time you eat a meal. Although almost all foods contain at least a little bit of each nutrient, try to include ones that are good sources of one or more.
Some foods are good sources of more than one nutrient, such as peanut butter (good source of protein and fat), unsweetened yogurt (protein and carbs), eggs (fat and protein), or quinoa (protein and carbs). Here are some example meals that follow these guidelines to get you started:
- Yogurt and berry smoothie
- Peanut butter and banana smoothie with protein powder
- Peanut butter and strawberry slices on a whole grain English muffin
- Toast topped with avocado and an egg
- Oatmeal with milk, fruit, and walnuts
- Black bean and sweet potato breakfast burrito
- Pumpkin chocolate oatmeal
- Tofu scramble with veggies and a side of potatoes
Lunches and Dinners
- Stir-fried brown rice with egg, peas, and carrots
- Veggie and ham sandwich on whole grain bread
- Vegetable minestrone soup with whole grain noodles
- Barley and lentil soup
- Steak salad with blue cheese
- Spinach salad with salmon, barley, and oranges
- Shrimp and veggie noodle bowl
- Veggie pizza on whole grain crust olive oil crust
Now, with this knowledge and some ideas to get you started, make it your goal this year to include at least one healthy source of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats with each meal. This will help you feel satisfied, healthy, and gain a greater awareness about the quality of each meal you eat. It might take a little getting used to at least, but before you know it, you’ll be able to whip up a well-balanced meal in no time.