This article deals with what constitutes food, with the aim to provide some baseline education about what your food does for you. We all know the words calories, carbs, protein, and fat, but what do all of these terms mean? How important are they to your nutrition? This article may not actually cause you to change anything in what you are currently eating, but may give you more knowledge. And knowledge is power!
All the food you eat is made up of macronutrients and micronutrients.
Micronutrients: Micronutrients are the nutrients we need in (relatively) smaller or trace amounts. They are also required for proper body and brain functions, as they are used in the production of enzymes, hormones, and proteins and help our bodies regulate metabolism (and many other biological processes). Micronutrients include vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals; like Vitamins A, B(s), C, D & E, Folic Acid, Calcium, Iron, etc.
If you eat a variety of nutritious real food (meat and vegetables), and get some sunshine every day, you are probably getting enough micronutrients. If you do struggle to eat enough vegetables, or if you do not eat meat, you may be missing some key micronutrients in your diet. Multivitamins and other supplementation can help with this, but as always, it is usually best to eat real food.
Macronutrients: Macronutrients are the nutrients we need in (relatively) large amounts to give us energy, function, and build/repair tissue. These are made up of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Most foods are made up of a mix of these three, but lean one way. For example, 1 banana (that weighs approx. 136g) contains about 0.5g of fat, 2g of protein, and 31g of carbs. 150g of chicken breast contains about 5g of fat, 44g of protein, and no carbs.
There is more on each of the macronutrients below, but here is a basic breakdown: protein is key in building and repairing tissue, and in regulating metabolism; carbohydrates are the easiest source of energy for your body; fats are an important energy reserve, and are important in transporting fat soluble vitamins. 1g of carbohydrates is 4 calories, 1g of protein is 4 calories, and 1g of fat is 9 calories. A calorie is simply a unit of energy.
Some specialized diets will favour certain macronutrients over others, or promote certain macronutrient breakdowns. You have probably all heard of low-fat or low-carbohydrate diets. Regarding macros, you shouldn’t try to want “low” anything, or try to avoid certain macronutrients. Each macronutrient has a significant role in human functioning. If anything, as someone who does weight-training in CrossFit, you should be making sure you get enough protein in your diet (you should have protein at every meal). That doesn’t necessarily mean your diet should be “low” in fat or carbohydrates. Try to focus first on food quality (eg. eat real food!)
Proteins are macromolecules are made up of amino acids. Our body is able to produce some amino acids. However, there are nine “essential” amino acids that we cannot produce ourselves, thus we must get them from our food (like leucine). There are more that are “conditionally essential,” meaning that under certain circumstances our bodies have trouble producing them.
Beyond muscle growth and repair (which is what most people think of when they think of protein), our bodies need amino acids to produce enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and antibodies. Further, healthy protein consumption can help control body fat (by increasing levels of the hormone Glucagon).
For adults who do not train, the general recommendation is 0.36g of protein per pound of body mass. So, a 165lb person would require about 60g of protein a day minimum. For people who are more active, especially those who exercise regularly with weights and high intensity (that’s you guys), the recommended protein intake goes up to 0.64-0.9g/lb of body mass. So, for a 165lb CrossFitter, that daily protein amount should be more around 100-150g.
It gets a bit more complicated: our bodies can only store so much protein at a time. So while it wouldn’t kill you, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to consume that 100-150g at once. Your body needs its protein stores to be continuously replenished. A good goal is to eat a food that is a good source of protein every time that you eat (meals and snacks). This will ensure that your protein stores are replenished, it will help you get enough throughout the day, and it may help you stay satiated longer.
- Greek Yogurt
- Low Fat Cheeses
Some protein sources we recommend:
- Chicken breast
- Chicken thighs
- Center cut pork loin
- Fish, 90/10 or above
- Grass fed beef/bison
- Top sirloin
- Top round
- Tenderloin (beef/pork)
- Ground turkey breast (90/10 or above)
- Turkey tenderloin
- Turkey breast
Carbs have been mixed up in a lot of diet and nutrition drama in the past few years (or past few decades, depending on your outlook). Many popular specialty diets (like gluten-free, sugar-free, paleo, ketogenic) either prescribe or are interpreted as low-carb. While there is nothing inherently wrong about eating “low carb” (or following a specialty diet if it works for you), it is important to be informed about what carbohydrates actually are and what they do for your body and performance. The purpose of this post is to briefly what carbs are important, and then to discuss quantity and quality.
All carbohydrates are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules. Depending on the structure of the carbohydrate, carbs can be simple (monosaccharides, such as fructose or glucose), slightly more complex (Oligosaccharides- short chains of monosaccharides linked together, like sucrose, which is made of fructose+glucose), or very complex (polysaccharides). No matter the type of carb, or bodies eventually break them down into monosaccharides that enter the bloodstream as glucose.
Glucose is our bodies’ favourite form of fuel. They are the primary source of energy for all of our cells, from your brain to your muscles.
The main difference between simpler and more complex carbohydrates is that complex carbs take our bodies longer to digest.
One more important thing: when we digest carbs, our bodies release insulin. Sometimes a large insulin response can be good (like after a workout), at other times not so good (like right before bed).
Quality and Quantity
Simple carbohydrates are often found in simple sugars and refined food (candy, white bread, most ‘processed’ food). If your diet is high in these types of carbohydrates, you may find you often feel groggy, have extreme highs and lows in energy, have elevated blood triglyceride levels, and may develop insulin resistance.
Complex carbohydrates are found in foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Consuming carbs from these sources can help control insulin response, energy levels, and body composition, and may reduce triglycerides and improve your cholesterol profile.
The minimal recommended intake for the general population is 130g. Canada’s nutrition guide suggests 300g for an average daily intake of carbs (based on a 2000 calorie diet). The amount of carbs you should consume is very dependent on your body size and energy output throughout the day. If you train a lot (over 10 hours a week), you likely will need more carbs. However, this doesn’t mean you should ignore where your carbs come from; everyone could benefit from trying to get the majority of their carbs from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. These types of food are often high in fiber (which will be discussed further in a future post). A good amount of fiber would be around 35g/day for women and 48g/day for men.
Here are some examples of great carb-dense foods to fuel you up:
- All fruits
- Brown/red/wild rice
- Whole Oats
- Whole grain barley
- Sweet potatoes
- White Potatoes
- Butternut squash
- Acorn squash
Fats are molecules made of hydrocarbon chains (hydrogen and carbon joined together). The simplest form of fat is the fatty acid, which consists of a hydrocarbon chain with chemical groups on each end. There are two broad categories of fatty acids: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats refer to a hydrocarbon chain that is saturated with many hydrogens (they are solid at room temperature), and unsaturated fats have fewer hydrogens (and are liquid at room temperature). Most of the fat we eat is actually a mix of saturated and unsaturated (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) fats in the form of triglycerides.
What does fat do for you?
- It is a great energy source (1 g of fat contains 9 calories)
- It helps manufacture and balance hormones
- It helps form our brains, nervous systems, and cell membranes
- It helps transport fat soluble vitamins (A,D,E, and K)
- It provides two essential fatty acids that the body can’t make: linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid), and linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid).
- It makes things taste good!
‘Good’ fat and ‘Bad’ fat
Like everything else in nutrition, there are few hard and fast rules about fat consumption. There are studies that show both positive and negative health outcomes for all different types of fat. For example, having saturated fats in your diet appears to be fine when refined carbohydrate intake is low and when you are also consuming a healthy amount of unsaturated fat.
It is a good idea to avoid trans fats, which are made industrially from vegetable fat. Trans fats are found very rarely in nature but are common in pre-packaged foods, such as margarine, fast food, and shelf-stable snack foods. If you are get most of your fat from real food sources, you will do just fine!
Here are some fat sources we recommend:
- Egg Yolks
- Grass Fed Butter
- Cooking and dressing oils: Olive, Coconut, Avocado, Nut/Seed oils