To understand macros, you need to know a little about the science behind it. Nutrition science is all about chemistry and categories. We refer to what we get out of food as "nutrients." When we look at food, there are 2 categories of nutrients that we consider:
Macro-nutrients (aka "macros") - nutrients that our body use as energy
Micro-nutrients - nutrients that our bodies use to create chemical reactions
Both categories have layers and further sub categories. What's more, anything that is considered "food" has a combination of these macro and micro-nutrients. Check out the image below to see how complicated it can get.
Simply put, macronutrients are "types" of calories. There are 4 categories of macronutrients that our bodies recognize as energy: Carbohydrates, Protein, Fat, and Alcohol. All of these nutrients (except alcohol) are essential for our bodies to function.
For this post, I'm just going to talk about one of the most controversial and misunderstood macronutrients - carbohydrates.
Popular culture refers to grains and sugars as carbs. However, when I talk about carbs, I am referring to the chemistry of the food (carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen). All carbs are created from sugar molecules (glucose, fructose, galactose). What changes between the types of carbohydrate (sugar, starch, and fiber) is complexity of the bond between the molecules.
Carbs can have chains of 1, 2, or 3+ molecules of glucose, fructose, and galactose linked together with varying bond strengths to make up things like sugar, starch, and fiber. The more complicated the carbohydrate chemistry, the longer it takes for our to turn it into glucose and then energy.
That means relative to other types of carbohydrate a simple molecule like sucrose (such as granulated sugar made 2 molecule chains) is converted to energy more readily than starch (such as potato which has much longer chains). Additions such as fiber and protein make the conversion even MORE complicated therefore delaying the process and therefore the amount of blood sugar in the blood stream.
Ultimately, any food with sugar or starch will be converted to blood glucose (aka blood sugar) which goes on to become ATP - energy used by the mitochondria in our cells or is stored for later at glycogen or lipid (if you want to nerd out with the actual chemical process, google "glycolysis." Want the heavier chemistry? CLICK HERE).
What foods contain carbohydrate?
Carbohydrates are found in many food groups - grains, lentils/beans, fruits, milk/yogurt, and even vegetables. Any food that comes from a plant will have some degree of carbohydrate. Meat / animal protein (eggs, poultry, beef, pork) do not have any carbohydrate.
What changes between each food group is:
These aspects affect the energy density, amount of blood sugar created, and the food's affect on our hunger / satiety.
Here's an example: Most vegetables are primarily water, fiber, and a little starch. Much of what's in a vegetable like lettuce we cannot use as energy. Compare that to rice which is primarily made up of starch with some fiber and protein making it more energy dense. However neither will keep you full for a very long time relative to a protein or fat rich food. Ultimately, the best balance for our bodies is to eat relative to our energy needs.
Here's an example: Most vegetables are primarily water, fiber, and a little starch. Much of what's in a vegetable like lettuce we cannot use as energy. Most raw, non starchy vegetables contain 25 calories per cup that come from 5 grams of carbohydrate (starch and fiber).
Compare that to rice which is primarily made up of starch with some fiber and protein making it more energy dense (1 cup cooked has 220 calories, 45 g carb, 1-3 g fiber, 1-3 g protein).
However neither will keep you full for a very long time relative to a protein or fat rich food.
Ultimately, our bodies thrive on balanced meals that are 50% vegetable, 25% starch, and 25% protein rich food.
(per 1 slice bread, 1/2 c potato / cereal / beans, 1/3 c rice/ pasta)
15 g carb
IF IT COMES FROM A PLANT
(fruits, vegetables, grains)
or is DAIRY
IT HAS CARBOHYDRATE.
The below images gives you a general guideline about which parts of the plant have more or less carbohydrate. But keep in mind food that general guidelines aren't written in stone - there can be exceptions.
Carbohydrates do A LOT for our bodies!
There's a lot of confusion and concern about carbohydrates these days. So let's set the record straight. Carbohydrates are valuable! Here's a little more about what they do for the human body:
Sugar tends to get some pretty bad press. But sugar really is just one kind of carbohydrate that can be helpful for our bodies. Here are some things to consider...
What foods have fiber?
Fiber is a part of fruits, vegetables, and grains that our bodies cannot convert to energy. It passes through the GI system largely undigested. Along the way, it acts like a brush to clean out the intestine. It's recommended that women eat 25 grams of fiber / day and men eat 38 grams of fiber / day.
Fiber is found in the meat and skin of plants. It's not destroyed through cooking. In grains, the fiber is primarily found in the outer layer of the grain call the "bran" layer. When a grain is processed, that layer is often removed. That's why "whole grains" are recommended - because the bran layer is still there. In fruits and vegetables, the fiber is found in the skin and the meat of the plant. When you juice the plant, you are removing fiber so you're just left with the liquid portion of the plant (which contains all of the sugar).
Labels and carbohydrate
The food label can tell you a lot about the chemistry of the food and how it will impact your body. There are some tricky things to consider:
Consider the above labels comparing orange juice and oatmeal.
Should I count carbs and sugar?
The only time I encourage people to count carbohydrates is if they are a diabetic dosing insulin. Other than that, there is little to no reason to be precise about how many grams of carbohydrate you're eating. Most bodies do best with at least 45% of calories from carbohydrate (225 grams for 2000 calories). For people who are more active (athletes, physical labor) that percentage may increase to 60% at times. There are rare medical exceptions to severely restrict carbs lower than 45%. Restricting carbohydrates results in short term weight loss (primarily due to water loss). Most people who restrict carbohydrates end up avoiding sugar and starch - which starves the body resulting in low energy and general misery making it a tough lifestyle to follow.
Additionally, there are signs from your body signaling imbalanced:
The moral of the story...
Carbohydrates are an energy source for the body. The more complicated the structure, the more satisfied you will feel. Simpler structures (such as starch or sugar) should not be feared - these chemistries have physical and emotional value. We eat for health but we also eat for pleasure and joy - it's part of being human. Our mind and bodies thrive when we eat a balanced diet. Not sure which balance is right for you? That's the magic of nutrition counseling.
Stay nourished friends!
DISCLAIMER: The writing here is for informational and educational purposes only. It is NOT a substitute for individual care. Your needs may vary. or individual support, please contact a provider.
Please note it's been a number of years since I have updated these posts. The content and philosophies may have changed as I've grown as a provider. Please reach out with questions or concerns.
Dietitian, personal trainer, mother, wife, runner, and endurance athlete supporting well-being, one bit and bite at a time