Macronutrients, or Macros, seem to be a part of nearly every conversation I have these days, yet there is so much confusion and misinformation out there (including some potentially dangerous diet trends). Macros or Macronutrients are the largest sources of nutrients our bodies need in order to thrive, grow and repair – Protein, Fat & Carbohydrates.
Whenever a stranger hears that I’m plant-based, often a concerned look appears on their face as they ask me “where do you get your protein from?” and often in the next phase of the conversation, they tell me that they’re doing “the _____ diet” which is no-carbs or high fat/high protein.
The irony is not lost on me!
In order to truly thrive and provide our bodies with the best available resources to do its highly complicated and life-long job, we MUST provide it with all three of these macronutrients, daily. But, there’s really no need to obsess about them or even count them. They are the most abundant of all available nutrients and when we eat a properly planned, calorically adequate and balanced whole food plant-based diet, we get everything our amazing bodies need, and then some! The big question, however, is are we getting our nutrients from the best source?
So, let’s break down each one of these macros in order to better understand what they are, what their primary effect on our bodies is and also how best to obtain each in a truly balanced and health-promoting way.
Proteins are the building blocks of life – not just our overarching life but the life of every cell within our bodies. They are responsible for our growth and development, from birth to death, and fuel our body to repair damaged cells and make new ones; a phenomenon which occurs billions of times each and every day!
Once proteins enter our stomach, our digestive system takes over and begins converting these foods into amino acids. Depending upon what literature you read, there are between 20-22 different strains of amino acids produced from proteins; essential, non-essential and conditional. Our body produces 10 of them (non-essential) and we must obtain the other half through our food. Unlike carbohydrates and fats, the body doesn’t store excess amino acids so it’s imperative that we consume the entire and complete spectrum each and every day.
That doesn’t mean we need to gorge ourselves on protein because it’s very easy to consume too much protein – and too much is not a good thing.
One of the coolest things about whole plant foods is that virtually every single one contains some protein, meaning as long as we eat a diverse, abundant amount of plants, we’re pretty much guaranteed to consume more than enough protein throughout the day. In fact, most people on a properly-planned, whole food plant-based diet actually get their RDA of protein by lunch-time with the added bonus of also getting in loads of fiber and an abundance of micronutrients without all of the other baggage that make our bodies’ job hard. The USDA recommends that we consume anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of our daily calories from protein (or 0.8-1 gram per 2.2 pounds body weight), depending upon age, gender and level of energy exertion through exercise.
Contrary to popular belief, protein is not a primary source of energy, rather it repairs our tissues and cells so that we can continue to utilize the energy provided by carbohydrates and fats.
The best sources of plant-based proteins: Organic sprouted tofu, organic edamame, organic tempeh, lentils, beans and legumes, quinoa, sprouted grains, hemp and chia seeds, whole oats, organic soy milk and again – all fruits and vegetables contain a certain amount of protein so be sure to eat the recommended amount throughout the day!
It should also be noted that highly processed soy protein isolate added to foods doesn’t contain the same protective isoflavones that whole soy does.
Fat has a bad reputation, but it is an absolutely essential nutrient. Here’s what fat does for us:
- Provides an important source of energy
- Protects our vital organs (including the brain)
- Facilitates proper cell function
- Helps with body “insulation”
There are many different kinds of fats, and the western diet tends to focus on two main types:
Saturated fats are found mostly in animal-based meats and dairy (fatty meats, cheese, butter, pastries).
Unsaturated Fats are found mostly in plant-based sources (avocados, nuts and seeds).
Fat is particularly important in our early childhood developmental stages and during pregnancy, however, fat is abundant in the standard western diet and once again, too much is definitely not a good thing! Every gram of protein and every gram of carbohydrate provides four calories of energy to the body, whereas every gram of fat provides nine calories, more than double, which can add up far quicker than we realize. The thing is, a large percentage of the fats we consume on a daily basis don’t come from whole food sources but rather from highly processed added oils and animal-based foods – and these types of fats can clog your arteries, block your cells, and gum up your entire systems.
The true “trick” to mastering intake of this macronutrient is to really understand what you’re eating and the best way to do that is to eat foods in their most complete and whole form. Although fats are listed very clearly on nutritional labels:
- It’s pretty easy to overindulge
- Actual serving sizes can be very misleading
- Not all fats are created equal.
There’s a common saying within the WFPB community “when you eat foods without labels, you no longer need to count calories” and while that’s a fairly accurate sentiment it is still very possible to consume more fat than your body needs, especially if you live on nut butters, avocados, trail mixes and coconut milk smoothies!
Great sources of whole food plant-based health-promoting fats: hemp seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, avocado, walnuts, and flax meal.
Carbs. One of the most controversial words of the 21st century! Carbs definitely need a new PR team and they for sure need a re-branding. And while we do have clear categories within the carb spectrum (complex, simple, etc.), a baked sweet potato still gets lumped into the same column as an everything bagel, and that’s a crying shame.
Carbohydrates are an incredible quick energy source that the body can easily and efficiently utilize. Carbohydrates are the fuel that feeds the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and energy for our hard-working muscles. Carbs also prevent protein from being used as an energy source (thus rendering them unable to repair our cells) and they enable fat metabolism. Carbs also have the ability to influence our mood and memory, in fact, the RDA of carbohydrates (45-65% of total calories consumed) is based on the number of carbs (starches and naturally occurring sugars) the brain needs to function. Read that last sentence again!
It is a myth that carbohydrates cause us to gain weight – fatty “carbs” like donuts, traditional mac n cheese, and buttery buns on top of animal-based burgers smothered in cheese and ketchup certainly can pack on the pounds – but a baked potato with fresh salsa, a bowl of whole-grain pasta with loads of steamed veggies, nor the corn tortilla you wrap a fresh taco salad in will not be the primary cause of an expanding waistline. We need to change the conversation on carbs. Yes, by all means, avoid heavily processed carbs but whole plant-based complex carbohydrates that are also loaded with fiber, which includes fruits and starches are incredible for us and are a healthy part of the diet of many of the longest-lived cultures in the world.
Great sources of whole food plant-based complex carbohydrates that are rich in fiber: sweet potato, bananas, oatmeal, quinoa, kidney beans, buckwheat, sprouted whole grain bread, apples, etc.
How Do I Get All My Macros?
What’s interesting about a whole food plant-based diet is that there’s a tremendous amount of crossover between these macronutrients thus providing a more balanced wave of nourishment throughout the entire day. “Do you want any protein on your salad?” will eventually become something you giggle at because chances are your salad is already loaded with veggies, grains, beans, and seeds thus providing you with a healthy and diverse array of protein, fats and carbohydrates that are working in harmony with your body to fuel it to its fullest potential.
It’s not entirely uncomplicated at first, but hopefully, you have a better understanding of how important each of these macronutrients is in achieving a balanced and well-planned diet. Once you understand your basic needs in each of the major categories, it’s very easy to break down your day and make sure you get everything you need! And the body will eventually start to TELL you what it needs if you aren’t eating the right balance – a sort of “checks and balances”. This can be a tough concept at first but with practice, it becomes second nature.
One resource that has been incredibly helpful to me and countless clients is Dr. Greger’s Nutritionfacts.org Daily Dozen Checklist. Pro Tip: Print it out, slide it into a clear sleeve, stick it up inside your pantry and check off with a dry-erase marker as you go about your day for the first week or two just to make sure you’re getting in the minimum of all the good stuff needed throughout the day!
Missed Part 1? Check it out here: Part 1 – Transform Your Health with a Plant-Powered Plate: The Basics
Missed Part 2? Check it out here: Part 2 – Transform Your Health with a Plant-Powered Plate: Micronutrients
by Emma Malina
Emma Malina is a plant-based nutrition educator and food-skills instructor based in Santa Barbara, CA who empowers individuals and families worldwide to optimize their health and prevent chronic disease through nutrition education, cooking classes, coaching, and online resources through her business Basking in Goodness.
Slavin J, Carlson J. Advances in Nutrition. 2014 Nov; 5(6): 760–761.
US Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations. Table A7-1. Health.gov website. https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/appendix-7/. Accessed July 2020.
Institute of Medicine. Protein and amino acids. In: Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2005:593-594.
Hernández-Alonso P, Salas-Salvadó J, et al. High dietary protein intake is associated with an increased body weight and total death risk. Clinical Nutrition Journal. 2016 Apr; 35 (2): 496-506.
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