Almost every day in the news you hear about a new study coming out either praising or villainizing a type of food - one day your cup of coffee is an indulgent treat and the next day it is associated with protective health benefits. This yo-yoing can cause confusion and may lead you to unnecessarily demonize foods and the nutrients in them.
Common villains in the world of health and fitness are carbohydrates and fat which are macronutrients along with protein that your body actually needs in large amounts to provide energy and to aid in growth and body function. Our body also requires micronutrients - vitamins and minerals - but in much smaller amounts.
"Eating more calories than your body needs of any macronutrient can lead to weight gain," Angela Luciani, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian at Magee Rehab said in an interview with Philly.com, "However, each macronutrient has a specific function in the body. Cutting out entire food groups can lead to nutritional shortfalls and unpleasant side effects."
Luciani and Toby Amidor, MS, RD, nutrition expert and author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen breaks down some of the misconceptions/myths surrounding these macronutrients:
Carbohydrates make you gain weight/ Carbohydrates are bad for you.
Luciani explains the thought process behind this – Your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose to be utilized for energy. When we eat food that contains carbohydrates, blood sugar increases. Your pancreas secretes a hormone known as insulin to help control blood sugars. Consumption of refined carbohydrates such as white bread and rice, soda, or desserts can cause a quick spike in blood sugar which can cause the pancreas' production of insulin to go into overdrive. High blood sugar is caused by too much glucose in your blood and can lead to fat storage and insulin resistance, a precursor to Type 2 Diabetes.
Carbohydrates that contain fiber can be found in beans, nuts, fruits, vegetables and whole grains, on the other hand, can help slow down that blood sugar spike. Foods that contain fiber are also important for digestive health and may assist in reducing cholesterol levels.
"Low-carb diets seem to be popular these days, yet they can be extremely detrimental to you both mentally and physically, " she explained. "Carbohydrates are our body's primary fuel source. Our brain requires glucose to function and carbohydrates break down into glucose."
"Not eating enough carbs can lead to decreased performance and strength, nutrient deficiencies, irritability, mood swings, inability to focus and intense hunger," she added.
An underlying reason for carbohydrates' bad rep is that many people don't understand what they truly are. People like carbs, so they tend to overeat them – which may contribute to the weight gain. When Luciani asks her patients to name foods that contain carbohydrates, most of them respond with "bread, pasta, rice" even though fruits, vegetables and milk products also contain carbohydrates. Keep in mind that even though you are obtaining carbohydrates from healthy sources, you still have to use moderation.
Amidor added that "it is important to make sure half of our carbs come from whole grains. Portion control is very important when it comes to carbs."
Eating fat will make you fat.
While no one would dispute that eating a whole bag of chips or half of the leftover birthday cake is not a healthy choice – these types of foods contain trans fats and saturated fats which have been shown to be associated with type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Not all fats are created equal and Luciani believes that blindly cutting out fat from your diet isn't the answer. Too little fat she said can interfere with the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients like vitamin A, D, E and K, and not enough Omega 3's and Omega 6's has been shown to have an effect on mood and behavior.
Paying attention to the amount and type of fat you consume is what matters. Eat more foods rich in mono- and poly- unsaturated fats which can be found is foods like avocado, nuts, seeds and olive oil which can aid in protecting us from a number of key health threats including heart disease and stroke.
Luciani also warned that it was important to pay attention to what you're replacing the fat in your diet with. She said, "Often times when products are labeled low fat, the fat is replaced with added salt and sugar. For example - low-fat salad dressings versus regular potato salad dressings - the low-fat salad dressings are lower in fat, but higher in carbohydrates and sugar. Choose instead an oil based salad dressing that contains the fat that is needed to help absorb the nutrients from those vegetables."
Eating protein will guarantee weight loss and build muscle.
While it is true that eating sufficient amounts of protein at each meal may help you lose weight by helping you feel full longer, it is the reduction of calories while consuming the right combination of carbohydrates, fat and protein that helps you lose weight and build muscle and body tissue.
Protein, which can come from both animal and plant based sources such as meat, dairy, soy, whey, beans, nuts and vegetables, is an essential part of athletes' diet for building muscle and endurance, but here again it is all about moderation and balance. You need to be wary of eating too much protein. According to Luciani, consuming more protein than your body needs, can contribute to weight gain. Protein needs tend to fluctuate by age and life stage. Too much protein can also lead to dehydration and intestinal irritability and can put a strain on the kidneys, putting you at risk for kidney disease and possible other adverse health effects. On the flip side, not enough protein is associated with decrease in muscle mass, increased physical weakness and weakened bones and immune system leading to more frequent and severe infections or illnesses, she explained.
So what is the right balance of carbs, protein and fat? The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends getting 45-65% of calories from carbohydrates, 10-35% from protein and up to 35% from fat. For example, based on a 2,000 calorie diet, carbohydrate intake would equate to between 225 and 325 grams per meal.
"Aim to limit the amount of sugary foods you eat and incorporate healthier sources of carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, Luciani said.
The minimum Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is 56 grams for men and 46 grams for women. Luciani suggests for protein, choose lean or low fat meat and poultry such as skinless chicken breast rather than the dark meat found on thighs and wings and top salads with nuts or seeds instead of croutons." She also recommends incorporating a "Meatless Monday" once or twice a week for health benefits.
Dietary guidelines emphasize using oils rich in monsaturated and polysaturated fatty acids -nuts, seeds, fish and plant-based vegetable oils - and to limit saturated and trans fat - think butter, cheese, red meat and other animal-based foods. Luciani also recommends adding two 4 oz servings of fatty fish to your diet each week.
Amidor told Philly.com that it is also important to use mostly plant-based oils when cooking. She recommends that only 10% of diet should come from saturated fat.
"Coconut oil is now considered a saturated fat and there is no scientific evidence at this time to back up that coconut oil is healthier for you," Amidor said.
Amidor offered the following sample menu as an example of a balanced day of nutrition:
Breakfast - 1 egg over easy with whole wheat toast and mashed up avocado and yogurt.
Snack - 1 oz. of cheese and a handful of whole grain crackers.
Lunch - salad filled with favorite vegetables with grilled chicken or salmon. 2 tsp of vinaigrette and a whole grained roll and some strawberries on the side.
Dinner - 5 oz. grilled salmon and asparagus.
Snack - a handful of nuts or a tablespoon peanut butter and celery.
"You want to play with your portions," advised Amidor. "Every day is not perfect and you can spread the nutrients you need over the next few days. Remember that snacks are a perfect opportunity to catch up on what you are lacking."
"Rather than eating an exclusively low-fat diet or low- sugar diet, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that you focus on your overall eating pattern. Luciani added, Keep measuring cups/spoons on hand so you can monitor your portions, incorporate plenty of fruits and vegetables and get to know your food labels."