Taking control of your health is empowering, but without proper education you can waste a lot of time waiting for results that aren’t coming. If you want to begin your journey to improved health and fitness, hiring a trainer or a coach is a great place to start. However, if investing in a trainer or coach is not in your price range, or you’d rather have a crack at it yourself first, there’s plenty of ways to take control without spending extra money.
The first thing you need to do when embarking on a health and fitness journey is to have a solid understanding of your macronutrients. If you’ve never heard this term before, don’t sweat it, here I explain the basics of what you need to know to get started today, so you can make changes in the kitchen and save the sweat for your workout, writes Ellie McInerney.
What are macronutrients?
The term macronutrients simply refers to the three main components of a healthy, human diet. These three components are broken down into proteins, fats and carbohydrates. In order to feel our best, reach our fitness goals and get the most out of our diet, it’s crucial to ensure we are consuming the right balance of macronutrients for our individual energy needs.
This is why when you sign up with a new trainer or coach, you will often be given a customised nutrition plan, tailored specifically to you using software that calculates your macro needs. Factors that are considered when creating a personalised macro plan include:
- Your age
- Your weight
- Your health goals
- Your lifestyle
For example, someone starting their fitness journey already quite lean with a goal of wanting to build muscle and size through a strength training program would require a different macronutrient ratio to someone wanting to lose 20 or 30 kilos on a fat loss plan.
If you’re sitting down most of the day then your daily activity levels would be quite low, so you wouldn’t need as many carbohydrates for example, as someone who is training for a marathon or looking to increase muscle strength by doing resistance training 5-6 days a week.
Look at it like this, if you’re doing limited exercise with a goal of fat loss, but you’re eating like you’re training for the Olympics, you’re going to find it difficult to feel your best and lose weight.
An effective macronutrient plan is determined by how much bang for your buck you’re getting from your daily intake of protein, fat and carbohydrate. If your macros are off balance, for example your diet is carb heavy with little protein and no fat, you would likely feel lethargic, tired and even hungry. However, if you’re consuming the right amount of protein, carbs and fat your body will respond with increased energy levels, improved sleep and better overall health.
Why diets don’t work
Fat loss requires expending more energy than you’re consuming, but this doesn’t mean you have to go hungry. In fact, if your goal is to lose fat and keep it off in the long term, a diet that’s making you hungry simply won’t work.
This is why ensuring you’re eating adequate levels of protein, fat and carbs will help you keep weight off for the long haul as you won’t be dealing with the challenges of a restrictive, low calorie diet. In this controversial article by the Washington Post, psychology teacher Traci Mann from the University of Minnesota compares the state of dieting to that of starvation on the human body”
“Dieting is actually a lot like starving, physically. It’s living like you’re starving. A lot of people do it, but what they’re actually doing is living as if they’re starving. They’re putting their body into that exact same state that it would be in if they were literally starving to death.”
So if your current diet is leaving you hungry, there’s a slim chance you’ll stick to it, which may mean you end up binging or putting on any weight you may have lost. It may also indicate you’re not consuming enough food to meet your daily nutritional requirements and you could be putting your body through unnecessary stress, leading to fat storage and metabolism damage.
In this article by Poliquin Group, resistance training is recommended as a way to beat fat storage caused by elevated cortisol levels: “strength training resets the part of the brain that is involved in releasing hormones so that cortisol balance improves”. If you don’t have access to a gym, incorporating simple resistance exercises after your preferred kind of exercise can help, try adding in some push-ups, squats and walking lunges after a run or swim.
Let’s have a look at each macronutrient in further detail:
Protein is made up of amino acids, which are classified into two groups – essential and non-essential. In his article Diet Tips 101: Protein, Clean Health Fitness Institute coach Paul Stevenson explains the difference: “Amino acids have been classified as either ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential’ based on whether the body can make the amino acid for itself (non-essential), or whether it must be derived from one’s diet (essential)”.
The main dietary sources of protein include:
- Dairy – milk, cheese, yogurt
- Vegetables – spinach and pumpkin are both high in protein
- Grains and legumes
Stevenson explains that of the three macronutrients, protein has the highest thermic effect of food (TEF) which means it requires the most amount of energy from the body to burn. It is also the most satiating of the three macronutrients, therefore it will keep you feeling fuller for longer, while also repairing muscle tissue, which is important regardless of your fitness goal. According to Stevenson: “An insufficient protein intake will impair someone’s ability to build muscle or lose fat, because having more lean muscle mass is important to both processes”.
Dietary fat is also known as lipids and comes in four main chemical types:
- Trans Fat
- Saturated Fat
- Mono-unsaturated Fat
- Poly-Unsaturated Fat
Fat is a crucial part of the human diet, especially when you are working towards improved health and fitness. Fat is directly related to the body’s ability to produce testosterone which makes it the best friend of anyone undertaking a strength training program. To learn more, check out this article from LiveStrong about the role of fat in the human diet.
You can find healthy, unsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats in the following foods
- Coconut oil
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Oily fish like salmon
- Whole eggs
Carbohydrates can be used to replenish the body’s depleted glycogen stores (which is the primary fuel used by muscles) after an intense workout, boost your mood, contribute to good brain health, and keep you feeling full for longer (provided the carb source is of a low glycemic index). Carbohydrates are also an excellent source of fibre which will help your body to remove toxins, maintain good bowel health and control blood sugar levels. When choosing a carbohydrate option for your meal, avoid simple carbs like white bread or pasta and opt for one of the following instead:
- Sweet potato
Creating a healthy meal plan means looking at each meal and being aware of what you’re consuming. You want to try and eat regular, smaller meals that incorporate each macronutrient – avoid long periods without food and meals that are just carbs, like a big bowl of pasta. This will spike your blood sugar levels and leave you hungry an hour later. Each meal should have a source of protein, fat and carbohydrate, with protein the hero of each dish. This is because protein requires more work from your metabolism to burn, it is the most satiating of the three macros and protein assists your body in building and restoring lean muscle tissue.
Remember, food should be enjoyed, but its purpose is to fuel your body. If your diet is balanced and full of whole, nutritious foods you’ll not only feel better in your own skin but you’ll have more energy to smash your goals and create the life you want!