Our weekly fitness column, “Weekly Wellness,” is back again. This week, Matt Gallagher, from MFC Sports Performance in Darien, talks about balancing your diet with several different food groups and cautions us not get tricked into fad diets.
Food is a great pleasure, is it not? Food fuels our brains, gives us energy, helps our bodies to recover, helps us to fight disease and can taste incredibly awesome. As my friends and colleagues know, eating is one of my favorite pastimes. However, eating in general is a double-edged sword. Food can be easily abused, misused, ignored, or relied upon. With that being said, and before I proceed, I need to say, I am not a certified nutritionist. But I do know a thing or two about how to use food to achieve a physical result while still loving your life and not feeling like you are losing your sanity through deprivation. With that being said, let us get into some actual nutritional talk, and then I will share a personal story about why trendy diets can be extremely harmful to your well-being.
Macronutrients are nutrients that provide calories, or energy. Nutrients are critical for the human body because these are responsible for cell or bodily growth, metabolism and many other bodily functions. The term “macro” means large and therefore macronutrients are nutrients that are required in large amounts through the food we eat or the drinks we drink. These macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
Carbohydrates contain four calories per gram. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends an intake of 45 to 65 percent of daily total calories from carbohydrates. I am not saying I agree or disagree with the USDA’s recommendations, but would rather use this as a general starting point. Carbohydrates are critical for several functions in the body. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel and are very easily used by the body for energy. It is important to remember we need carbohydrates because all of the tissues and cells in our body can and prefer to use glucose for energy. After most carbohydrates are digested, they are converted into glucose. In fact, carbohydrates are stored in our muscles and liver, which is one reason why strength training (muscle-building activities) rely on carbohydrates for fuel (or “burn” carbohydrates if you prefer to look at it that way). Carbohydrates are also essential for the central nervous system, kidneys, brain, and muscles, including the heart, to function properly. Carbohydrates also are important for intestinal health and waste elimination.
Protein contains four calories per gram as well. The USDA recommends an intake of 10 to 35 percent of daily total calories from protein. As Americans, this is one macronutrient that we have down, is it not. We certainly do eat our protein. Protein is needed in the body for functions like cellular growth (especially important for children, teens and pregnant women), tissue repair, preventing against disease, making essential hormones and enzymes, providing energy when carbohydrates are not available (although we should try to avoid using protein as an energy source at all costs in order to help keep our metabolism elevated) and preserving and building lean muscle mass.
Fats contain nine calories per gram, making this macronutrient the most calorically dense of the three macronutrients. This definitely does not mean we should avoid fat consumption, however. The USDA recommends an intake of 20 to 35 percent of daily total calories from fat. It seems like fats have gotten the most negative attention in the past couple decades, however, fats are absolutely essential for many functions in the body. Here are a few of the functions in the body that fats are necessary for: normal growth and development, energy (fat is the most concentrated source of energy), absorbing certain vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E and K, absorbing carotenoids, providing cushioning for the organs, maintaining cell membranes, and last but not least – providing taste, consistency and stability to foods (had to throw that last one in there – you know it’s true).
We now know we need all three macronutrients in certain amounts, and all three are essential for the health and well-being of our bodies. But as I stated earlier, it is so easy to abuse one macronutrient, or ignore one macronutrient, or just have way too much of all three macronutrients. While there are definitely emotional and also even spiritual reasons why a person would abuse food or a macronutrient in some way, what it also comes down to is that we are given so many professional opinions on macronutrients that it is enough to make our heads spin. Think about all the nutritional information we have been exposed to for the last few decades. Should we eat low fat/fat-free like what was suggested in the 90’s? Should we cut out all sugar? Isn’t too much protein bad for your kidneys? Do we need a specific blend of all three macronutrients?
I definitely will not pretend to know the answers to these questions. But my life experience with food has taught me some valuable lessons. First, you simply must find a healthy balance of all three macronutrients. It is all about moderation, not obsession. Second, you must find foods that work well with your body. Everyone has certain food allergens that we may not even know about or lacks adequate digestive enzymatic activity to utilize the nutrition from the foods we eat. Third, do not restrict yourself, ever. This will lead to the devastating weight gain/loss cycle that is so common in the clients I train. Fourth, you must do everything possible to increase your metabolic rate (get up off your hind parts and get some exercise) so that you can eat the foods you really enjoy in moderation and not feel guilt about it.
Lastly, I would like to touch on a sensitive subject for me, and I hope this can possibly help others in choosing a nutritional plan. Fad diets are just that – fads. We are supposed to have all three macronutrients, plain and simple. All three are there to promote health and well-being. Any diet that has you cutting out certain foods or an entire macronutrient is one that you should approach with extreme caution, and truly do the scientific research on this diet for yourself. We must research on our own and develop our own conclusions, or it just might kill you. I know that sounds extreme, but in my case, this was exactly what happened to me. At the ripe old age of 19, I almost died from trying a certain fad diet for literally only seven days. It gave me multiple blood clots down my leg and in my lungs. My doctors were shocked I was even circulating oxygen and blood in my body when I came into the hospital, struggling to walk and breath. My blood was as thick as gravy. I have been on blood thinners ever since and live in chronic pain as I struggle to find a way to promote healing.
I want to use my story as a lesson that hopefully can help others. Avoid extreme dietary situations at all costs! Be very cautious of fad diets. Like so much in life, nutrition is about balance and moderation. Find foods that work for you, get a good balance of all three macronutrients, and do not starve yourself. You only get one body, treat it well and enjoy how you eat.
Matt Gallagher is the Fitness Director at MFC Sports Performance in Darien, which specializes in functional training for both adults and younger athletes. You can reach Matt by emailing him at Matt@MFCSportsPerformance.com.