Carbohydrate, protein, fat and water are called the macronutrients. Macro refers to the amount in which they are needed, not their actual molecular size. In other words, we need large amounts of these nutrients; as opposed to the micronutrients, vitamins and minerals, of which we need a very small amount. Of the macros, three of them, carbohydrate, protein and fat, not only provide calories but are our only sources of calories, otherwise known as ENERGY.

The current culture has framed carbohydrates in a bad light, calling them added sugar and empty calories while implying that carbs are the source of the obesity epidemic in this country. The truth is that the body’s favorite form of energy is in the form of carbohydrates. In fact, the body goes to a tremendous amount of trouble to convert the other nutrients to sugar when appropriate amounts of carbs are not consumed. Carbohydrates should make up 60% of your daily calories coming from whole fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Not only do these foods provide the energy we need, they also provide at least 20% of the water we need daily, the hydrate portion of the nutrient.

Unlike the carbohydrates which have only one function, the fats or lipids have several jobs including providing energy. Because the caloric density of fats is twice that of carbs and protein, we need much less fat to satisfy our needs. In fact, we are extremely efficient at storing fat dating back to our evolution and why we survived as a species during times of famine. In today’s food environment this ability to store fat is not quite as life saving. Fat is used for energy at rest, in long, low-intensity exercise and during starvation. Many diet theories, and exercise regimens are endlessly being suggested to increase fat burning, most of which involve ‘tricking’ the body into spending it. Actually, the best way to handle fat is to embrace its potency by eating it sparingly and let it do its job.

Arguably the most popular nutrient of the past two decades, protein has over nine different functions besides providing energy. One of its most important is that of muscle building, repair and maintenance. In order to spare the muscle protein acquired, a high carbohydrate diet is necessary. Unlike the other two macronutrients, protein is not stored for later use. All muscle, either skeletal or visceral, is necessary and not intended for use as energy. Protein, does, however, allow itself to be catabolized for energy as a survival mechanism during times of fasting, which can begin after three hours of no eating.

Kathleen Deegan, PhD, MS, RD
Sports Nutritionist, California State University, Sacramento
SRA Fueling Specialist

Coming next time…
Optimizing Glycogen Storage:
How Efficient is Carbo Loading?