High Carb, Low Carb, Fat Free. What’s For Me?

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Healthy-Eating-101As part of the Healthy Eating 101 series here on AFQ, we’ve gone over how to figure out how many calories you should be eating each day and also how to make healthier food choices. That knowledge will take you a long way on the road to better health. Actually if you do what’s outlined in those two posts the majority of the time, you’ll be way ahead of the average American in the health department.

But does it matter how you make up your meals even if you are making healthy, whole food choices? Do you need to worry about the “right” amounts of protein, fats and carbs? Does the amount of carbs matter and what about fat?  Yes and no is my answer. I know, not what you wanted to hear. 😉

Let me explain. Every food you eat is made up of varying amounts of three macronutrients – protein, fats, and carbs. Your body needs all three on a daily basis to thrive. Each nutrient serves a different purpose.

Protein
Proteins are known as the building blocks of cells and they also help to provide energy. They work to keep you full and prevent you from losing muscle especially if you are in a calorie deficit. It’s pretty important stuff and is the main macronutrient that you should focus on in your eating. You can get protein from both animal sources and non-animal products.

Most of us should aim for approximately .5 – 1 g of protein per pound of bodyweight.  If you exercise 3 – 5+ days a week, you should be closer to the 1 g of protein. Otherwise you can vary the amounts anywhere in that range. Proteins are 4 calories per gram so take the total number of grams of protein you plan to eat and multiply by 4 to get the calories. For example, if my goal is to eat 140 g of protein, that is 560 calories a day.

Keep in mind that minimum guidelines recommend that you get .37 times your bodyweight in protein each day. Unless you have a very restricted diet or are purposely trying to avoid protein, you probably already eat more than this on a daily basis without even thinking twice. As an example, I can meet my the minimum protein for my weight with a half cup of chick peas, a grilled chicken breast, steamed broccoli and a non fat latte. I eat way more food than that each day.

Fats
Your body uses fats for energy, cellular functions, and to balance your hormones. Fats also help with blood sugar regulation when combined with carbs, and they keep moisture in your hair and skin. Healthy fats are needed on a daily basis by your body, and are not evil as the media would have you think. Eating too much fat is not the problem most overweight people have. It’s too many calories and too much of the wrong kinds of fats.

Types of fats matter for your health. Aim for a combination fats from lean meats, nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados. Trans fats are chemically altered, artery clogging, and should be avoided by everyone. Your goal should be to eat 0 trans fats. If you eat out, this isn’t always possible but aim low and try your best.  A good starting point for the amount of fat to eat is 30% of your daily calories from healthy fats.

Here’s how to figure out what that number is. Fats are 9 calories per gram so take your daily calorie goal and multiply it by .3 to find the total number of calories you should eat per day in fats. Next take that number and divide it by 9 to convert it to grams. For example, if you eat 1800 calories per day, multiply this by .3 to get 540 calories in fat. This works out to be 60 grams per day. The key is to get your fats from healthy, whole foods. It’s not a license to eat 60 fat grams in twinkies and junk.

Carbs
Carbohydrates are a much debated topic. High carb, low carb, how much carb? Carbs are a chief source of energy for your body and they also add bulk and fiber to meals. Without carbs, you’ll probably find yourself lacking in energy. Carbs come in many forms from oats, grains, pasta, and rice to fruits and veggies. The amount of carbs you consume should be determined after your protein and fat requirements are met.

Carbs are 4 calories per gram. Take your total daily calories and subtract the protein and fat calories that you calculated. Then take that number and divide by 4 to get the total grams of carbs to aim for. Using the example above for 1800 calories per day, I subtract 560 calories in protein and 540 calories in fat to leave 700 calories in carbs. That’s 175 grams. Are you still with me or is your head spinning now? 😉

These are general guidelines that apply to most of us with goals to be healthy and fit. Once your protein requirements are met, it’s really a personal preference how you make up the rest of your calories. As I said a starting point is 30% of your calories from fat. Everyone’s body is different and processes nutrients in different ways. Some of us feel better with lower fats and higher carbs. Others feel more energetic if fats are higher and carbs lower. This is something you can play with to see what works best for you.

Fitness competitors carefully use macronutrients to tweak their physique, but this detail isn’t something the average person needs to worry about unless there are underlying health reasons. Start with 30% fat for a couple weeks and see how you feel. You can experiment with eating less fat and increasing your carbs to see how that works for you. It’s not an exact science and what works for someone may not be the best for you. I recommend not going below 10% fat as your body does need fat to function effectively.

The most important part is the type of foods you choose and the number of calories you consume. When in doubt, refer to “The Rules.” Make sure you are still within your calorie goals and making better food choices overall, and then find the percentages of fat and carbs that work best for you.

Comments

  1. The ongoing food debate! I have friends who periodically go carb-free to lose weight. I could never go carb free and do the work-outs I do. Sometimes I think about cutting down on carbs but even if I increase my protein intake, I NEED carbs!!!
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