Friday, May 1, 2009

Pulse: Macronutrient Basics and Low Carb diets

I concluded the last pulse post with the following:

In order to lose weight:

Eat a low carbohydrate (LC) diet of probably less than 10-15% but definitely less than 40% of energy

But what is a low carb diet? What does this mean exactly? It's time for a lesson in the basics of macronutrient composition.

All the calories that you eat (or drink) are made up of four types of what are called "macronutrients": fat (aka "lipid"), carbohydrate (carb, CHO), protein (PRO), and alcohol. Carbohydrate and protein have four calories per gram, fat nine, and alcohol seven. And calories are just a synonym for "energy".

When I say, "eat fewer than 40% of your energy from carbs" I mean, if you were to keep a food log, (you are keeping a food log, aren't you?) your graph would show that less than 40% of your calories came from carbs. Here's the macronutrient breakdown of one of my recent days:

Fat: 54%
Carbs: 10%
Protein: 36%
Alcohol: 0 %

Probably the first thing you'll notice about this: I eat a TON of fat. Here's the deal with this: you can only eat so much protein (anywhere between 10-40%), then after that, you have to fill in your energy needs with either carbohydrate, fat, or a combination of the two. Since I'm trying to lean out, fat is my weapon of choice, and I find it easy to take in enough, since it's so rich in calories per gram. Butter (if you're eating dairy), olive oil, coconut oil, tree nuts and nut butters, as well as the fat that your meat (and if you're eating it, dairy) contain are all okay, as are fish oils and things like avocados and artichokes. More processed oils like canola, peanut, margarine , and anything with trans-fatty acids are not so good. Basically, I want to eat things that I can imagine coming from nature. If you squeeze an olive, you get oil, but I've never gotten oil out of a cob of corn.

The next thing you'll notice is how low the carbs are. This graph actually contains a combination of my grams of "active" and "fiber" carbohydrates. I usually don't count the fiber: I subtract the grams of fiber from the total grams of carbs, then multiply by four to get the calories from carbs, but fitday calculates the fiber as being 4 calories per gram. Technically, the fiber provides about two calories per gram--but you'll be hard pressed to get much more than 30g of fiber a day unless you supplement your diet, and I defy anyone to screw up their diet with 30 extra grams of fiber: it's too filling, and 30g of fiber only has about 60 calories with a minimal effect on your insulin levels.

So, you're only getting a few grams of carbohydrates a day, probably between 20-100g. A common question is, "What kinds of foods are the best when it comes to choosing carbohydrates?" Let me quote a couple of sources here:
From Jimmy Moore:
"When eating carbohydrate foods, look at the carb/fiber ratio and keep it under 6. Anything over that and definitely those in double digits are to be eaten very sparingly if at all. For example, the carb/fiber ratio of strawberries is just 3, but bananas is 10. Likewise, broccoli is 2, but corn is 9. Even so-called healthy brown rice contains 12–it’s better than than the 40 from instant rice, but both are still not good for you."

From Dr. Michael Eades:

"Okay, here are my insights. There are no good carbs and bad carbs. Carbs are carbs. They all run up your insulin levels and play havoc with your metabolic system. They are all sugar. Once you accept that, then the question becomes what is my trade off for eating all these metabolically disruptive carbohydrates. If they are packaged as pure sugar, then there is no good trade off. If they are packaged as, say, blackberries then the small amount of carbohydrate is offset by all the antioxidants and other healthful phytochemicals in the blackberries. Same with blueberries, asparagus, tomatoes, and all the rest. It’s a trade off. How much good stuff can I get to make eating the metabolically disruptive carbs worth it."

So basically, we are looking for high-fiber, low carb, high-nutrition foods like broccoli, spinach, berries, and other, similar foods. A good rule of thumb is to eat things that are darkly colored (berries, green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, etc.) and avoid foods that are pale (potatoes, corn, banannas, bread, etc.)

The last macronutrient is protein, which mainly comes from meat, eggs, and cheese. You can also get protein from soy or quinoa, or by combining different grain and legume foods, but that's not what I'm going to recommend here, since our focus is on losing fat, and not on being a vegetarian. The main thing to remember about protein is to eat good, whole sources of protein like meat, eggs, protein powder, or cottage cheese, and not stuff like gelatin or soy powder. If you stick as close to nature as possible, you won't go wrong: wild salmon, free range chickens, grass-fed (and finished) beef, game--these are great for you, but a bacon cheeseburger with no bun will do in a pinch. I wouldn't strip the meat of the fat--leave it on, you'll need the calories. Likewise, don't strip chicken of it's skin, unless you're eating something deep fried.

That's basically it, in a nutshell. 10% or so of calories from carbs--probably 10-50 grams, 100-250g of protein (10-40%), depending on your size and weight, and probably another 100-200 grams of fat (whatever calories are remaining) will be satisfying and help you lose weight. Feel free to adjust your calories as you need--you'll probably find yourself spontaneously restricting your calorie intake, and that's great. Just make sure to get at least 100g of protein a day. As you become leaner and more active, you may find it useful to include more carbohydrate. Just remember the guidelines I've provided above, and you won't go wrong.

Post any questions to the comments.

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