This month’s topic again deals with nutrition. Many patients have asked me about the benefits of cutting fat, carbohydrates or proteins out of their diet. Most seem surprised when I inform them that there are many negative aspects to completely cutting our/greatly decreasing the intake of any of these nutrients. Here is another insightful article written for us by nutritionist/writer Lisa Irvine.
Fat Is Not The Bad Guy: Why We Need Macronutrients by Lisa Irvine
For decades now, yo-yo dieters and “nutritionists” more interested in marketing than health have been extolling the virtues of avoiding certain macronutrients. These macronutrients – fat, carbohydrates, and protein – are a critical part of any person’s diet, but this common sense fact has passed by many people. From the “no fat” phase to the carb-o-phobic Atkins diet, the “everyone knows” folk wisdom has swung wildly from side to side, confusing people who simply want to eat right and doing everyone a disservice with its simplistic view of nutrition and health. A balanced diet doesn’t just mean eating your greens; it also means that you should be suspicious of any nutritionist who makes big claims about eliminating a vital macronutrient from your meals. If you’re looking for a healthy diet, it’s far more important to watch the percentage of these nutrients that you consume, not just the sheer amount.
How Our Bodies Use Macronutrients
Carbohydrates, fat, and protein are known as macronutrients because they are the nutrients we must eat the most of in order to stay healthy. Aside from alcohol, they are also the only nutrients which provide us with calories: 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates or protein, and 9 calories per gram of fat. People tend to be afraid of calories (hence part of the reason for fat’s vilification), but they’re what gives us energy and keeps us moving. Each macronutrient is used by the body in a different way, meaning that when we eliminate one it is difficult or impossible for the body to get what it needs from other nutrients.
Carbohydrates, for example, should make up the majority of most people’s diets. Most people think of bread products when they think of carbs, but vegetables, dairy, and nuts are all sources. It is easily converted in glucose once digested, which then provides most of the body’s energy; the nervous system in particular requires glucose to function. Fiber, a non-digestible form of carbohydrate, is also critical for gastrointestinal health. Fats are also a vital nutrient, despite their poor reputation. Many other nutrients are fat-soluble, meaning that the body absorbs them much better when they are consumed with fat. Once in the body, fats provide energy, cushion our organs, help to maintain cellular structure, and otherwise keep our body running properly.
Finally, protein – the big hero of the Atkins diet – is found in both meat and some vegetable products. However, beans and nuts do not contain all the essential amino acids found in meat protein, so vegetarians must work harder to make sure they have their protein needs met. This is important, since protein is the workhorse of macronutrients. In addition to providing sustained energy, it is critical for growth, tissue repair, and retaining lean muscle mass, as well as boosting our immune systems and helping our bodies create necessary enzymes and hormones. As you can see, none of these nutrients is a candidate for elimination from our diets.
What Happens Without A Macronutrient?
Although it’s more or less impossible to complete cut out fat, protein, or carbs, many people have done their best over the years. Some of these people saw initially encouraging results, which may have seemed to support their theories, but over time they would see far worse effects from their dietary choices.
Fat has been saddled with both an unappealing name and popular “bad” forms which are better replaced by “good fats”. Yet if you cut it out entirely, you’d soon decide that any fat was a good fat. Not only would your brain not be working up to speed (it’s 70% fat), giving you depression and other potential mental illnesses, but the poor absorption of essential nutrients would also compound those problems. After long enough, the lack of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats would also lead to problems such as diabetes, macular degeneration, and high blood pressure with a tendency to clot. Your skin and hair would become dry, flaky, and thin, and eventually your follicles would weaken, requiring special intervention. Similarly, cutting out carbs will not leave you feeling or looking your best. Your skin will be tender to the touch, your hair will be brittle, and you’ll have trouble concentrating. Lacking the energy boost of carbs, the body will turn on itself, which produces a byproduct called ketones – these will leave you feeling nauseated, run-down, ill, and will also cause your breath to smell horribly. Yet all of those effects are minor compared to the big guns: heart damage, the loss of lean muscle mass, insulin sensitivity, and gastrointestinal problems are all possible if you cut down too much on your carbs.
Fewer people are interested in cutting protein from their diet, but it’s still important to note that doing so would be a dangerous move. Of course, current diet trends leave people much more likely to eat too much protein, which can increase the risk of osteoporosis, damages your kidneys and other internal organs, and causes nutritional deficiencies.
A Truly Balanced Diet
The success of many macronutrient-cutting diet programs comes from the simple fact that switching from cake to lean proteins will make you feel better, and may cause you to lose weight in the short term. However, switching from cake to vegetables (eaten with a good fat, alongside lean meat) is an even better choice, one which comes without the danger of cutting out the foods our body needs. What percentage of your diet should come from each macronutrient depends on your individual needs; a sprinter will eat differently than a weightlifter, who eats differently than an average person, who might need a different diet than someone recovering from an illness. For most people, it’s not critical to stress out over exact percentages. Instead, you should focus on eating a balanced diet of unprocessed foods, gaining most of your calories from carbs and proteins with the addition of healthy oils. By listening to your body and eating a varied diet, you’ll be well on your way to health without having to punish your body.