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The Whole (Food) Picture

Understanding the vital role macros and micros play in our everyday lives

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Fat, protein, and carbs—the big three macronutrients have all had their turn being vilified throughout diet culture (from problematic phrases such as “all fats are unhealthy” and “watch your carbs” to misguided rhetoric about protein being the only way to build muscle). Yet this powerful triad of nutrients, in tandem with essential vitamins and minerals, is what our body relies on to thrive.

As we usher in a new year, it’s important to step back and better understand the integral role these nutrients play in our everyday lives, while working to break down some of the common misconceptions they often carry with them.

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The ABCs of macros and micros

So, what exactly are these all-important nutrients?

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Macros

In simple terms, macronutrients refer to the nutrients our body relies on for energy, which we require in large amounts (hence the term macro) to make up our total caloric intake. The big three macros: protein, carbohydrates, and fat.

“All three macronutrients are considered essential, which means we have to consume them in the diet for good health and function,” says Brooke Bulloch, a Saskatoon-based registered dietitian. “It’s really to sustain life and longevity.”

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Micros

On the other hand, micronutrients are the nutrients our body requires in trace amounts. These come in the form of vitamins and minerals. And while they don’t affect our diet from a caloric standpoint, they’re still essential for our health and well-being—from B-complex vitamins’ role in energy production and digestion to iron’s impact on cognitive function and immune support.

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The big three players

While protein, carbohydrates, and fat are widely known nutrients, there’s plenty of mixed messaging around them, such as the “correct” daily protein requirement and the “healthiest” form of carbs. Here, we dig into the fundamentals of each and explain why it’s the balance of all three macros that deserves our true attention.

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Protein

This powerhouse nutrient is something of a workhorse. Made up of amino acids (the “building blocks” of protein), it helps build and repair our muscles, bones, skin, and other tissues. It also plays a role in hormone and enzyme production.

While a complete protein contains all nine essential amino acids that our body can’t produce on its own, Bulloch says there’s too much fixation on consuming complete proteins each day, when really, the focus should be on nutritional variety.

“Even with a plant-based diet, when we’re consuming ‘incomplete’ proteins, you don’t have to complete your proteins at every single meal or every single day,” she explains. “By eating a variety of foods, you’re adding to your amino acid pool and the body will draw from that pool as needed.”

In fact, studies confirm that most people in North America consume more than enough protein. What carries more nutritional impact is the “protein package.” In other words, the quality of that food source and the essential nutrients contained within it.

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Fat

Despite a once-shaky reputation, fat (especially the heart-healthy unsaturated variety) is integral to a healthy, balanced diet. One of its main superpowers: helping the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. “In order to absorb these nutrients properly, we need fat,” says Bulloch. Fat also protects our organs, aids in cell growth, promotes better cognitive function, and provides us with sustained energy.

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Carbohydrates

This long-feared nutrient is too often distilled down to mean bread and pasta. “We need carbohydrates because they are our brain and body’s primary source of fuel and energy,” explains Leigh Merotto, a Toronto-based registered dietitian who specializes in gut health.

Carbs are broken down into simple sugars (called monosaccharides) that enter the bloodstream and are used by all cells in the body for energy. When we’re consuming carbs in their whole food form (think fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes), they also provide us with fibre and prebiotics, which are necessary for efficient digestion.

“We need fibre to keep our digestive tract healthy,” explains Merotto. “It feeds our good gut bacteria and produces things called short-chain fatty acids, which help to mediate and regulate inflammation in the gut and keep our intestinal barrier healthy.” Plus, fibre keeps our bowel movements regular (one of our body’s three forms of detoxification).

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A well-rounded diet

While no nutrient alone holds the key to overall well-being, the secret is to consume a balance of macros and micros in their minimally processed form. Bulloch also explains how the diet messaging around “cutting” is unhelpful and unsustainable. A better alternative: asking ourselves what we can add to our plates.

“‘What can we add to the diet?’ is a really great question because it’s a little bit more neutral,” says Bulloch. “It removes some of the moralization we often see around food.”

Ultimately, she says, our diets should be filled with foods that bring us joy—whether it’s a veggie-packed stir-fry or our favourite homemade dessert. That, as it turns out, is the closest thing to a winning recipe.

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Counting macros?

You may be familiar with the term “tracking macros” (calculating how many grams of each macronutrient you consume each day), but according to Brooke Bulloch, RD, this can lead people down a precarious path of food obsession and body dissatisfaction.

“It can also teach a person to ignore their hunger and fullness cues,” she says. Instead, focus on a well-rounded whole food diet packed with essential micronutrients, such as the following.

Nutrient

Found in these foods 

iron

meat, seafood, legumes, spinach, tofu (pair plant-based sources with vitamin C for better absorption)

zinc

shellfish, poultry, legumes, pine nuts, cashews, whole grains

calcium

milk, yogurt, winter squash, edamame, almonds, leafy greens

magnesium

almonds, pumpkin seeds, beans, brown rice, bananas

vitamin A

leafy greens, carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, tomato

vitamin D

fatty fish, sardines, eggs, wild mushrooms

vitamin B12

clams, salmon, tuna, yogurt, eggs, (fortified) nutritional yeast

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Gut feeling

Most Canadians require between 25 and 38 g of fibre per day, but most Canadians are only consuming about half the necessary amount. A few fibre-rich foods that Merotto recommends including in our diet rotation include whole grains such as quinoa and wild rice, fruits, vegetables such as broccoli and sweet potato, pulses and legumes, nuts, and seeds.

Fibre supplements, such as psyllium and inulin, can also lend support at times when getting enough fibre through diet alone is difficult.

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Plant powered

According to recent research, the average protein intake for people in Europe, South and East Asia, and North America who are following a plant-based diet falls within recommended intake levels. For vegans, the nutrients most at risk of deficiency were omega-3s (EPA and DHA), vitamins D and B12, calcium, iodine, iron, and zinc.

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