Protein, Carbs, and Fat...Oh My! The Paleo NP Podcast Episode 14
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You’re listening to the Paleo NP Podcast, episode #14.
Hi everyone! Welcome to another episode of the Paleo NP podcast. I can’t wait to talk about protein, carbs, fat today. The only quick announcement I have is that there may or may not be a new episode coming out next week. I’ll be in Hawaii (and if you are listening to this episode when it initially comes out, I’m already in Hawaii but was able to record this one before I left) and I’m not sure if I’ll be recording an episode or not. If I don’t, I’ll be sure to make the next one extra good to reward your for your patience and understanding! I’ve also got a couple of amazing guest lined up in the next few week and I’m really excited to get those episodes out because they are going to be fantastic.
So let’s get into protein, carbs, and fat. And first I want to say that what we’re NOT talking about today is how many grams of proteins, carbs, and fat you should be eating every day because while I definitely think that macro counting has a time and a place, making general recommendations doesn’t work. So that’s something that you would want to work with someone on (and yes, work with a real person, don’t use an online calculator, because that’s not accurate). If you are interested in more about how macros might work for you, email me. I’d love to chat about it. Also, just to be clear, calorie counting is not something I’m a fan of. At a certain point, calories do matter, but it’s a much more complicated issue than calories in vs calories out. So that’s not at all what we are talking about today.
What are we talking about today? I am going to dive into why protein, carbs, and fats are ALL important for your body and hopefully help you to understand why we shouldn’t be afraid of certain groups of macronutrients because they are all important. There are cases where more or less of any of them may be a good thing as well as people who should be careful about what balance they are getting, but in general, you need all three of them to survive. And I’m just going to say this because I have seen a lot of people talking about zero carbs lately, and while that might work for some people, it is definitely NOT a general recommendation that I would want to make. So if you eat a zero carb diet and you want to send me an angry email because I said that people NEED carbs, please don’t.
What are macronutrients?
Alright, so macronutrients. What the heck is a macro? Macro is short from macronutrients, and according to Wikipedia (which I fully recognize is not the best site to reference, but it was an easy one to find and had a definition that I liked..so, I’m going to use it, but if you are writing a paper for school, please don’t cite Wikipedia)...anyway, according to the definition in Wikipedia macronutrients are a class of chemical compounds which humans consume in the largest quantities and provide a bulk of energy. So every food falls under one or more of the categories of protein, carbohydrate, or fat. Some can fit into multiple categories depending on how much of each macro is present. Also, don’t confuse these with micronutrients which refers to the vitamins and minerals that we get from our foods and also need to survive, but do not provide us with energy.
So let’s start with protein. Now my guess is that when I say protein you probably think of protein bars and protein powder and big huge muscley meatheads at the gym. But in reality, everyone needs protein and eating protein while also lifting weights will not make you a big buff meathead. For all the ladies out there who think they are going to get bulky from lifting weights and eating protein...have you ever SEEN how much a bodybuilder eats? You’ve got to eat A LOT of protein to get and keep muscles that big. So protein is made up of chains of amino acids. There are 20 different kinds of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and some of these are essential, which means that we have to get them from food, and others are non-essential, which means that our bodies can make them from other things and we do not rely on food to get them. There are also some amino acids that are essential if you have certain diseases, so under normal circumstances, your body will make them and they are non-essential, but if you have certain health conditions, these conditional amino acids become essential because your body doesn’t make them on it’s own because it doesn’t have the right building blocks.
Why do we need proteins? Well, all of your cells are made up with proteins, so you need proteins to repair your cells as well as to make new ones. It’s important in helping you feel satiated after meals, helps with blood sugar regulation, can help you with your weight loss goals, for growth, so it can help you build those big bulky meathead muscles...and it’s necessary for growing kids to actually grow, and important in repair when you have any sort of injury.
And I want to make something clear here, while getting your protein from things like grass-fed and pasture-raised animals is far better than getting it from elsewhere, you should not let this stop you from making sure you get plenty of proteins from animal sources. The protein that you get from animal sources are all complete proteins (meaning that they contain all nine essential amino acids) and they are more easily digestible than plant proteins, so it is a more efficient use of your time and energy to get your protein from animals than try and get it from plants. That’s not to say it’s impossible, just more efficient. And before you tell me that you aren’t going to eat meat because meat causes cancer, be sure that you listen to episode #8 because I talk about how yes...meat does cause cancer (and the quality of the meat doesn’t matter in this case), but if you make sure to eat plenty of vegetables with it, it negates most of the cancer causing aspects. So, while there certainly are health benefits to choosing high-quality, grass-fed, pasture-raised meats, please do not let the keep you from eating a Paleo diet or from getting plenty of animal protein in your diet.
Protein isn’t stored by the body because it’s not really used for energy (there may be a very small portion of total protein intake that’s converted into energy, but not a significant amount), which means that it’s important to eat some protein almost every day. This doesn’t need to be a huge amount, but if you aren’t eating enough protein for the needs of your body, then your body won’t be able to regulate your blood sugar, you’ll probably feel hungry all the time, and you won’t repair injuries or be able to build muscle.
What foods is protein found in
We’ve already touched on this a little bit, but animal protein is the easiest for your body to digest and absorb and get the nutrients it needs out of your food and into your cells. So examples of protein sources would be meat, fish, eggs, and some dairy. There are also some sources of plant proteins, but as I mentioned earlier, plant proteins are not complete proteins (which means that they don’t contain the 9 essential amino acids), and they aren’t as bioavailable, so it’s harder for your body to get the nutrients (the amino acids) from plant sources. Plant proteins would include beans, soy, lentils, nuts, seeds, and a small amount is also found in rice and other grains. The reason the nutrients are harder to get out of plant sources is because plants have chemical defense mechanisms in place to protect them. So they can’t fight off predators with teeth or claws so instead they have other mechanisms in place that keep them safe. In order for your body to get the protein out of a plant source, first it needs to break down the chemical defense mechanism before the protein can be absorbed and broken down. So it’s just an extra step. Kind of like having to break open the shell on a pistachio before you eat it.
If you have any sort of digestive issues you may want to be wary of plant protein sources and try to get most of your protein from the more bioavailable animal sources. So anyone with IBS, crohn’s, or any other sort of inflammatory disease that causes gut issues. And while you can combine plant proteins to make a complete protein (like rice and beans), if you have digestive issues, attempting to get most (or even all) of your protein from these plant sources can actually make your digestive issues worse. You can combat some of this by properly preparing your grains by soaking or sprouting them, but most people aren’t willing to put the time in to properly preparing them and would be better off finding animal protein sources that they can eat instead.
I’m sure you are all wondering how protein powders or other supplemental protein sources fit into this because that’s often the first thing that comes to mind when people think about protein (not me, I think of steak). So protein supplements would include protein powder, collagen, gelatin, and something called BCAA which are branched chain amino acids which are amino acids that are specifically beneficial to muscle repair so a lot of people use these after a workout so they can get their big bulky muscles. There are two different categories of protein powders. Animal protein like whey, beef, collage, casein, and egg white protein. And then there are plant based protein powders like pea, hemp, soy, and rice.
As we’ve already talked about, the animal sources are easier for your body to break down and absorb. But for both of these categories, the source matters. A lot. You definitely don’t want to go and buy any random, cheap whey or pea protein because if you don’t take the time to read the ingredients, you’ll probably end up with something that has a ton of junky ingredients and fillers that you don’t want to put in your body. So be sure to look for something that’s grass-fed, organic, or otherwise well sourced. I really like all of the Vital Proteins products, but there are a few others that are really great too. I don’t have a good plant-based protein recommendation because I personally don’t do well with any of them, so I haven’t taken the time to find a really good quality one. But before you run out and buy some protein powder, note that not everyone who exercises needs a protein powder supplement.
Why you might need more or less protein
How much protein you need depends on your specific health history. Your age, gender, current health status, and goals all play a role in how much protein you really need. Also remember that your body is constantly changing, so just because you are eating a certain amount of protein right now and it’s working for you, does not mean that eating the same amount of protein in 1 year or 5 years will continue to work for you. You might need more protein if you are recovering from an illness or surgery, an athlete trying to build muscle, kids and teenagers tend to need more protein because they are still growing, and then pregnant and breastfeeding women also have an increased need for protein (but it’s not as much as you might think it is).
You might need to be careful or eat less protein if you live a relatively sedentary lifestyle or if you aren’t working out to build muscle. Although I would say that if you are working out for anything other than fun (as in you have any sort of performance goals), you might want to be aware of your protein intake and err on the side of more rather than less. There’s some research that suggests that even endurance athletes have an increased need for protein despite not actively trying to build muscle. If you are working on blood sugar regulation or increase your sensitivity to insulin (remember, we talked about this in episode #6, all about insulin resistance), if you are trying to lose weight, or if you are over the age of 50 you might also benefit from eating more protein. As we age, we lose muscle mass, so that’s why those who are over 50 should consider eating more protein because it can help to counteract some of that muscle loss which will have metabolic and physical benefits down the road.
If you have chronic kidney disease, you need to be aware of your protein intake. I’ll link to an article by Robb Wolf about this because I think it gives some good perspective that it’s not as cut and dry as if you have kidney disease, you should eat less protein. It’s a more complicated issue, because things like blood sugar and hormone balance can also affect the kidneys, and some of that can definitely be managed by taking out some carbohydrate and adding more protein in your diet. So, if you do have chronic kidney disease, definitely talk with your doctor before you start to eat more protein, but also do some research, because lower protein intake doesn’t necessarily help improve kidney damage or disease.
Alright, next up is carbs. What are carbs. Is butter a carb? (10 points if you get that reference). These days it seems like people are either completely petrified of carbs and think that if they so much as look at something carby out the corner of their eye that they’ll gain 10 pounds or they think carbs are the best thing since sliced bread (yes, that was an intention pun, my grandma would be so proud) and these people tend to be terrified that someone is going to take away their carbs - I can’t tell you how many people have blurted out “I’m not ever giving up bread” within two seconds of meeting me...apparently carbs are a touchy subject for a lot of people. Some people do really well with faster digesting carbs like white rice and others do better if they stick to vegetable sources of carbs. And if you want to get super nerdy about your carb tolerance, you should get a copy of Robb Wolf’s book Wired to Eat because he has a whole carb tolerance testing protocol that’s pretty interesting. He also takes a look at a big study that was done on carb tolerance and those results are pretty fascinating. The gist of it (and I’m probably going to do a terrible job of summarizing because I don’t have the book in front of me) was that we tend to think that carbs like bananas or sweet potatoes are better for us than something like cookies. But this study looked at postprandial blood sugars (so blood sugar a certain point after a meal) in a bunch of people after eating different types of carbs and the conclusion was that some people actually do better with the cookie than the banana. I thought that was pretty interesting, but really the only way to get this information for sure is to test your blood sugar, which might be farther than a lot of people are willing to go. But the practical piece of information to take away from this is that if you feel like you do better with certain carbs over others, it’s probably true. And if everyone tells you that you should be eating bananas instead of cookies, but you KNOW that the cookie does better for you than the banana...go with what you know.
So what is a carb? Anything that doesn’t really fit under the protein umbrella or the fat umbrella (which we will get to in a minute) is considered a carb. So fruits vegetables, grains, and beans. And no Regina, butter is not a carb. Carbohydrates are made up of monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides which are all various sizes of sugar molecules. All of these molecules make up glucose, fructose, lactose, glycogen, and starches. Glucose is a simple sugar that is generally what your body likes to use for fuel. Insulin, a hormone, is what allows the glucose to move out of your bloodstream and into your cells where it can be used as energy. Glucose is stored in your body as glycogen. And this should all sound a little familiar to you because we talked about this is great detail in episode #6 when we talked about metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance.
There are two types of carbs that you’ll hear about most, and those are simple carbs which are fast digesting and generally considered high glycemic load carbs which means that they cause your blood sugar to increase quickly. White rice and bread and plain table sugar are all good examples of these. Then you have complex carbohydrates which have more fiber in them so they are slower to digest and do not cause your blood sugar to increase as quickly.
Why we need carbs
Carbs are the preferred source of fuel for your body. They are not the most efficient form, that would be fats which we will talk about next, but they are the fastest and easiest for your body to use. Your brain also prefers to use glucose as its fuel unless you switch it over to using ketones by eating a low carb, high fat, and moderate protein diet, such as the ketogenic diet. You can’t just take away all the carbs and expect your body to start burning fat as fuel, you need to do a little bit of training and transitioning first. So carbs are a great source of fuel for higher intensity, but shorter duration exercise and if you aren’t eating enough carbohydrate to support the activity that you are doing, you’ll likely start to feel pretty bad and your performance and recovery will start to suffer as well. Not eating enough carbohydrate to support your activity level can lead to hormone disruption. And I see this a lot with women who are on a ketogenic diet. Women have much different hormone needs than men and it seems like they just seem to require more carbohydrate to support their bodies, especially if they are exercising. A lot of times making an adjustment to the amount of carbohydrate you are eating can make a huge difference in exercise recovery, adrenal issues, thyroid regulation, energy levels, and more.
Why might you need more or less carbohydrate
So people who need more carbohydrates in general are athletes, pregnant and breastfeeding women, kids and teenagers, anyone with adrenal issues, people who have lost their menstrual cycle, if you have trouble recovering from workouts, or if you have been on a low carb diet and you are either feeling worse, or you aren’t seeing the results you wanted. If you aren’t very active, you won’t need as many carbohydrates as the average person because you don’t have any reason to need additional fuel.
People who would benefit from less carbohydrate, and I’m not suggesting that these people should be on a low carb or keto diet, but that they should be consuming fewer carbs than the people I just talked about. So anyone who is overweight or lives a sedentary lifestyle, if you have insulin resistance or are diabetic, or if you have PCOS.
Alright, and last but definitely not least, let’s talk about fat. First of all, eating fat isn’t going to make you fat. I’m going to say this again, because it’s REALLY important. Eating fat will not make you fat. The food policy in the US in the 80s and 90s shifted into this low-fat will save your life phase and started replacing all of the naturally occurring fats in foods with refined sugars and other additives. And what has happened since then? The obesity rates have gone up even more despite all the low-fat is good for you propaganda out there. So when you remove one macronutrient from a food, you have to replace it with something else, because you still need to be able to get energy from your food and most people (and food companies) replaced the healthy fats that were naturally occurring in foods with refined carbohydrates and sugar. Because there’s this other problem that if you take the fat out of a food...you have to put something in that will still make it taste good because fat tastes good.
So obviously this replacing fats with sugar and other carbs hasn’t really done us any favors in this country. Because I think something like 60% or more of adults in the US are overweight. So what does fat do for you body? And remember that we are not talking about body fat, but the kind of fat that you eat and get energy from. Eating fats helps to give you sustained energy, helps you to absorb fat soluble vitamins (we talked about this in episode #12 when we talked about supplements vs. getting nutrients from whole food sources), fats are important in hormone production, they help keep you satiated (as does protein), and they give you essential fatty acids which are important for the health of your brain and nervous system. Also, all of the cells in your body have a membrane around them that is made up of fats.
Eating the right amount of healthy fats not only helps to slow down the metabolism of carbohydrates, which will help keep your blood sugar better regulated as well as keep you feeling full for longer, but it can also help prevent and slow the progression of many chronic diseases.
So what the heck is considered a healthy fat? Monounsaturated fats like olive oil and avocados, polyunsaturated fats like nuts, seeds, and fish, and saturated fats like coconut oil and grass-fed butter are all what I would consider healthy fats. The kinds of fats that absolutely everyone should avoid are trans-fats and partially hydrogenated fats and oils because these can cause inflammation and contribute to insulin resistance. These include vegetable oils, soybean oil, corn oil, and canola oil. When these oils are cooked at high heat they can become damaged which causes inflammation and damage in your body. They can also increase the amount of LDL cholesterol in your body (which is the “bad” cholesterol) and decreases the amount of HDL cholesterol.
And a quick note on cholesterol, consuming dietary cholesterol DOES NOT increase your blood cholesterol levels, BUT eating trans fats and hydrogenated oils can raise you LDL and lower your HDL (which is the opposite of what you want to happen). Also, a quick note on saturated fat and heart disease. That’s another fat myth that I think has been pretty sufficiently debunked, but I’m going to link to an episode of the Balanced Bites podcast that talked a lot about fats and heart disease and some of the research that was used to make those recommendations, because it’s pretty interesting (and also a little scary how easily those results can be misrepresented).
Alright, back to why you want to eat plenty of good fats. If you are an athlete, it can be a great fuel source during exercise. If you want to get really nerdy about this, I highly recommend reading Bob Seebohar’s book about metabolic efficiency. He’s got lots of good stuff in there for endurance athletes. And this might sound like the opposite of everything you thought you knew about sports nutrition, but the basics are that carbohydrates are a quick source of energy and can be great for shorter exercise, but if you are running an ultramarathon and spending 6 or 8 or 10 hours running, you don’t want to be forced to eat every 45 minutes. You want to consume more fat and become more adapted to burning fat as your fuel source, because not only does your body have more fat stored for you to use, but you can eat less frequently and still have plenty of energy to keep going.
And another thing that is important here is to know that if you don’t eat much fat, your body isn’t going to know how to use it for energy. Sugar and carbohydrates are an easier source of energy, so when you give your body plenty of those, it tends to use that for fuel and doesn’t really try and use any fat. And it also downregulates the amount of bile and lipase it produces (which are what are needed to break down fat), when you don’t eat much fat. So if you want to use fat as a fuel source, you’ll need to teach your body how to do this by eating fewer carbs and more fat. But you don’t want to just start with a whole bunch of fat if you’ve been eating low fat because your body won’t be producing enough of the things it needs to breakdown the fat when you do eat it. And this can cause some digestive upset and other issues. Going too low fat is a big issue, especially with women, because fat (specifically cholesterol) is the building block for all hormones in your body. So a lot of women who don’t eat enough fat can lose their menstrual cycle or have a very irregular cycle (the same thing can happen if you go too low carb). Because fat is important for your brain, going too low fat can contribute to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
How would you know if you weren’t getting enough fat? Well, having an irregular or absent menstrual cycle can be one sign. So can difficulty with concentration, having trouble regulating your mood, not feeling satiated after meals, or difficulty regulating your body temperature.
What food can you get fat from
The healthiest sources of fat, so those where you’ll get the most nutritional bang for your buck are eggs (preferably pasture raised), full fat dairy, nuts and seeds, fish like wild-caught salmon, tuna, or sardines, coconut, olives, and avocado. Remember that you want to avoid unhealthy and highly processed fats such as trans fats, vegetable oils, and hydrogenated fats. These fats are found in a lot of packaged foods, margarine, and vegetable shortening. These are also the fats that are often used at fast food restaurants, so be aware of that. Also, be sure to read the ingredients on anything that you are eating because you might be surprised at what is in some of your favorite foods. Also be sure to avoid anything that is labelled low-fat because not only are you missing out on the good stuff from the fat that should be in the food, but you are also missing out on the vitamins and other good stuff that went out with the fat. And chances are that the fat was replaced with sugar or something else to make it taste good.
The options for fat supplementation aren’t quite as broad as those for protein, but since keto is becoming a big thing, there are a few things that we should talk about. First up is MCT oil, which stands for medium-chain triglycerides and it basically goes straight to your mitochondria and gives you tons of energy...so this is why putting MCT oil in coffee has become such a big thing, because it essentially turns your coffee into the most energizing thing you can make legally. There are also omega-3 supplements or fish oil supplements, which are good anti-inflammatory supplements. But a note on these, quality is an issue, especially with fish oil. So be aware of where you are sourcing your fish oil from. And long-term supplementation with high doses of fish oil (so 3g or more) is not generally considered a good idea. There doesn’t seem to be any harm from lower dose supplementation long term, but if you are doing some high dose supplementation, I have read in several places that you don’t want to do that for longer than 6 months.
Why you might need more or less fat
You might need more fat in your diet if you are trying to recover from a hormonal imbalance, if you have an irregular or absent menstrual cycle, if you are trying to get pregnant or are pregnant, or breastfeeding. You might benefit from more fat (but don’t necessarily need it) if you are very sedentary, if you are trying to balance your blood sugar or lose body fat. But remember that if you are going to eat more fat, you’ll need to reduce some other part of your diet because while calories don’t matter as much as we think they do, at a certain point they do matter. So generally if you eat a higher fat diet, you’d be eating fewer carbohydrates.
So now that we’ve covered what the three types of macronutrients are, I hope that you understand why you need all three. If you are really trying to accomplish some sort of aesthetic goal or have a specific training benchmark that you are trying to meet, you might benefit from playing around with specific ratios of these dietary building blocks in order to meet your goals, but in general, you should be consuming all three. And remember that while calorie counting is not something that I’m a fan of, they also matter, because consistently taking in more energy than you are using will result in weight gain, but the calories themselves are not the only thing that matters.
Well...that’s all I’ve got for you this week. I hope that you enjoyed this episode and if you did, I would be forever grateful if you would head over to iTunes and leave a rating or a review so that other people can find this show more easily. That’s all for now, see you next week!