• Macro Starvation: the minimum macronutrient amounts for basic physiological function
• Creating a Diet: food choices and macronutrient balance to avoid an anti-eating effect
• Vegetables: slowing digestion, reducing hunger, and their impact on nourishment
• Carbohydrate: as potentially hurtful as helpful based on how it is managed
• Protein: how much and when, mostly needed only when Calories are low and/or recovery is high
• Fats: omega and saturated fat quality determines their physiological impact on nourishment
• Hydration: water versus other fluids
These are in order of how to think about macronutrients and systematically build a personal program.
Macronutrient starvation: when the body loses function or lean tissue to make up for a missing macro
If you have a brand-new car with any one key part missing, it won’t run. Likewise, if your nutrition is perfect in all but one needed nutrient, your physiological function will be held back. This is the reason we would call a nutrient “needed” to begin with. So, who decides what nutrients are needed and in what amounts? The best information resource on how to meet average nutritional needs is the National Institute of Medicine (NIM). The NIM reviews the scientific literature to provide the most credible nutrition recommendations, which are freely available in detail as the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) at this link:
National Academy of Medicine: Dietary Reference Intakes
Imagine, for example, if you ate almost entirely healthy fats trying to follow a ketosis regimen, where your body might be starved of sufficient protein and would therefore experience a breakdown of lean tissue (particularly muscle) to provide protein to more vital organs. This is effectively a protein starvation response even if you are eating more than enough Calories. On the flip side of this, low fat consumption from trying to avoid excess Calories might limit your omega fat intake, which can reduce a variety of functions, particularly in the endocrine, immune, and central nervous systems. Low blood sugar and dehydration slow and therefore reduce many physiological functions as well.
When we have no goals related to nutrition, either we are already healthy or we don’t care enough to have such goals, so there is nothing to think about. But if your eating pattern matters for your goals, you end up joining the multitudes wondering if there is a best way to eat. Having a wide variety of wholesome (meaning minimally processed) foods and drinking water in everyday typical amounts dramatically increases the chances of accidentally meeting all your nutrition needs, reducing the chances that the question ever arises. But when you are not meeting your metabolic goals (such as exercise recovery or healthy weight loss or gain) it is worth considering that one or more nutrients might be falling short and therefore holding you back despite all the other things you are doing right.
It turns out that the minimum amounts of key needed nutrients do not add up to even half our Calorie needs, which means most of what we eat can be anything we want within practically any type of diet so long as the food digests slow enough to be used as fuel in the short term instead of being stored as body fat over the long term. Highly processed food is therefore a problem regardless of macronutrient ratio, and unfortunately makes up most of the carnival-style food commonly eaten in the “SAD” (S-A-D) or “Standard American Diet” that increasingly drives metabolic disease risk including obesity and diabetes beyond our shores throughout the world. The race away from the foods we were born to love due to the reward response to carbs and fats, particularly when paired together (as they are in burgers, pizza, potato chips, ice cream, cookies and donuts) has lead to a myriad of diets that exclude such foods by focusing on one of a variety of alternative diets, as if the particular alternative mattered, when the reality is wholesome food of any type would do. A clear example of this was published by Christopher Gardner’s group at Stanford showing that both high-carb and high-fat diets reduce body fat by 10 pounds in one year in all subjects (regardless of their genetics or insulin predispositions) when using wholesome food options, mainly cooked at home, to avoid what is generally available outside the home:
This paper makes it clear that a variety of wholesome foods meet our needs without having to think any further. However, our reward response for what is cheap, convenient, and tasty (meaning carbs and fats, preferably together), makes wholesome eating an ongoing struggle against ourselves and therefore our environment (because foods that are less tasty don’t sell, so healthy food is hard to come by even when we are in the mood to finally eat some of it). This is where the diet and supplement industry come in to capitalize on our internal competing goals of immediate gratification and long-term health. Unfortunately, as with all other things in life, quick fixes are never a real solution, and we ultimately have to do the work, which in this case means balancing our short- and long-term goals with each other the same as we would balance out vegetables and sugar for our kids. This is ultimately therefore a self-parenting process.
Our basic macro needs do not account for even half of our Calorie needs so almost any diet can work
The National Institute of Medicine’s (NIM) macronutrient recommendations do not provide for even half of someone’s Calorie needs. This is because the minimum amounts of protein, carbohydrate, fats, and vegetables (for fiber and micronutrients) are not based on getting enough Calories. Instead, they are based on physiological targets such as cellular protein production, fueling the brain, and facilitating biochemical pathways. These basic structural and maintenance needs for your body, like those for your car, are separate from the fuel you are putting into the tank. Your body can use any macronutrient as a fuel source so long as it digests slowly enough to be used as fuel in the short term instead of stored for the long term.
A quick calculation shows how far our macro needs are from meeting our Caloric needs. To simplify the discussion, consider what the NIM recommends for a 50 kg relatively sedentary person:
• The minimum amount protein needed is based on how much new protein our cells produce each day, which is 30 grams (120 Cal) for the 50 kg person (double this if they weigh twice as much or are athletic).
• The minimum amount of carbohydrate is based on feeding the brain 60 grams (240 Cal) since the liver can produce the other half of its fuel. In ketosis the brain’s dietary carb needs are replaced by ketones.
• The minimum vegetables (~ 1 cup per 800 Cal) are 2 cups per day, which for broccoli would be 60 Calories.
• Essential fat requirements add up to ~150 Calories.
• This brings the macro-specific nutrient need to a grand total 570 Calories per day for a 50 kg person.
• This is less than half their resting metabolic rate (RMR) of ~1,200 Calories per day, which is at a bare minimum a 25% Calorie restriction since RMR does not include any food digestion or movement.
• Their actual Calorie use would be closer to a minimum of ~1,600 Calories per day.
• The 570 Cal from obtaining the minimum macronutrients is significantly less than half of these: 42% of RMR and therefore not even 33% or 1/3 of the total Calories being used up by the body per day.
• It is therefore only 1/3 of our food that needs to be balanced from a macronutrient point of view.
• Over half of what we eat can be anything we want even when restricting Calories so long as our food is wholesome so as to digest slowly enough to be used as fuel in the short term rather than stored for the long term. Regardless of what type of diet, our physiological needs can be easily met by simply paying attention to our macronutrient balance in 1/3 of what we are eating to meet our basic food-group needs.
• When restricting Calories by 25% (below which your metabolism can drop significantly), your physiological needs stay the same, so it is the fuel part of your diet that gets smaller, not the balanced part maintaining your body. This means any diet is fixable by enabling your physiology with a balanced 1/3 within your diet.
• No matter who you are or how much you exercise, you need more than double the amount of food than it takes to meet the NIM’s minimum macronutrient guidelines.
The bottom line is this: you can follow any diet and succeed, which therefore means you can fix any diet. This is done by simply applying the common sense of “wholesome” foods and the well-documented evidence provided by the National Institute of Medicine.