I’ve mentioned before I don’t think its helpful to spend your days weighing food and adding up calories. Unless you’re an athlete, its not a nice way to live. It’s not enjoyable to see your food only as fuel, although that is essentially what it is. I enjoy food, the preparation, the eating and the culture of feasting with friends. So I am all about finding a way to make considered decisions about what we nourish our bodies with, without taking away the simple but satisfying pleasure of eating. A little knowledge about sources of the key macronutrients will go a long way to helping you achieve a well- balanced but totally delicious plate of food.
Macronutrients are nutrients our bodies need for calories and energy. They are defined as carbohydrates, protein and fats.
When I hear people say they don’t eat carbohydrates after 6, or some celebrity Mum has lost weight by ‘cutting out carbs’, I really do want to scream! Why oh why have carbohydrates become our enemy? They are our best source of fuel, and you won’t get through the day, let alone a decent workout, without some carbs. What I think people really mean is that they have cut down on processed white carbohydrates. Which is definitely a good thing. But re- educate yourselves right now, carbs are GOOD. We need them! You’d be hard pressed to avoid them actually. Even alfalfa sprouts have some carb content. Just get your carbohydrates from a whole food source. My favourite source of carbs? Vegetables! And nature has it all worked out for us because they include lots of fibre in those veges, double bonus. You get a lot more value out of them if you keep them raw as much as possible. When we heat food, we destroy a lot of its valuable nutrients. I also like whole grains such as, oats, quinoa, brown rice, corn and millet.
And then there is fruit, amazingly good for you and some contain vitamins and phytochemicals you can’t get anywhere else. Nature made them colourful, tasty and sweet for us to enjoy! It basically falls off a tree into your hand ( slight exaggeration but you get my meaning). I’m surprised that anyone thinks you need to eliminate fruit because of the ‘sugar content’ but it has become a popular theory with the obsession to be thin. It is simply not healthy to get rid of fruit from your diet, and eaten in its whole form, as opposed to juice , it is packed with fibre and perfectly fine as part of a varied diet.
I could write pages and pages on protein. I won’t because, frankly, I’m bored with it. I have been a vegetarian and then vegan for over 20 years and I still get asked on a weekly basis, ‘ but where do you get your protein?’ I can’t tell you how frustrating it is, especially as the people who ask me this question the most are ‘health professionals’. My answer is simple, I get it from food. A wide variety of food. And best of all, I don’t get the saturated fat along with it. If you learn nothing else from this blog, please understand this message. People who don’t eat meat, people who don’t eat any animal protein at all, get an adequate supply of protein. The word protein is a phrase we use to describe what is actually a bunch of amino acids, some which our body can manufacture, and others we must get from our diet- the 9 ‘essential amino acids’. Animal protein is not a ‘better source’, it is just more efficient at building muscle quickly- and there is a lot of debate about whether that is actually good for humans overall. It really isn’t complicated or difficult to get adequate protein from any diet as long as you have a varied one. Good sources of whole food, plant based complete protein are: soya beans and products including tempeh & tofu, hemp, quinoa, buckwheat, spirulina and chlorella. Other sources of protein are beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts & seeds.
Fats have also got a bad reputation, but I think yet again the information has confused people. Fats are a necessary part of our diet. When you see something in the supermarket with ‘low fat’ written on it, remember, it has been processed. Saturated and monounsaturated fats are not essential. You can find them in large amounts in meats, dairy products roasted nuts and roasted seeds and refined oil. Polyunsaturated fats are essential and good sources are raw seeds, especially hemp, chia and flaxseed and nuts. Trans fats or hydrogenated fats are polyunsaturated fats that have been processed, they are especially bad for you and should be avoided. You will find them in processed foods, including margarines. Frying with polyunsaturated oils damages them and they become carcinogenic because of the high temperatures.
Fibre is also an essential part of our diet, and often overlooked. Western diets tend to be very low in fibre due to the high reliance on processed foods, meat and dairy. I have looked at many food diaries and am always surprised by the lack of it. So much so, that I will devote an entire blog post in the near future to the topic. For now, remember that it is only found in plant foods, it is an undigestible carbohydrate, it helps you feel full and is crucial for a healthy digestive system.
So how much do we need of these nutrients? There is a bit of debate about that, and obviously it can be different for athletes, especially endurance athletes. When I look at my own plate, my first rule is I like half my plate to be vegetables. A large portion of that, I aim to be raw. In my opinion, the following is a good nutrient breakdown for most people: 65-80% Carbohydrates, 8-12% protein and 10-15% fats or lipids. Bear in mind that few foods fall into just one category. You will notice the percentages leave room for movement, because personally I don’t follow a strict percentage and it varies depending on my activity levels. Also, because I am as yet unconvinced there are definite ‘optimum’ levels.
So, using the whole food, largely plant based rule , have a good look at your plate. Is it roughly half vegetables? Great, you’ll be getting lots of fibre with that so your gut will thank you! Is a large part of that starchy foods in the form of whole grains or root vegetables? Beans or legumes? Do you have any seeds & nuts? Where’s the fruit? The more variety on your plate, the more likely you will achieve the a food ratio without any weighing up or calculations. That is definitely not what I would want you to do after reading this. But some thought and consideration when planning your meals will achieve a balanced and varied plate of food, that looks colourful, exciting and tastes sensational without much effort at all.
My top tips
- change what you buy each week
- stock up on different cupboard items
- visit your grocer or markets for seasonal fresh produce
- Let variety be your key word, mix up that plate!
- make weekly meal plans, planning is key to staying healthy