Our athletes and experts talk a lot about nutrition, but maybe you are new to this and find it all a bit confusing. Therefore, let’s explain some basic facts about nutrition. Basically, food is constituted out of 3 main nutrients (“macronutrients”): protein, carbohydrates and fat.
Think of protein as the building blocks of your body. In fact, our bodies consist of roughly 17% protein, building bones, nails, hair, but also organs, muscles, hormones and much more.
Protein itself is made out of amino acids, and the amino acid profile and structure will determine the role the protein will play in your body.
When you eat protein, your body will break the protein down to amino acids. Eight amino acids the body cannot produce itself and are called essential amino acids.
Protein contains 4 calories per gram.
Why is protein so important in your quest for fitness and performance?
The benefits of protein are multiple, and include:
- It helps maintain muscle, bones and your immune system
- It helps repair the damage that training does to your muscle tissue, and is essential in efficient recuperation
- It helps you when dieting by preserving lean muscle mass and providing you with satiety.
Sources of protein
High quality sources of protein are:
- Meat (beef, chicken, turkey, lamb,…)
- Dairy products such as milk, cheese, yoghurt,…
- Fish such as salmon, cod, mackerel, tuna…
- Nuts, beans, peas
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are utilised by your body for fuel. The preferred fuel for your body -and brain – is glucose.
When we talk about complex or simple carbohydrates, we refer to the ease in which the body digests the carbohydrates to simple sugars (monosaccharides)such as glucose. If this is a short, simple digestion, we talk about a simple carbohydrate. Chemically spoken, a simple carb is composed of only one or two sugar molecules.
If it takes a longer time to digest, we talk about a complex carbohydrate, chemically composed of three or more sugars.
Why is this difference important? When you eat carbs, your heightened blood sugar will signal the body to release insulin, a hormone, to prompt your cells for storage or utilisation of blood sugar. So you either use it for energy, or store it in cells. The faster the blood sugar rises, the more insulin will be released.
This is closely related to the glycemic index of carbs. The glycemic index ranks carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 based on how quickly and how much they raise blood sugar levels after eating. Foods with a high glycemic index, like white bread, are rapidly digested and cause substantial fluctuations in blood sugar. Foods with a low glycemic index, like whole oats, are digested more slowly, prompting a more gradual rise in blood sugar. This index is dependent on the length of the carbohydrate molecule, but also for instance the fiber content.
To know what glycemic index carbs have, the University of Sydney has an excellent tool: http://www.glycemicindex.com/
All this has important effects on performance, recuperation, fat storage and even diseases such as diabetes, which will be discussed in later articles.
For now, remember that you have fast digesting carbs, and slow digesting carbs.
Depending on your goals, and even time of day, you will be encouraged to consume more or less of either variety.
Just like protein, carbs provide 4 calories per gram.
Carbohydrates can be found in grains, rice, wheat, pasta, fruits, vegetables, potatoes, breads,…
The third important macronutrient is fat, providing 9 calories per gram.
Fat is essential to our body for proper functioning, but as with carbohydrates, not all fats are created equal.
For anyone interested in healthy living and performance, the right kind of fats are invaluable and provide an overwhelming array of health benefits.
Fat transports vitamins A, D, E and K in and around the body, plays a role in brain development, eyesight, provides satiety, is a source of energy and much more. Eating fat can even help you lose fat!
If fat is so good, then why the bad reputation?
There are indeed different types of fat. Without getting too technical, we can distinguish:
- Unsaturated fats: these are the good fats, and are found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and fish.
The stars of unsaturated fats are the so-called Omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA). Increasing evidence considers them beneficial for eye sight, heart health, normal brain function, lowering of inflammation and many more possible benefits.
- Saturated fats: negatively impact health by raising LDL cholesterol and should be eaten only in moderation. These can be found in red meat, butter, cheese, ice cream,…
The American Heart Association categorizes them as negatively impacting heart health.
- Trans fats: the worst type of fat, raises your LDL cholesterol (the bad type) and lowers your HDL cholesterol (the good type), having a double negative impact on health. Trans fats are mostly made during an industrial process, to harden vegetable oil (called “partially hydrogenated oil”); This type of fat is found in processed foods such as cookies, fried food, margarine. The USA has deemed these fats as unsafe and to be taken of the market by 2018.
So fats are not to be avoided, but rather, the right kind of fat in the right quantity should be chosen to optimize health and performance.
So, now you have a basic understanding of the macronutrients. Stay tuned for new posts!