Author: Mika Rogers, nutrition student
Just like a car requires gasoline to run, our bodies require food to power through our day. All of our energy, in the form of calories, is derived from three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fat (and perhaps the occasional glass of alcohol!). Seems simple enough, right? Yet there are few topics in nutrition that have inspired as much debate and online flame wars as the proper ratios of macronutrients in our diets.
Playing with Ratios
There is a wide range of relative intakes of protein, carbohydrate and fat that humans can thrive off of. The Okinawans in Japan are an example of traditional people who maintain excellent health on a high carb diet , whereas the Inuit people eat a diet high in fat and protein . This is due to adaptation to their specific environment, with each group eating foods that are abudant and easily accessible in their region.
More recently, various popular diets have proposed tinkering with macronutrient ratios, such as the 80-10-10 fruitarian diet, the ketogenic diet or the famous low carb/high fat Atkins diet. Although we are capable of living off of different ratios of macronutrients, is there a “correct” diet to follow?
The simple answer is no. People are different and what works for one doesn’t work for another. The ratio of macronutrients that best suits an individual will depend on a multitude of factors, including their metabolism, genetics, physical activity level, health status, food preferences, cultural background and food availability.
Aim for Balance
We need a blend of carbohydrates, protein and fat to live, grow and function properly. Keep in mind that when we change one macronutrient, there is a counter-balancing effect on the other two. For example, if you drastically reduce carbs or fat, you end up eating something else instead of them, which can affect your health. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you’ll be healthier automatically as long as you eat less of one particular macronutrient. It matters whether you’re replacing it with other healthy choices or not.
Quality Over Quantity
There is a deeper answer hiding behind the “what should we eat?” question than just amounts of macronutrients. Instead of fighting over the ratios, it is vastly more useful to focus on the quality of our food choices. What foods are supplying us with our macronutrients and are they good for us? An apple and a piece of cake will both give you carbs, but they are not equally healthful choices. Cake is a sugary delight best had as an occasional treat for pleasure and social connection, while an apple is a whole food, containing many health-supporting nutrients besides energy, such as fibre, vitamins and phytochemicals.
This is the key distinction that will lead you to better health - whole, minimally-processed foods, which are naturally full of healthful nutrients vs foods that are heavily processed and refined, containing industrially concentrated amounts of sugars and fats while other beneficial nutrients are stripped away.
Examples of whole foods are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, greens, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. Focus on eating more whole foods and the rest will follow. If you’re a huge fan of nuts and avocados, maybe you’ll have more fat in your diet. If you can’t get enough of oatmeal and quinoa, maybe carbs will be a bigger focus. Personal preferences are important in sticking to good eating habits long-term.
The perfect ratio?
There is a myth out there that foods are either “proteins” or “carbs” or “fat”. We have been led to believe, often by commercial interests, that we should eat meat for protein or boxed cereal for carbs.
Actually, in nature, it is rare to find a food that’s made up of a single macronutrient. In fact, all whole plant foods contain a combination of these nutrients, along with vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Eating them is well aligned with the varied needs of human health. For example, veggies, pulses, whole grains and berries are fantastic sources of fibre, which is like nature’s broom – it keeps things running smoothly through our digestive tract and feeds the good bacteria that live there .
Rather than macronutrients acting singly, it is the interactive effects that are most important for overall health. What matters is not the numbers but rather your overall dietary pattern – the whole story.
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 Bjerregaard, P.,et al. (2015). Greenlandic Inuit show genetic signatures of diet and climate adaptation.Science, 349(6254),1343-1347, doi: 10.1126/science.aab2319
 Anderson, J. W.,et al. (2009). Health benefits of dietary fiber.Nutrition Reviews, 67(4), 188–205,https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00189.x