Nutrition Jargon: What you need to know about calories and macronutrients

The nutrition world really does have its own language. If you’re newer to the scene, you might find yourself hearing something that leaves you with a blank stare, not sure what it means. There are some major buzz words floating around that you might hear as you’re contemplating adopting a new eating strategy. I’m going to help you to understand these along the way. So lets jump in and demystify the world of nutrition starting with calories and macronutrients.

Calorie related terms:

Calorie: If you want to get technical, one calorie is the measure of heat needed to warm one kilogram of water by one degree Centigrade (snoozer). But that is not what is usually understood when you hear the term calorie. More simply put, a calorie is a unit of food energy. When broken down in the body, different foods produce varying amounts of energy as heat. This energy is what is known as a calorie. Carbohydrates and proteins provide four calories per gram, fat has nine calories per gram, and alcohol contains seven calories per gram. To explain this a little bit further, we’ll use the example of a serving of chicken breast weighing 4 ounces. According to the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) who regulates aspects of food quality, safety, and nutrition labeling, there are 26 grams of protein in 4 ounces of Chicken. We then multiply 26 grams times 4 calories which gives us 104 calories. But we know that chicken breast also might contain about 1.5 grams of fat, so we multiply that by 9 grams and get 13.5 calories of fat. Add our protein calories (104) and fat calories (13.5) and we find out that the total calorie content of our serving of chicken breast is 117.5.

Calorie Deficit: This can be accomplished two ways. First, through exercise, where your body is burning calories. Second, through diet, where you reduce your caloric intake from your daily required amount. When you intake less food energy than your body requires, your body draws on the fat it has stored to burn the extra energy it needs, resulting in weight loss. As a general rule, to lose 1 pound of fat, you need to burn 3,500 calories. Couple these two strategies together, and you have yourself a sweet weight loss plan!

Empty Calories: These are the foods and beverages which provide energy but little to no nutritional value. These are void of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, essential fatty acids, or fiber. These food items are made up of sugar, fats or oils, or alcohol containing beverages. What’s your favorite empty calorie? Mine is cookies, hands down!

Macronutrient related terms:

Macronutrients: These are the largest nutrition components of food which provide energy for our body and aid in the body structure, functions and systems. There are three categories of macronutrients: Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fats. Our body needs each of these to function at it’s best, but each individual person may feel their best and succeed in weight loss at varying ratios of macronutrients quantities.

The acceptable macronutrient distribution ranges (AMDR) set forth by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies recommend that people get :

  • 45–65% of their calories from carbs
  • 20–35% of their calories from fats
  • 10–35% of their calories from proteins

The best macronutrient range for weight loss is the one that you can stick to! (For example, for this journey, I plan to land in a high protein, low carb, high fat range, but I’m slowly easing myself into that since my carbohydrate intake was super high before starting out).

Protein: Like carbohydrates and fat, protein is one of the three macronutrients. It is commonly characterized as the building blocks of the body. Proteins are made up of large, complex molecules that are essential for sound structure, regulation and function of our organs and tissues. Within a protein, you’ll find large chains of smaller units which are known as amino acids. There are 20 different types of amino acids that can be combined to make a protein. You’ll find dietary protein in foods like beans, dairy products, eggs, fish, meat, nuts, poultry and tofu.

Carbohydrates: Carbs provide a significant source of energy for the body. They break down in the body into blood glucose, which is used to make energy for cells, tissues and organs. When we consume excess carbohydrates, our liver might further break down the sugar and stow it away as body fat.

The two categories of carbohydrates include simple carbs and complex carbs. There are only one or two sugar molecules in simple carbs, (sometimes referred to as simple sugars). The body digests these sugars quickly, and utilizes them as a quick energy source. You’ll find simple carbs in table sugar, honey, candy, jams, soft drinks, and other sugars that may be added in processed foods.

Complex carbs are formed from lengthy strings of sugar molecules and they typically digest at a slower pace. You’ll find complex carbs in starchy vegetables, legumes (beans and peas), and whole grain cereals and breads). Complex carbs are a far better choice over simple carbs because of the higher nutrient content and the excellent source of fiber they provide.

Fat: This is the third component in our trio of macronutrients. Like carbohydrates, fat provides energy for the body. It is also instrumental in the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K, which are known as the fat soluble vitamins. There are multiple types of fats that we find in food. These include monounsaturated fat (MUFA), polyunsaturated fats (PUFA), saturated fats, and trans fats.

Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are dubbed as the “good fats”. You’ll find these in nuts, avocado, olive oil, peanut butter, almond butter, and seeds. They’re considered good fats because they help contribute to lowering blood cholesterol levels, which in turn reduces risk of heart disease. They may also aid in appetite suppression because of their role in blood sugar stabilization. They also minimize risk of developing diabetes.

We find saturated fats in red meat, whole milk and cheese, and coconut oil. The jury is still out on what role saturated fat might play in increasing both total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol which is known as the “bad cholesterol” for causing complications with the heart and arteries. More recent research has caused experts to be less than convinced of the relationship between heart disease and saturated fat. Until science and researchers get completely on the same page, it’s still in your best interest to trade out the saturated fats for the MUFA’s and PUFA’s.

Trans fats are highly processed and turn oils from liquids into solids. This process in known as hydrogenation. Scientists agree that the amount of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) is increased and “good” cholesterol (HDL) is reduced in the bloodstream with the consumption of foods which are high in trans fats. Inflammation, which is linked to conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions has also been shown to occur because of consumption of trans fats. The Food and Drug Administration even estimates that a whopping 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 premature deaths per year can be prevented by eliminating trans fats from our diets! You’ll find trans fats in foods such as shortening, stick margarine, processed baked goods, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, refrigerated dough (biscuits, and rolls), fried foods (including French fries, doughnuts, and fried chicken), and non-dairy creamer.

Since we as humans really only have an 8 second attention span, shorter than that of a goldfish, I might have already pushed my luck at holding yours with all the science. I’m going to go ahead and stop here for today. There’s still much to share of the nutrition lingo, so don’t you worry, I’ll be back with more installments at a later date!

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Amy Bellamy

What's up everyone?! My name is Amy Bellamy and I am a wife, a mom to three boys, and a certified personal trainer and nutritionist. I am an avid distance runner and love lifting weights. As someone who has struggled with being overweight in the past, I know how hard it can be to find the right process that works for you to lose weight. The frustration of starting and stopping and starting again, wears on you mentally and physically. That's why I want to share with you what I have found to be a game changer for me in my weight loss journey. Through experience and study, I’ve learned the tools required for losing weight permanently. I have the education and experience to help you overcome any insecurities you have, from that worry of everyone looking at you because you don't know how to use the exercise equipment in a gym environment, or simply not knowing how to use what you have at home. I also have the training to help you stay focused on your goals when that plate full of cookies is staring you down and you find yourself saying "Well, I will allow myself to eat just one" and end up eating the whole plate (oh, the number of times I have been there). I’m excited to help you find the right approach to your food consumption, give you the template on how to build a strategy that works specifically for you and then help you stick with it. On top of that, I will show you how to help you increase your flexibility, strength, muscle growth, cardiorespiratory abilities and achieve your fitness goals. Let me help you in your commitment to living your healthiest lifestyle and lose those last 15 pounds for good!

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