“What percentage of my diet should be carbs? What about fat? and how much protein do I need?” I get this question all the time and usually give the same answer: do you really want to think about that every day? The point is, even as a dietitian who is somewhat good in math I would never want to calculate these figures on a daily basis. Even using an app. But many people are confused about this, they hear things at the gym, their marathon running friends are carb loading, or maybe they saw a magazine headline at the grocery store check out. Not to mention goals of losing weight, which usually are part of the motivation to find the best combo of macronutrients that could be the magic answer.
As far as recommendations that would provide a “balanced” diet here is the general guide:
Carbs: 45-65% Fat: 20-35% Protein: 10-35%
Many are surprised that our diets should be at least half carbohydrates, with all the low carb diets out there, it may not make sense. Remember, everyone is different and it is important to consider your own health history, metabolism and body. There are some patients I have worked with who respond differently to carbohydrates (such as those with PCOS or polycystic ovarian syndrome) and balancing carbs with protein is important to prevent increases in insulin. And for the average person who wants to maintain a certain level of blood glucose, including protein in a meal definitely helps. It is more about balance and less about avoidance or restricting.
But what if you really did want to figure out what percentage of your diet is protein for example? I do know people who eat a lot of protein thinking it will help them build muscle (just yesterday at lunch a young twenty-something year old teacher had two bunless cheeseburgers on his plate….nothing else). You first would need to know the total amount of calories you ate in a day (nothing I would ever recommend doing, but just to demonstrate how ridiculous and irritating it would be), let’s use 2000 calories as an example.Then 10% of this would be 200 calories. That means 200 calories as a minimum should come from protein. Since protein has 4 calories per gram, that means 200 divided by 4 is 50. So the answer is 50 grams of protein is 10 percent of calories from protein in a 2000 calorie diet. An ounce of meat has 7 grams of protein, so 7 ounces of meat would just about meet the 50 grams. But protein also comes from other foods, even cereals and grains, dairy, beans, nuts and pasta have some protein. See why it would not be too fun to try to figure out? Even for one day, pretty irritating. So what should you do if you want to eat a healthy balanced diet?
I did do a brief review of the research regarding macronutrients and health as well as weight. To put it simply, I could not find any new breaking news regarding macronutrients and weight. Low glycemic index diets do not result in more weight loss as far as current research (that means low carb). The one macronutrient mentioned as affecting both health and weight was fiber. There were several studies that suggested a high fiber diet was beneficial for both health and weight. This means more fruits, veggies and whole grains. Now that is not exactly a newsflash, but does reinforce a “health” approach to eating verses a “weight loss” approach or trying to limit a certain food group. That is why the government came up with the simple “My Plate” illustrating half the plate as “colors”, or fruits and vegetables, a quarter of the plate whole grains and a quarter of the plate protein food, as well as dairy on the side. The message I like to send is variety, not restriction. I don’t think it is “dieting” to try to add more fruits and vegetables to your meals. If you throw strawberries in your salad or an apple in your lunch bag, it makes sense because you enjoy them. This kind of move toward healthier eating does not seem stressful to me. It does not take too much thinking (too much thinking about eating is not health promoting, and tends to add stress which is NOT good for health). If you don’t take the My Plate idea too far (you don’t have to have the perfect plate every meal), then it is a good general and simple guide.
If you are interested in more specifics regarding dietary recommendations, see Dietary Reference Intakes however please keep in mind we all have different needs, and not everyone eats or needs exactly the same amount of a nutrient. These are general recommendations.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also has a position paper (2002) on the topic called Total Diet Approach. Although it mentions the outdated Food Pyramid it also describes a way of eating where “all foods can fit” and again, stresses the importance of focusing on health without trying to be perfect. If you like a food, any food, you need to fit it in. It is the average intake of nutrients over an entire week for instance that matters. So even if you eat twinkies for all three meals one day, it does not matter….over time.
Bottom line: keep it simple. Learn from listening to your own body. Good old boring common sense…….