The Macronutrients - Forget Them
Updated: Jul 25, 2019
Mainstream nutrition breaks food down into three macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein, and lipids. Is this helpful ? No, it leads us astray. The focus on macronutrient content is one reason the recommended diet is so far removed from one that is healthy for human beings. Let’s examine why this is so.
The desire to place food in separate categories is understandable, not all foods are the same, and it is possible to create imbalances by eating a single type and neglecting others. This is the same motivation behind my own framework, ‘The Five Real Food Groups’ (see here). There are a number of ways to carry out this division, each of which has its own implications. The question, therefore, is whether they take us down a path that is useful, or one that is not. Using the three macronutrients as our frame is not. We should drop them.
The first problem macronutrients create is their separation from the micronutrients, which are then treated separately. The food we eat, however, contains both macro and micronutrients, and we are looking to avoid deficiencies in both. Lack of a micronutrient can be every bit as serious as the lack of a macro, as in the case of scurvy, while the absence of a macro – carbohydrates – can have no negative consequences whatsoever, in fact may be beneficial. We are already off track before we start.
Secondly, the three macronutrients are grouped together not only because of their size and quantity, but because they all can act as energy sources. This is consistent with a view of nutrition that places food as fuel at the very centre, with caloric intake the main concern. This stands in contrast to my position, which argues that we eat primarily not for fuel, but to build and rebuild our bodies. Sourcing energy is a secondary and relatively unproblematic aspect of our diet. There may be practical challenges, but human societies have always known what foods will stave off starvation if it threatens.
By concentrating focus on calories, the mainstream arrives at a completely wrong evaluation as to which macronutrients are the most important. Carbohydrates are placed first, as an essential source of energy, and lipids last, because of their higher calorie content. As a result we end up with an order of priorities that goes –
This is wrong in every respect. The correct order is –
That’s it, there is no 3, carbohydrates should not form a part of our regular diet, during digestion they break down into sugar and this is not something we should be ingesting. (see here)
The next problem comes with the groupings themselves, what they lump together and what they miss out. Carbohydrates include both glucose and fructose, starches, vegetables, and fibre. These are all different in several respects and these differences matter. Fibre is indigestible, and the main health benefit claimed for it lies precisely in this ‘anti-digestive’ characteristic. Vegetables, on the other hand, have medicinal properties and can be a source of micronutrients, under the right conditions. Neither vegetables nor fibre have anything much in common with sugar, seen from a nutritional perspective. Placing them in one macronutrient category only obscures the picture.
At the same time, under protein three quite separate food groups are put under one heading – meat, collagen, and organs. The result of this is that collagen is missed completely as a vital component of nutrition, as is the ‘superfood’ nature of organ meats when it comes to meeting micronutrient needs. These too are downplayed, in favour of plant sources, even though organ meats do not come with a wide range of anti-nutrients as do vegetables and fruits. These last two are better located among the ‘Five Anti-Food Groups’. (see here)
This confusion between real food and anti-food groups is another feature of the macronutrient framework. The five anti-food groups are capable of making a contribution towards human health, in the same way that medications can, but this does not make them sources of nutrition. This lack of clarity is a further reason why grains are included in the mainstream dietary guidelines in spite of their toxicity, and why this is not a helpful approach.
Lipids fare no better under this system. Seen purely as an energy source, their vital role in relation to fat soluble vitamins, cell membrane health, and hormonal regulation is overlooked. Not only this, but the key point of differentiation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fats is missed – inflammation. Omega 3s have an important anti-inflammatory function, whereas Omega 6-rich seed oils belong instead in the anti-food group of Anti-Fats for their ‘anti-anti-inflammatory’ character.
quantity not quality
The main problem with macronutrients, however, is that they support an approach that is over-analytical. This leads to an over-emphasis on quantity not quality. Fuel sources are reduced to kilojoules, to numbers, even though their impact on health is vastly different – glucose versus fatty acids for example. Proteins are broken down into amino acids, where their source – animal or plant – is discounted, and their proportionality all but disregarded, sources of micronutrients are counted even though in reality they are bundled with anti-nutrients. Synergies between various kinds of foods are ignored because these are too hard to quantify.
This is an accountants’ view of nutrition, and as such sits well within our current social order. We have calorie budgets, which we can spend wisely (nutrient dense items) or unwisely (on empty calories), we have quantified RDI’s for individual elements, together with an infinite number of ways we can obtain these from the supermarket’s shelves. It is a framework designed for a consumer society, to allow maximum freedom of choice, on the promise that so long as the numbers add up, the diet will be healthy.
The truth of this promise is there for us all to see.
The final proof in the case against macronutrients lies in the dietary recommendations this line of thinking produces, ‘MyPlate’, or ‘Eat Healthy’, with its overwhelming emphasis on carbohydrate intake at one extreme and its complete failure to even mention collagen at the other. This is where the macronutrients take us. I don’t want to go there, so I say forget about them, think in terms of the real food groups, do what you can to have those covered and you’ll be in a much better position.
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