Tuesday, June 30, 2015

It's a matter of balance

I spent some time introducing carbohydrates, fats and proteins, their roles in the body and the importance of each of them in a balanced diet. I haven’t yet discussed what balance means, and that will be the topic of this long article.

The following chart describes the ideal ratio between the macronutrients, based on caloric intake. Remember, we are speaking about the ratio (percentage) of the macronutrients, not their absolute caloric contribution.

This is the theory, according to biochemical individuality and actual needs, people require different ratios. You can’t obviously compare the carbohydrate requirements of a desk-jockey with that of an endurance runner. Or of a person with Type-II insulin-dependent diabetes with a person who is insulin resistant. Nor the requirements for fats of an individual who followed a low-fat diet for years and needs now to renourish themselves. However it is a good starting point and the personalized ratios don’t vary excessively from it.

The first thing that is evident is that there is a certain balance between the macronutrients. The more you reduce one, the more the other two (or worse, one of the two) will expand to fill the pie-chart.


As a rule of the thumb, a healthy person whose purpose in life is to keep staying healthy, should never limit their proteins intake under 0.8g/Kg of lean body weight mass. In an ideal world there are no sedentary people, so the previous is just a lower limit. Active and sportive people may require from 1.2 to 1.5 g/Kg of good quality proteins.

People training for competitions, trying to build muscle mass or ectomorph individuals (like me) should keep around 2g/Kg. Eating more than that has proven to be useless as well as expensive. Proteins are the most important macronutrient I introduced so far and every diet should revolve around an adequate and regular intake of good quality sources of the same. Once the need for proteins is satisfied, we can move other macronutrients.


The second most important nutrient are fats, for all the reasons I already mentioned: some of them are essential or conditionally essential, they satiate, they are a long lasting source of clean fuel for the body, are the building blocks of cell membranes and of many hormones, make food taste good and (as bizarre as it seems) won’t make you fat.


Last but not least carbs. Touted both as the base of the pyramid or alternatively the cause of all diseases in the world, carbs play major roles in the body so they are important… but not essential. I personally prefer to use them to make up for the missing calories for the day after I ensured an adequate intake of the essential nutrients.

Carbohydrates, when taken in an after-workout meal (and not as pre-workout snack), refill the stores of glycogen in the muscles and the liver: there is no risk of insulin resistance, and therefore no fattening or reactive hypoglycemia. Additionally the insulin produced by the temporary increase of blood sugar levels will also have anabolic effects and will help the body use proteins to repair the tissues.

Finally, carbohydrates should be eaten together with proteins and fats (more on juicing and smoothies in future posts). Proteins and fats slow down the absorption of carbs thus reducing even more blood sugar spikes and insulin production, and ensure that the same are used properly.

Breaking the ratio

What happens when we break the 30/30/40 ratio in one meal? Unless there are serious underlying conditions (diabetes, chronic renal failure, thyroid issues, etc), probably nothing.
What happens if we disrupt it regularly, meaning: we adopt a particular regimen or lifestyle that systematically limits or exaggerates the intake of one or two macronutrients? This is what I will discuss now, with specific examples.

Low-fat diets (the typical do-it-yourself diet)

By their own definition, low-fat diets reduce the intake of fats. This is done to honor the wrong pre-concepts that:
  • fats will make you fat
  • fats cause heart disease
  • fats raise cholesterol levels
  • fats cause diabetes
  • fats can “anyway” be produced by our bodies in the correct amount if needed
Okay, you convinced me: let’s reduce fats. How do we get to 2000KCal per day? We don’t have many alternatives, so it is either proteins or carbohydrates (or alcohol... yes the high-alcohol diet really exists).

High-protein diets are not sustainable in the long term as already mentioned: the waste products of the catabolism of proteins put a heavy burden on the kidneys who are in charge of eliminating them. You can occasionally feast at a BBQ party, or eat more proteins to recover from a ironman competition in order to repair the damaged tissues, but you can’t overeat chicken breast and egg whites every day.

High-carbohydrate diets, this is what we have been brought to believe is safe and healthy: the base of the infamous pyramid is a monoblock of carbohydrates. If you are eating low-fat, be reassured: you are bingeing on sugars and starches. If you don’t believe me, just try to do your math on one of the many websites or smartphone apps which calculate your ratios. Regular and prolonged high intake of carbohydrates, especially from high-glycemic load sources, have been linked to:
  • diabetes
  • insulin resistance
  • obesity (it is not the fats)
  • high LDL cholesterol levels
  • triglycerides
  • chronic fatigue
Fats have multiple roles in the body, other than being a source of calories that's why I insist so much on them.

Low-carb diets (Atkins, Dukan, LCHF, mis-interpretations of the paleo diet, etc)

Low-carb-high-fat diets are quite popular nowadays and the reason is evident: when it comes to weight loss they can’t be beaten.  For some therapeutic purposes they are beneficial and even required, for example in a sugar-detox diet.

But proud owner of a six-pack does not mean healthy, and LCHF diets should be properly prescribed and supervisioned.

The quality itself and variety of the fats is important and can make the difference. When people decide to opt for a high-fat diet, they erroneously assume that any fat will do. Some will focus on specific fats, with coconut oil (saturated) being the trend these days. Or that they can ignore the correct balance of the different fatty acids (see below).

Low-protein diets (vegetarian/vegan diets)

I can feel tsunami of hate heading towards me. That’s good, because it means my provocation has been successful. As I mentioned in the beginning, I am always speaking about ratio, not absolute intake. I don’t (and will never) claim that vegans cannot get enough proteins, because it is not true. Anyhow they DO get too many carbs, often exceeding their actual needs.

Despite their noble efforts in favor of animal welfare, vegans and vegetarians are not exempted from eating their daily share of proteins. Their sources may not always be optimal: there are indeed plant-based sources of proteins, some being of good quality, but plants (seeds, pulses, etc) contain plenty of carbohydrates as well.

Although the health-conscious attitude of vegans brings them to make choices that are generally healthier (no sodas, no refined sugars, ...) the ratio is unfavorably pending towards carbs. In addition, no respectable vegan eats just lentils alone, three times per day, but also some vegetables, fruits, etc: the ratio carbs/proteins drastically raises.

In short, a vegan diet which eliminates eggs and dairy is high-carbohydrate diet. With the potential long term risks I already listed.

Fatty acids balance (SFA, MUFA, ω3/ω6)

The ideal ratio of the different types of fatty acids is resumed in the following diagram:

Confused? I hope so.

The monounsaturated fats (in green, like oil of olive) occupy the biggest portion of the graph and to those already into nutrition this should sound familiar: oil of olive, avocado, sunflower, cashew nuts, macadamia nuts,  fats from grass-fed animals, etc. It is a matter of fact that the Mediterranean Diet (the true one) is still considered one of the best.

Saturated fats (in yellow, like butter) take 30% of the pie, sources are: coconut products, red palm oil, butter, ghee and animal fats. This probably came as surprise, especially for those who believe that saturated fats will clog your arteries (they won't). It is however less that what some paleo-dieters would eat on a daily base from coconut sources. There are important reasons why our daily intake of SFA should be around one third (and not 0% or worse >60%), and this will be discussed soon: there is simply not enough room left here.

Polyunsaturated fats (pink for salmon, brown for nuts) are only 10%, with a ideal 1:1 balance between ω3 and ω6. This is in clear contrast with the guidelines of the last fifty years which promoted the alleged superior benefits of vegetable oils (mais, canola, soy, ...) over animal fats. It also redimensions the ratio ω3:ω6 which, were we to follow the official guidelines, would be 1:20 or even more, with an excessive unbalance towards the ω6.


If at first look everything seems so complicated, relax: eating healthy does not involve entering every bite you eat into an Excel Spreadsheet to calculate amounts and ratios. There is an easy way to it and it's called Traditional Diets.


If you made to the end of the post, thanks. It was a long one and particularly full of information. I hope you enjoyed reading it at least as much as I enjoyed writing it. I stay available on the comments area for any doubt you may have.

In the following days I will continue with the general recommendations, more interesting stuff to come so... stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. Great Information. I would like to know more about FATs and what is the best way to consume them. Can you please share more facts about this?