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Macronutrients and Metabolism in the Modern Era


Laura Mouriño, N.D.

As we have mentioned many times before, not all food is created equal and by that same token not all food is digested equally. What’s the difference in our digestion of an apple, grilled chicken, or coconut?  It’s a little something called macronutrients, a fancy word for how food is categorized and utilized in the body for energy. These categories include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. 

For the last few millennia, humans have regularly experienced famines, be it from crop failure, war, weather disturbances, or other food shortages. As a survival mechanism, the human body capitalized on the ability to be a multifocal engine that is able to burn fats, protein, and carbohydrates for energy. Over the last 150 years, since the industrial revolution and agricultural pressure to accommodate the migration from rural areas to cities, the rate of starvation due to crop failure has decreased significantly. However, as a result of urbanization and this shift in agricultural practices in order to produce a higher yield of foods like wheat and corn, our plates have become filled with more carbohydrates. This has increased our daily caloric intake from 30% to 75% or more of total consumed calories. As a result, we have become “metabolically inflexible”, which means we have lost our ability to efficiently burn carbohydrates, fats, and protein without feeling bloated, nauseous, or extremely fatigued afterwards.

The consequences of metabolic inflexibility are evident with the significant rise in diabetes, heart disease, infertility, and cancer throughout the world. Two of the primary drivers of metabolic inflexibility is the excessive intake of carbohydrates and protein as well as the inadequate intake of healthy fats. In the body, carbohydrates and protein get shuttled down the glycogenesis pathway to be stored as glycogen in muscles and used up for energy within 24 hours. This process can be compared with driving an older car that has poor fuel efficiency and cannot be driven long distances without needing to refuel often. Conversely, when high quality fat is consumed, it goes through a process called lipogenesis that quickly stores up energy as glycogen for immediate use and stores the rest as triglycerides for future use. This concept is similar to driving a new hybrid model with high fuel efficiency that will use the stored electricity first before running on gasoline much longer before needing to refuel.

The goal for true metabolic flexibility is to regain the capacity for us to be a hybrid vehicle that is using all variables of fuel appropriately and efficiently. This improves our overall ability to mount a robust immune response, detoxify from environmental toxicants, keep our hearts, brain, and bowels working optimally, and of course keeps us from becoming a hangry grinch at the holiday party. However, if we do not pay attention to appropriate macros, we then miss this golden opportunity to become that hybrid vehicle and we get stuck in the same slow metabolic patterns that eventually makes us unhealthy and feel miserable. For most healthy individuals, a daily consumption of 50 or less grams of non-fiber carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables, 0.8-1.25 grams of protein per kilograms of body weight, and 150 or more grams of healthy high omega-3 rich fats is optimal for proper metabolic function; however, please ensure that you discuss your own nutritional needs with a terrain-centric provider before making any dietary shifts. An easy way to help keep track of your macronutrient percentages and ratios is by using an app called Cronometer where you can input your meals and it will provide you a breakdown of carbohydrates, fat, and protein consumed each day. 

There are many ways to encourage more healthy fat consumption. Let go of the “fat is bad” craze of the 1980s and balance the other macronutrients for sustainable healthy living. This fallacy that consuming fat will cause developments of blocked arteries, heart disease, or cancer, stems from a lobbying effort in the 1950s by the sugar industry. They attempted to quietly bribe researchers to indicate that consuming high amounts of fat would lead to  high cholesterol, heart disease, and other heart problems instead of sugar. Fortunately, history has shown  many populations throughout the centuries with diets containing  large amounts of fat  who also have “high cholesterol” levels, the lowest incidences of heart disease and other metabolic diseases,  as well as containing a significant percentage of centennials and super centennials in their communities, compared to their neighbors who follow lower fat diets. 

It can get tricky when it comes to determining which fats to incorporate into your diet to increase metabolic flexibility. A great starting point is looking at what nature has made and focusing more on unprocessed and minimally processed foods that contain high amounts of omega 3s. Some examples of these foods are organic eggs, olive oil, and cold water wild-caught fish. Another great way to help shift metabolic flexibility and maintain satiability is by snacking smarter. For anyone needing a” pick-me-up” during the day, this is one of the easiest ways to do it. Look for high fat, moderate protein, and lower carb snacks such as walnuts, pecans, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, coconut chips, etc. as tasty options to improve your fat metabolism. Check out more of our staff favorite snacks below! This all help balance out your energy as well curb your desire to reach for a giant bag of chips or candy every 2 hours. 

For most of the population, the best nutritional routes include Mediterranean, Paleo, a well-formulated Ketogenic diet, or some variant of all with an emphasis on lower carb, nutrient dense foods. These eating habits encourage the body to “remember” how to digest fats and give our carbohydrate pathway a break to then proficiently begin breaking down smaller amounts of carbs. Often, the amount of time the body takes to “relearn” fat breakdown varies depending on how metabolically-inflexible someone may be, so make sure to have grace and patience with yourself when making any nutritional changes with the guidance of your terrain-centric healthcare provider. Remember that getting back to consistency (even if a holiday cookie or two is enjoyed) is always the best way to keep your metabolism in optimal shape and flexible.