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Protein, Carbohydrates, And Fat – What Are They And Why Do We Need Them?
If you are interested in your diet, whether it is for weight loss or just eating healthier, you will need to know a few things about the 3 main food groups – Protein, Carbohydrates and Fat. In this article I will tell you what each of them is, why you need them and in which foods they can be found.
Protein is a part of every living cell in your body, including skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, hair, and the core of teeth and bones. It also plays a role in many other functions such as hormones (such as insulin), antibodies that fight infection, and red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body. One thing it is not often used for is energy production. Although it can be very easy, this only happens in cases of extremely intense physical exertion or hunger, where there are not enough carbohydrates available.
It is made up of what are called essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids. Non-essential amino acids can be made in the body and there are 12, but essential amino acids cannot and all 8 of these must come from the food we eat.
Sources of protein include meat, eggs, fish, cheese and milk, but also nuts, beans, soy, oats, lentils and peanut butter. Of course, there’s no reason a vegetarian shouldn’t get enough without using supplements.
How much is enough?
Well, that depends on your weight and your activity level. The protein requirements of someone who does not have a physical job and who does not exercise can be calculated by multiplying their body weight in kg by 0.8.
So for a 60 kg (132 lbs) individual this would be 48 g.
However, if you exercise regularly, this can be increased from the 0.8 figure to anything up to 2g per kilo for a serious athlete or bodybuilder.
Protein provides 4 calories of energy per gram and should make up approximately 15% of your daily calorie intake. A diet in which the protein intake is consistently too low, as is possible with a poor vegetarian diet, can affect the benefits I have just mentioned. But before you rush out and stock up on protein shakes, you should be aware that too much also has its side effects. Having 30% more than you actually need on a regular basis can do you more harm than good, in some cases causing liver and kidney problems, including kidney stones, which is just one reason why certain high protein diets, low carbohydrate should be avoided.
Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram and should make up about 55% of your diet. They have various uses in the body. The most important is as an energy source called glucose which is stored in the body as glycogen. Glucose, which you may have seen as an ingredient in some energy drinks, is known as a simple carbohydrate that you may recognize better as sugar. This is taken into the body very quickly and will not satisfy your hunger for long, which is one reason why it should ideally be avoided if you are trying to lose weight. It also has a rapid effect on energy levels giving a quick physical and mental high that is quickly followed by a crash.
In contrast to the other form, complex carbohydrates, take longer to digest and provide a slower, more steady release of energy and prevent you from feeling hungry for longer.
Examples of complex carbohydrates are rice, pasta, potatoes, beans and oats.
The rate at which each carbohydrate is absorbed is known as its GI, Glycemic Index. Based on this, each food can be assigned a number between 1 and 100, with pure glucose being absorbed the fastest and therefore being assigned a GI of 100. At the other end of the scale, lentils have a GI of just 21 and would therefore be much better at stopping you from getting hungry for longer and maintaining a more stable energy level. High GI foods also encourage fat storage and thus weight gain, by forcing glucose and fats already in the bloodstream into cells for storage.
There are no risks associated with consuming too many carbohydrates other than an excess of sugar can lead to the onset of diabetes. Not getting enough will lead to low energy levels, but not getting enough for long periods of time can cause serious health risks if taken to an extreme.
Fat has 9 calories per gram and should make up about 30% of your diet because it actually has many vital uses in the body. These include protection of internal organs, insulation from the cold, absorption and storage of certain vitamins, insulation of nerve cells, healthy hair and skin, and also as an energy source. As you can imagine, not getting enough fat can cause many health problems, but of course this is not a problem for most people in the developed world who get far too much. As a result, they suffer from obesity, high blood pressure and coronary heart disease.
There are 2 types of fat and although both are a necessary part of your diet, the consumption of saturated fat should be carefully monitored. The main source is from animals and it is solid at room temperature. Examples include butter, lard, cream and meat. What makes it so bad is the amount of cholesterol it contains, too much of which can contribute to heart attacks and strokes.
The other type of fat, unsaturated, comes mainly from vegetable sources and is liquid at room temperature. Examples are sunflower oil, olive oil, fish and nuts.
Given the use of fat in the body, too little, which can come with a very low-calorie, low-fat diet, obviously has consequences. These include the inability to absorb and store certain vitamins, less healthy hair and skin, and an effect on nerve cells.
Basically the opposite of all the benefits I have just told you about.
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