What are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients are large categories of nutrients that our bodies need to continue existing. When we make meals, we need to make certain that we get all of these nutrients into our bodies to the best of our abilities. One of the best ways to do this is by planning meals that get a little bit of the food guide pyramid into each meal. If you are not familiar with the food guide pyramid, simply search Google for “food guide pyramid.” It is almost always the first result. Because cancer treatment is so hard on the body, you need to make sure that you are getting plenty of protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Now that we are familiar with the food guide pyramid, we are going to simplify the concept and categorize it into three easy to understand categories.
1. Proteins and Fats
I group these into one group because they normally run hand in hand. Look at a piece of beef, the red part is the protein, and the white part is the fat. Protein needs fat to fuel it. It is easier to manage fat intake by choosing good, healthy sources of lean meats. Foods that are higher in protein than other nutritional sources (like calcium) are placed into this category as well. This is why I categorize dairy into this category as opposed to giving it its own category.
Lean proteins have a lower fat content in them than other protein sources. This is why they are called lean proteins. It is easy to over cook these lean proteins which will make them dry and difficult to chew.
Another reason I recommend lean proteins is simply because fatty meats, while more tender, can be heavier on a cancer fighters stomach. This is especially true if they are going through intensive chemotherapy.
Examples include: beef, chicken, pork, lamb, veal, fish, eggs, beans, legumes, lentils, tofu, chickpeas, milk, cheese, soy milk, meat substitutes, etc.
Carbohydrates are a simplified group that usually includes starches (complex carbohydrates), sugars (simple carbohydrates), and non-digestible fiber (super-complicated carbohydrates). Any food that provides more carbohydrate value than other nutrients (enriched wheat flour) is placed into this group.
Examples include: wheat, barley, pasta, rice, breads, potatoes, cereal, granola, etc.
3. Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals is the category for all foods that don’t fall into the other two categories. Primarily, I intend it to reference fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are some of the best sources of essential vitamins and minerals.
Examples include: fruits, vegetables, juices, supplements, etc.
Why do we need these nutrients in our diet?
Understanding what the macronutrients are, is helpful. But, I bet you’re now wondering why you need these macronutrients in your diet. Let’s discuss this idea below.
Proteins and Fats
What we call proteins are actually a group of macronutrients that are made up of amino acids. There are two kinds of amino acids: essential and non-essential. Essential amino acids must be obtained by ingestion because the human body cannot produce them on its own. Non-essential amino acids can be produced by your body naturally.
These amino acids are what give our food a sense of deliciousness (umami), think back to our 5 flavors lesson. Proteins are used for immune function, tissue repair, and growth. They are also used for making hormones, enzymes, preserving muscle mass, and helping you rebuild your body after damage has been done (like chemotherapy or surgery).
Protein is an area that all vegan and vegetarian diets struggle with. So if your family practices vegan or vegetarianism, you must be extra vigilant when it comes to sourcing proteins. Think beans, rice, nuts, legumes, and lentils.
I recommend animal proteins as your source of protein. Animal proteins have the most complete essential amino acids that your body needs to survive. However, you will have trouble processing animal protein if you were not raised eating meat or haven’t eaten them in a long time. Your body is no longer used to it. If you do intend on reintroducing animal proteins, do so slowly. Use simple animal proteins like white meat chicken, lean pork, or lean seafood. I also highly recommend combining animal and vegetable protein sources.
Examples of this are chicken, beans, and rice; lentils and sausage; fish and rice; chicken and chickpeas; etc. Pitas, grilled chicken, basmati rice, red beans, feta cheese, and a Greek yogurt based sauce are one of my favorite combos.
Fats are used for growth and development. Fat makes up cell membranes. Fat provides cushioning for your organs; helps absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K; and is a great source of energy. Fat molecules contain the most energy of any food source. The reason is that simple carbohydrates are converted by most living organisms into fat for long term storage.
In culinary school, there was an old rule that we had drilled into us over and over again. This was that fat is flavor. We now know, as I have proven in this book, that fat actually isn’t flavor. The actual contribution that fat makes to a dish is moistness and energy.
Fat also contributes to the feeling of weight in your mouth and stomach. This is why you need to be very careful about the protein sources that you choose. You should stick with lean meats instead of fatty meats. I have paired proteins into the same category because fat is naturally found interspersed inside of muscle tissues. It is also found in other sources of proteins.
Examples are: nuts, dairy, beans, lentils, and legumes.
One last thing we need to talk about is good fats versus bad fats. Saturated fats and trans fats are generally accepted to increase your risk for heart disease and stroke, as well as gain weight. And let’s be honest, we all like to look good!
Unsaturated fats are the good kind of fats that are easy to digest and provide great sources of energy. Think avocados, olive oil, and vegetable oils. Don’t avoid fats entirely. You need the long term energy in your body. Just simply be aware of the types of fat that you are putting into your body.
Carbohydrates are the macronutrients that fuel our bodies. They are the most easily and quickly digested form of energy for the human body. Carbohydrates are necessary for function of the central nervous system, kidneys, brain, muscles, and waste elimination. They are mostly found in starchy foods.
Examples are: pasta, rice, barley, oats, wheat, potatoes, and sugar.
Glucose is the simplest form of a carbohydrate. Glucose is the actual chemical that your body burns to fuel itself. When more complicated forms of glucose are introduced, your body will naturally convert them into instant burning fuel or turn them into fats for long term storage.
Glucose is commonly known as sugar. This is why when you consume sugary foods and drinks, you get an instant burst of energy and a hard crash later. We want to use carbohydrates in conjunction with fats to provide a smooth burning energy throughout the whole day.
Eating healthy carbohydrates is an advantage. They often come paired with vitamins and minerals that your body needs every day. This makes eating healthy carbohydrates a well rounded choice.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are a category of essential nutrients that our body requires to function. They are most commonly found in fruits and vegetables. But, vitamins and minerals can also be found in most other foods. Vitamins help with the regulation and execution of bodily functions. Where as, minerals are used typically to execute a function or build a component.
Let’s use computers and robots as an example. If your body was a robot, the vitamins would be the pieces of computer software that tell your body how to behave. The minerals would be the nuts and bolts that made up the parts of the robot, as well as specify its functions and abilities. Two specific vitamins and minerals, in action, are vitamin C and calcium. Calcium is used to build bones while vitamin C regulates immune function.
Vitamins and minerals are actually a complicated enough subject to justify writing a book all on their own. Just remember that they are necessary. When we think about vitamins and minerals in meal planning, we are simply thinking of the fruit and vegetable component to our meals.
One last reminder! ALWAYS talk with your oncology dietitian BEFORE you make any changes in your diet.