Navigating Your Plate: Proteins, Fats, & Carbs
You know that a nutritious diet is beneficial to all aspects of your health, but where do you start if you’re unsure of how to even build a plate? How do you know what ratio of proteins, fats and carbs is good for your body and your individual needs? How much food is too little and how much is too much?
The journey to healthy eating can be confusing: information overload, fancy schmancy supplements, and a bombardment of advertisements insisting you should you should add this collagen to your smoothie or that MCT oil to your coffee.
So how do we navigate this minefield of information, which is often loaded with poor science? Eating healthy doesn’t require expertise or great expense, just some basic knowledge of what makes up a healthy diet for your mind and your body.
Let’s start from the beginning. No doubt you know that you need nutrients. But what are nutrients, anyway?
Nutrients are chemical substances in food that are necessary to sustain life. They provide us with calories, our main energy source. They feed our physical structure—our bones, muscles, and organs. And they regulate and assist in a number of different body processes, like creating hormones that send messages to and from specific organs to accomplish specific tasks.
Nutrients can be broken up into three main categories: water, macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbs) and micronutrients (minerals and vitamins). This post will focus on water and the macros.
Water is the most important nutrient in our body. We need it for so many different reasons, like helping our bodies flush toxins, remove waste, and regulate body temperature. The general guideline for water consumption might surprise you: divide your body weight by two. That's how many ounces of water you should consume daily.
If you consume diuretic beverages like coffee, tea, or soda, you need to multiply the ounces of diuretic beverages by 1.5, and then add it to your baseline number. So if I weigh 140 pounds, I need 70 ounces of water per day—but if I have an 8 oz. cup of coffee, I should aim for 82 ounces of water.
Need an easy way to kickstart your water intake? Start your day with an 8 oz. glass of water. I know what you’re thinking: a glass of water instead of coffee? But starting the day hydrated might feel even better than your typical dose of caffeine. After all, you were just asleep for 7-8 hours and your brain and your body are ready for some water.
Other tips for drinking water: don’t chug it when you realize you haven’t had enough. Instead, try sipping it throughout the day. Keeping a BPA free water bottle with you at work or at home can serve as a reminder throughout the day.
Protein is an essential macronutrient that helps make a lot of important molecules in our body: our hormones, hemoglobin (red blood cells that carry oxygen to our body), enzymes (molecules that act as messengers and catalysts for biochemical processes) and antibodies (molecules that help fight infections).
Proteins are made up of amino acids, nine of which are considered essential. That means our bodies can’t produce them, so we must get them from our diet. Amino acids make up our neurotransmitters (chemicals that control our appetite and mood), our sex hormones (like estrogen and testosterone), our DNA, and our muscle production.
You want to aim for 30% of your daily caloric intake in quality proteins. For women, this means we want to get at least 100 grams of protein in a day. If you’re strength training to gain muscle, you’ll want to eat more.
The proteins you take in are essentially feeding your cells and are ultimately what your hormones, neurotransmitters, etc. are going to be made of. Quality sources of protein include:
- Wild caught fish (e.g. salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines)
- Organic, grass fed and pasture raised poultry and eggs
- Organic, grass fed and pasture raised animals (e.g. beef, lamb, bison, buffalo, goat)
- Full fat, organic and pasture raised milk products (e.g. cheese and milk)
- Soaked or sprouted nuts, seeds, and legumes (e.g. almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds)
Organic and pasture raised are important features because they speak to the type and quality of nutrients in the product. Pasture raised, grass fed organic meat contains long chain omega-3 fats that are necessary for our brains and bodies to function optimally. It also has a higher concentration of vitamins and minerals like heme iron, Vitamin A, B and E.
Fats have been blamed for a lot of things over the past few decades, many of which have been debunked (think high cholesterol, blood pressure, and obesity). Science tells us a different story: we need quality, healthy fats to help build our healthy hormones and cells; to help with the absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K; and to help regulate our energy by slowing down the absorption of food.
Like proteins, not all fats are created equal. The quality of your fats is also determined by the density of nutrients in them. For example, the fat in avocados comes with healthy nutrients; processed vegetable oils and margarine do not. So we want to avoid trans fats and hydrogenated fats whenever possible. They’re dangerous for our brains and our bodies, because they exacerbate inflammation and interfere with our ability to use our healthy omega-3 fatty acids for things like making sex hormones and neurostransmitters.
Good fats include polyunsaturated fats (omega-3 and omega-6), monosaturated fats (omega 9), and some saturated fats. You want to aim for 30% of your daily caloric intake to be made of these quality fats.
Quality sources of omega-3 fats include wild caught fish, nuts like walnuts and chia seeds, and pasture raised egg yolks. Quality omega-6 fats include sunflower oil, flaxseed oil and pistachio nuts. (Note, however, we don’t want to cook with sunflower or flaxseed oils. They’re very delicate and applying heat to these oils changes the chemical composition of the fats, turning them rancid—meaning increase inflammation and make it harder for our quality fats to contribute to a healthy cell structure.) You want to make sure you are eating a balanced ratio of omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats.
You can find quality omega-9 fats in organic cold pressed olive oil, olives, avocados and avocado oil, and hazlenuts. Quality saturated fats include grass fed, pasture raised animals, pasture raised butter, and coconut oil.Carbohydrates
We need carbohydrates in our diet, but there’s a difference between healthy and not-so-healthy carbs. (Starting to see a pattern?) Carbs provide fuel for our brain and our muscles, as well as fiber for a healthy gut and the detoxification of estrogen. Plus, they help regulate our protein and fat metabolism.
As women, we also need carbs to help promote a healthy menstrual cycle. Dr. Lara Briden, a leading expert on women’s hormonal health suggests that women should aim for between 150-200 grams of carbs per day to help with a healthy menstrual cycle and healthy hormones. That means that a day of carbs could mean one whole sweet potato, two pieces of whole fruit, and one serving of rice or other more starchy serving (e.g. whole grain or gluten free pasta).
Ideally, 40% of your daily caloric intake should come from unrefined carbs, which are carbs that exist in nature and are not man made. Good sources of carbs include vegetables, fruit in its whole form (not juices), tubers and squash (e.g. sweet potatoes, plantains, and parsnips), and properly prepared grains and legumes if they are tolerated (e.g. sprouted rice, sprouted lentils).
It’s good to avoid refined sugars like white sugar and high fructose corn syrup, refined grains like white bread and white pasta, and packaged foods, because they tend to be processed. You probably hear “avoid processed foods” quite a bit, but let’s review why we say that.
When food is highly processed, it typically contains a lot of additives and unhealthy oils. It’s probably depleted of essential nutrients, and consuming it in turn depletes your reserves of these nutrients because your body has to use minerals and vitamins to digest these foods.
Think about it this way: what you eat becomes your cells. If you eat mostly processed foods, your cells, hormones, and neurotransmitters, among other things, will be made of poor quality nutrients that will affect how they operate in your body.
Building a Plate and Putting it All Together
Now that you have some basic knowledge about macronutrients, let’s talk about how you want to build a plate.
A good rule of thumb is to stick with the 40/30/30 ratio of carbohydrates/proteins/fats for every meal. This could look like the following: half of your plate dedicated to a variety of vegetables with a mix of some starchy carbs like sweet potatoes or sprouted rice, a quarter of your plate dedicated to your quality protein (maybe some pasture raised chicken or shrimp or some grass fed beef), and a quarter dedicated towards fats.
Fats are more calorically dense than protein and carbs, so this quarter of your plate may actually end up a bit smaller. You might add a tablespoon or more of olive oil to your veggies, or a handful of nuts to your salad, or serve half an avocado with your egg breakfast. This is where food can be playful and versatile.
My best advice is to start cooking and experimenting. You know your body best, so start paying attention to how you feel after you eat something. Do you feel energized or lethargic? Comfortably satiated or bloated? Take note of these sensations after meals, as this information can help determine adjustments for your next meal.
Some good news: when you start eating whole foods as they’re found in nature, you don’t need to count calories. When you eat this way, you’ll start feeling energized and stable, and if you want to lose weight, it will happen more naturally.
Of course, you want any positive lifestyle change to be sustainable in the long run. Knowing the basics allows you to think creatively about meals and know how and when to add more variety.
And for many of us, sustainability means flexibility. A good rule of thumb is to aim for an 80/20 split. That means you eat really well 80% of the time, and the other 20% of the time you can leave room for the joy of a decadent dessert or a slice of pizza. The key is to make your favorite indulgences the exception, not the rule.
And if you’re searching for an easy way to remember what ‘the rule’ should be, here it is: aim for a variety of fruit and vegetables, and eat more veggies whenever you can. Keep your proteins to about a quarter of your plate, and add your healthy fats to keep you full and satisfied.
Dr. Nicole Barile is a licensed clinical psychologist and certified Nutritional Therapy Consultant practicing in New York, and her mission is to educate people on the power of food and lifestyle practices on the path to mental and emotional wellness. Dr. Barile received her Ph.D from Hofsta University, and you can learn more about her practice at FeedYourMental.com.