Friday, March 2, 2012

There are NO Optimal Macro-nutrient Ratios

For several decades, the West has been obsessed with establishing an ideal, disease-free macro-nutrient ratio. First it was low-fat, then low-carb. But none of these extreme dietary macro-nutrient prescriptions seems to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Do these macro-nutrient ratios really matter to your health? Yes and no.

You Need to eat All Macro-Nutrients 
No single macro-nutrient class is unhealthy. In fact, the human body has evolved to require all three macro-nutrients (e.g., protein, carbohydrate, and fat) in your diet to be healthy. (1)

Humans, being highly adaptable creatures, have the ability to survive on a broad range of macro-nutrient ratios. If you look at the table below, you will see the ratios that are believed to have produced healthy Paleolithic humans: (2)

This table represents the range of estimated macro-nutrients consumed by Paleolithic hunter-gatherers in different parts of the world. 
Given that humans can be healthy on such a wide variety of macro-nutrient intakes, why are diet gurus now trying to establish a single "ideal" ratio? The truth is that every person is different, which means that they will each require different macro-nutrients based on what they do every day.

Setting Up Your Personalized Macro-Nutrient Ratio
You can set up your own personalized ratio by following this guidance:

1) Protein Intake is Determined by Your Lean Mass
If you look at the table above, you'll see that humans have always eaten a fair amount of protein (no less than 19% of total calories). Today, protein represents only 15% of total calories for the average American. Protein is very important to your health and well being, and 15% of total calories is just not enough.

Generally, you should eat about 1 gram of protein for every pound of lean mass you have. (To identify your lean mass, use an electronic body-fat analyzer.) This never changes. If you increase your lean mass, then you have to increase your protein intake as well. (3)

For example, if someone weighs 200 pounds, and has 30% body fat, then they would have 60 pounds of fat and 140 pounds of lean mass. At 1 gram per pound of lean mass, this person would need to eat 140 grams of protein every day. For an average energy intake of 2200 calories per day, 140 grams is 25% of total daily calories, which is well below our historical maximum protein intake of 35%.

2) Carbohydrate Intake is Determined by Physical Activity 
Historically, humans have consumed between 22-44% of their calories in carbohydrate form. Some modern hunter-gatherers like the Kitavans get almost 70% of their calories from carbohydrates without developing obesity, diabetes, or heart disease of any kind. Clearly, carbohydrates as a macro-nutrient class are not inherently lethal. That's because there is a BIG difference between whole carbs sources like fruits, potatoes, yams, and root vegetables, and crap carb sources like sugar, flour, candy, and soda.

If someone is active, then I wouldn't suggest eating a low-carb diet. However, for those who refuse to be active, eating between 50-100 grams of carbohydrates per day should keep you from gaining fat weight (though this is no guarantee). (1) You can use the chart below to determine what your carbohydrate intake should be.

This chart shows you the amount of carbohydrates you should eat every day (as a percentage of your total calories), which is based on your physical activity. For example, someone who exercises 3-5 hours per week should get 30-40 percent of their calories from healthy carbohydrates (e.g., whole fruit, whole potatoes, white rice). Adapted from The Fat Loss Bible by Anthony Colpo.
If you decide to restrict your carbohydrate intake, NEVER eat less than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day (extreme low-carb diets can cause many health problems). Your body needs carbs and can only produce so much from gluconeogenisis (which is the process of making glucose out of non-carb fuels).

Also, when eating carbs, get them primarily from safe starches, such are white rice and vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, and other root vegetables. (1,3) Whole fruits are also an excellent source of carbs. (4,5)

3) Fat Fills in the Rest
After you identify how much protein and carbohydrate you need to eat, then fat will supply the remaining calories. All fats are important for you to eat, with saturated and monounsaturated being the most stable (polyunsaturated fats are delicate fats that are prone to go rancid easily; rancid fats are VERY unhealthy for you).

Because I have talked about saturated fats already, I'll only say that it is not an evil, heart-attack-generating substance (they are actually very healthy for you). Having said that, I don't think that you should drown yourself in saturated fats.

I suggest that most of the fat you intake everyday should come in the form of saturated or monounsaturated fats (with saturated fat intake limited to 50% of your total fat calories). Polyunsaturated fats, due to their unstable nature, should be limited to 10-20 percent of your total fat calories to limit your exposure to oxidative damage

Not all fats are safe to eat. You should stay away from high-omega-6 oils (e.g., soybean, vegetable, peanut, canola oil) and artificial trans fats (which come from partially and fully hydrogenated oils). High-omega-6 oils are destructive in excess and artificial trans fats have no healthy function in the human body.

Despite what you might hear from some diet gurus, there is no optimal macro-nutrient ratio. So long as their food sources were whole and minimally processed, humans have proven that they can be very healthy on a wide variety of protein, fat, and carbohydrate intakes.

When creating your personalized macro-nutrient ratio, it is most important that you:
  • Eat enough high-quality protein (1 gram per pound of lean body weight).
  • Eat enough safe carbohydrates to fuel your daily physical activities.
  • Use healthy fats to to fill in the rest of your calorie needs.

That's it! Using this knowledge, you will always know how to build your own ideal macro-nutrient ratio.

1. Jaminet, Paul. Perfect Health Diet. Ying Yang Press : Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2010.
2. Graham, Gray, Kesten, Deborah and Scherwitz, Larry. Pottenger's Prophecy: How Food Resets Genes for Wellness or Illness. s.l. : Destiny Health Publishing, 2011.
3. Colpo, Anthony. The Fat Loss Bible. s.l. : Self Published, 2011.
4. Lindeberg, Staffan. Food and Western Disease. Ames, Iowa : John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2010.
5. Fruit and vegetable intakes, C-reactive protein, and the metabolic syndrome. Esmaillzadeh, Ahmad, et al. 6, s.l. : American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2006, Vol. 84.


  1. Carbs are too easy to come by in this day and age. I beleive either endurance and/or weight/resistance training should be added to everyones regimen to ensure your body continues the coping process of utilizing carbs not only for the brain but muscle also. The days of doing less and wanting/expecting the same or even more should come to an end.

    Be proud, work for what you have, or want to have...

  2. @ Cherry: You know, I've been thinking about what you said within the context of my research. Have you noticed that as a society, America has moved more and more towards less physical activity in everything we do? Have we really gotten lazier as a country? Are modern conveniences preventing us from getting exercise? Or is the American diet killing our energy, which necessitates the creation of less physically active processes?

    I bring this up because of the recent popularity of energy drinks. Why are we experiencing this trend towards highly-caffeinated drinks?

    For the longest time, caffeinated coffee and soda were the only energy drinks you could get. Then, in 1985, we got a drink that had twice the normal amount of caffeine: Jolt Cola. Two years later we got Red Bull. By 2000, energy drinks were the new thing for pepping up a sleepy nation. This forces me to ask the question: Why are we now running out of energy?

    It may be a coincidence, but around 1975, we started eating more grains. We also started consuming more HFCS in the 1980s. When eaten in excess, grains (especially wheat) and refined sweeteners (especially HFCS) cause a stress response in the body. When stressed, the body secretes cortisol. If the body is constantly under stress from eating grains and refined sweeteners, then chronic exposure to cortisol will prevent cells from using sugar for fuel, which will kill your energy.

    So, is it possible that our increased exposure to grains and refined sweeteners in the 1980s precipitated the need for highly-caffeinated "energy" drinks in the 21st century?

    1. You're on to something here, but I think focusing on diet is an oversimplification. You have to take into account all the things that are stressing our bodies: environmental pollutants, constantly connected device make us work longer hours, leaving little time for play, screens everywhere make regular bedtimes hard, lack of sunshine for melatonin production etc.....

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