The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: Carbs, Fats, and Proteins

Last Update: September 28, 2022

We have all heard about fats, carbohydrates and proteins, but do we really know what each one does in the body?

There are several diets out there that give us the wrong impression about these vital nutrients.

They tell us that low fat is the way to go — meaning if we eat fat, we get fat. Others say that carbohydrates are the devil and we need to avoid them like the plague. Lately, protein has become the poster child of nutrients and is the “only” way we will find a sleek, sexy body.

The truth of the matter is that all of these nutrients play a key role in our body and are all very important to consume regularly. Here is the caloric breakdown per gram for each nutrient: 1 gram of fat = 9 calories; 1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories; 1 gram of protein = 4 calories and 1 gram of alcohol = 7 calories (giving it the nickname “liquid fat”).
Let’s start with fats, and the fact that not all of them are created equal. There are good fats and bad fats, and both act very differently in the body. The good fats are essential for specific vitamin absorption, cognitive functions, cell development, regulation of blood sugar and insulin. They decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and are an essential part of cholesterol. (Yes, we do need cholesterol).

Good fats are known as monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fats, and Omega-3 fatty acids. These types of fats are mainly found mainly in plant-based sources like nuts, nut oils, avocados, and specific types of fish such as salmon. These fats are an essential part of the diet and will, in fact, not make you fat.

Bad fats, on the other hand, include saturated fat and trans fats. These fats should be avoided because they do not help the body like  good fats. We know that cholesterol is necessary, but there are two components to cholesterol: HDL (good) and LDL (bad)!. HDL (high-density lipoprotein) helps provide stability within the body and helps remove the bad cholesterol (LDL) from the walls of our arteries.

Think of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) as traffic accident. The two cars that have collided on the freeway cause more than just a problem for the two cars involved. This gathering of cars causes the flow of traffic to slow down and often other accidents pile up. Our bloodstream works the same way. LDL collects along the sides of the arteries, causing the flow of blood to slow and collect more and more cholesterol as the blood flows along. This can cause a traffic jam of blood flow, resulting in a heart attack.

Avoiding this is simple: don’t eat bad fats! Saturated and trans fats are found in anything fried, baked goods, ice creams, processed meats, dairy products, candies, butter. Essentially, bad fats are in all the foods we know we should avoid or eat sparingly.

Carbs are also divided into good and bad categories, based on how our bodies use them. The good carbohydrates are best known as complex carbohydrates. These high-fiber carbs give our bodies sustained energy and fuel to use because they are slower to break down. It’s this slow process that gives us plenty of energy and leaves us feeling fuller longer. Whole grains, fruits, legumes and some vegetables are considered complex carbs. Fruits and vegetables aren’t considered as complex as other complex carbs, but aren’t as simple as the real offenders.

Bad carbohydrates are also called simple carbs. Simple carbs are just that: simple to break down. They are low in fiber, high in sugars and provide limited nutrition for the body. Often, these simple sugars are so saturated with chemicals that our bodies don’t recognize the sugar, so instead of eliminating them as waste, our body stores these chemical-filled treats as fat. Avoid items like soda, candy, and food made of processed, white flour like bread, pasta, crackers, chips, pastries and desserts. At the most, eat simple carbs as a very occasional treat rather than a daily indulgence.

Finally, let’s talk about protein. Most people think they should eat more protein to keep their weight down. When you eat a high protein diet (where protein makes up 30 to 50 percent of your calories), your body enters a state of ketosis. In ketosis, your body starts to use your fat stores as fuel (as opposed to the carbs you would be eating normally). In theory, that sounds incredible. However, this type of diet can lead to several issues. First, ketosis can make you smell less than great. In ketosis, the body creates ketones, which can make your breath and body smell like acetone. Additionally, you put your kidneys into overdrive, which can lead to kidney stones. With all the additional protein, you are also adding more cholesterol, which should be monitored.

Protein is essential to your everyday diet. Think of protein as a maintenance crew in your body. Protein fixes every cell and repairs muscle tissue. If we didn’t have protein, we’d have extremely brittle nails, dry skin and hair, weak bones and very little muscle strength. Our bodies don’t need an excessive amount of protein, however. A protein level of roughly 15 to 20 percent of your daily calories is sufficient. Eating extra protein doesn’t instantly give you more muscle — you need exercise for that.

For a balanced, healthy diet, focus on the following percentages of daily calories: 55 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent protein, and 25 percent fats. Remember, it’s not quantity but rather the quality of these calories that matters. Make them count!

Photo credit: Thrive Market

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Becky Jennings

Becky is a celebrity trainer, fitness expert, and nutrition coach in LA. Her mission is to help people understand nutrition and how to move to create a balanced body.

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