Chris Sandel is a nutritionist and runs the company 7 Health. He specialises in helping clients end dieting, reproductive issues and disordered eating and he’s here at Frame to talk about why we should stop demonising macronutrient splits as the issue and how to approach healthy eating instead.
For a long time we’ve been fighting “macro-nutrient wars”. Macronutrients refer to carbohydrates, protein and fats, and for the last 50 plus years we’ve been demonising at least one of them.
In the late ’70s through to the ’90s it was fat that was the bad guy. We were told that if we just kept our fat low, everything would work out fine.*
From the 2000s to present, the blame starts to move to carbohydrates. They became the villain that we all need to look out for.
But this constant focus on macronutrients really misses the point.
Because the biggest change to our eating over the last 50 years is a shift from foods that were prepared from scratch in the home, to eating more refined and processed foods, like from take aways, or restaurants, or ready meals.
This recent article talks about the fact that in 2006 the top six sources of calories in the US were (in order of importance):
I don’t have the statistics for the UK, but assume they would be similar. Or if some items were exchanged, the new replacement would also fall into the category of processed food.
This list is eye opening.
If we want to see why there are health problems, it’s not because of specific macronutrients. It’s because previously we were eating food that we’d been eating for millennia, but now the bulk of what people are eating are things that have been engineered to be as highly palatable as possible.
What I find interesting is how our biases toward or away from a certain macronutrient affect the way we refer to that food.
In the ’80s we were told to avoid cakes, biscuits and donuts because these were high fat foods. Fat was the villain, so this was the rhetoric for avoiding them.
Nowadays we are told to avoid cakes, biscuits and donuts because they are high carbohydrate foods. Carbs are now the bad guy and this is why you have to abstain.
The same thing happens when someone changes their diet. Previously they were eating lots of processed foods but now they change to a lower carb diet. As part of this switch they start eating more home cooked food. They start having more vegetables. They prioritise the quality of their food and are eating more meat, fish and eggs from better sources.
If this person sees improvements in their health, is it really from going low carb? Or is it from eating less processed food?
If instead they switched from low carb, but their food was still devoid in vegetables and it was made up of lots of deli meats and refined vegetable oils, would they see the same improvements? Probably not.
Macronutrient amounts can make a difference. Some people do better when they have fewer carbohydrates, or less fat, or more protein. But this change is small in comparison to eating more whole foods each day.
Now you may be reading this and thinking that this isn’t relevant to you because your diet is already made up of whole foods.
But even if this is true, if you are then restricting a particular macronutrient because you deem it “bad” or “unhealthy,” then you’ll likely suffer the consequences.
Because while I said that some people do better having few carbs or more fat, this should be based on real world experience. Not because you read it in a book or on a blog, but through trying it out for yourself and seeing what works.
And by “works” I don’t just mean weight loss. Pay attention to all of your systems or symptoms (digestion, menstrual cycle/libido, mood, energy, sleep, immune function). What happens to them?
This should also be monitored over the longer term. Because plenty of diets feel great for the first little while, but then you get 6 months or 12 months down the line and your once saviour of a diet is now causing a whole host of issues.
Basically, don’t be an ideologue with your food choices and beliefs. Have self-awareness and an openness to change. Rather than focusing on “good” and “bad” macronutrients, find the way that allows you to have the highest amount of whole foods in your diet, while enjoying the experience and it actually working for your body.
*Lots of people who believe that low carb is the answer to your health woes, talk about how the low fat movement of the 80s and 90s got us into the “obesity epidemic” that we are now facing. That people were told to lower their fat intake, they followed this advice and now we’re suffering the consequences.
But if you look at the numbers, despite the fact that people were told to eat less fat, they actually didn’t. They may have started eating more low-fat foods and processed foods, but the actual fat grams that were consumed stayed about the same, despite the total number of calories going up. If anything, fat intake increased over this time.