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Balancing carbs, protein, and fat

Three nutrients — carbohydrate, protein, and fat — contain calories that your body uses for energy. Here’s how to balance these nutrients in a healthy diet.

Carbohydrate has 4 calories per gram. About 50 to 60 percent of your total daily calories should come from carbohydrate.

Carbohydrate contains the most glucose and gives the quickest form of energy. Your body changes 100 percent of carbohydrate into glucose.

Besides giving your body energy that it uses right away, your body can store carbohydrate in your liver. Your liver stores extra carbohydrate as glycogen and releases it later, when your body needs it. However, there’s a limit to the amount of glycogen your liver can store. Once your liver has reached that limit, your body turns the extra carbohydrate into fat.

There are two types of carbohydrate: healthy and not-so-healthy.

Healthy carbs: Also called complex or slower-acting carbs. Includes multigrain bread, brown rice, lentils, and beans. This type of carbohydrate raises blood sugar slowly and lasts longer. This helps keep you from feeling hungry for a longer time and helps to keep blood sugar levels closer to normal.

Not-so-healthy carbs: Also known as simple or fast-acting carbs. Includes candy, cookies, cake, soda, juice, and sweetened beverages. This type of carbohydrate raises blood sugar levels very quickly, but doesn’t last very long. That’s why these carbs work well to correct low-blood sugar but don’t satisfy hunger as well as healthy carbs.

Protein also has 4 calories per gram. In a healthy diet, about 12 to 20 percent of your total daily calories should come from protein.

Your body needs protein for growth, maintenance, and energy. Protein can also be stored and is used mostly by your muscles. Your body changes about 60 percent of protein into glucose.

Protein takes 3 to 4 hours to affect blood sugar levels. When it does have an effect, foods that are mostly protein won’t cause much of a rise in blood sugar.

Fat has the most calories of all the nutrients: 9 calories per gram. In a healthy diet, about 30 percent of total daily calories should come from fat. This means eating about 50 to 80 grams of fat each day. Fat gives the body energy, too, but the body changes only about 10 percent of fat into glucose.

By itself, fat doesn’t have much impact on blood sugar. But when you eat fat along with a carbohydrate, it can slow the rise in blood sugar. Since fat also slows down digestion, once your blood sugar does rise, it can keep your blood sugar levels higher for a longer period of time.

There are various types of fat, and some types are better for you than others. Choose mono-unsaturated or poly-unsaturated fat. These fats are liquid at room temperature. Mono-unsaturated fats are especially healthy because they lower the bad cholesterol (LDL) in your blood. These fats include olive, canola, avocado, and nut oils.

Limit saturated and trans-fats. Saturated fats are found in foods that come from animals, such as meat and dairy products. These kinds of fats are solid at room temperature. Hardened fats, such as coconut or palm kernel oils as well as oils that have been hydrogenated, also contain saturated fat. These can damage your heart and arteries.

Trans-fats are found in most processed foods and many fried fast foods, such as French fries. They help food stay fresher longer, but they’re just as bad for you as saturated fat.

Clinical review by Meredith Cotton, RN
Kaiser Permanente
Reviewed 01/03/2019

“What’s high protein but not high fat? I need healthy fat, what should I eat?”This guide will answer your questions.

We want you to eat.

We want you to eat so that your body trusts you and knows that it’s ok to burn fat and for you to lose weight.

We want you to eat enough so that your body is satisfied and allows you to achieve the goals you have.

We want you to eat so that you can have the foods you want, the ones your body needs and still have the results you want. Look great, feel even better and perform to your best abilities.

When it’s the end of the day and you realize that you’ve eaten your daily macro needs for fat and still need to have dinner…we want you to eat! But if you already reached the daily intake for one number, what do you eat?
When you need to eat more of one (or two) specific macros, use this list to help you figure out what foods have what macros.

Protein Dominant Foods

Very Lean Chicken Breast: If this isn’t a staple in your weekly meal choices, it should be. There’s only about 1.5 grams of fat per serving. Trim the chicken before cooking it and it may be less.

Roasted Turkey Breast: You can get this at a deli and its super convenient. It also has roughly 1 gram of fat or less per serving and no carbs.

Fish: You can cook this on the grill, broil in an oven or sear in a pan. Many fish options are high in protein here are some to consider:

  • Cod: In a 3 oz serving there’s 15 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat, and no carbohydrates.

  • Tilapia: In a 3 oz serving there’s 21 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat and no carbohydrates.

  • Shrimp: In a 3 oz serving there’s 17 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat and no carbohydrates.

  • Tuna: Raw tuna tends to have a bit more fat but if you like canned tuna in 1 165g can there’s 42 (!) grams of protein, 1 gram of fat and no carbohydrates. Also check out tuna packets in the grocery store.

Egg Whites: The yolk is where most of the nutrients are in an egg. 1 egg white can provide 4 grams of protein, with only trace amounts of fat and carbohydrates which aren’t enough to be concerned with.

Pure Whey Protein Powder: In a pinch this can be a savior so it’s great to have on hand. Choose brands that have zero carbs and fat or brands that have very little of the other macros.

Carb Dominant Foods

All carbohydrates, at a point in the digestion process break down to their most simple building blocks, sugar. So you could just eat tablespoons of sugar or maple syrup, it’s not suggested.

Sweet Potatoes: A medium sweet potato has 24 grams of complex healthy carbohydrates and with only a trivial amount of fat and just 2 grams of protein this could be a staple in your week.

Fruit: Most fruit is almost fat free and very low in protein: Here are some to choose.

  • Banana: A medium banana has 27 grams of carbohydrates with only a trace amount of protein and no fat.

  • Apples: A medium apple has 25 grams of carbohydrates, no protein and no fat. Simple and easy.

  • Blueberries: 1 cup has 21 grams of carbohydrates, .5 grams of fat and only 1 gram of protein.

  • Strawberries: 1 cup of strawberries has 11 grams of carbohydrates, less than .5 grams of fat and only 1 gram of protein.

  • Grapefruit (pink): 1 whole grapefruit has 26 grams of carbohydrates, less then .5 grams of fat and only 1 gram of protein.

Butternut squash: 1 cup of butternut squash has 22 grams of carbohydrates, with no fat and only 2 grams of protein.

Rice: 1 cup of cooked white rice has 45 grams of carbohydrates, less then 1 gram of fat and only 4 grams of protein. If you prefer brown rice, it is similar (45 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams of fat, 5 grams of protein.)

Dried Fruit: Dried fruit packs a carbohydrate punch. Need a lot? This can be a good place to turn.

Choose dried fruits with no added sugar and ones that are unsulfured (Trader Joe’s has a good selection).

  • Unsulfured Apricots: 10 Apricots has 50 grams of carbohydrates, no fat, 2 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber.

  • Dried Figs: 5 dried figs has 26 grams of carbohydrates, no fat and 1 gram of protein. And oh yeah, 7 grams of fiber.

  • Dates: 1 date can have 16 grams of carbohydrates, less then 1 gram of fat and no protein.

  • Prunes: 6 prunes has 36 grams of carbohydrates, no fat and no protein.

Honey: It’s essentially pure sugar. 1 tablespoon is 17 grams of carbohydrates, with no fat and no protein.

Other considerations that have a lot carbohydrates but aren’t suggested as a majority part of a daily diet:
Gummy Bears, Jelly Beans, Candy Fish, Chex cereal (or other gluten free cereals).

Fat Dominant Foods

This may be an area that you never have trouble getting enough of. It’s part of meat and eggs so if you eat those foods you’ll naturally get lots. But if you’ve been following a low fat diet it could be a different from your old normal eating habits. If you do find yourself missing some at the end of the day here’s what to eat.

Virgin Coconut Oil: 1 tablespoon contains 14 grams of fat and no carbohydrates or protein. This is one of the healthiest forms of fat and has helped strengthen the understanding that dietary fat (what you eat) does not equal body fat (what we’re burning off).

Virgin Olive Oil: 1 tablespoon is 14 grams of fat and no fat or protein.

Grassfed Butter: Really, butter? YUP! 1 tablespoon is 11.5 grams of fat and has insignificant amounts of carbs and protein.

Nuts: Nuts are high in fat, but do contain some protein and carbs. However, the fat they contain is healthy and by far the dominant macro.

Nutrition Disclaimer

An important message to those fasting this Ramadan is not to miss Suhour, the early morning meal, as it will help keep your energy levels up during the long daylight hours of fasting. But irrespective of how much you eat at Suhour, hunger pangs soon make their presence felt soon after. The best way to counter them is to follow the complex carb philosophy. What are complex carbs? These are carbohydrates that take a longer time to break down in your digestive tract, thus releasing energy more slowly as compared to simple carbs or refined and processed foods that spike sugar levels and leave you craving for more sugar. The complex carb philosophy also asks you to also combine complex carbs with protein-rich foods, and fruits to keep off hunger pangs for longer. You also need to eat larger portions of complex carbs to feel full for longer. ”Eat a bowl of beans with pita bread and also fruits,” says Mitun Sarkar, Diet and Nutrition Consultant, Northwest Clinic for Diabetes and Endicrinology, Dubai.” Try and consume at least 500 calories during Suhour,” she says.

People generally make the mistake of continuing to snack throughout the night after dinner, which kills their hunger when they wake up for Suhour and in a domino effect, they can’t eat much at Suhour and so on.

Even when it comes to the Iftar meals, complex carbs are a great choice. After having fasted the entire day, it is good to eat foods that will release sugar slowly as they digest slowly. This keeps the body chemistry stable. “Cut down on savouries and sweets at Ifter,” says Sarkar. Also, “Try and consume the rest of daily required calorie intake of 700 to 800 calories over Iftar, dinner and a snack.

The average daily calorie intake is around 1,300 to 1,800 calories respectively for men and women.

This Ramadan, the day time fast will last for about 15 hours. Your body will go through a lot of hormonal changes. Your metabolism will slow down, blood sugar and blood pressure levels and the core temperature of the body will drop. You will be dehydrated. To combat this, “It is crucial to eat healthily and make the right choice of foods to give you sustained energy that can last you at least for 7 to 8 hours,” says Mitun. The best foods are those with a low glycemic index (which we dealt with last week) and slow digesting foods that are rich in fibre, which release glucose into the blood stream slowly and steadily keeping your blood sugar levels stable for a long time.

Simple carbohydrates are fast-digesting foods and are generally made with ingredients like sugar and refined flour, the villains of the carbs world. “For example, cakes, cookies, white breads, noodles, pastas, croissants, will give you a sense of satiation that lasts for only 2 to 3 hours, making you hungry and slowing your metabolism within a couple of hours,” she says. So, it’s best to avoid eating these foods.

“Many of us drink 3 to 4 cups of tea and coffee at work or have energy drinks. As you suddenly stop them, there will be withdrawal symptoms and headaches.” For those addicted to tea and coffee, it’s best to begin tapering off before Ramadan to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

When breaking the fast at Iftar, the body needs easily available source of energy in the form of glucose. One of the best sources of this are dates. “They are high in potassium, soluble fibre and beta-d glucan, a soluble fibre that gives you the feeling of fullness,” she says.

The other thing to keep in mind while breaking your fast is to avoid eating greasy, sugary and deep fried foods as these can irritate the digestive system, which was in a period of rest for almost 15 to 17 hours. “It can’t, immediately after resting, handle foods that are difficult to break down and digest. Consumption of such foods immediately after a fast results in acidity, heart burn and bloating.” The most suitable option after breaking the fast with dates and water, is to eat a wholesome soup prepared with vegetables and chicken or lentils with some wholemeal toast or wholewheat or rye crackers, all complex carbs.

A bowlful of fruit such as melons, berries, oranges, apples, pears, kiwi, has a high water content and is a perfect way to rehydrate your body after a day-long fast, advises Sarkar.

After Iftar, give your stomach a rest for at least an hour or 90 minutes before having your next meal. The digestive juices have now been stimulated after a light iftar and are ready to start the process of digestion.

Dinner should consist of fibre-rich salads and cooked vegetables to avoid constipation. Complex carbohydrates like brown rice, barley, wholemeal breads, rotis, brown khubz, quinoa, burghul, combined with protein like fish, chicken, lentils, beans, tofu, chickpeas, and fats like olive oil, canola, sesame, peanut or groundnut oil.

March 5, 2004 — The thinnest people eat the most carbs, a four-nation survey shows.

If you’ve been following the latest U.S. diet fads, that isn’t what you’d expect. But the data come from an intensive, four-nation study of more than 4,000 men and women age 40 to 59. The study was based on food diaries kept by people in the U.S., U.K., Japan, and China.

Study leader Linda Van Horn, PhD, of Northwestern University, presented the findings at the 44th American Heart Association Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention, held this week in San Francisco.

“Without exception, a high-complex-carbohydrate, high-vegetable-protein diet is associated with low body mass,” Van Horn said in a news conference. “High-protein diets were associated with higher body weight.”

Don’t be misled. The high-carb diet that’s keeping the pounds off is full of high-fiber vegetables, not french fries.

“The point we are trying to make is that what we consider desirable carbohydrates are complex, or high-fiber-containing carbohydrates: whole grains, fruits, and vegetables — not doughnuts or even polished rice,” Van Horn said. “We are looking at legumes and vegetables that offer fiber as well as protein. We’re not talking about refined carbohydrates, commonly known as sugar.”

Not surprisingly, people who exercised more also tended to be less heavy. This was true even though they tended to consume more calories.

Important Nutrients to Know: Proteins, Carbohydrates, and Fats


Proteins are often called the body’s building blocks. They are used to build and repair tissues. They help you fight infection. Your body uses extra protein for energy. The protein foods group includes seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds. Protein is also found in the dairy group. Protein from plant sources tends to be lower in saturated fat, contains no cholesterol, and provides fiber and other health-promoting nutrients.

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. The fruit, vegetables, dairy, and grain food groups all contain carbohydrates. Sweeteners like sugar, honey, and syrup and foods with added sugars like candy, soft drinks, and cookies also contain carbohydrates. Try to get most of your carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, fat-free and low-fat dairy, and whole grains rather than added sugars or refined grains.

Many foods with carbohydrates also supply fiber. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that your body cannot digest. It is found in many foods that come from plants, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains. Eating food with fiber can help prevent stomach or intestinal problems, such as constipation. It might also help lower cholesterol and blood sugar.

It’s better to get fiber from food than dietary supplements. Start adding fiber slowly. This will help avoid gas. To add fiber:

  • Eat cooked dry beans, peas, and lentils.
  • Leave skins on your fruit and vegetables but wash them before eating.
  • Choose whole fruit over fruit juice.
  • Eat whole grain breads and cereals that contain fiber.

Fats give you energy, and they help the body absorb certain vitamins. Essential fatty acids help the body function, but they aren’t made by your body—you have to consume them. Many foods naturally contain fats, including dairy products; meats, poultry, seafood, and eggs; and seeds, nuts, avocados, and coconuts.

Certain kinds of fat can be bad for your health—saturated fats and trans fats:

  • Saturated fats are found in the greatest amounts in butter, beef fat, and coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils. Higher-fat meats and dairy and cakes, cookies, and some snack foods are higher in saturated fats. Dishes with many ingredients are common sources of saturated fat, including pizza, casseroles, burgers, tacos, and sandwiches.
  • Trans fats, which is short for trans fatty acids, occur naturally in some foods but are also artificially produced. Because trans fats are not healthy, food manufacturers are phasing them out. But trans fats can still be found in some processed foods, such as some desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, margarine, and coffee creamer.

Fats that contain mostly trans fats and saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Limit your intake of saturated fats to less than 10 percent of your calories each day, and keep trans fat intake as low as possible.

Replace saturated and trans fats with these two types of healthier fats while keeping total fat intake within the recommended range:

  • Monounsaturated fats. These are found in the greatest amounts in canola, olive, peanut, sunflower, and safflower oils and in avocados, peanut butter, and most nuts.
  • Polyunsaturated fats. These are found in the greatest amounts in sunflower, corn, soybean, and cottonseed oils and in fatty fish, walnuts, and some seeds.

Oils contain mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and are liquid at room temperature. These types of fat seem to lower your chance of heart disease when they replace saturated fats. But that doesn’t mean you can eat more than the Dietary Guidelines suggests.

To lower the saturated fat in your diet:

  • Choose cuts of meat with less fat and remove the skin from chicken
  • Use low-fat or fat-free dairy products
  • Choose oils, such as olive or canola, for cooking
  • Replace ingredients higher in saturated fats with vegetables, whole grains, low-fat and fat-free dairy products, or lean cuts of meats and poultry
  • Read the Nutrition Facts label and choose products lower in saturated fats

Read about this topic in Spanish. Lea sobre este tema en español.

For More Information on Nutrition and Aging

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
[email protected]

National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs

President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition

This content is provided by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health. NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure that it is accurate, authoritative, and up to date.

Content reviewed: April 29, 2019

Complex carbs and protein

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