Macros v. Micros: crunching the numbers for almonds

Updated: May 3, 2019

I don't like talking in just 'macros'. Talking in just macros feels a bit like click bait headlines. It's quick, popular and enticing, but it misses details that really matter. Sure, it's deliberately simplified for a purpose. But so often there's no mention of all the other things that you need to think about if you're thinking about macros.

I do think it's useful to track macros and calories. If you're aiming to create a caloric surplus or deficit, this data is golden because it enables you to make small, deliberate changes to nudge your results in the desired direction. You can't properly manage the things that you don't measure. But that's just one side of the story. Take almonds. A commonly accepted 'healthy snack' and source of 'healthy fats'.  A 30 g portion of almonds contains:  179 calories. 15.8 g of fat. 6.3 g of carbohydrate. 6.3 g of protein. Let's dig a little deeper into these numbers.

The fat? 30 g of almonds contains almost 10 g of monounsaturated fat. The fat in almonds is about 65 % monounsaturated, 25 % polyunsaturated and around 10 % saturated. This matters because your body needs all three kinds of fats, and different foods have different fat profiles. The body can't make monounsaturated fat and relies on food to find it. Monounsaturated fats have important anti-inflammatory properties, help to promote a healthy heart and lipid panels, enhance insulin sensitivity and enable bones to absorb calcium efficiently. If 1 g of fat is just 1 g of fat, then you could easily equate all fat calories and unintentionally craft a diet that doesn't balance your dietary fats. The carbs? There's 6.3 g of carbohydrate in 30 g of almonds. Of that, 3.3 g is fibre and 1.43 g is sucrose. The combination of fibre and the small amount of sugar that occurs naturally in almonds acts far differently on the body than say, 6 g of sucrose found in refined sugar. Fibre is  kind of carbohydrate, but it doesn't actually contribute any calories from carbohydrates to our diet (ie, that's the reason you'll often see a 'net' carbohydrate count on food labels or apps - it doesn't count the fibre). Instead, fibre assists in our digestion of foods. In contrast, 1.5 tsps of white, granulated sugar also contains 6.24 g of carbohydrate, but all 6.24 g of that is sucrose. There's not only zero fibre, but there's no fat or protein to accompany it. The sucrose in almonds is natural; in table sugar it's added to a processed food. One is bound to nutrients, the other is empty of nutrients. One has a GI of zero and will not affect your blood sugar, the other has a GI of 68. If you only looked at the total carbohydrates of 30 g of almonds for a snack compared to 1.5 tsps of sugar in your coffee, it's the same on the face of it. This masks the glaring differences behind that one number. The protein? Almonds are generally higher in protein than other nuts, but are not a complete source of protein. If you look at the amino acid profile of almonds (or other nuts) compared to an animal meat like beef, you'll see that it is noticeably deficient in essential amino acids like lysine, methionine and cysteine. While it is possible for humans to consume essential amino acids from plants only, quality animal meat is the premium source of nutrient dense protein for the human body. If you simply count total daily protein and don't focus on the source of your protein, you may compromise your ability to build and maintain muscle mass. Delving into the micronutrients That's just the macros. There's a host of micronutrients that lie beyond these three numbers. Here's a basic glimpse at just some of the essential micros that you can find in just 30 g of almonds. Vitamins Vitamin E. Vitamin E is a fat soluble vitamin that is essential for maintaining cell integrity. It protects cell membranes (made of fat molecules) and other lipid containing substances in the body (like LDL cholesterol) from oxidative damage. Almonds are an excellent source (and the best nut source) of vitamin E. Just 30 g of almonds contain 7.17 mg of vitamin E, about 47.8 % of the RDI. [1] The skin of almonds also contains flavonoids that work synergistically with vitamin E to boost heart health and reduce inflammation. Riboflavin (B2). Riboflavin plays a vital role in energy production. It is the precursor to the coenzymes FAD and FMN that are essential to the metabolism of carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins. 30 g of almonds contains 0.36 mg of riboflavin, that's 32.7 % of the RDI. Minerals Magnesium. Magnesium is a cofactor for more than 300 enzymes in the body (Dr Bruce Ames puts this number at 500 enzymes!) and is essential for many different biological functions. For example, the enzymes that repair DNA damage depend on magnesium to function. Your body also needs magnesium to make and utilise ATP. Nuts are a rich source of magnesium. Just 30 g of almonds contains 83.70 mg magnesium, or 26.2 % of the RDI. Calcium. Calcium is not just about bone health, it's also essential for cell signalling. Calcium plays a role in mediating cell signals to contract muscles, transmit nerve impulses, and constrict or relax blood vessels. Dairy is an excellent and common source of calcium, but there's other plant based sources that your body can use. 30 g of almonds contain 80.40 mg of calcium, or 8 % of the RDI. While this isn't as high as the calcium in other foods (like dairy or sardines), it's high compared to other nuts. If you don't tolerate dairy, you could choose to include almonds in your diet as a source of calcium. Almonds are also a rich source of manganese (0.67 mg, 13.4 %) and choline (15.63 mg, 3.68 %). But even if you consider micros and macros, the number crunching is imperfect This is only talking nutrient numbers. Then you have cooking and preparation. Almonds could be coated in sugar or hydrogenated oils, roasted at high temperatures that destroys their antioxidants, or soaked and dry roasted to increase the availability of their nutrients. And that's not even taking into account the individuality of different people - your body may not like some foods, or can't tolerate certain quantities of some foods, etc. It's mind boggling to contemplate the multitude of different reactions and responses that are happening simultaneously in the human body that stem from our nutrition - digestion, absorption, the microbiome, the immune system, etc. Our attempts to quantify nutrients is useful as a starting point but ultimately it's different for all of us. The take home message It seems complicated, but it doesn't need to be. It's really pretty simple.  Focus on food first. If you eat varied and balanced diet of real foods, both animal and plant based, and ideally fresh, local and in season, this should supply enough vitamins and minerals to your body. Adjust from there based on your body and its cues. You may find that you need to look at the finer details to enhance your body composition, health or performance. If you do, don't just stop at the macros! A practical tip - rotate your foods One of my favourite tips is to simply rotate your foods. Even foods from the same families (ie, vegetables, fruits, berries, nuts, etc.) can have quite different nutrient profiles. For example, different varieties of nuts contain different amounts of fats, vitamins and minerals. For example, macadamia nuts are highest in monounsaturated fats. Brazil nuts are recognised for their selenium content. Cashews are a rich source of vitamin K and zinc. Rotating your food sources, even if it's the same sort of food like nuts, is an easy tool that can help you to include a broad range of nutrients in your diet. Keen to learn more? [1] Nutrient Reference Values for Australian and New Zealand. I have used the RDI values for women. I also cross check this to the US RDA data and if that's higher, I err on the side of caution and use that instead.

Data Source: Nutrition Coordinating Center Food and Nutrient Database (NCCDB), almonds, dry roasted, salted. You can access this database using the Cronometer app. Linus Pauling Institute » Micronutrient Information Center: their Nutrient Index is a golden resource if you're interested to delve into all things micronutrients. They also have an article on Nuts.

Dr Axe, Almonds Nutrition: Heart-Healthy Brain Booster or Fat Trap? A disclaimer  This is a practical outline of the nutrients in the humble almond, based on simple information that is freely available online and in health and fitness materials. I'm not a scientist and don't pretend to be one online. Please enjoy my information in the spirit that it's intended - as a user-friendly synthesis of broadly publicised information for you to ponder and apply to suit you, your body and your goals.