Updated: Jan 16, 2019
Macros, nutrients and calories. Our food-talk is a code of numbers and quantities. But here's the thing.
Humans eat food, not nutrients. We eat meals, not macros.
There's no question that the nutrient content of our foods matters, but food is so much more than the sum of its parts. If we primarily assess food in terms of its macros, this reduces our concept of food to a mere delivery system for protein, fat and carbs. The problem? It automatically simplifies all food into a numbers game and creates tunnel vision called 'nutritionism'. A single nutrient focus validates incomplete comparisons of vastly different foods. For example, if you're focused on eating protein, then it's all too easy to treat beef, lamb, chicken, fish, dairy, protein shakes and protein bars as equal and interchangeable. Qualitative distinctions among real and processed foods disappear. Instead, one is as good as the other, or sometimes a fake is considered to be better than the real thing (ie, fat free 'natural' yoghurt is seen as 'healthier' than full fat Greek yoghurt).
Macro substitution can be a useful tool for a holiday or a treat, but not all the time. That's because macros are not the be all and end all of eating. Your body needs both more and less than just macros to function optimally:
All hail nutrients ... unless it accidentally creates deathly substances (like trans fats)
Can we really say for sure that a cocktail of nutrients is the same as the nutrients found in their natural form?
Foods are complex. A food in its natural form tends to behave very differently from the nutrients it contains. Science tries to isolate the nutrients in foods and replicate their benefits. This is called reductionist science: eat this = that result. It's desirable because it is profitable - then companies can produce this single nutrient, add it to foods, sell it in supplements and reformulate products. But a single nutrient doesn't necessarily act as it's supposed to if it's extracted from its natural home. For example, despite science's best efforts, antioxidants in supplement form just don't produce the same, beneficial health effects that they do if consumed in real foods.
Why can't food be seamlessly quantified? The problem is that we can't measure what we don't know - a single nutrient lens fails to account for the intricate interactions of compounds in foods, or the unique idiosyncrasies of each person.
'The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science ... is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.'
Marion Nestle, New York University Nutritionist
This can have detrimental, even dangerous, results. The ultimate example of this? Margarine and trans fats. Margarine entered the scene due to the popularity of the (since discredited) lipid hypothesis - the theory that dietary fat causes high cholesterol and leads to chronic disease, particularly heart disease. The solution? Food giants simply eliminated the 'bad' fats - cholesterol and saturated fats from butter, and instead added the 'good' fats - polyunsaturated fats from plant-based oils. Simple, right? Alas, this didn't quite pan out as planned. For one thing, you can't just substitute one for the other. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. To 'fix' this, scientists did the logical thing - blasted liquid vegetable oils with hydrogen to make them solid. Of course. The result? It did the job. But it did have a slight unanticipated side effect ... the process of hydrogenating oils created an entirely different beast called 'trans fats'. Trans fats are completely alien to our bodies and a disaster for human health, far more harmful than the saturated fats they replaced. Oops. Since their fateful creation, trans fats have been phased out and banned across the globe. But they still exist in our foods. Recently, the World Health Organisation has announced a plan for all nations to eradicate trans fats from the food supply before 2023. There are still trans fats in Australia’s food supply, and it hides in foods like biscuits, pies and other ultra processed items.
Here's the easiest way out of the nutrient confusion.
Despite what the mass media and dietitians might have you believe, we don't actually need to understand how all this works to eat the right things for our health. The important thing is to stick to mostly foods in their natural form and to listen to your body. In his excellent book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan sums it up perfectly:
'It's an age old story: when [scientists] nailed down the macronutrients, [they] figured that they now understood the nature of food and what the body needs from it. Then when the vitamins were isolated a few decades later, scientists thought, okay, now we really understand food and what the body needs for its health; and today it's the polyphenols and carotenoids that seem to have completed the picture. But who knows what else is going on deep in the soul of a carrot?
The good news is that, to the carrot eater, it doesn't matter. That's the great thing about eating foods as compared with nutrients: You don't need to fathom a carrot's complexity in order to reap its benefits.'
Michael Pollan, Author and Journalist
Three practices you can apply to make better food choices
1. Resist the temptation to compare foods based purely on their relative cost.
If I simply monitor macros and count calories, it's easy to neglect the quality of the foods I choose to eat. It also influences my assumptions about affordability. If I can't see the value in quality, there's no reason to pay $6 a kg for the fresh, local and organic apples if I can pay $3 a kg for the 'normal' ones.
The bottom line is there's more to factor into your decision than just the dollar amount. Focus on quality and buy foods that make you feel, look and perform at your best. Don't consider the price of a nutritionally superior food (for example, seasonal, local and vibrantly coloured leafy greens) relative to the price of its impostor and nutritionally-replete cousin (ie, chemically-laden, shipped, and plastic packaged greens).
And while it's easy to assume that eating real foods costs more, that's often not the case. If you recalibrate your food choices - ie, buy more produce and meats, and buy less fast foods and processed foods that you reach for out of habit - the cost tends to balance out.
2. Don't just eat to fit your macros. If you're counting macros and ignoring foods, you're missing a huge part of the picture.
The side effect of our macro and calorie focused food culture is that it tends to neglect factors like nutrient availability, digestibility, and the impact of chemicals and refined sugars and oils on our hormones and metabolism. If you can't digest and absorb your food, or if your diet creates and sustains hormonal imbalances, then you're compromising your results - whether it's your health, body composition, training or performance.
3. Prioritise real food sources to meet your micronutrient needs. This is too important to leave to a pill and hope for the best.
Micronutrients are sidelined in our dominant discourse of macros and calories. At best, you'll hear a vague reference to 'high in calcium' or 'excellent source of zinc' etc. but most of the time, the talk is all carbs, fats and protein. Micronutrients are essential to optimal health, recovery and performance, particularly for athletes. It's often not practical nor reliable to use blood tests to find micronutrient deficiencies, so the most effective solution is to include ample micronutrient dense foods in your meals each day. Plant-based foods contain an array of essential nutrients and help your body to clear out toxins. Variety matters to supply your body with plenty of vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, fibres and the naturally occurring sugars and carbohydrates that it needs to thrive. I personally don't have specific foods that I call 'in' or 'out' of a diet. I think that all real foods have a place in healthy eating. Your food choices will depend on your preferences, intolerances and goals. If you pay attention, your body will tell you the foods it likes and dislikes (remember that this can change at different times!).
Want to learn more?
Read the book! Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto is a thoroughly referenced, inspiring and fascinating read. Pollan shares his 'personal eating policies' that he applies to guide his food choices and eating habits. They are all fantastic and easily applicable.
For a condensed but equally informative account, read Michael Pollan's NY Times Magazine essay, Unhappy Meals. It's a decent read of around 30 to 40 minutes, but in it Pollan manages to effectively synthesise and present the message of his entire book.
You can also watch the movie! Based on the best-selling book, the film In Defense of Food is available on Netflix and is a must see. It contains some additional tips and tricks based on research: for example, use smaller plates and cups to control portion size, load your plate with vegetables first, etc.