Pros and Cons of the Macronutrient Model

Dr. David Wiss

August 10, 2022

Nutrition

The nutrition landscape is moving beyond the calorie model with the advent of emerging approaches such as those that focus on gut health and mental health. At Wise Mind Nutrition, we use a food group system to keep this journey simple, actionable, memorable, transportable, and sustainable.

• Fruits (F)
• Vegetables (V)
• Grains (G)
• Dairy or Dairy Alternative (D)
• Protein or Protein Alternative (P)
• Beans, Nuts, and Seeds (bns)

In this article, we’ll dive into the classic macronutrient model, discuss its pros and cons, and then merge it with the Wise Mind Nutrition system. We provide nutritional advice that is designed to help you improve your relationship with food. We also recognize that everyone has individual responses to food, as well as individual cognitive and emotional responses to nutrition messaging (termed nutritional psychology).

Macronutrients include carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Ethanol, found in alcoholic beverages can also be considered a macronutrient, however, it’s not essential therefore won’t be discussed in this context.

The potential benefits of using a macronutrient model have been well-described in contexts such as weight management and athletic performance. But even there, conclusions support the notion that nutrition interventions should be individualized rather than based on specific macronutrient prescriptions [1].

The era of personalized nutrition is here, but to date, personalized nutrition has overlooked one’s psychiatric profile, and Wise Mind Nutrition is filling this gap by emphasizing anti-inflammatory eating to harmonize the immune system.

We’re not calculating macronutrient distributions because we’re focusing on using nutrition to improve your mental health, which can also include how much cognitive effort you put into food. Math-centric approaches to nutrition are also associated with some causes of eating disorders, which is the worst outcome possible. Therefore, we recommend focusing on gut health in order to get back in touch with hunger and fullness cues, so you don’t have to “count” your food!

Meanwhile, the macronutrient model remains widely accepted and has some definite utility worth discussing. Many of the nutrition apps on the marketplace help consumers calculate calorie needs based on a weight- or fitness-related goal. Once a daily calorie target has been established, then a target macronutrient profile is determined. Evidence-based targets are generally:

• Carbohydrates: 45-65% of total energy intake.
• Protein: 10-35% of total energy intake, which could depend on preference and activity level.
• Fats: 20-35% of total energy intake.

Today, many popular approaches go much lower in carbs and there’s scientific support for these approaches but not without controversy [2]. Going too low in carbs can create problems for some people, including bingeing or obsession with food. Instead of focusing on what you should go low in, let’s start focusing on what you should go high in! Balancing macros is (one way) how to recover from binge eating disorder, along with emotion regulation skills, and other means of recovery.

Shortcomings of the Macronutrient Model

Using the carbohydrate macronutrient as a combined category can be misleading. For example, low-carb dietary patterns with animal-derived protein and fat sources have been associated with higher mortality, whereas those that favor plant-based protein and fat sources are associated with lower mortality [3]. You can see there’s a need for nuance when interpreting nutrition research.

Conclusions from studies will depend on the outcome of interest, whether it be all-cause mortality, blood sugar management, cardiovascular risk factors, or binge eating. We totally understand how findings from nutrition epidemiological research continue to stimulate disagreement and debate. Our hope is that this program will put an end to the nutritional confusion.

It is important to achieve balance across all macronutrient categories for optimizing mental health and beginning the process of trusting your hunger and fullness cues. Meanwhile, we believe that an overemphasis on macronutrients can lead to suboptimal food choices. For example, by aiming for specific macronutrient targets, eaters may get the impression that all macronutrients are created equal.

Achieving a carbohydrate target through refined grains and fruit juice is not the same thing as achieving it through beans and starchy vegetables. The fiber that’s found in carbohydrates is an important and often overlooked part of the gut health picture.

Achieving a fat target through refined oils and low-quality animal products is not the same as achieving it through nuts, seeds, avocados, coconuts, and olives. Getting the right kinds of fat is a key to anti-inflammatory dietary approaches.

Achieving a protein target through protein powders and bars is not the same as achieving it through salmon, whole eggs, and lentils. Hopefully you’re getting the point that math-based approaches to nutrition are tired and falling out of favor. To conceptualize macronutrients, we recommend classification based on the following:

• Carbohydrates include: Fruits, fibrous vegetables, whole grains, and beans.
• Protein includes: Animal-based dairy, animal-based proteins, meat alternatives, protein powder, and beans, nuts, and seeds.
• Fat include: Animal-based proteins, dairy and alternative dairy products, nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut, olives, and cooking oils such as avocado, coconut, and olive.

Summary

To simplify and summarize: if you eat from all six food groups, on average, at least twice per day, you’ll achieve a balanced macronutrient profile, without focusing on the math. Wise Mind Nutrition recommends anti-inflammatory eating and we have so much to say about it, drawing wisdom from the Mediterranean Diet. Don’t forget to include herbs and spices to reduce inflammation. We hope you’ll find this approach liberating and sustainable over your lifespan. You don’t need to “count” to thrive! Abandon the math and experience food freedom!

References
1. Fogelholm M, Anderssen S, Gunnarsdottir I, Lahti-Koski M. Dietary macronutrients and food consumption as determinants of long-term weight change in adult populations: a systematic literature review. Food Nutr Res. 2012;56(0):19103.
2. Churuangsuk C, Kherouf M, Combet E, Lean M. Low‐carbohydrate diets for overweight and obesity: a systematic review of the systematic reviews. Obes Rev. 2018;19(12):1700–18.
3. Seidelmann SB, Claggett B, Cheng S, Henglin M, Shah A, Steffen LM, et al. Dietary carbohydrate intake and mortality: a prospective cohort study and meta-analysis. Lancet Public Heal. 2018;3(9):e419–28.