Ask A Dietitian: Does the Proportion of Protein, Carbs, and Fat in My Meals Matter?

*This post deals with the proportion of macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) in your meals.

One of the many advantages to joining the Cooking Light Diet is having access to our staff of professionals. In particular, members can tap into the expertise of our James Beard Award-winning lead dietitian, Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, who’s been an instrumental part of the team since we launched our service in 2014. 

As part of an effort to provide members with even more serviceable content to assist their respective journeys to good health, Dr. Williams will be answering questions posted in our Facebook Community.

We wanted to know: If you could ask a dietitian anything, what would you ask? This is part five of an ongoing series.

Does the Proportion of Protein, Carbs, and Fat in My Meals Matter?

Cooking Light Diet member Nancy Schuck Hawkins asked,

Does the proportion of protein, carbs, and fat really matter? Doesn’t it all boil down to “calories in, calories out?” Many of my friends are doing paleo, keto, etc., and I wonder if those limitations are any more effective than just reasonable calorie amounts?

Nancy, this is a great question! It’s one I get asked a lot. The quick answer is yes and yes. Total daily calorie intake is still important, but it seems that where those calories come from is important, too. I’ll explain more below.

Calories In = Calories Out…Or Not?

For years, popular diets have approached weight loss from the calories in/calories out concept, meaning in order to lose weight, the calories consumed should be less than the calories put out or burned through basic body processes, including activity.

But if you’ve ever followed a low-calorie diet (and I’m assuming this is most of us!), then you’ve probably wondered why the math doesn’t really seem to translate when you step on the scale.

In part, this has to do with the body being more complex than simple math. But many think that the proportion of where those nutrients came from plays a role, too.

Calories and Proportion

Nutrient proportions can be helpful by providing daily guidelines in terms of what you eat.Current health recommendations suggest these ranges:

  • 45-65% of daily calories from carbohydrates
  • 20-35% of daily calories from fat
  • 15-25% of daily calories from protein

However, calories are still the underlying factor these proportions of carbs, proteins, and fats are based on total daily calories.

Only once a calorie goal is set can the proportion of calories and grams that come from carbs, proteins, and fats be calculated.

For example, let’s say I want to consume 1600 calories per day, and I’ve decided to aim for 50% from carbs, 20% from protein, and 30% from fat. Here’s an example of how my macronutrients would be calculated:

1600 cal x 0.50 = 800 calories from carbs
800 cal ÷ 4 cals per gram = 200g carbs

1600 cal x 0.20 = 320 cals from protein
320 ÷ 4 cals per gram = 80g protein

1600 cal x 0.30 – 480 cals from fat
480 ÷ 9cals per gram = 53g fat

This breaks down to these macronutrient goals for the day: 200g carbs, 80g protein, and 53g fat.

Paleo, Whole30, and Other Diets

Diets like Paleo focus predominantly on Whole Foods and tend to keep carbohydrate proportion around the lower end of the recommended range.

But, they also focus on whole, minimally-processed foods and cut out most processed foods and added sugars.

We’ve been focused on the calories when it comes to weight loss, but individuals who’ve had success following Paleo or similar diets are great examples of how focusing on the quality of the food or nutrients in those calories plays a role.

However, at the end of the day, food quality can’t prevent excessive calories from being stored as fat.

What Proportions are Best?

Here’s the gray area. Researchers are still trying to figure out what exact proportions within the given ranges are best, as well as how they should be individualized to a person’s goals, health conditions, activity levels, and maybe even body shape.

So, we don’t yet know the exact proportion that’s best for weight loss. The Cooking Light Diet is planned around both calories and macronutrient proportions. It also focuses on food quality and nutrient-dense foods using whole, minimally processed foods as staple ingredients.

Some have better success and increased satiety consuming diets lower in carbohydrates. These individuals might want to consider switching to the SmartCarb plan, which is based on carb intake at the lower end of the recommended carb range.

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