Essentials for Eaters and Dieters

Food Selection

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Smart Selections
Healthy Lifestyles
Food Selection



Calories & Macronutrients: Why They Are Important

What Are Calories?
Calories are a way to measure energy in foods. You may have learned in science class that a calorie is the amount of energy required to raise one gram of water by one degree Celsius. Energy is required for every function of our body from walking and thinking to maintaining skin and fighting against disease. We get calories from digestion and absorption of the food we eat. As you can see, consuming enough calories is important. However, excess calories won’t make us more energetic. Excess calories will be converted and stored as fat in our body.

What Are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients are the nutrients needed in large amounts. For humans, these are protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Each of these macronutrients provides a specific amount of energy to our bodies in the form of calories.

1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 calories
1 gram of protein = 4 calories
1 gram of fat = 9 calories

Although these macronutrients are interchangeable as an energy source in our bodies, each of these nutrients also has unique functions that cannot be replaced by others. Moreover, these nutrients are quite different in the way they are metabolized in our body as well as in the property as foods.

BatteryCarbohydrates and Fat
The main function of carbohydrates is to provide energy. Some parts of the body (i.e the brain, red blood cells) can only use carbohydrates as an energy source. That is why our body has developed a number of pathways to convert some elements of protein and fats into carbohydrate. Fat is another great source of energy, but there are some fats that we must get through our diet in order to grow and stay healthy. When we get enough of these essential fats in our diet, calories from carbohydrates and fat can be used interchangeably, allowing for a great deal of flexibility in the amount of carbohydrates and fat you consume. The flexibility allows you to create a diet that suits your own lifestyle and preferences. However, remember that fat provides almost twice as many calories as carbohydrates. Because of this high calorie density, people tend to over consume fat, which may lead to weight gain. Foods high in sugar also tend to be energy-dense and are often overconsumed.

Not All Fat is Created Equal
Fat is an essential part of our diets and it comes in a number of forms. The three types of fat that we would like to address are saturated, unsaturated, and trans. All of these forms provide the same amount of energy per gram. Saturated fat is the type of fat found in animal products, such as meat, butter, and dairy products. Diets high in saturated fat increase blood cholesterol levels and therefore increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease. This does not mean that you should not consume meat or dairy products, but rather select lower fat options when available. Unsaturated fats like those found in oils, fish, nuts, and seeds can actually decrease cholesterol levels and reduce a person’s risk for heart disease. Trans fats are created from unsaturated fats in order to make them more solid like saturated fats. The biggest sources of trans fat in the American diet are margarine, shortening, and any products made with these fats. Trans are actually worse for your heart than saturated fats and the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans states intake of trans fats should be reduced to as little as possible.

So when you’re looking at labels, cooking at home, or eating out, remember that unsaturated fat is an important and healthful part of a balanced diet, while saturated and trans fats should be limited.

Protein is the third macronutrient that can provide us with a source of energy. However, unlike carbohydrates and fat, protein consumption is less flexible because it has other essential roles in our diets. Protein provides the building blocks for our bodies. It is vital for growth, maintenance, structural support, and all the biological processes that occur. Studies suggest that when low protein foods are provided, we tend to consume more calories to meet protein requirement. For these reasons, we recommend you balance a meal by incorporating adequate amounts of protein in every meal, including snacks.

The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein states 10-35% of total energy intake should come from protein. That’s a wide range that breaks down to about 15-52 grams of protein per meal for an 1800 calorie diet (3 meals a day, no snacks).

You can use food labels to calculate exactly how many of your calories are coming from protein (see example in Nutrition Label section) or skip the math and just plan on adding some low fat dairy, legumes or lean meat to every meal and snack.

Leaner Sources of Protein are Preferable
Skim milk, low fat cheeses, beans and lean cuts of fish, chicken, beef, or pork are all good sources of lean protein. Animal sources of protein can be high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which contribute to a person’s risk for cancer and heart disease.


What does “lean” mean?
The leanest protein sources are beans, peas, low fat dairy products, fish and skinless poultry. Nuts are rich in heart-healthy oils which makes them an energy-dense source of protein that should be enjoyed in moderation. Pork and beef are naturally high in saturated fat, even after you trim all the visible fat, so choose the leanest cuts possible.


These pictures illustrate three levels of fat content in a retail cut of steak. On the far left is a “prime” grade steak with abundant fat on the edges and clearly visible fat marbled throughout the steak itself. This is not a lean cut of meat. Prime grade is often sold to restaurants, so a restaurant steak can contain 50% more total fat and 40% more saturated fat than a steak cooked at home. The middle steak is typical of “choice” grade beef. There is less marbling throughout, but it is still not very lean. The steak on the right is typical of “select” grade beef. This is the leanest grade of beef available in most grocery stores. The fat around the edge is easily removed before or after cooking so you can control the amount of saturated fat in your meal more closely.

The graph below illustrates how some typical protein-rich foods can have drastically different amounts of protein and fat per calorie. It is important, therefore, to select leaner sources of protein so that most of that item’s calories are coming from protein, not fat. Even though ice cream is not considered a protein-rich food, we included it on this graph to illustrate how some meats can contain more fat (usually saturated fat) per calorie than some desserts.

(data taken from the Nutrient Data Laboratory website)

Lean Meat Graph

The table below compares a few lean sources of protein to some well known fatty counterparts. Read labels and choose carefully. A few wise substitutions can make a big difference to your heart and your waistline.

Protein Source
Total Fat  (g)
Saturated Fat (g)
% Daily Value* Saturated Fat
Beef, eye of round steak, select grade,  cooked (3 oz)
Beef, short rib, lean and fat, choice grade, cooked (3 oz)
Hamburger patty, fast-food, quarter-pounder, cooked
Sausage, Polish, pork and beef, smoked, cooked (3 oz)
Pork tenderloin, trimmed, broiled (3 oz)
Pork country-style ribs, lean and fat, broiled (3 oz)
Chicken breast, skinless, broiled (3 oz)
Chicken wings,meat, bone and skin, batter fried (3 wings)
Bacon, lean, canadian style, cooked (2 slices, 2 oz)
Bacon, cooked (about 3.5 slices, 1 oz)
Milk, skim or nonfat (1 cup)
Milk, whole or "Vitamin D" (1 cup)
Cheese, low fat cheddar (1 oz)
Cheese, regular cheddar (1 oz)
Ice Cream, regular (1/2 cup)    LOW PROTEIN FOOD

*Based on 2000-calorie diet, 60g total fat, 20g saturated fat


Guidelines to a Healthy Diet

“Well-Balanced” Includes a Variety of Healthy Eating Patterns
You may be wondering how you are supposed to know what a “well-balanced” diet would entail. The truth is that there are many variations to a healthy diet, and it can be different for each person. However, the United States Department of Agriculture provides some guidelines to follow. They recommend a diet that is 45-65% carbohydrates, 10-35% protein, and 20-35% fat. For example, a person requiring 2000 calories a day could find a balanced and healthful eating pattern within the spectrum of 225-325 grams of carbohydrates, 50-175 grams of protein, and 45-78 grams of fat per day. That’s a fantastic range of possibilities!  As long as this person selects foods that can prevent chronic diseases and overeating (Learn more about how to create healthy meals in the eaters section), he/she can enjoy the foods and eating patterns that fit best into his/her lifestyle.

What a Nutrition Label Tells You about Macronutrients
Nutrition LableNow, lets take a look at a nutritional label to better understand what this means. From the information provided, we can calculate the proportion of calories from each of the three macronutrients: carbohydrate, protein, and fat.

The total calories from one serving (one cup in this example) = 250 calories

Total fat is 12 grams. 12 grams x 9 calories/gram = 108 calories from fat

A total carbohydrate is 31 grams. 31 grams x 4 calories/gram = 124 calories from carbohydrates

Total protein is 5 grams. 5 grams x 4 calories/gram = 20 calories from protein.

You will need further calculation to figure out a balance between protein and other macronutrients. In this example, calories from protein are:

20 calories from protein/250 calories from total = 8% of total calories from protein

Because the minimum protein requirement is 10%, this food is low in protein. So, you will need to combine a high protein food containing higher than 20% of protein to balance a meal.

Low protein food: less than 10% calories from protein
Adequate protein food: 10 – 20% calories from protein
High protein food: more than 20% calories from protein

When you prepare a meal, combine a low protein food with a high protein food to balance the protein composition.


Carbohydrates & Sugars

Selecting carbohydrates — Are Some Carbs Bad?
Regular soft drinks, ice cream, buttered popcorn, candies and most desserts provide an abundance of calories with few other nutrients. Foods like these can be included in a healthy eating pattern, but not every day.

Contrary to what some popular diets may say, there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” carbohydrate. All carbohydrate sources can easily be incorporated into a healthy and balanced diet, even the occasional sweet treat. As far as calories are concerned, a carbohydrate from sugar is the same as a carbohydrate from whole wheat bread or brown rice. The key to incorporating all carbohydrates into a healthy diet is to combine your foods in ways that are complementary to each other.

The best way to prevent heart disease is to:

  1. Not smoke
  2. Maintain a healthy weight
  3. Exercise regularly
  4. Minimize intake of saturated and trans fatty acids, and
  5. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Whether you eat toaster pastries or whole wheat bread with your breakfast matters very little as long as you have made all of the above diet and lifestyle changes.

The Principles of Sugar in a Balanced Diet
Foods that are high in fat or sugar are also high in calories. Since an abundance of calories can be contained in a relatively small amount of food, it is easy to overeat these high-fat or high-sugar foods. Combining foods in the appropriate manner will not only provide good nutrition, but it can also make you feel full and discourage overeating. For example, if you eat crackers on an empty stomach with no other foods, such as a protein source, it is easy to eat a good portion of the box without even realizing it. However, when protein and vegetables are added into the meal, the protein provides satiety and the vegetables provide bulk, both which makes you feel full and keeps you from overeating.

Incorporating Sugar into a Meal
Foods such as rice, pasta, and bread, can be combined with other foods to make a well balanced meal. Incorporating sugary carbohydrates with a meal can be more difficult, as they are traditionally consumed as a snack or as dessert after a meal. Consider a sandwich with turkey, cheese, lettuce and tomato. The carbohydrates in white or whole wheat bread make it easy to combine with the other ingredients of the sandwich for a healthy and well balanced meal.

Sugary carbohydrates are not as versatile. If we used the same sandwich ingredients as above and instead substitute toaster pastries for the bread, we come up with a meal that most people would consider unappetizing. However, if you can bear to eat toaster pastries with beef and broccoli, more power to you. As long as you account for the extra calories and saturated fat provided by the toaster pastries in your diet, there is no reason to shun the toaster pastry as a “never” food or a “bad” carb. Eat them mixed with other foods that provide nutritional value and satiety.

Sandwich Regular
Sandwich Poptart

The Bottom Line
There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” carb! A well balanced diet meets nutrient requirements while also allowing you to eat the foods that you enjoy. Try to combine a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fiber (from fruit or vegetables) at each meal. This will help you feel full and decrease the risk of excess weight gain due to overeating.

See the 3-day sample menu for examples of how to incorporate all types of carbohydrates into a balanced eating pattern.

Essentials for Eaters and Dieters | Version 2.0
Copyright ©2005, 2006 University of Illinois Board of Trustees