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How macros fuel our body

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I was chatting with a friend the other day. Her naturopath has recommended she try a keto-style diet to help manage her endo. While I think this is an amazing step for her, it occurred to me how poorly some practitioners prepare us for those diet transitions. Knowing how and where to start is the biggest barrier most people face when they’re told to “go keto”.

Low GI. Macros. Micros. Calories don’t count on keto. There’s a lot of jargon and myths that surround keto and low carb ways of eating. Some of it is just bullshit, other parts of it are only useful if you’re trying to fine tune things. Simply, it can be a whole lot of not helpful!

Let me take you through some basic terminology and what it practically means.

What is a macro

ingredients, tomato, healthy‘Macros’ or macronutrients are the building blocks our body needs to function. Macros are essential nutrients, meaning we need to consume them from food or supplements. Our body won’t produce them on its own.

The three macros are carbohydrates, protein and dietary fats.

Understanding macronutrients and balancing their intake is important for maintaining overall health. Optimising macronutrient intake to meet our needs and preferences can help achieve specific health goals and overall better wellbeing.

What does high vs low GI mean?

I’m going to touch on this really quickly because it does have a role to play in understanding the types of macros and how each one fuels and impacts our energy.

GI means Glycemic Index. It compares how quickly a carbohydrate-rich food raises blood sugar levels after being eaten to a reference food, which is usually white bread or pure glucose.

High-GI foods are broken down and absorbed quickly, which causes blood sugar levels to rise quickly.

Low-GI foods, on the other hand, are broken down and absorbed more slowly, which causes blood sugar levels to rise slowly over time.

The GI sorts foods into groups based on how they affect blood sugar levels. It’s a useful tool to help us make food choices based on the type of energy release we need and manage our blood sugar levels. While it’s most critical for diabetics, reducing rapid insulin spikes has an overall health benefit for everyone. And reducing spikes from high GI foods can help even out your energy levels throughout the day.

How different macros fuel the body

Let’s flash back to our Girl Guide days for a minute. And think back to how we were taught to build campfires.

Kindling

man holding brown wood in front of bonfireWe start with dried leaves and twigs to get the fire started. They burn quickly and you need just enough to help catch the slightly bigger sized sticks.

However, kindling does not have enough in it to even toast a marshmallow. Let alone cook. We need a different type of fuel for that.

In a food context, kindling is like a carbohydrate. Fast fuel that is absorbed quickly and fizzles out just as fast.

To be more specific kindling is like a high GI carbohydrates:

  • Breads, bagels, pastries, pastas and baked goods made with refined flours and sugar
  • Hot chips (french fries) and potato chips
  • Most breakfast cereals and instant oats
  • High GI Fruits like watermelon, pineapple, bananas, dates and saltanas
  • Hi GI Veggies like pumpkin, potatoes, sweet corn and carrots.

Of course you can be always be like a boy scout and use a fire lighter or petrol to get the fire started…

Yes, I am having a friendly dig; it’s also applicable to the type of carbs. The food equivalent of fire lighters are things like sweets/lollies/candy, fruit juices, soft drink. Essentially pure glucose or fructose. The body essentially absorbs it as it is. 

Much like using a fire lighter on a wet day, high GI foods have their time and place. Two key examples that come to mind are for:

  • a diabetic that is hypo and needs a quick sugar fix, like jellybeans, to stablise their sugar levels, or
  • an athlete doing an endurance event that needs rapid-release energy may use glucose-based supplements on the go or in between events.

Like using fire lighters for the sake it, high GI carbohydrates are not the most efficient fuel to use for everyday purposes. It means that you tend to need to eat more food, more frequently. Long term use can have less than desirable side effects, like weight gain or developing insulin resistance. Higher GI foods, particularly processed foods, also tend be more inflammatory for spoonies.

Keeping it going with medium sized sticks

can pot hanged front stickOnce the medium sized sticks get going, you start to generate a bit more heat. Maybe enough to boil the billy. But it’s still not a great temperature to cook on. It’s most likely going to char your food and leave the middle raw. You want to see the flames subside and coals glowing for optimal cooking temperatures. It’s also not going to be enough to generate a sustained heat source for the night…

Back to food. Now we’re starting to talk about lower GI fruits and veggies, and dietary fats like medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).

Dietary fats

Dietary fats help makes us feel full. Fats don’t make us fat. That has been debunked a dozen times over. Fats are also essential for optimal brain and nervous system function. Given conditions like CRPS are essentially dysfunction in the nervous system, the more dietary support, the better in my experience.

The most commonly referenced MCT is coconut oil. It’s used to boost the fats in various foods and drinks. One never dying trend is Bullet Coffee which is meant to help with staying satiated (feeling full) and “activating fat burning”.

Dairy products like cheese and yogurt contain small amounts of MCTs, particularly in the form of caprylic acid and capric acid.

Lower GI fruit and veggies

Lower GI veggies tend to also have a higher fibre content than their higher GI counterparts. Some great keto and low carb examples include

  • Leafy greens: Spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and other leafy greens are typically low in carbohydrates and have a minimal impact on blood sugar levels.
  • Cruciferous vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage are rich in fiber and nutrients while being low in carbohydrates.
  • Capsicum (Bell peppers): Whether they’re green, red, yellow, or orange, they are low in carbohydrates and provide essential vitamins and minerals.
  • Tomatoes: Tomatoes have a low GI, especially when they are not overly ripe. They are also rich in antioxidants like lycopene.
  • Mushrooms: Mushrooms are low in carbohydrates and calories.
  • Zucchini: Zucchini and other summer squash varieties are low in carbohydrates and can be used in various dishes as a low GI alternative to higher-carb vegetables.
  • Cucumbers: Cucumbers have a high water content and are very low in carbohydrates.
  • Asparagus: Asparagus is low in carbohydrates and rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, making it a nutritious option.

Fruit is a polarising topic on keto with a lot of debate with what is and is not allowed. The most common fruit referenced in keto are berries like strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries which are low in carbohydrates and high in fiber and antioxidants. I talk more about fruit and keto here.

Building up to the big logs

lit bonfire in closeup photographyThese bad boys take the longest to get lit but can quite literally keep burning all night. They give you the most sustainable heat source for cooking and keeping toasty by the fire before bed.

In the food world we’re now talking about protein and your saturated and unsaturated fats.

Protein generally takes longer to digest than fats. When you consume protein-rich foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or plant-based sources like beans and lentils, they undergo a complex process of digestion in the stomach and small intestine. Proteins are broken down into amino acids, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream to be utilised by the body for various functions, including muscle repair and growth.

Saturated fats take longer to digest compared to MCTs (our metaphorically medium sized sticks), which are rapidly absorbed and metabolised.

We’ve designed the No Spoons recipes to be forward in fats and proteins to help keep spoonies fueled for longer. A high protein, high fat diet also has many other health benefits that positively impact our pain and energy levels. For me it’s reduced the frequency and severity of my pain flares, and I’ve been able to significantly reduce the number of medications that I take daily.

Everyone is different. While I absolutely have lived the experience of specialists not being overly educated in the benefits of diet and/or keto for pain management, I do recommend speaking to your care team before making any significant changes to your diet or treatment plan. In saying that, I think everyone benefits from eating less processed foods, irrespective of the macro ratios you choose to eat food in.

Using the right fuel for your body

Are you still with me? Ok, so we’ve talked about the different types of fuel. But what happens when we use the wrong fuel. I’m going to switch analogies for a minute.

selective focus photo of red carThink about a high performance car, like a Ferrari. It is designed to run on high octane, extremely clean fuel.

If I was to put an ordinary unleaded petrol (low octane) in it, it would still run. But it would not run well and the engine’s performance is decreased reducing the horsepower and torque output. So it no broom-broom good.

Low octane fuel ignites at a lower temperatures than high octane fuel. So low octane fuel in a high performance car will cause premature ignition and cause knocking and pinging noises indicating inefficient combustion. Over time, this knocking and pinging will cause piston and cylinder damage in the engine. Read: extremely expensive repairs. And in some cases, bye bye engine assuming it hasn’t already gone bang.

Highly processed foods have a scarily similar impact on our bodies as low octane fuel would have on a Ferrari. One thing I strongly believe that is universal to any way of eating is that processed foods are making us sicker and sicker.

Processed foods are typically high in carbohydrates and primarily various forms of sugars. They also tend to strip away a lot of the beneficial nutrients and substitute lower-quality ingredients to provide flavour and desirable textures. It also makes food cheaper to manufacture.

We can see the rapid health regression from one generation to another and the massive rise in Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases. Type 2 diabetes is primarily a lifestyle disease caused by diet, exercise, and obesity. This is in part all the additives and preservatives and how our foods are farmed on mass, pasturised, processed and manufactured, amongst other factors.

Those same additives and preservatives also have inflammatory impact for spoonies. Essentially, making our pain worse and threatens our limited energy stores.

What is the right type of fuel

The very short answer is whole foods that are not processed, sprayed or pumped full of supplements. But lets be perfectly pragmatic for a moment.

Totally eliminating processed foods in this day and age is impossible. Short of making everything yourself, from scratch, growing your own vegetables etc which is not practical or economic. I absolutely admire the homesetter movement and people who do manage it. As a spoonie, the sheer volume of spoons that would take makes it impossible. Hell, I routinely kill my potted herbs on my kitchen bench. I can’t imagine doing anything like that on any larger scale.

Here’s what we can do: make educated decisions about what we eat.

  • Prioritise your fats and protein: as a spoonie, using the right type of fuels makes an amazing amount of difference to pain levels and energy.
  • Eat as many whole foods as possible: whether its fresh or frozen vegetables, it doesn’t matter. Frozen veg can have a higher nutrient content then some fresh veg.
  • Buying take-away: opt for things that aren’t marinated, deep fried or heavily covered in sauces. This will help reduce the amount of trans fats, inflammatory oils and added sugar.
  • Packaged foods: If there’s a huge amount of numbers or ingredients that don’t sound like simple food names on the label, put it back.

Don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress

Make what you can at home. Use clean, prepared foods to reduce cooking time (our recipes are based a lot on this principle for this reason).

Build a freezer stash for days you can’t cook. This could be bulk cook up from our freezer friendly recipes or bought pre-made meals.

While home cooking is ideal because you know what is in your food, it shouldn’t be at the expense of your spoons. Pain and appetite often go hand-in-hand, but continually skipping meals because of pain, can actually have you chasing pain. Remember, choosing cleaner take away options and having a meal is better than skipping eating altogether.

Transitioning to keto and low carb eating can be a huge shift for some people. Start simple. Look at one thing you can start to do differently. For some people that might be reducing sugar by swapping to a sugar-free soft drink. For others it may be swapping to a low carb bread. It can even be as simple as making sure you’re eating one solid meal a day even though your pain levels feel unbearably high (preferably nutrient dense).

It absolutely does not need to be an all or nothing event. Even small changes to our eating habits can have a positive impact on our pain, our energy and our health. The important thing is to start.

Disclaimer: No Spoons to Cook is based on our own experience and research, and what we know works best for us. It is not medical advice. Our recipes focus on low inflammatory ingredients, whole foods and are founded in ketogenic and low carb ways of eating. We encourage spoonies to stay curious, ask questions, do your own research, listen to your body and to work with a Registered Dietitian or Medical Professional when appropriate to tailor your nutritional needs to support your care plan and goals.

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