Balance Carbs, Protein and Fat for Better Health

Maintaining a healthy weight is an important part of a heart-healthy lifestyle. To manage your weight, you need to watch the total number of calories you take in as well as the percentage of calories that come from carbohydrates (carbs), protein and fat. Here’s how to choose the right foods to balance these nutrients for better health.

Carbs, Protein and Fat Basics

Carbs, protein and fats are the main sources of energy in your diet, and different foods and beverages contain different amounts of these nutrients. The amount of energy (measured in calories) each nutrient provides varies:

  • Carbs provide 4 calories per gram
  • Protein provides 4 calories per gram
  • Fat provides 9 calories per gram

These nutrients also differ in how quickly they supply energy to your body. Carbs deliver energy the fastest, proteins come next and fats are the slowest. As you digest these nutrients, your intestine breaks them down into basic units that your body uses for activity, maintenance and growth. If you consume more of these nutrients than your body needs, it stores the excess as fat.

So, balancing the amount of carbs, proteins and fats you consume is important in maintaining healthy weight. That’s why you’ll find carb/protein/fat calorie ratio diagrams in all the recipes on this website and in the cookbooks.

What Ratios Make Sense?

As reported in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, the Institute of Medicine has established ranges for the percentage of calories that should come from carbs, proteins and fats for children, adolescents and adults.

Recommended Macronutrient Proportions by Age
 CarbohydrateProteinFat
Young children (1–3 years)45–65%5–20%30–40%
Older children and adolescents (4–18 years)45–65%10–30%25–35%
Adults (19 years and older)45–65%10–35%20–35%
Source: Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington (DC): The National Academies Press; 2002.

At the South Denver Heart Center where I practice, we take these recommendations a bit further. For optimal heart health, we recommend the following guidelines for adults:

  • Keep carbs at 50% (or more) of calories you eat
  • Keep protein at 15-25% of calories in your diet
  • Keep total fat intake at 20-30% of calories, saturated fat at less than 7% of calories – and low or no trans fats

The foods you choose to eat make a big difference in how well you’ll succeed in balancing carbs, protein and fat. Here’s what we recommend.

Smart Choices for Carbs

Whenever possible, you should choose complex carbs over simple carbs such as white sugar and white flour. Simple carbs contain few nutrients to speak of and are absorbed too quickly by your body, causing blood sugar and insulin levels to spike. Complex carbs such as whole grains, whole fruits and vegetables, are chockfull of nutrients as well as fiber. In the recipes on this website and in our cookbooks, you’ll find lots of complex carbs and, in many cases, sugar substitutes to replace or minimize those dietary demons, white sugar and corn syrup.

Smart Choices for Protein

Fortunately, the ultrahigh-protein, low-carb hype is over, but the weight-loss game is still in play with diets such as the Zone, South Beach and Weight Watchers. Over the past year or so, high-protein approaches have moderated. The recipes I favor strive to boost protein, which, calorie-for-calorie, keeps you feeling full longer and builds lean muscle mass. The key to choosing proteins is to focus on those that are low in, or devoid of, the saturated fats that you find in meat and dairy.

Smart Choices for Fats

Regarding fats, choose them wisely! Use nonfat and fat-free dairy products whenever possible because dairy products are animal products and you will be lowering your saturated fat intake. Fats that are good for you, such as olive oil, nuts and omega-3s found in fatty fishes, can and probably should be eaten more liberally.