Macronutrients: Fats

The last of our big three macronutrients are the fats. Fats provide essential vitamins, make up your hormones and provide energy when carbohydrates run low. They are an essential part of a healthy diet, but like carbohydrates, not all fats are created equal.

There are two main types of fats: Saturated and unsaturated. High consumption of saturated fats is linked to heart disease and other health problems1. Saturated fats are usually found in animal products (red meat, bacon, cheese, butter, etc.) and anything deep fried. They are also used in baking (cakes, cookies, pastry) and confectionary (chocolate). The NHS currently recommends we get less than 10% of our calories from saturated fats. If you eat 200kcal per day, that’s less than 20g of saturated fats.

Unsaturated fats come from nuts, seeds, avocados, plant oils, and oily fish. Unsaturated fats have the opposite effect: Eating more unsaturated fats tends to lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease, increase weight loss, and improve skin condition. In particular, Omega 3 fatty acids (found in oily fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds) can lower inflammation and speed recovery from exercise2.

The current government guidelines are for a relatively low-fat diet – only 22-30% of calories should come from fat. Conversely, people on high fat, low carbohydrate diets often end up consuming 50-75% of their energy from fats. Fats are the most calorific nutrient – 9kcal of energy per gram, compared with just 4 kcal per gram for protein or carbohydrate. Even if you are having healthy fats, you still need to keep an eye on portion sizes. A standard portion size of nuts is only 30g, but has about 180kcal (depending on the nut).

For most athletes, fats are an afterthought – they make sure they are getting enough protein and carbohydrates, and fats are just something that comes with those other foods. However, getting the right amount and types of fat can really take your diet to the next level.



1. Sacks, F. et al. 2017. Dietary fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2017 Jul 18;136(3): e1-e23. doi: 10.1161/CIR.0000000000000510

2. Gammone, M.A. et al. 2018. Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids: Benefits and Endpoints in Sport. Nutrients. 2018 Dec 27;11(1):46.doi: 10.3390/nu11010046.

Macronutrients: Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the body’s main energy source. All carbohydrates come from plants but not all are created equal. There are two categories: Simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Understanding the difference between these two is essential for optimal health, performance, and energy levels.

Simple carbohydrates are mostly sugars (such as white sugar, honey, syrup, candy, etc.) and highly refined carbohydrates from grains (such as white flour, white rice, white bread, sugary cereals, etc.). Simple carbohydrates are digested very quickly, leading to an energy boost within minutes, usually followed by a crash.

In contrast, complex carbohydrates have some protein and fibre. They take longer to digest, which means their energy is released slowly over several hours. They also contain many essential vitamins and minerals. As such, foods like beans, lentils, oats, wholemeal bread, brown rice, wholewheat pasta, and other whole grains (like quinoa) should form a large part of most people’s diets.

There are few guidelines for the minimum required carbohydrate for a sedentary person. However, most athletes need at least 3 to 5g of carbohydrates per kilogram of bodyweight per day1. Endurance or team sport athletes averaging an hour of exercise a day need 5 to 7g/Kg/day, and up to 12g/Kg/day if they are in heavy training (for example, cycling 6 hours a day)2.

Regardless of sport, these requirements depend on the training the athlete has that day. You may only need 3g/Kg/day of carbohydrates on a rest day, but 7g/Kg/day on a day when you do a two hour long run.

As with most things, the key is to get the right types of carbohydrates, at the right time, in the right amounts.  Next week we’ll look at how to use the different types of carbohydrates to improve performance.


1. Thomas, D.T., Erdman, K. and Burke, L. 2016. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2017 Jan;117(1):146. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2016.11.008.

2. Vitale, K. and Getzin, A. 2019. Nutrition and Supplement Update for the Endurance Athlete: Review and Recommendations. Nutrients. 2019 Jun; 11(6): 1289. doi: 10.3390/nu11061289

Macronutrients: Protein

All foods are made up of the three macronutrients: Protein, carbohydrates, and fats. These are the things we need in relatively large quantities to be healthy, hence the term “macro”.  They are also sources of energy, with protein and carbohydrates providing 4 kcal of energy per gram and fats 9 kcal per gram (alcohol provides 7 kcal of energy but as it is not a necessity, is not a macronutrient).

For all the hype about fats and carbohydrates, the first thing to get right in any eating plan is the amount of protein in your diet. Protein is necessary to grow and repair muscles, and the more muscles you have, the more calories you burn at rest. Protein is also the most satiating of the macronutrients – it makes you feel full, which makes it easier to eat less and reduces cravings for sweet treats. This is why eating more protein can help with weight loss.

The current guidelines are 0.6g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day for a sedentary person. However, endurance athletes need 1.2 to 1.4g/Kg/day to recover properly, and those looking to gain muscle mass need 1.5 to 2.0g/Kg/day1. Many athletes in power sports actually eat far more than this, but research has shown that the ideal amount of protein for maximising strength gains is 1.6g/Kg/day. There is some evidence that protein intakes of 2.3 to 3.0 g/Kg/day may help maintain muscle mass when seriously cutting calories1.

Eating too much protein is not usually harmful to health, as most people just pee out the extra. But it is expensive and can very hard to keep up. If you weigh 100Kg and are looking to gain muscle mass and lose body fat, you’ll be looking at more than 200g of protein per day. That’s over 700g of cooked chicken breast! Of course, we get protein from lots of different foods, including many plant foods. But deciding you need more than that is going to make your life difficult, even with supplements (protein shakes, protein bars, etc.).

Most athletes can meet their protein needs by having protein dense foods at every meal and snack. This could be eggs at breakfast, a tuna or chicken sandwich for lunch, Greek yoghurt with nuts and berries as a snack, and tofu stir fry for dinner. That being said, the convenience of protein shakes can make them the best choice after a hard workout. Optimal nutrition is all about what works for you.


1. Ralf, J. et al. 2017. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and Exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr.2017; 14: 20. doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8

Coconut: The pros and cons

I’ve received several reactions to my recent post about coconut, some positive and some negative. As it is such a popular topic, I’ve decided discuss the pros and cons of coconut products in more detail.

There are several different coconut products on the market, each with different health advantages and disadvantages. Coconut water is the fluid that naturally occurs in the centre of the coconut, usually a green, unripe one. You then have fresh coconut flesh and dried coconut flesh (desiccated coconut). Coconut milk and coconut oil are made by soaking grated coconut flesh in hot water.  The coconut “cream” rises to the top and is skimmed off to make coconut oil. The remaining liquid is filtered to make “light” coconut milk. Standard tinned coconut milk mixes the two back together, which is why you sometimes get separation in the tin.

So we’ll start by comparing the basic nutrition for 100g of each:

Table 1: Nutritional information for 100g of popular coconut products.

Product Calories (kcal) Protein (g) Carbohydrates (g) Sugars (g) Fibre (g) Fat (g) Saturated Fat (g)
Coconut water 27 0.4 4.7 4.7 2.2 0.3 0.2
Tinned coconut milk 177 1.0 2.6 1.1 0.5 18 15.7
Coconut flesh, fresh 376 3.8 3.5 3.5 12.2 36 31.4
Desiccated coconut 648 6.6 6.1 6.1 21.1 62 53
Coconut oil 899 0.01 0 0 0 100 87

As you can see from the table above, coconut flesh contains quite a bit of fibre and is low in sugars, especially for a fruit. However, it is high in fats, especially saturated fats. There is convincing evidence that eating a lot of saturated fats raises LDL cholesterol (the bad stuff) and increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. This is why the UK government recommends an adult woman get less than 20g of saturated fats per day.

The issue is saturated fats are not one thing but a group of different chemicals that can have different effects on the body. For example, the type of saturated fats found in meat and dairy are mostly myristic and palmitic acids. While coconut is high in saturated fats, they are mostly lauric acid, a different type. Recent research has shown that while lauric acid raises LDL cholesterol, it also raises HDL cholesterol (the good stuff) by the same or possibly an even greater amount. This means the negative effect is cancelled out or even replaced by a slightly positive effect.

And this is one of the reasons it has become so popular. Here we have a fat that is solid at room temperature like butter, but does not have the “bad” saturated fatty acids. Plus it is vegetarian and vegan friendly. So many food companies, especially those with a healthy lifestyle image, have started replacing the butter or margarine in their products with coconut oil.

The second reason coconut products are so popular is that some of them are high in various minerals, as shown in the table below. In particular, anything with coconut flesh is higher in iron than many plant based foods. Coconut is also very high in potassium, an important electrolyte. As all cells and therefore all foods contain some potassium, it is hard to become deficient. But like all electrolytes, potassium can be lost in sweat and through illness (i.e. vomiting and diarrhoea). This is why coconut water has become popular as a natural sports drink and is used as a rehydration solution for sick children in many developing countries. However, if someone is seriously dehydrated, coconut water does not contain enough salt (sodium and chloride) to be an effective rehydration solution.

Unfortunately, coconut does not contain much calcium compared to other foods. If you are a vegan looking to get your 300mg a day of calcium, you are better off with a calcium fortified glass of soy milk (250mg) or a cup of baked beans (125mg).

Table 2: Mineral content of 100g of popular coconut products.

 Product Sodium (mg) Chloride (mg) Potassium (mg) Calcium (mg) Magnesium (mg) Iron (mg)
Coconut water 110 180 280 29 30 0.1
Tinned coconut milk 10.5 55 185 8 21 1.1
Coconut flesh, fresh 17 110 370 13 41 2.1
Desiccated coconut 28 200 660 23 90 3.6
Coconut oil 0 0 0 0 0 0

As a nutritionist, the issue I have is that whether the fats in coconut are “good” or “bad” there are still a lot of them and they are still high in calories. Simply put, while there are some differences in the way certain fats and carbohydrates are used by the body, eating too many calories will cause you to store fat. So while I do enjoy coconut products on occasion, I am not a fan of them being added to every kind of “health” food.

The Score for 4 March:

Calories: Protein: Carbs: Sugars: Fat: Sat Fat: Fibre:  
2393 104.62g 297.17g 137.96g 85.40g 30.47g 25.67g
18% 50% 32%
Calories burned through exercise: 0

What I ate:

Time Item Amount Calories Protein Carbs Sugars Fibre Fat Sat Fat Alcohol
09:00 Centrum Multivitamin,  Vitamin E 400IU, Vitamin D 25 µg
Tap water 250mL 0 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
Basted eggs, two large 111g 145 13.99 0.00 0.00 0.00 9.99 2.78 0.00
Genius brown bread, two slices toasted 63g 158 1.58 28.35 1.51 6.30 4.16 0.32 0.00
with butter 5g 37 0.03 0.06 0.03 0.00 4.11 2.61 0.00
and St Dalfour Raspberry fruit spread 23g 54 0.12 12.88 12.88 0.46 0.18 0.00 0.00
Black Tea 450mL 0 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
12:30 Homemade Chicken and roasted butternut squash risotto 350g 290 19.93 42.37 5.39 3.22 4.02 0.55 0.00
Sliced raw tomato 98g 20 0.70 3.10 3.10 1.00 0.30 0.10 0.00
Kiwi, two medium 97g 53 1.10 10.60 10.30 1.90 0.50 0.00 0.00
13:45 Raspberry sponge cake with butter cream filling about 100g 389 3.30 57.40 30.00 0.80 16.10 8.00 0.00
Chai tea latte, from teabag about 250mL 145 9.00 17.00 17.00 0.00 4.50 2.75 0.00
17:00 Yeo Valley natural yoghurt 150g 123 7.65 8.40 8.40 0.00 6.75 4.35 0.00
Natures Path Mesa Sunrise cereal 50g 195 5.00 40.00 6.50 5.00 1.65 0.25 0.00
Sliced nectarine 106g 47 1.47 9.45 9.45 1.26 0.11 0.00 0.00
Sunflower seeds 5g 30 1.04 0.57 0.13 0.43 2.58 0.23 0.00
Pumpkin seeds 5g 30 1.51 0.54 0.07 0.30 2.46 0.44 0.00
Fresh ginger tea with a splash of lemon juice and 1 tsp honey 250mL 25 0.00 6.25 6.25 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
20:00 Spice tailor tikka masala curry sauce with chicken breasts and red peppers 281g 452 33.44 19.23 15.62 3.48 26.17 7.38 0.00
Brown basmati rice 110g 126 3.17 26.08 0.43 1.22 1.04 0.25 0.00
Yoomoo yoghurt ice lolly, tropical fruit 1 lolly 74 1.60 14.90 10.90 0.30 0.80 0.50 0.00

Finding balance

Daily averages for the week:

Calories: Protein: Carbs: Fat: Alcohol: Fibre
2122 21% 47% 28% 3% 31g
1.71g/Kg 3.81g/Kg
Total exercise calories this week: 2105

I seem to have reached a nice balance with my diet. My total daily average calorie count remains above 2000 kcal but my macronutrient amounts and proportions are right where I want them to be. I am also getting enough fibre and had only one day last week where I missed getting my five a day of fruit and vegetables. As well, I had five workouts this week, as opposed the last week’s four, which brought my total exercise calories up above 2000 kcal. This means my overall calorie balance for the week was -1250 kcal, which should help me lose a little of the fat around my middle.

The one area where I’m not seeing much improvement is in getting my total sugars down. I had said I would try to keep my total sugars below 100g per day this week, but I was over that limit four of the last seven days. I did have some chocolates on Wednesday and a Creme egg on Saturday, so that put the sugars up those days. The other culprit is the luxurious hot chocolate I had on Tuesday, made with milk, raw cacao, brown sugar and amaretto. That drink alone contains over 46g of sugar! Clearly chocolatey things are my weakness!

So this week’s goal is to stick to my fine dark chocolate when that craving strikes and stay away from cheap milk chocolates. Hopefully I’ll have more success at keeping the sugars down this week.

The Score for 19 February:

Calories: Protein: Carbs: Sugars: Fat: Sat Fat: Fibre: Alcohol:
2146 109.87g 232.56g 98.94g 68.88g 19.22g 28.55g 16.00g
21% 44% 29% 5%
Calories burned through exercise: 388

What I ate:

Time Item Amount Calories Protein Carbs Sugars Fibre Fat Sat Fat Alcohol
08:45 Centrum Multivitamin,  Vitamin E 400IU, Vitamin D 25 µg
Tap water 500mL 0 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
Soft boiled eggs, 2 large 125g 163 15.75 0.00 0.00 0.00 11.25 3.13 0.00
Museli made with free from pure oats, 40g 137 5.12 24.24 0.44 3.44 2.16 0.36 0.00
Activia bigpot natural yoghurt, 175g 112 8.75 11.55 11.55 0.00 3.33 2.28 0.00
Tesco mixed frozen fruits, 100g 40 0.90 7.90 7.90 2.00 0.20 0.00 0.00
Ground flaxseeds, 10g 45 2.21 0.30 0.18 2.37 4.00 0.45 0.00
Sunflower seeds, 5g 30 1.04 0.57 0.13 0.43 2.58 0.23 0.00
and Pumpkin seeds 5g 30 1.51 0.54 0.07 0.30 2.46 0.44 0.00
10:00 Black Tea 350mL 0 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
12:30 Trek Peanut Power energy bar 55g 203 10.20 25.70 21.10 3.00 6.00 1.00 0.00
Golden delicious apple 98g 53 0.40 11.80 11.80 1.80 0.10 0.00 0.00
13:00 Javelin training
14:30 MaxiNutrition Lean protein powder, chocolate 40g 143 20.00 13.00 12.00 0.00 0.90 0.30 0.00
in water 275mL 0 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
15:00 Tesco free from fusilli pasta 70g 248 4.90 54.88 0.35 1.40 0.70 0.14 0.00
Topped with homemade tomato sauce with onions, mushrooms, green pepper and borlotti beans 325g 236 10.36 27.23 14.24 9.18 7.36 1.05 0.00
Tesco Parmigiano Reggiano 5g 20 1.62 0.00 0.00 0.00 1.49 0.98 0.00
Red wine, 1 small glasses 150mL 113 0.30 0.30 0.30 0.00 0.00 0.00 16.00
Plums, 2 medium 110g 46 0.66 9.68 9.68 1.76 0.11 0.00 0.00
19:15 Grilled mackerel fillet, skin removed 85g 220 18.02 0.51 0.51 0.00 16.24 3.66 0.00
Brown basmati rice 148g 170 4.27 35.08 0.58 1.64 1.40 0.33 0.00
Kikkoman Tamari gluten free soy sauce 7g 4 0.70 0.14 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0
Spinach 30g 8 0.84 0.48 0.45 0.63 0.24 0.03 0.00
Small, sweet vine ripened tomatoes 60g 12 0.42 1.86 1.86 0.60 0.18 0.06 0
Lindt Excellence 70% Cocoa chocolate bar, 2 squares 20g 113 1.90 6.80 5.80 0.00 8.20 4.80 0