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Carbohydrates Protein or Fat



What are the macro-nutrient guidelines that exist in New Zealand and how do they apply to the general population – and you!

Carbohydrates Protein or Fat. How Much of Each? When and Why?

Have you ever thought that nutritional information (or misinformation!) circulating in the public domain is often confusing and contradictory?

For example:

  • Fruit and vegetables are good but carbohydrates are the enemy…
  • Some fats are good but others aren’t…
  • High protein diets are good for losing weight…
  • Just take a protein supplement to add some bulk to your frame…

Well… if it has confused you at any time then consider what it does to the general public!

The Ministry of Health (MoH) highlights poor diet as the leading cause of death in New Zealand. 

In 1997 poor diet accounted for approximately 8500 deaths.  In comparison, tobacco consumption accounted for around 5000 deaths.  Considering this, is our time as fitness professionals best spent debating whether ‘carbs’ can be eaten after 3pm or actually addressing the facts relating to nutrition so we can give clear, effective guidance to our clients?

If you agree with the latter then read on and we’ll go over the big bad basics of macro-nutrients…

Macro-Nutrients: The Big Bad Basics for Energy, Health and Well-being

Macro-nutrients are nutrients the body needs in relatively large quantities.  They are:

  • Carbohydrates (carbs)
  • Proteins
  • Fats
  • Fibre
  • Fluids

Macro-nutrients are not ‘foods’ in their own right.  Rather, they are nutrients that are found in the various food groups.  So advising someone to cut out the carbs or eat more protein isn’t particularly specific or useful advice.

The food groups that supply the macro-nutrients are:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Breads and cereals
  • Milk and milk products
  • Lean meats (including poultry and seafood) and eggs
  • Nuts, seeds and legumes

Oh wait… and who could forget – alcohol!


The body’s major source of energy comes from carbohydrates.  The body breaks down carbohydrates to form glucose, otherwise known as ‘blood sugar’.

Foods rich in carbohydrates are:

  • Fruits and vegetables (which the MoH advise us to have 5+ serves of everyday for good health (3+ serves of vegetables, 2+ of fruit)
  • Breads and cereals (which we should have 6+ serves of per day)
  • Legumes (which we should have at least 1 serve of per day)

The last survey conducted by the MoH showed that:

Only 43% of children consumed the recommended serves of fruit and only 57% the recommended consumption of vegetables

For adults the figures were 55% and 69% respectively.

Foods that are also classified as carbohydrate include:

  • Confectionary (lollies)
  • Aerated ‘soda’ drinks (coke)

Both of which are high in excess sugar.

In 2003/4 a survey of the retail trades showed that weekly household food expenditure on confectionary exceeded the expenditure on fresh fruit.  The MoH recommends that 50-55% of our daily energy intake should come from carbs, however at the last survey they accounted for only 46% of the average person’s diet.

So rather than cutting out carbs, a better message would be to increase the intake of fresh fruit, vegetables and wholegrain breads and cereals, and reduce the intake of confectionary and aerated soda drinks.


Fibre is a nutrient that does not actually provide us with energy.  Its role (amongst other things) is to keep the digestive system healthy and protect us from:

  • Constipation
  • Bowel cancer
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Haemorrhoids

Fibre passes directly through us without being digested.  It helps make us feel full without actually providing us with any calories (energy).  Foods high in fibre are the same foods that supply us with carbohydrates:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Breads
  • Cereals

A problem with much of today’s food is that it is heavily processed –  i.e. a lot happens to it in the factory before we consume it.

Fibre typically makes up the outer layers of plant foods and gives them their shape and structure.  Food processing removes much of a foods fibre content.

You can see this when you look at a loaf of white bread in comparison to wholegrain bread.  You cant see the seeds and grains in white bread because most of the fibre has been removed during processing and much of the nutritional value has gone.

For this reason the MoH advise people to choose wholegrain breads and cereals.

But the white loafs are cheaper… I hear you say…

Maybe so…

But the wholegrain options provide sustained energy meaning you’ll actually eat less, resulting in lower calorie intake and less time spent uncomfortably on the toilet.

It’s your choice really –

Healthy bowels and healthy body… or cheap bread, poor performance, and eventually expensive illness.


Fat is a very concentrated source of energy.

1 gram of fat provides 9 calories of energy.

In comparison, 1 gram of carbohydrate or protein provides only 4 calories.

Because of this it is easy to over-consume calories when eating high fat foods.  The consequences of a high fat diet include:

  • Weight gain
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)

Fat is a source of energy for the body.  It provides insulation and protection for our vital organs and is needed for the absorption of the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K (remember DEKA).

Fats are classified as either saturated or unsaturated.

Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature and are known as the ‘bad fats’ because of their tendency to attach to artery walls and eventually cause blockages that can result in cardiovascular disease.  Most of our saturated fat comes from animal products, meat and diary foods.

Unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature and come from plant foods and some seafood.  These fats are known as the ‘good fats’ as they help break down the build up of saturated fats.

MoH recommends that between 30-33% of our daily energy intake come from fat and saturated fat should be no more than 12% of the daily intake.

The last surveys from the MoH showed that 35% of daily energy intake came from fat.  Especially saturated fat, contributing 15% of total daily energy intake.

We are eating more and more takeaway food as a nation than ever before, which is typically high in saturated fat.  Between 2000 and 2005 the sales revenue from takeaway food outlets increased by 67%, during this same period the percentage of household food expenditure on meals away from home increased from 10.9% to 13.5%.


Protein is an essential nutrient for the growth and repair of body tissue.  We get protein from a variety of food groups including:

  • Animal foods
  • Meat
  • Seafood
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products

We also get protein from some plant foods, cereals, nuts and legumes.

MoH recommends that protein provides 11-15% of our daily energy intake.  The last survey showed that our typical protein intake slightly exceeds 11-15%.

High protein diets are popular these days, however as many of our protein sources are also sources of fat then a high protein diet can easily become a high fat diet, with associated risks.

There is no evidence to suggest that eating more protein makes you grow more, as the body tends to use what it needs and burn the rest as fuel or store it as body fat.


Approximately 70% of our body weight is water.

The main purpose of drinking water is to maintain this level and stay ‘adequately hydrated’.  To do this we need to consume about 6-8 large glasses of water everyday.  There is no better source of water than tap water.  Also, it’s free and it has no calories!

Other sources of fluid are not so good, most aerated ‘soda’ drinks are extremely high in sugar, and alcohol which is also high in calories, has many negative health consequences.   Alcohol accounts for between 3-5% of the average daily energy intake.

The Misinformation Minefield

So now that you know some facts about macro-nutrients let’s consider this;

  • Chocolate, confectionary and soft drink companies spent over $57 million on advertising in NZ in 2005.  This was over 9 times the amount spent on advertising fruit and vegetables ($6 million).
  • Total advertising expenditure on all fast food chains, restaurants and cafes in NZ exceeded $67 million in 2005, of which McDonalds accounted for $21million.
  • Between 1997 and 2003 the prevalence of obesity in adults doubled from 9% to 20% in males and 11% to 22% in females.

The fast food, confectionary and soda drink giants certainly have no problem getting their message across.  I hope you can appreciate how important it is to ensure the healthy message is not lost in the misinformation minefield.

Nutrition Tips for Personal Training Clients

Ultimately some simple messages for clients stand out. These are:

  • Increase intake of fresh fruit and vegetables to meet recommendations and choose unprocessed wholegrain sources of breads and cereals
  • Reduce fat intake by choosing low fat sources of meat and diary products and low fat cooking methods such as grilling rather than frying
  • Reduce or eliminate unnecessary additions of fat to our diet such as butter, margarine and mayonnaise
  • Save money by reducing or eliminating unnecessary sources of poor nutrition such as confectionary, chocolate, soda drinks and alcohol
  • Drink a glass or two of water with every meal to provide a sense of fullness without extra calories

For more information on macronutrients and their intakes in NZ follow the hyperlink to these articles;


Food and Nutrition Monitoring Report 2006

MoH conducts national nutrition surveys approximately every 10 years.


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