Health and Wellness for the Thin Blue Line

Understanding Macronutrients

By Lindsay Chetelat, RD, CDN​ for Working Dog Magazine​

In a profession founded upon dedicating long hours to protect and serve others, it can be difficult for members of the law enforcement community to make themselv​​es a priority. It is all too often that the health and wellness of police officers fall to the wayside as they spend day in and day out working tirelessly to defend their communities against evil.

Optimal nutrition and physical fitness are unique in the law enforcement world. Their lives depend on being fit, yet there are many obstacles to achieve the level of fitness necessary for the job. This three-part nutrition and fitness series will be geared towards providing the information to overcome these obstacles and build the foundation for lifelong health and wellness. The first installment in this issue will detail the ins and outs of macronutrients, while the second and third installments will encompass hydration and fueling for exercise, respectively.

Macronutrients – What you need to know: 

Macronutrients are the components in the diet that provide energy, or calories.
There are three macronutrients: carbohydrate, protein, and fat. Carbohydrate and protein provide four calories/gram and fat provides 9 calories/gram.
Each of these macronutrients confer a unique benefit to the proper functioning of the human body.
There are foods and beverages in each of these macronutrient categories that you should limit or avoid.


Carbohydrates are chains of simple sugar building blocks that the body prefers to burn for energy. Examples of “short” chain carbohydrates include lactose, which is found in milk, and sucrose, which is table sugar.  “Long” chain carbohydrates can be found in starches, such as bread, pasta, and rice.  Regardless of the chain length, all carbohydrates are broken down into the basic sugar building blocks to be used as fuel for your brain and muscles.

Fiber is an indigestible form of carbohydrate that is found in plant based foods. It has beneficial implications in heart and gastrointestinal health. Fiber helps you feel fuller longer, and therefore proves to be an essential tool in weight loss.

Carbohydrate is stored in the body as glycogen in the liver and muscle. As needed, the body breaks down glycogen and releases a simple sugar building block called glucose. Glycogen stored in the muscles is readily available for use during exercise, while glycogen in the liver is used to maintain normal glucose levels in the blood and provide fuel for the brain.

Based on Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, the average 150-lb male has 1800 calories of carbohydrate stored in the body.  Of these 1800 calories, 1400 calories are stored in the muscle to be used during exercise, 320 calories are stored in the liver to be released into the bloodstream, and 80 calories exist in the plasma and bodily fluids (1).  This same man also has 60,000-100,000 calories of stored fat. Technically, this amount of calories would be sufficient to run hundreds of miles, but muscles need carbohydrate to function properly and fat cannot be used as the sole fuel source (1). 

The American College of Sports Medicine cites carbohydrate needs for physically active adults as 3-5g/kg of body weight per day for low intensity or skill-based activities, 5-7g/kg for moderate exercise (~1 hour/day), 6-10g/kg for endurance exercise (1-3 hours/day), and 8-12g/kg for extreme exercise (>4-5 hours/day) (2). 

If you do not eat enough carbohydrate, this will translate to inadequate glycogen stores and, therefore, suboptimal mental and physical health.  Making sure the patrol car and the police canine are well fueled are essential job functions that ensure efficient and effective job performance. Maintaining a consistent intake of nutrient dense carbohydrates to promote adequate glycogen storage is of equal importance to the law enforcement officer.

Choosing the right carbohydrate sources also yields the benefit of receiving a wide variety of vitamins and minerals.  Vitamins and minerals, or micronutrients, play a multitude of roles including promoting optimal brain health and energy metabolism, and even reducing cancer risk in some cases.

The best sources of carbohydrate include whole grains, beans and legumes, starchy and non-starchy vegetables, and fruits. Dairy products are unique in that they are a good source of both carbohydrate and protein (see the protein section for more information). Carbohydrates dense in added sugar should be limited or avoided. These foods include sweets and desserts, soda, fruit juice cocktail, and fruit canned in syrup.


Protein is a building block for repair, growth, proper immune function, and many other vital bodily functions. The simple unit of protein is an amino acid.  Amino acids unite in different combinations to form protein chains of varying lengths. Our bodies can produce some amino acids, but we must obtain other amino acids from the food we eat (these are called essential amino acids).

Adequate protein intake is crucial for muscle growth and repair after enduring strenuous exercise. Equally as important is the role of protein in supporting basic bodily functions such as the immune system – your body’s defense mechanism against germs.  Protein rich foods also contain beneficial vitamins and minerals.  The body prefers to use protein for the functions described above.  If you do not consume adequate carbohydrate, your body will break down protein to produce glucose for energy, therefore distracting protein from its primary functions. Stay tuned for the third installment in this series on nutrient timing for recovery!

The average, inactive adult requires 0.8 g/kg of body weight per day, while active adults require 1.2-2.0 g/kg (2). The ultimate goal is to incorporate a variety of nutrient dense, lean protein sources throughout the day.  Excessive protein intake on a gram per kilogram of body weight basis or consumption of more than 20-25 grams of protein at one time does not equate to more gains (1). There is no storage capacity for protein in the body. The excess protein will be burned for energy or converted to triglycerides, a form of fat. Excessive protein intake also puts a person at risk for dehydration as the body seeks to eliminate urea, a waste product of protein breakdown.

Protein supplements have surged in popularity in the health and fitness world, but there is no evidence to indicate that providing these protein supplements in an already nutrient sufficient diet provides any benefit (1). Protein supplements can be used to achieve adequate protein intake in a person unable to meet their protein needs solely through food. 

Lean proteins are the best food sources to choose. While animal sources of protein are denser in protein and contain a complete amino acid profile, it is possible to meet protein needs through plant-based foods. These plant-based proteins must be consumed in larger quantities to match their animal-based counterparts.

People who completely avoid animal products (i.e. vegans) must compensate for the incomplete amino acid profile in plant-based proteins. Combining grains with beans or legumes and legumes with seeds will help ensure that a vegan obtains a complete amino acid profile (1). Adding soy products to all meals will also improve protein intake in this population (1).

High fat and highly processed proteins should be limited or avoided. These foods include meats with significant marbling, fried fish, fried chicken, highly processed cheeses (i.e. American cheese, Colby jack cheese), and highly processed deli meats (i.e. salami, bologna).


Fat is an energy packed nutrient that insulates the body and cushions our organs. Fat is important for the body to work properly in that it forms a protective layer around cell membranes and even serves as a carrier for vitamins A, D, E, and K. Choosing healthy fats (unsaturated fatty acids, including omega-3 fatty acids) has been shown to promote heart health. In contrast, high intakes of saturated fat and trans fat contribute to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Recent studies have even shown that saturated fat contributes to high cholesterol. For the most part, saturated fats are solid at room temperature and unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature.

Fat sources to limit or avoid include deep fried foods, butter, hydrogenated shortenings, lard, coconut oil, palm oil, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, full fat dairy and cheese products, and fatty red meats.

Fat intake at 20-35% of total caloric intake is regarded as healthy. Saturated fat should be limited to less than 7% of total calories and trans fats should be avoided at all costs. Food sources of fat should be primarily mono- and polyunsaturated fats.

The Registered Dietitian’s Macronutrients Tips for Success

A nutrient dense whole grain/starch should be consumed at every meal. For those involved in strength training and endurance exercise, half of your plate should be a nutrient dense whole grain or starch on tough workout or competition days.

Aim to include one green, red, yellow/orange, blue/purple, and white fruit and/or vegetable daily. Have fruits twice per day and vegetables at least three times per day.
Choose a lean protein at all meals and snacks. Protein intake should be evenly distributed throughout the day.
Include at least one healthy fat source at every meal.
Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables have the same nutritional quality. If opting for canned vegetables, choose low-sodium and run water through them before cooking.  When selecting canned fruits, choose fruit canned in water, not syrup.

For someone who does not typically eat fruits, two cups per day of 100% fruit juice is an acceptable method to obtain adequate fruit intake.

Compare food and beverage products using the nutrition facts labels.

(1) Clark, N. Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook Fifth Edition. Champagne, IL: Human Kinetics; 2013.

(2) Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2016;48(3):543-568.   Accessed November 15, 2016.

About the Author

Lindsay Chetelat, RD, CDN is an NYC-based registered dietitian who focuses on empowering individuals to take charge of their bodies through utilization of evidence based nutrition guidelines and theory based physical training techniques. Her approach is rooted in helping others gain an appreciation for their bodies and creating a mindset that transformation is about the progress one is willing to make in their journey, not quick fixes.

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