What is a protein? What is a carbohydrate? What are their individual roles that they play in the human body? Both of these macronutrients are extremely important for the body to properly function. Do you view one of these as “good” and one of these as “bad”? Let’s face it, carbs have been villainized and attacked by the diet culture. Below, we are going to breakdown each macronutrient and explain why they should both be consumed as well as the nutritional value they both hold.
Protein is a substance that your body uses to build and maintain healthy bones, muscles, and skin. It is located in every single cell in our body (1). If protein is not consumed on a regular basis, our bodies will begin to lose muscle mass, become extremely weak, and even decrease our bodies ability to fight diseases and infections (2). Good sources of protein can be found in meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and legumes. Healthy adults should consume 10-35% of their daily calories from protein (3).
Carbohydrates are the most important source of energy for your body. Your brain, heart, and kidneys all depend on carbs for energy in order to properly function. Carbohydrates are stored as glucose. This glucose is used as energy for cells, tissues, and organs. Any extra glucose is stored in your liver and muscles for when it is needed (4). If you do not feed your body enough carbs then it will begin to feed on the ones stored in your muscles as well as attempt to breakdown the protein you eat until that protein starts to look and act like carbs. This will not only result in muscle loss, but will also cause strain on the kidneys due to the body working to dispose of unused protein by-products (2). Some good sources of carbohydrates are
minimally processed products such as oatmeal, brown rice, and whole-grain bread. A healthy adult should be consuming 45-65% of their daily calories from carbohydrates (3).
Carbohydrates vs. Protein: Comparing the two
When comparing protein to carbohydrates, a lot of people think that carbs are much worse for you. Carbs have a reputation as being the “bad food” that makes people gain weight. Popular diets, such as the ketogenic diet, even encourage eliminating carbs from your diet altogether in order to promote weight loss. What most people do not realize is that carbs and protein have the same kcals per gram. BOTH CARBS AND PROTEIN CONTAIN 4 CALORIES PER GRAM. Your body cannot tell the difference between calories consumed as carbs and calories consumed as protein. The major difference is that carbohydrates tend to retain water. Lets break
this down a little further. As previously mentioned, carbs are converted and stored as glucose to fuel your basic metabolic functions. Some of that glucose is converted to glycogen, which can be stored in your muscles and liver to be used immediately when needed. Glycogen is stored by binding to water molecules. 1 gram of glycogen binds to about 3-4 grams of water. With this being said, your body stores an average of 1 pound of glycogen at any given time. Keep in mind; your body does have the ability to store more. However, with 1 pound of glycogen stored at any given time
there is at least 3 pounds of water stored as well (5). This carbohydrate/glucose binding to water molecules situation is a little different than normal water retention. When you retain water, water is held in between cells and makes you have that bloated feeling. The water in glycogen is part of its molecular structure, however, water does still tend to add weight. So, when you consume more carbs, you are refilling your glycogen store, and that essentially increases your weight (6). This is why most fad diets consist of restricting carbohydrate intake because people
assume that they are losing fat, when in reality they are just losing water weight. Restricting carbs is not smart because glycogen is needed for optimal performance and energy, especially if you are a very active individual or an athlete. If you consume carbs on a regular basis and do not restrict yourself from them, your glycogen stores stay full and become a normal part of your total body weight.
In conclusion, your body needs both, carbs and protein, in order to properly function. Carbohydrates fuel your body with the energy it needs to function each day. Protein helps to build and restore muscles, bones, and skin. Restricting either of these macronutrients is not only an unsustainable way to live, but it is also not going to result in this miraculous weight loss, other than the few pounds lost from water (NOT fat mass) which will inevitably return. Weight gain is not caused from consuming one specific macronutrient. Weight gain is caused by the overconsumption of any macronutrient. If you consume the adequate amount of each food and try to consume the healthier versions of that food group, you will be providing your body with the proper nutrition it needs to function, while also
avoiding weight gain.
Choose healthy carbohydrates, such as whole grain breads, brown rice, and fruits and vegetables. About half of your carbohydrate sources throughout the day should be coming from whole grain sources. Choose carbs that are high in fiber. Fiber is known to keep you full longer as well as help with gut motility. Vegetables are a great high fiber carbohydrate choice. Choose proteins derived from animals such as meats, fish, eggs, and cheese. Animal derived proteins are considered complete sources of protein because they contain all of the essential amino acids that your body needs to function properly.
- Dietary Proteins. (2019, February 13). Retrieved from
- Ask an Expert: Protein vs. carbohydrates. (2003, September). Retrieved from https://oregon.providence.org/forms-and-information/a/ask-an-expert-protein-vs-carbohydrates/).
- Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. (2018, October 08). Retrieved from http://www.nationalacademies.org/hmd/Reports/2002/Dietary-Reference-Intakes-for-Energy-Carbohydrate-Fiber-Fat-Fatty-Acids-Cholesterol-Protein-and-Amino-Acids.aspx
- Carbohydrates. (2019, February 26). Retrieved from
- Fernández-Elías, V. E., Ortega, J. F., Nelson, R. K., & Mora-Rodriguez, R. (2015, September). Relationship between muscle water and glycogen recovery after prolonged exercise in the heat in humans. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25911631).
- Schwartz, A. S. (n.d.). Why do I seem to gain weight when I start to train for an endurance race like a half marathon? Retrieved from