Macronutrient Myths Debunked! (Or: Summer of Cycling Science to the Rescue)

It’s getting increasingly difficult to wade through all the ridiculous nutritional claims and fads plastered across the news, social media posts, and progressively sophisticated advertising. Is sugar always a bad carb? Protein needs to be in everything now? With all the misinformation out there, how are you supposed to know what the best things are to put on your plate when your fueling up for your next ride—or even your day at work?

Macronutrients—fat, carbohydrates, and protein—are the nutrients that the body needs daily in relatively large amounts. Making sure your body gets adequate amounts of each will not only help you ride better, but you’ll feel better off the bike and recover sooner too. Below, we’ve compiled a list of common myths about each of the macros. Hopefully, these tasty morsels of actual nutritional science will debunk some of the worst macronutrient rumors out there and shed some light on the best way to fuel your body.


 Fat Myths Debunked!

Myth: We don’t need fats in our diets

Fact: Yes, in fact we do! Fat is a substantial source of energy (9 calories per gram), and is important for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) and hormone production. And, it helps to keep you warm! There are many types of fats. For general health, saturated fats (mainly from animal sources such as red meat and full-fat dairy products) and trans- fats (often found in packaged cookies, chips, pastries, and other snack-foods) are best consumed in moderation.

Myth: Low-fat diets are the most effective fat-burning diets

Fact: Low-fat diets are often high in carbohydrates, including refined, processed, or high-sugar options. Fat is not the enemy! Choose heart-healthy fats such as mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids, found in such foods as nuts, seeds, olive and nut oils, whole grains, legumes, and nut-butters. These foods help with satiety (the feeling of fullness) and do not contribute to unhealthy lipid levels. Omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods such as fatty fish, walnuts, soy nuts, and green pumpkin seeds) actually aid in reducing inflammation.

Myth: Cardiovascular exercise is a better fat-burning workout than resistance training

Fact: Cardiovascular and resistance-training exercises are equally important when you’re trying to shed body fat. While continuous cardiovascular exercise often burns more calories than weightlifting, resistance training helps build muscle. A study published in 2012 in BMC Public Health found that study subjects experienced the most significant weight and fat losses when they participated in both cardiovascular and resistance-training exercises, rather than doing just one or the other.

Myth: Very Low Calorie Diets (LCD) are the best fat-burning strategy

Fact: While intermittent fasting or following very low-calorie diets might help you shed fat initially, you’ll likely have better luck focusing on a diet you can stick with long term. A review published in 2006 in the journal Obesity found that lower-calorie diets containing 1,000 to 1,500 calories per day are just as effective as very low-calorie diets, providing fewer than 800 calories daily, for long-term weight-loss success. Furthermore, fasting and using very low-calorie diets are only safe when you’re supervised by a qualified healthcare provider. Harvard Health Publications recommend women don’t fall below 1,200 calories and men get at least 1,500 calories daily unless they are medically supervised.

Myth: Avoid full-fat dairy products to maximize fat-loss

Fact: While choosing low-fat dairy foods may help lower your overall calorie intake, you don’t necessarily have to choose skim milk to shed fat. A study published in 2013 in the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care found that men who consumed low-fat dairy diets, including low-fat milk and no butter, had higher risks for developing abdominal obesity than men who consumed high-fat dairy diets containing butter, high-fat milk and whipping cream. A review published in 2013 in the European Journal of Nutrition also found that high-fat dairy intakes were associated with lower body fats, high-fat dairy foods do not appear to contribute to obesity. The key here is to eat a well-balanced and calorie-balanced diet that fits your activity and lifestyle.


Carbohydrate Myths Debunked!

Myth: Carbohydrates are fattening

Fact: Losing body fat requires a fairly high volume of training. This is only sustainable if you have the energy to do it! Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of quick fuel that will enable you to perform a high volume of training and allow you to maximize your energy expenditure.

  • The average recreational cyclist riding an hour or so with moderate calorie needs should target about 2-3 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight
  • The serious racing cyclist with high calorie needs due to double workouts and exhausting high intensity rides should target about 4-5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight.
  • Carbs should be the fundamental part of all your meals! Try having cereal (low-sugar) for breakfast, sandwiches made with hearty breads for lunch, bananas and bagels for snacks, and pasta for dinner.
  • Carbs fuel your muscles, allowing you to perform with greater intensity, cover more distance, and delay fatigue.

Myth: All white foods are unhealthful

Fact: Many people claim to avoid “white foods” due to health reasons. While white flour and white rice are refined and missing the fiber and nutrients found in their whole-grain counterparts, many naturally white-colored foods are actually high in nutrients! Examples include: mushrooms, cauliflower, onions, garlic, and leeks, and the much-maligned white potato, which is a great source of potassium (more than bananas!), vitamin C, and some fiber if eaten with the skin.

Myth: Fruit should be avoided due to high sugar content

Fact: Many people try to limit or avoid eating “sugary” produce such as bananas, watermelon, grapes, or even starchy veggies like corn, peas, and carrots. While the truth is the main source of calories in fruit is from sugar (mostly fructose), those sugars are surrounded by fiber, slowing any surge of glucose and subsequent spike in insulin. It’s the added sugars that likely cause problems in our diet, not whole fruits. Some research has shown a diet rich in fruits such as apples, pears, kiwis, and strawberries may decrease risk of developing type II diabetes.

Myth: Simple carbohydrates are bad; complex carbohydrates are good

Fact: It’s not that simple! For example, lactose (found in dairy products) and bananas are simple carbs; white bread is a complex carb. While simple carbs (sugar) may come packed in a glass of milk, a can of soda, or a piece of fruit, complex carbs also come in whole and processed forms. Examples of complex carbs include highly processed and refined breads, and also whole-grain quinoa, buckwheat, and wheat berries, which have much more nutrition and are digested more slowly.

Myth: Carbohydrates cause inflammation and diabetes

Fact: Chronic inflammation is a concern because it may lead to other chronic conditions such as heart-disease, type II diabetes, and obesity.  While a diet containing highly-processed, refined carbohydrates and added sugars is likely to cause inflammation and lead to weight gain, a diet rich in whole-grains and produce has been found to reduce inflammation by reducing concentrations of high-inflammatory markers in the body such as C-reactive protein and increasing blood concentrations of adiponectin, a cytokine that reduces inflammation and increases insulin sensitivity!


Protein Myths Debunked!

Myth: More protein = more muscle

Fact: Consuming more protein in your diet isn’t enough (on its own) to build or maintain muscle strength and mass. Excess protein has the same fate as all excess energy in our body and will be stored as fat if unused. Consistent strength training is necessary for building lean muscle mass. Lifting heavier and heavier weights and other resistance exercises will help your body hold on to and build muscle, especially as you age.

Myth: The more protein you eat the better

Fact: Most Americans eating a typical western diet are consuming adequate amounts of protein. Individuals on a strict vegetarian diet likely need to be more conscientious about meeting their protein needs, while many lacto-ovo vegetarians are able to meet their daily requirements with ease.

Adults can absorb roughly 25-30 grams of protein at one sitting. That is equivalent to 4-5 eggs, or a 3-4oz. portion of meat or poultry. Instead of focusing on packing more protein into your diet, work on re-distributing protein-rich foods evenly throughout the day. Endurance athletes can check their average intake with this formula: 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day, depending on activity levels.

Myth: Protein is good, carbohydrates are bad

Fact: Both protein and carbohydrates are part of a nutritionally balanced diet. This can be especially true for endurance athletes, who need adequate carbohydrates to fuel energy needs. As the body’s main energy source, carbohydrates should take up the majority of your plate. Of course, there are better sources than others—remember, fruits, veggies, grains, and legumes (beans) are considered carbohydrates!

Myth: High-protein, low-carb diets help you lose weight

Fact: Excess protein calories will not magically turn into muscle! Consuming adequate amounts of protein throughout your day can help with satiety—feelings of fullness. However, there is a limit to this effect, and overdoing calories (whether from protein or other macronutrient sources) can eventually lead to weight-gain. If you are interested in increasing feelings of satiety, think about swapping some carbohydrate calories for protein-rich calories. An example is: if you usually eat a bagel and cream cheese for breakfast, reduce the bagel portion to make room for eggs or some Greek-style yogurt.

Myth: If you’re tired, you’re probably low on protein

Fact: Feeling fatigued all of the time could be a sign of protein deficiency, but usually only if your protein stores are severely depleted (not something that happens if you skip eating protein-rich foods for a day or so). In most cases feeling tired is likely due to other factors and has nothing to do with your protein intake.

The Bottom Line: Eating excess protein offers no additional benefit to a sports diet. It doesn’t turn into extra muscle! It is either burned for energy or stored as fat.

Adequate protein is important to build and repair muscles, make new red blood cells, and allow hair and fingernails to grow. About 10-35% of your day’s calories should come from protein.

Population Grams protein per Pound of body weight
Sedentary adult 0.4
Recreational cyclist 0.5-0.7
Endurance cyclist 0.6-0.7
Growing teenage athlete 0.7-0.9
Cyclists building muscle mass 0.7-0.8
Cyclist restricting calories 0.8-0.9
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