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Macro Nutrients – The Keys to a Healthy Diet

Phil Gurley

By Kim Griffin

Carbohydrates, like those found in potatoes, are just one of three macro nutrients are body requires. Steve Peters/photo

Carbohydrates, like those found in potatoes, are just one of three macro nutrients are body requires. Steve Peters/photo

Whenever I talk to folks about what lead me to farming, it almost always starts with an overview of how I ate as a child/young adult. No disrespect to my hard-working parents, but for much of my life I ate an over-processed, ‘beige’ diet. When color was added, it was generally in the form of artificial coloring. When whole grains or veggies were added, they were typically pre-cooked and dehydrated or frozen/canned. After college, I sought the help of a health coach to help me re-vamp my diet and teach me how to eat. This exploration led me indirectly to diversified, organic farming.

By and large, our ‘American diet’ falls short of fulfilling our nutritional needs, especially considering all of the fad diets that periodically roll through our culture:  Atkins, South Beach, Paleo, K-E (or feeding tube). A Google search for ‘fad diet timeline’ will take you to eatright.org which has an interactive timeline from 1820-2012. It’s actually pretty fascinating.

There are three macro nutrients which account for our caloric intake: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. A closer look, and these big three can be further broken down into essential micronutrient categories: acids, vitamins, and minerals. A quick list of examples includes citrus acid, iron, and alphabetic vitamins from A-E and K.

Carbohydrates:

Before you reach for two bread knives to form a cross against this category, hear me out. Carbohydrates are proven to be the macronutrient from which our bodies most easily and readily glean energy. They can be found in a vast variety of foods including whole grains: rice, quinoa, oats; fresh fruits: apples, cherries, blueberries; dairy: yogurt, cheese, milk; and fresh vegetables: legumes, potatoes, squashes. A list that long means that carbohydrates are everywhere, and for good reason!

And when you think about these foods in the context of micronutrients, you’ll find plenty: for example vitamin C aids in iron absorption; so a cilantro/lime salsa atop black beans and rice is a meal in the right direction.

I do want to emphasize the importance of whole grains – soaked overnight and properly cooked to ‘unlock’ the optimal nutrition contained within – instead of processed grains which lose some of their nutritional value during processing. And fresh fruits and veggies – they, too, hold the optimal nutritional value – over canned or frozen. And whole-fat dairy (we’ll get to that) over fat-free because, once again, optimal nutrition comes from within these foods.

For further pro-carb reading, check out Kate Robitello’s recent article in the Rutland Reader.

Fat:

Time Magazine recently ran an article titled “Ending the War on Fat”. There is a fantastic five-minute video on Time’s website that illustrates the past 30+ years during which the USDA has been advising Americans on how to eat. Fat quickly became a villain and was removed from many of our foods, leaving behind tasteless products. To make these fatless foods appetizing, sugars were added, increasing our body’s insulin production. Scientists have now found that in the fight against fat, we’ve opened the flood gates for obesity and diabetes.

Like carbohydrates, fat is essential for energy; it is the most concentrated source. Fat is also essential for the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fat can be found in a variety of foods including whole grains: quinoa is highest; fresh fruits: banana, avocado; dairy: yogurt, milk, cottage cheese; animal products: meat, poultry, fish; and plants: nuts, seeds.

Portion control and ratios are vital when it comes to fat. And, choosing foods that are multi-faceted, providing more than one macronutrient and many micronutrients will stretch your caloric budget further.

Protein:

Protein has never, to my knowledge, been ‘forbidden’. My skepticism tells me it’s a lobbying issue. After all, Beef It’s What’s For Dinner is not only a slogan, it’s a website. Pork, The Other White Meat, indicates that you are already familiar with a first white meat, presumably poultry. In our American lifestyle – one that can, on average, afford animal proteins – we are not want for protein options. But, we should exercise our options mindfully.

Proteins are essential for growth. They are also accountable for tissue repair, the preservation of lean muscle, and the production of hormones and enzymes. Proteins are able to provide energy in the absence of carbohydrates.

When choosing a protein, consider the source. A cow raised on pasture, a pig able to forage, or a chicken that has access to bugs, grasses and nutritious grain each get a varied and nutrient-rich diet. The same animals raised in restriction and fed diets of ill-nutrition will provide the same ill-nutrition to us. They are what they eat, and we eat them.

Additionally, meat need not be one’s only source of protein. Nor do most of us require the amount of proteins we consume.

Each of us has our own, individual metabolic system. There is no one formula to tell us all what to eat, how much, and in what ratios. Of course, some guidance helps and I do hope that this introduction to nutrients sparked further personal investigation. And if it’s a slogan you need, think variety: eat the rainbow.

Kimberly Griffin is currently working with the College of Saint Joseph to develop an on-campus farm for educational and edible use. She can be reached at kimberly.griffin@csj.edu

Originally published in the Rutland Herald.