Have you recently heard someone talking about “counting macros,” and wondered what they were talking about?
When we talk about macros, we’re talking about macronutrients: a category of nutrients that your body simply can’t live without.
The three main macronutrients are proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Together, they provide structure to our bodies and give us the energy we need to fuel our functions. Almost all of the foods that we eat contain some combination of these major macronutrient groups, in varying amounts.
In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at macronutrients, break down the three main categories, and reveal the best dietary sources for each one.
What Are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients are nutrients that we need to consume in large quantities to keep our bodies running. When we say “large amounts,” we mean this in relation to their counterpart, micronutrients (also known as vitamins and minerals). While just as important as macronutrients, these nutrients are needed in much smaller quantities.
The primary macronutrients are proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Beyond the amount required, the main difference between these two nutrient groups is that macronutrients contain calories, and micronutrients do not.
While there are certain guidelines in place for how much of each macronutrient you need (we’ll list those later) finding the right balance for your own unique needs depends on a variety of factors.
For example, if you’re super active, you may need more carbohydrates. If you’re an older adult, you may need to pay extra attention to your protein intake, to combat the muscle loss that comes with aging.
Now that you’ve got the gist of macronutrients, let’s take a closer look at each kind.
Proteins are large, complex molecules found in virtually every body part and tissue.
Before your body can make use of a macronutrient it first needs to break it down into its constituent parts. For proteins, that means amino acids. There are 20 amino acids, some of which are created by our bodies, and some of which we need to get from the food we eat. We call those ones “essential.”
Once proteins are digested into amino acids, they can go on to perform their individual functions within the body. These important building blocks are key for building muscle and tissues, creating enzymes and hormones, and providing structure to cells.
Protein should make up about 10–35% of your daily calories. For a healthy adult, that equates to a little more than 7 grams of protein per 20 pounds of body weight. That said, choosing the right proteins is just as important, if not more important, than getting the right amount.
You should always pay close attention to the other nutritional elements that make up the protein source on your plate. Does it have a lot of protein, but also a large amount of saturated fats? If so, consider consuming that protein source in moderation, and looking for healthier protein sources—like those that come from lean meat or plants.
Healthy Sources of Protein
- Seafood, like salmon
- Dairy products
- Beans and legumes, like chickpeas and lentils
- Whole grains, like quinoa and wild rice
- Nuts and seeds, like almonds and flax seeds
- Soy products
Carbohydrates, or “carbs,” are molecules that your body uses to generate energy. There are three types of carbohydrates: sugars, fiber, and starches (also known as complex carbohydrates).
When digested, carbohydrates break down into glucose, the main sugar found in your blood. Sugars from carbohydrates help our bodies produce energy, which we either use instantly, or stow away for later. Fiber, another essential carbohydrate, facilitates digestive function, and is necessary for healthy bowel movements.
When you think of carbs, your mind likely goes to pasta and bread, but the list of healthy carbs extends far beyond those categories to include fruits and vegetables.
Carbohydrates should make up around 45–65% of your daily calories, but again, it’s all about choosing your carbs wisely. Highly processed, refined carbs like white bread may fill you up, but they lack the vitamins and minerals found in healthier sources of carbohydrates, like fruits and veggies. Eating an excess of refined carbs may also increase the likelihood of weight gain, diabetes, and other adverse effects.
Healthy Sources of Carbohydrates
- Starchy vegetables, like potatoes, and corn
- Whole fruits, including apples, bananas, and figs
- Whole grains, like brown rice or barley
- Beans and legumes, like chickpeas and lentils
Fats are made up of three-molecule structures known as “triglycerides.” Fat performs many functions, like transporting and absorbing vitamins, maintaining healthy skin, and insulating your organs.
Much of the fat you need is made by your body, but there are some fats your body can’t make on its own. These are called “essential fats,” which must be sourced from food. Essential fats include Omega-3 fats and Omega-6 fats.
While fad diets of yore have promoted cutting out all fat, or switching to low-fat alternatives, most medical professionals agree that fats are a necessary part of a healthy diet. That said, there are still certain “bad” fats that are best to limit or avoid.
Of these, the worst offenders are trans fats, which come from processed foods containing partially hydrogenated oil, and can cause damage even in small doses.
Second to trans fats is saturated fats, which are found in foods like butter, ice cream, and red meat. Saturated fats can raise cholesterol in the blood, and should be consumed in moderation to lower your risk of heart disease.
Your best bet is to seek out unsaturated fats, which can be found in foods like avocados, fish, nuts, and flax seeds. Fat should make up 20–35% of your daily calories. omega-3
Healthy Sources of Fats
- Whole eggs
- Nuts and seeds, like almonds and pumpkin seeds
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Fatty fish, like salmon and herring
Macronutrients vs. Micronutrients
While deficiencies in micronutrients are common, most adults who eat a balanced diet manage to hit the recommended daily amount of macros. That said, factors like dietary choices (like going plant-based), physical activity level, age, and sex affect can cause some people to fall short in one of these categories.
In these cases, supplements can fill nutritional gaps in your diet, at. By focusing on the quality of your macros, as opposed to the quantity—like choosing good fats, healthy proteins, and high-quality supplements—you’ll help your body function at its best.