When you swipe through Instagram or TikTok, you're likely to hear phrases like "gotta watch those macros!" or you might see the popular hashtag #iifym which stands for "If It Fits Your Macros." But what in the world are macros? If this language makes no sense to you, have no fear. We've got you. We're here to break it down and give you all the dirty details.
In short, macronutrients are the big guns when it comes to nutrition. These are the major nutrients that provide your body with energy. Their little brothers---micronutrients---have a different, but no less important role to play. Learning more about macronutrients and micronutrients can help you to make better food choices to meet your nutritional or health goals.
Macronutrients vs. Micronutrients: What's the Difference?
"Macro" means big and "micro" means small. So you can think of macronutrients, also called "macros," as the larger nutrients that you gain when you consume food. Micronutrients as the smaller nutrients that you gain.
Most food that you eat contains both macronutrients and micronutrients. There are some foods or beverages that provide very little in the way of macronutrients or micronutrients (like diet soda) and sometimes these foods are referred to as "empty calorie foods" because their macro and micro nutrient offerings are minimal.
So what is the nutritional difference between macros and micronutrients? Macronutrients give you all your calories. These calories come in the form of fat, protein, and carbohydrates and they are the nutrients you consume in the largest amounts. You usually measure macronutrients in grams (g) and you'll see macronutrient information at the top of the Nutrition Facts label that is found on most food packages.
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. These nutrients are essential for your body to function properly. They keep your organs healthy, your body processes running along smoothly, and can contribute to healthy aging. Micronutrients are generally measured in milligrams (mg) or micrograms (mcg) and you'll see some micronutrient information on the Nutrition Facts label closer to the bottom, underneath the macro info.
Macronutrients and micronutrients are both essential components of a balanced diet. So it can be helpful to learn more about where you find these nutrients and how to make sure that you're getting the recommended amounts.
What Are Macronutrients?
As the big molecules on the block, macronutrients make up most of what you'd think of as food. We need macronutrients---and a lot of them---in our diet to keep our bodies ticking. The macronutrients you eat or drink hold all the calories you take in, and so they are your body's main energy source. The three main types of macros are:
- Carbohydrates primarily supply energy to your body's cells.
- Fats help your body to store energy, they protect our organs, and provide insulation.
- Protein primarily provides structure (in the form of amino acids) to help you to build and maintain healthy muscles, skin, and hair.
Other, smaller categories exist, but these are the most important.
How Many Macronutrients Do You Need?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tells us not to worry so much about how much we get, but more about how much we get compared to the other groups. The USDA says the carbs, fats, and proteins in our daily diet should break down like this:
- 45% to 65% of your total daily calories from carbohydrates
- 20% to 35% of your total daily calories from fat
- 10% to 35% of your total daily calories from protein
The idea is that everyone needs a different number of calories depending on their size, gender, age, and health goals. But whatever your daily calorie goal, these percent ranges generally shouldn't change.
What's so great about macronutrients? Well, apart from being necessary to stay alive, they have a lot of benefits:
- Brain health: People like to hate on carbohydrates, but they are essential for the brain to function at peak capacity.
- Build tissue: From skin to teeth to kidneys, protein lets your body replace damaged cells and build the tissues you need.
- Insulation: Fat keeps you warm!
- Protect organs: The fat you eat adds those layers under your skin and around your organs, which cushions and protects them.
- Regulate metabolism: Eating protein signals to your body that energy is coming around the bend, and allows you to burn calories more effectively.
You can see that cutting any one of these three groups out of your diet completely will not help you in the long run. What your body craves most is the right balance in your menu.
It can be tough to give examples of macronutrients because that term describes any type of food. Instead, here are some examples of what kind of macro you can get from different types of foods:
Starch (potatoes, corn)
Whole grains (rice,
pasta, barley, flour)
In addition to the balance of macronutrients, you might also want to pay attention to the quality of the macronutrients that you choose. For instance, you can get carbs from an apple or from a cookie. If you choose the apple, you'll get carbs that are bundled with fiber (a healthy form of carbohydrate) and lots of vitamins and minerals. But if you choose the cookie, you'll get carbs in the form of processed sugar (not great for your body) and far fewer vitamins and minerals. The apple is the higher quality food because it provides your body with better nutrition.
What Are Micronutrients?
Micronutrients, also known as vitamins and minerals, are tiny but mighty players in your nutrition. While they don't give you any caloric value, they remain essential for your body to operate.
How Many Micronutrients Do You Need?
Your micronutrient requirements can depend on a few factors like age, gender, and pregnancy status. But you can find out what you need from many sources, including the USDA or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
|Daily Vitamin and Mineral Requirements|
|(Adults and Children Over 3 Years Old)|
This list is not exhaustive - the full lineup from the FDA is long because there are so many micronutrients that your body needs. Also, keep in mind that if you are pregnant, you will need more of all of these because your body is building another human.
Once you find out what you need, you may still want to know where you can get these vitamins and minerals. The USDA offers a handy food database for this purpose. You can type in a food and find out exactly what's in it.
Health experts generally advise that we get our nutrients (both micronutrients and macronutrients) from whole foods, but some people take a multivitamin to get their recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals.
Micronutrients have some very precise and important responsibilities. From keeping your heart pumping to helping you see, these mighty minerals pack a punch. For example, this is a partial list of some vitamin and mineral benefits:
- Calcium: Keeps your bones and teeth strong.
- Iron: Enables brain development and blood production.
- Magnesium: Regulates your muscles and nerves and helps make DNA.
- Potassium: Works with sodium to keep your heart pumping.
- Vitamin A: Good for your vision, immune system, reproduction, heart, and lungs.
- Vitamin B-6: Essential for metabolism and promotes brain and immune system development in babies.
- Vitamin B-12: Maintains your blood and nerve cells and helps to make DNA.
- Vitamin C: Protects your cells and boosts your immune system.
- Vitamin D: Helps your body absorb calcium, keeping your bones strong.
Getting in the habit of reading food labels might help you get the vitamins and minerals you need. The Nutrition Facts label will generally provide information about the micronutrients that a particular food offers and in what amounts.
Where to Find Micronutrients
According to the National Institutes for Health (NIH), fruits and vegetables win the prize for the highest micro concentration, although meat and dairy aren't far behind.
|Dairy||Calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamins B12 & D|
|Kale||Calcium, iron, magnesium|
|Broccoli||Calcium, iron, potassium, vitamins A & C|
|Eggs||Iron, vitamin A, vitamins B12 & D|
|Meat||Iron, potassium, vitamins B6 & 12 (in poultry)|
|Seafood||Iron, potassium, vitamin B12 (clams), vitamin D (fatty fish)|
|Spinach||Iron, magnesium, potassium, vitamin A|
|Whole grains||Magnesium, iron|
|Fruits||Potassium, vitamin A, vitamin B6 (non-citrus), vitamin C (citrus)|
Some people like to add extra vitamins and minerals through supplements like pills, gummies, and powders. Always check with your healthcare provider before adding a supplement to your daily routine. It's also good to know that supplements are considered food by the FDA, so these products are not regulated in the same way as medications are.
Should You Count Macros or Micronutrients?
Usually, people don't count their micronutrients because there are so many of them. But some people who are managing a health condition or trying to reach a specific nutritional goal might track their intake of a particular micronutrient. For instance, women at risk of osteoporosis might track their intake of calcium or vitamin D.
Counting macros, however, has become quite popular. When you hear the term "macro diet," it can sound somewhat technical and intimidating. But macro dieting isn't very different from simply counting your calories - because macros are calories, remember? There are different reason that people might count macros, but the most common reasons are weight loss and athletic performance.
For Weight Loss
The difference between a macro diet for weight loss and a traditional calorie counting diet is the focus. A lot of traditional diets focus on a calorie limit for each day. But when you're "watching your macros," it means you're more focused on where your calories come from and you'll have targets for the percentage of calories that come from each macro: protein, fat, and carbs. For example, a popular macro diet promotes a calorie intake that is 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbohydrates.
If you go on a macro diet, you might count total daily calories, but what matters most is the percent breakdown. However, there is no consensus on which breakdown or percent balance is the best one for healthy and sustained weight loss. In general, nutrition experts advise that you follow the recommended intakes provided by the USDA. However, many fitness celebs and influencers promote plans that deviate from those recommendations. But just because a certain diet works for one person doesn't necessarily mean that it will work for you.
Also many popular diets like keto, paleo, and even Weight Watchers use some form of macro dieting. While you may hear claims that carefully controlling your macros will help you reach your weight goals, it's important to note that no research has proven this. That being said, eating a balanced diet has been proven to give many health benefits, including healthy weight maintenance.
For Athletic Performance
Athletes with specific performance goals, such as improved endurance or increased muscle mass, might count their macros to make sure that they are getting the nutrients they need to perform at their peak. In some cases, coaches might even recommend higher intakes of certain macros to reach certain performance or competition goals. But many sports nutrition professionals still advise staying close to or in the same ranges provided by the USDA.
If you're not sure that you're getting the right balance of nutrition to meet athletic goals, to lose weight, or to maintain good health, you can always reach out to a registered dietitian. These credentialed professionals can evaluate your current diet and make recommendations for improvements. In general, they advise that you eat plenty of nutrient-dense whole foods and make eating decisions based on what your body needs. If you eat a variety of foods including lots of fruit and veggies, you are more likely to naturally include all the macros and micros your body could want!