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An Essential Guide to Macronutrients

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

Macronutrients ("macros") is a term that describes three major nutrients your body requires to function properly. These nutrients are needed in ample amounts, unlike other nutrients, which is why they are called “macro” nutrients. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans provide general recommendations for how much of each macronutrient most people should consume daily, however, your specific needs will vary based on your lifestyle and goals.


Keep reading to learn more about macronutrients, food sources of each, and how to determine your individual needs.


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What Are Macros?

Macros are essential nutrients that your body needs to function optimally. They are considered “essential” because your body cannot make them on its own. Proteins provide the body with essential amino acids, while fats provide the body with essential fatty acids.


The 3 macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Each macronutrient has its own function in the body. Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of fuel, however, it can also use protein and fat for energy if necessary.


Each macronutrient contains a different number of calories:


Carbohydrates: 4 calories per gram

Protein: 4 calories per gram

Fat: 9 calories per gram

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are divided into 3 different categories, sugars, starches, and fiber. Sugars are found naturally in fruit and dairy products. They are also added to some foods during processing to make them sweeter and more palatable. Added sugars provide calories, but they contain few vitamins and minerals. The Nutrition Facts label provides information on both total sugars and added sugars per serving.


Starches are made up of longer chains of sugar molecules. Starches are found in vegetables, beans, grains, and legumes. Sugars and most starches are broken down to a simple form of sugar called glucose. Glucose is used for energy in your cells and your brain. Some starches, known as fiber, cannot be digested.


The bonds in fiber cannot be broken down by digestive enzymes like starch can be. Instead, it is transferred undigested into the large intestine. Fiber can be fermented by the good bacteria in your gut, or it can move through the large intestine and bind water, increasing the bulk of stool. Although fibers cannot be broken down to glucose, some short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are produced in the gut as fibers are fermented. SCFAs are absorbed and can be used for energy in the body.


Sources of carbs include:

  • Grains: rice, oats, pasta, cereal, bread, quinoa

  • Starchy vegetables: peas, potatoes, corn

  • Fruits

  • Beans and legumes: black beans, lentils, and chickpeas

  • Dairy products: milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese

carbs, carbohydrates, pasta

Protein

Proteins are made up of twenty different amino acids. The body can make some amino acids on its own (nonessential), but there are nine that cannot be made by the body (essential amino acids). The only way to get essential amino acids is through the food you eat. It’s important to eat a variety of protein foods every day to ensure you give your body all of the essential amino acids.

Amino acids build new proteins in the body. These proteins include antibodies, enzymes, hormonal proteins, structural proteins, storage proteins, and transport proteins. Amino acids are also required to build and repair tissues. These important nutrients also promote hair and nail growth, and keep the skin from becoming excessively dry.

Protein helps with weight management because it increases the feeling of fullness and satisfaction between meals. As mentioned before, it also plays a vital role in building lean muscle mass. The body doesn’t store protein, so it’s important to consume it consistently throughout the day with each meal and snack.


Sources of protein include:

  • Poultry: chicken and turkey

  • Eggs: particularly egg whites

  • Red meat: beef, lamb, and pork

  • Seafood: salmon, shrimp, and cod

  • Dairy products: milk, yogurt, and cheese

  • Beans and legumes: black beans, lentils, and chickpeas

  • Nuts and seeds: almonds and pumpkin seeds

  • Soy products: tofu, edamame, and tempeh


protein, meat

Fat

The four main types of fat found in food are monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Most foods have more than one type of fat, but in different amounts.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are “heart healthy” fats. Research shows that monounsaturated fats may help to decrease LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol. Polyunsaturated fats contain essential fatty acids, linolenic (Omega-3) and linoleic (Omega-6) that your body uses to make substances that control blood pressure, blood clotting, and your immune response.

Saturated fat is best consumed in moderation. Although your body needs some saturated fat to stay healthy, over-consumption may increase LDL cholesterol. You should limit your saturated fat intake to less than 10% of your daily calories.

Trans fats are created through a process called hydrogenation. Trans fats increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol, therefore, they should be limited or avoided in the diet. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned these fats in the United States in 2018. However, in 2022, some foods on the market may still contain a small amount of trans fat because of the processing methods used.


Fat is an essential nutrient for the human body. Fat found in food is important for your health and is necessary for optimal functioning. It has many roles in your body, such as providing long-term energy, insulation to protect vital organs, increasing fullness after eating, hormone production, vitamin absorption, and temperature regulation.


Sources of fat include:

  • Extra virgin olive oil

  • Coconut: fresh, dried, and coconut oil

  • Avocados: fresh and avocado oil

  • Nuts and seeds: almonds and pumpkin seeds

  • Fatty fish: salmon and herring

  • Dairy products: full fat yogurt and cheese

salmon, fats, oil, healthy fats

How much do you need?

Your body needs each of the macros in order to function properly. It’s important that you consume enough carbohydrates, protein, and fat from a variety of different sources.


The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends the following macronutrient ranges:


  • Carbs: 45–65% of your daily calories

  • Protein: 10–35% of your daily calories

  • Fat: 20–35% of your daily calories


It is also recommended that adults get at least 150 grams of carbohydrates per day to support optimal brain functioning.


The minimum amount of protein that most adults should have daily is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Each individual person’s macronutrient needs vary based on their age, activity levels, sex, and your goals. Work with a registered dietitian to determine what macronutrient range is appropriate for you.


Children and adolescents usually require more calories from fat than adults to support their brain development. Older adults often have increased protein needs to preserve muscle mass. Athletes and people who are more active need more carbs and protein than people who are less active. Active individuals should aim for the higher end of the recommended range. Increased protein intake helps build and repair muscle, while carbohydrate intake helps replenish energy stores.


If your goal is weight loss, you may benefit from eating slightly more than the recommended range for protein intake. Protein increases satiety and feelings of satisfaction for longer, which can help reduce your caloric intake overall.


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Putting it all together

Carbohydrates, protein, and fat are macronutrients that provide energy and support optimal functioning.


Current recommendations include consuming 45–65% of your daily calories from carbs, 10–35% from protein, and 20–35% from fat. Keep in mind, your individual needs vary based on on your age, sex, activity level, and goals.


Eat a balanced diet consisting of a variety of carb, protein, and fat sources to ensure you consume enough of these important nutrients.









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