Counting macros has become incredibly popular thanks to diets that emphasize some macronutrients over others (think: pro-protein, anti-carb plans like the keto diet). Other eating plans—like the nutritarian diet from nutrition expert Joel Fuhrman, M.D.—champion eating plant-based foods with the most micronutrients per calorie to boost health, energy, and longevity.
But what’s the difference between macronutrients and micronutrients? And which should you focus on?
Both (you knew we were going to say that).
Macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and micronutrients consist of vitamins and minerals. “It’s important that we eat a colorful diet with lots of variety to get all our macro and micronutrients in. Our bodies need both to keep them functioning optimally,” says registered dietitian Valerie Gately, MS, RDN, LD.
Here’s how she breaks it down.
Macros vs Micros
One way to differentiate between macronutrients and micronutrients is size. Macros, which are key to big-picture nutrition, are usually measured in grams. Micronutrients are measured in much smaller amounts, such as milligrams or micrograms.
Size also matters when you’re thinking about how much of each you should eat. “We need macronutrients in large amounts, and micronutrients in small amounts,” says Gately.
Most macronutrient foods contain the micronutrients we need to thrive. However, because the micronutrient amount depends on details like where you source your food (i.e. organic and local fruits and veggies are typically packed with more micros than their non-organic counterparts) most people don’t take a micro approach to dieting because it would be difficult to measure and track.
What Are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients are the big three food groups that your body needs in large amounts, according to Gately. For your body to function, you need:
- Carbohydrates (to give you energy): found in foods like bread, pasta, fruits and veggies, and provide 4 calories per gram.
- Fats (to keep you satiated): found in foods like oil, nuts, and avocados, and provide 9 calories per gram.
- Proteins (to build and repair muscle): found in foods like eggs, meat, fish, and tofu, and provide 4 calories per gram.
It’s important to note some diets also classify alcohol as its own macro that has 7 calories per gram. However, it has little nutritional value—which is why so many diets leave it out.
While different diets call for different amounts of macros, a study published in 2020 in the journal Nutrients (1) suggests it’s unknown whether there’s an ideal macro ratio for optimal health. Humans have survived on diets with differing amounts of these nutrients for centuries, the study authors noted, but the common denominator is all three macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) were present to maintain longevity and health.
The current US Dietary Guidelines for adult Americans suggests the following macro breakdown:
- 45 to 65 percent of calories from carbohydrates
- 20 to 35 percent of calories from fat
- 10 to 35 percent of calories from protein
If you’re following an eating plan with a different breakdown of macros, counting them is pretty straightforward: figure out how many calories you need to eat per day (a tool like a Calorie Calculator can help), then divvy up those cals into protein, fats, and carbs, depending on your goal.
For example: If your aim goal is to curb your risk for diabetes or metabolic syndrome, you may want to eat fewer carbs, which can help to keep your blood sugar levels in check. Or, if you’re looking to bulk or cut, consider a high protein diet to boost muscle mass and strength (2).
Many people enjoy the flexibility of macro diets because they don’t tell you exactly what to eat. Instead they focus on hitting specific macronutrient targets—you get to decide how you fulfill your protein, fat, and carb needs.
Why do I need protein?
Protein is the building block for muscle. When you chow on a chicken breast or burger, your body breaks the protein down into amino acids, and uses those amino acids to repair and grow new muscle fibers.
But protein does more than promote gains at the gym. “Protein is a major building block in our bodies not just for muscles but for bones, skin, hair, hormones, blood, etc.” says Gately.
Protein also boosts your immune system and helps you bounce back from injury. “We need protein to repair our muscles after exercise, but it is also important for healing in general, even for something as small as a paper cut,” adds Gately.
Why do I need carbs?
Not all carbs are evil demons sent to fatten you up and increase your risk of diabetes. Quality carbs–the type found in whole grains and starchy veggies–fuel your workouts and support healthy gut function. They also support your brain health.
“Avoiding or limiting carbs is popular, but it can leave you tired, unfocused, and missing many important micronutrients and fiber,” says Gately. “Athletes need to consume carbohydrates for energy and performance.”
When you eat carbs, your body breaks them down into glucose, explains the American Heart Association.
Gately explains further, “Glucose is the primary source of energy for the body. Your body can store excess glucose (called glycogen) in your muscles and liver. This can help fuel exercise like resistance training and cardio. The energy a basketball player would use to run and perform a slam-dunk, for example, is all from carbs,” says Gately.
There are two types of carbs: simple and complex, according to Gately. “The key difference is how fast your body can break them down to use.”
- Simple carbs that are found in foods such as fruit (like apples and bananas) and milk, digest quickly which increases your blood sugar fast. Feasting on sources of healthy simple carbs before an intense workout can give you quick energy.
- Complex carbs (whole grains like oatmeal, brown rice, and whole wheat bread) digest slowly which helps keep your blood sugar more stable. These are best to consume throughout the day to stabilize blood sugar levels. Or chomping on them post-workout along with protein which may help with fast recovery (3).
If you don’t have a medical reason to limit certain carbs (such as diabetes), do yourself a favor, and don’t skip on carbs, Gately says.
Why do I need fat?
Fat gets a bad rap, but it’s essential for nutrient absorption and satiety, says Gately. “Some vitamins actually need fat to be absorbed into the body. These include vitamins A, D, E, and K. Additionally, fat helps protect the organs in our bodies, and helps keep us full throughout the day.”
While fat is an essential macronutrient, eating too much of it can lead to weight gain, since fat has about twice the calories per gram as carbs and protein. (Fat has 9 calories per gram, the other two macros only 4 calories per gram.)
“There are two main types of fat, saturated and unsaturated. However, there is an additional type of fat we should be aware of, and that is artificially-made trans fats,” says Gately.
Often referred to as “solid fats” for their solidity at room temperature, sat fats are found in animal-based foods and dairy products like red meat, butter, full-fat dairy, fried foods and coconut oil. About five to six percent of your total daily calories should come from saturated fat, says the American Heart Association (AHA). If your target is 2,000 calories a day, that works out to 120 calories or around 13 grams of saturated fat daily. Too much saturated fat can raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and may lead to heart problems.
Unsaturated fats (in foods like fatty fish, most nuts and nut butters, olive oil) can improve blood cholesterol levels, enhance heart health, and fight inflammation.
“For athletes, healthy unsaturated fats can actually help delay muscle soreness and inflammation, and can even help the brain recover if a concussion is sustained,” according to Gately.
Considered the worst kind of fat you can eat, artificial trans fat–an oil that solidifies when cooled such as vegetable shortening–is essentially oil mixed with hydrogen in efforts to improve the shelf life of products like cookies and crackers, according to Susan Greene, ACE certified nutrition specialist, health coach, and personal trainer. “Avoid trans fat,” says Greene. “Trans fat can raise bad cholesterol levels (LDL) and lower the good cholesterol levels (HDL). It can also lead to a risk for heart disease.”
- All three macronutrients are essential for human functioning and longevity, aim to prioritize all three.
- Protein not only builds muscle, but is a major building block for bones, skin, hair, and many hormones.
- Carbs fuel workouts, support cognitive function, and are the nutrients most often used as an energy source.
- Fats protect your organs, promote satiety, and increase absorption of key vitamins into your body.
What Are Micronutrients?
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals necessary for healthy development, illness prevention, and overall wellbeing. While you may only need smaller quantities of micros, they’re just as important as their macro siblings.
There are nearly 30 essential micronutrients that the body cannot make in sufficient amounts. Most guys can get their fill of these six micronutrients from eating a balanced diet. But if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, or follow other restrictive diets, you might want to take a supplement.
Of all the micros, pay special attention to the six biggies: iron, vitamin A, vitamin D, iodine, folate, and zinc.
Iron is used to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout your body. Vital for healthy growth and development, the recommended amount per day for adult men is 8 mg, per the National Institute of Health.
Carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and eggs are foods high in vitamin A—which not only has excellent antioxidant properties, but helps with vision. It also assists with growth and cell division, and boosts immunity, according to the Mayo Clinic. Men 18 and older should aim for 900 mcg per day.
Otherwise known as the “sunshine vitamin,” your body gets vitamin D from sunlight and certain foods, like salmon and mushrooms. Vitamin D’s biggest claim to fame is strengthening your skeleton by helping the body absorb calcium. However, it has also been positively associated with sperm motility and testosterone production, reducing inflammation, and enhanced immune function. Your target: males 14-70 years old get 15 mcg, those over 70 get 20 mcg.
Your thyroid gland needs iodine—you should get around 150 mcg per day—to produce the thyroid hormones T3 and T4, which help regulate your metabolism, the process in which your body turns food into energy. You can refuel on iodine from eggs, chicken, and table salt.
The natural form of vitamin B9, folate helps to form DNA and RNA formation. It also plays a role in protein metabolism and red blood cell production. Folate is found in dark leafy green veggies, seafood, and fresh fruits. Get 400 mcg per day to reap these benefits.
Best known for its immune-boosting ability, studies suggest that zinc may also help increase testosterone levels and raise sperm count (4). Animal proteins are great sources of zinc, as well as nuts and whole grains. The recommended amount for men is 11 mg a day.
- There are nearly 30 essential micronutrients that the body cannot make in sufficient amounts and that are necessary for healthy development.
- Most people can get enough by eating a balanced, colorful diet that emphasizes whole fresh foods.
- If you’re following a restrictive diet like a vegan, vegetarian, or keto diet, you’ll want to pay extra attention to micronutrients to ensure you’re getting enough. How to know for sure? Get blood tested.
FAQ About Micronutrients and Macronutrients
Where are macronutrients located on a nutrition label?
Label formats can vary, but typically, when looking at a nutrition label, the three macronutrients are labeled as (Total) Fat, (Total) Carbohydrate, and Protein. The nutrient amounts on the label refer to the serving size which is also noted on the label.
Fat is directly under where it states Calories and is one of the first things listed. Carbohydrate is in the middle under Sodium, and Protein is the last thing listed above a thick black line just before the list of micronutrients.
What are net carbs and how do I count them if I’m tracking macros?
Net carbs are digested carbs used for energy. To figure out the net carbs in food, subtract the total number of carbohydrates from the amount of fiber. Keeping net carbs in mind helps ensure you get more fiber in your diet.
Is sodium an essential micronutrient?
While not one of the big six micronutrients the CDC focuses on, sodium is an essential micronutrient that helps contract and relax your muscles, maintain proper hydration balance, and conduct nerve impulses. Just don’t go overboard: diets high in sodium can increase your risk of high blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends adults consume no more than 2.3 grams of sodium per day.
When is taking a multivitamin necessary?
Multivitamins are popular supplements for people at risk of vitamin deficiencies (for example, if you have a condition like celiac disease or ulcerative colitis that interferes with absorption or you follow a vegan, vegetarian, or keto diet). But if you eat a balanced diet, check with your healthcare provider to see if you can skip them.
The Bottom Line
Your body needs both macronutrients and micronutrients from food to achieve optimal health. Macronutrients include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, while micronutrients include vitamins and minerals found in many macronutrient-based foods. For most people, eating a well-balanced diet of whole foods is the best way to get the macros and micros you need.