You may be familiar with the terms macronutrients and micronutrients. Various food guides recommend eating a combination of food groups, such as vegetables, fruits and fruit juices, refined and whole grains, dairy, and animal proteins. These recommendations are intended to inform your dietary choices in order to ensure a balanced amount of energy and nutrients is consumed to support health. (10)
Taking a closer look at the macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats/lipids, proteins), and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals) that are found in your food will help you to understand their crucial role role in health and how you can ensure you are consuming the correct amounts for your individual needs.
In this article, you’ll learn about macronutrients and micronutrients, the two primary classifications of nutrients found in food and beverages.
What are macronutrients?
Macronutrients, commonly referred to as macros, are dietary components consumed in relatively larger quantities and include carbohydrates, lipids (fats), and proteins. (15) These three macronutrients play various roles in health, such as providing energy needed by the central nervous system, protecting organs from injuries, building and maintaining muscle mass, promoting proper growth and development, and supporting immune system health. (4)
Calories in macronutrients
Each macronutrient provides energy measured in calories:
- Carbohydrates: 4 kcal per 1 g of carbohydrate
- Fats: 9 kcal per 1 g of fat
- Proteins: 4 kcal per 1 g of protein (4)
Most foods are made up of a combination of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Put simply, foods and beverages that are consumed are broken down into smaller components in the digestive tract. Through various processes, the digested products of carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins are each absorbed and eventually distributed to target cells, where they can be used or stored for energy. A process known as cellular respiration relies on the three macronutrients to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the primary source of cellular energy. (9)
Did you know? Alcohol contains 7 kcal per gram. Although considered a macronutrient, there is no requirement for alcohol in the diet. (10)
What are the 3 macronutrients and where do calories come from?
Calories come from three main sources: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins (macros). Here is a list of the three macronutrients.
As the human body’s preferred source of energy, carbohydrates often make up the greatest proportion of caloric intake and provide approximately four calories per gram. Sources of carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, grains, honey, and dairy products (e.g., milk, yogurt), and foods containing added sugar. (7)
Did you know? Fiber is a type of carbohydrate found in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds that promotes healthy digestion and proper blood sugar (glucose) regulation and may be protective against certain chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
2. Lipids (fats)
Dietary fats are a significant source of energy and are necessary for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fats provide approximately nine calories per gram, making them the most energy-dense of the three macronutrients. (13) Sources of dietary fats include meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, oils, nuts, seeds, and avocados. (7)
Proteins, which are made up of amino acids, are considered the building blocks of the human body and play a significant role in building and repairing tissues. Proteins are made up of organic compounds known as amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids; however, nine of them are considered essential amino acids, meaning that the human body cannot make them and they must be obtained from your diet.
Similar to carbohydrates, protein provides approximately four calories per gram. Protein is found in animal-based foods, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products, as well as many plant-based foods, such as beans, legumes, soy products (e.g., tofu, tempeh), nuts, and seeds. (7)
Recommended daily food intake and macronutrient breakdown
An individual’s caloric (energy) requirements, as well as their ideal macronutrient ratio, will vary depending on a variety of factors, such as sex, age, height, weight, health status, physical activity level, and special conditions such as pregnancy. (10) According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the recommended daily macronutrient breakdown for adult males and females is:
- Carbohydrates: 45 to 65% of calories
- Fats: 20 to 35% of calories
- Proteins: 10 to 35% of calories (10)
Keep in mind that dietary recommendations from different health organizations may differ from the ones outlined above. Additionally, there are a variety of specific diets that are designed for weight loss or other therapeutic purposes that involve restricting or increasing the intake of certain macronutrients or food groups.
We advise working with an integrative healthcare practitioner who can help determine if a special diet is appropriate and guide you through any dietary changes to ensure you are meeting your nutritional needs.
It’s important to note that calories are not the entire picture when it comes to how your diet can impact your health. Research suggests that the quality of the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins you consume contributes to the overall effect of your diet on your health and factors such as disease prevention. For example, substituting saturated fat, which is primarily found in animal fats and butter, with polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are found in nuts, seeds, and fatty fish, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. (5)(6)(8)
Learn how to calculate macronutrients in your daily diet on the Fullscript blog.
What are micronutrients?
Micronutrients, in comparison, are consumed in relatively small amounts and include vitamins and minerals and phytochemicals, commonly called phytonutrients. (3)(15) Your body uses vitamins and minerals to support its various metabolic processes, such as cell function, development, and proper growth. (4)(14)
Phytochemicals, which are chemicals produced by plants, are not classified as essential nutrients, although there is some evidence that these compounds provide health benefits. (3)
What are the 3 micronutrients?
Micronutrients can be divided into three groups:
More on the essential micronutrients
Certain nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, are considered essential because they are required by the human body but they can not be synthesized and must be obtained from dietary sources. (4)(14) There are 13 vitamins and 15 minerals that have been identified as essential for health. (1) The two categories of essential micronutrients and vitamins and minerals, can be further narrowed down.
Vitamins are classified as fat-soluble vitamins, which are stored in fat tissue in the body, and water-soluble vitamins, which are not stored in high amounts and are excreted from the body via urine.
Minerals are further classified based on the amount in which they should be consumed daily. Macrominerals are required in larger amounts, approximately 100 mg or greater daily, while microminerals are generally required in amounts lower than 100 mg daily. (4)
In addition to your recommended macronutrient breakdown, you can find daily micronutrient goals for your sex and age group in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (10) On food packaging, the nutrition facts label will list the amounts of certain micronutrients that have been identified as generally low in current population research. The amounts of other vitamins and minerals may be listed on the label voluntarily by the manufacturer, but are not required. (11)
What is the difference between macronutrients and micronutrients?
Getting adequate nutrients from a balanced diet is important to support general health and to prevent the risk of diseases that have been associated with a poor diet. Imbalanced or inadequate intake of certain macronutrients or micronutrients may increase your risk of certain health conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis. (14)
Micronutrients and macronutrients serve different purposes in the body. The following graphic outlines the various macronutrients, micronutrients, and their common roles in the body.
Tracking your macronutrients and micronutrients to achieve a balanced diet
Many individuals may choose to count their macros to help them reach a healthy body weight, build muscle mass, maintain healthy blood glucose levels, or manage their daily caloric intake. Manually tracking your consumption of micronutrients and macronutrients can become complicated and time-consuming. Fortunately, there are several diet-tracking apps that allow you to easily record and understand your daily macronutrient and micronutrient intake to ensure you are meeting your individual goals.
Examples of highly-rated apps currently available on the App Store and Google Play include:
List of macronutrients and micronutrients
Here is a complete list of all of the macronutrients and micronutrients together:
The bottom line
There are many considerations when planning a balanced diet, including your health status, goals, and physical characteristics such as age and sex. Understanding the difference between macronutrients and micronutrients is a great first step towards ensuring your diet contains all of the nutrients in optimal amounts to support your health. For further individual guidance, consider working with an integrative healthcare practitioner.
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- Comerford, K. B. (2013). Recent developments in multivitamin/mineral research. Advances in Nutrition, 4(6), 644–656.
- McKee, T., & McKee, J. R. (2015). “Amino acids, peptides, and proteins,” in Biochemistry: The Molecular Basis of Life, 5th Edn., eds T. McKee and J. R. McKee (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), 123–181.
- Linus Pauling Institute. (2015, December 15). Phytochemicals. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/dietary-factors/phytochemicals/
- Morris, A. L., & Mohiuddin, S. S. (2020). Biochemistry, nutrients. In StatPearls . StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK554545/
- MedlinePlus. (2021a). Facts about polyunsaturated fats. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000747.htm
- MedlinePlus. (2021b). Facts about saturated fats. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000838.htm
- National Institutes of Health. (2019). Important nutrients to know: Proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. National Institute on Aging. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/important-nutrients-know-proteins-carbohydrates-and-fats
- Naude, C. E., Schoonees, A., Senekal, M., Young, T., Garner, P., & Volmink, J. (2014). Low carbohydrate versus isoenergetic balanced diets for reducing weight and cardiovascular risk: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS ONE, 9(7), e100652.
- Popson, M. S, Dimri, M., & Borger, J. (2020). Biochemistry, heat and calories. In StatPearls (p. 1). StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538294/
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services & U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2015). 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. Health.Gov. https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/#navigation
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2018). Nutrition facts label reboot: A tale of two labels. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/nutrition-facts-label-reboot-tale-two-labels
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2015). Minerals. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/minerals.html
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2018). Dietary fats explained. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000104.htm
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2020). Vitamins. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002399.htm
- World Health Organization. (2017, December 19). Nutrients. https://www.who.int/elena/nutrient/en/
- World Health Organization & Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (1998). Carbohydrates in human nutrition. https://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/nutrientrequirements/9251041148/en/