Macronutrients and Micronutrients: Do You Know the Difference?

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Ross Bailey


Most of us are aware of the various food groups that involve a combination of fruits and vegetables, meat and meat alternatives, dairy, and grain products. Food guides have traditionally recommended quantified servings for each food group to maintain a healthy diet and to bring a balanced approach in meeting dietary needs. However, fewer people are aware that foods can also be further analyzed and classified based on their composition. Food labels break down these foods and now list macronutrients and micronutrients so that the reader can further understand exactly what they are about to consume. But what are macronutrients? What are micronutrients? Why do we need either? If you are hungry to learn more about the difference between macronutrients and micronutrients, let’s digest and absorb some knowledge!

What are macronutrients?

To start off, let’s dig into the macronutrients definition! Most simply, macronutrients are the components of food that provide us with the calories (energy) that our bodies need to make it through each day. They are separated into three main categories: carbohydrates, fats (lipids), and proteins.

Experts agree on the general estimation of the calories that each macronutrient can provide, which is summarized here (1):

  • carbohydrates contain approximately 4 calories per gram
  • fats contain approximately 9 calories per gram
  • proteins contain approximately 4 calories per gram

It is important to note, however, that differences in the exact way that carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins have been classified have led to variability in energy estimations for each respective macronutrient and can even cause discrepancies in estimating daily calorie intakes (2).

Having an understanding of how to measure your caloric intake based on your macronutrients is a strong way of predicting whether your food consumption will lead to increases, decreases or maintenance of your body weight. The good news is with the aid of calorie calculators as well as our guide on counting your macros, you can easily estimate your energy needs.

As a percentage of your total caloric intake, recommended ratios for carbohydrates can vary between 45 to 65% of your total energy intake, protein, between 10 to 35% and fat, between 20 to 35%. In addition to the proportions in your macronutrients ratio, research also indicates that the quality of the source of each macronutrient matters for better health outcomes as well 3). This means that the carbohydrates coming from your candies are not equivalent to the carbohydrates coming from your oats, even if you matched the carbs in each food!

whole grain bread loaf with three pieces of bread cut off

When it comes to carbohydrates, choosing whole grains are the healthy way to go!

Various diets now involve either increasing or decreasing intake of one or more of the macronutrients. For example, popular diets such as the Atkins Diet (4) involves reducing your carbohydrate intake, whereas the so-called If It Fits Your Macros Diet (IIFYM) (5) guides you to choose foods that fit into your pre-determined macro ratio to meet your goals. In either case, explicit counting of calories is not the overarching goal rather, the modification of macronutrient ratios to meet health goals, is.

Getting hungry just thinking about your carbohydrates, fats, and proteins yet? Why don’t we now dive a little deeper into each macronutrient!

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are essentially composed of sugars which can take several different forms (based on the number of molecules that make up the structure of the carbohydrate itself). Monosaccharides are composed of one molecule (e.g. glucose, fructose, galactose). Disaccharides are composed of two monosaccharides (e.g. sucrose, lactose, maltose). Oligosaccharides have three to nine monosaccharides (e.g. fructo-oligosaccharides, malto-oligosaccharides). Polysaccharides have greater than ten monosaccharides (e.g. starches: amylose, amylopectin, maltodextrins; non-starches/fibers: cellulose, pectins, hemicelluloses, gums, inulin) (6).

Monosaccharides can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream (providing blood glucose!) whereas disaccharides and polysaccharides need to be digested by enzymes into monosaccharides before they can be moved into the bloodstream for transport throughout your body for energy use or storage.

If not used for energy immediately, glucose is stored in the form of glycogen in your liver and muscles. Glycogen becomes the most readily available source of energy and is broken back down into glucose by the metabolic pathway called Glycolysis (producing quickly accessible energy).

salmon with lemon slice on top of greens on black dish

Fish are high in protein and contain healthy fish oils (fats) that provide great benefit to our bodies.

Fats

Dietary fats have been popularly made the villain of obesity in the media (similar to the ‘evil carbohydrate’), though our body does actually require fats in order to maintain proper health and wellness. Fat sources come from both animal and plant products, though not all fats are created the same. In addition to their energy provision, fats are needed in maintaining the structural composition of cells, in the regulation of hormones, in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, in the development of neurons and even in the simple mechanisms of maintaining body heat and providing cushioning for our organs.

Most dietary fats come in the form of triglycerides and to a secondary degree, cholesterol. These structures are made from glycerol which is attached to three fatty acids. Each fatty acid chain can be classified as a short, medium, long, or very long-chain fatty acid (all of which can be also further classified as saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fatty acids). Food labels now often show the type of fats that are included in the food in question.

Unsaturated fatty acids can be found in two forms, where natural unsaturated fatty acids are most commonly found in the cis formation or the trans (i.e. trans fats). Industrial trans fats, in particular, have been studied and recommended to be avoided due to their propensity for increasing risk for cardiovascular-related diseases (7).

Polyunsaturated fatty acids can also be further classified into Omega-3s (e.g. Alpha linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), Omega-6s (e.g. linoleic acid and arachidonic acid), and Omega-9s (e.g. oleic acid).

Traditionally, recommendations of dietary intake have focussed on monitoring total fat consumption. While this is still true, we now also know that that it is important to be choosy about which fat sources we are consuming rather than solely worrying about the total amount (8).

Similar to carbohydrates, lipids are absorbed in the small intestine and likewise need to be broken down from their triglyceride form into monoglycerides, and individualized fatty acids and glycerol units. Once fully absorbed, individual units are repackaged into triglyceride and cholesterols and are then transported in the blood to their sites of storage by specialized proteins called lipoproteins. As fats are secondary sources for energy compared to carbohydrates, they are primarily stored. They can be broken down and used for energy when necessary through a process called lipolysis (9).

clear glass filled with oil, wooden bowl filled with cashews, wooden bowl filled with almonds and a cut up avocado, and wooden bowl filled with a piece of meat

Our bodies need dietary fats for many different reasons. Avoiding saturated and trans fats is a healthy tip.

Proteins

Proteins are extremely complex in their functions in our bodies and play a myriad of roles in virtually every living cell. As protein is so extremely important in our bodies, we have dedicated a full informational article to protein, here.

What are micronutrients?

Micronutrients are substances that we consume in trace amounts that our bodies require to function, however, unlike macronutrients, they yield no energy. Micronutrients are most commonly known as the vitamins and minerals that foods can provide in addition to their calorie yielding components. It has been established that there are 13 vitamins and 15 minerals that are considered as essential nutrients for human health (10). Micronutrients are measured in milligrams (mg), micrograms (mcg) and/or international units (IU).

The Harvard Health Publishing and Harvard Medical School have published a detailed table containing information on the effects and sources of the vitamins and minerals that are vital in human health (11). We have condensed and summarized some of the information here:

Table 1. Adapted from Harvard Medical School’s information chart on essential vitamins and minerals. The full table can be found here with more detail on individual micronutrient benefits, recommended intakes and dietary upper limits.

Vitamins & good food sources

  • RETINOIDS (vitamin A; beta carotene can easily be converted to vitamin A as needed) = Sources of retinoids: beef liver, eggs, shrimp, fish, fortified milk, butter, cheddar cheese, Swiss cheese
  • CAROTENE (vitamin A; beta carotene can easily be converted to vitamin A as needed) = Sources of beta carotene: sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkins, squash, spinach, mangoes, turnip greens
  • THIAMIN (vitamin B1) = Pork chops, brown rice, ham, soymilk, watermelons, acorn squash
  • RIBOFLAVIN (vitamin B2) = Milk, eggs, yogurt, cheese, meats, green leafy vegetables, whole, and enriched grains and cereals
  • NIACIN (vitamin B3, nicotinic acid) = Meat, poultry, fish, fortified and whole grains, mushrooms, potatoes, peanut butter
  • PANTOTHENIC ACID (vitamin B5) = Wide variety of nutritious foods, including chicken, egg yolk, whole grains, broccoli, mushrooms, avocados, tomato products
  • PYRIDOXINE (vitamin B6, pyridoxal, pyridoxine, pyridoxamine) = Meat, fish, poultry, legumes, tofu and other soy products, potatoes, noncitrus fruits such as bananas and watermelons
  • COBALAMIN (vitamin B12) = Meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese, eggs, fortified cereals, fortified soymilk
  • BIOTIN = Many foods, including whole grains, organ meats, egg yolks, soybeans, and fish
  • ASCORBIC ACID (vitamin C) = Fruits and fruit juices (especially citrus), potatoes, broccoli, bell peppers, spinach, strawberries, tomatoes, brussels sprouts
  • CHOLINE = Many foods, especially milk, eggs, liver, salmon, and peanuts
  • CALCIFEROL (vitamin D) = Fortified milk or margarine, fortified cereals, fatty fish
  • ALPHA-TOCOPHEROL (vitamin E) = Wide variety of foods, including vegetable oils, salad dressings and, margarines made with vegetable oils, wheat germ, leafy green vegetables, whole grains, nuts
  • FOLIC ACID (vitamin B9, folate, folacin) = Fortified grains and cereals, asparagus, okra, spinach, turnip greens, broccoli, legumes like black-eyed peas and chickpeas, orange juice, tomato juice
  • PHYLLOQUINONE, MENADIONE (vitamin K) = Cabbage, liver, eggs, milk, spinach, broccoli, sprouts, kale, collards, and other green vegetables

Minerals & good food sources

  • CALCIUM = Yogurt, cheese, milk, tofu, sardines, salmon, fortified juices, leafy green vegetables, such as broccoli and kale (but not spinach or Swiss chard, which have binders that lessen absorption)
  • CHLORIDE = Salt (sodium chloride), soy sauce, processed foods
  • CHROMIUM = Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, potatoes, some cereals, nuts, cheese
  • COPPER = Liver, shellfish, nuts, seeds, whole-grain products, beans, prunes, cocoa, black pepper
  • FLUORIDE = Water that is fluoridated, toothpaste with fluoride, marine fish, teas
  • IODINE = Iodized salt, processed foods, seafood
  • IRON = Red meat, poultry, eggs, fruits, green vegetables, fortified bread, and grain products
  • MAGNESIUM = Green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli, legumes, cashews, sunflower seeds and other seeds, halibut, whole-wheat bread, milk
  • MANGANESE = Fish, nuts, legumes, whole grains, tea
  • MOLYBDENUM = Legumes, nuts, grain products, milk
  • PHOSPHORUS = Wide variety of foods, including milk and dairy products, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, liver, green peas, broccoli, potatoes, almonds
  • POTASSIUM = Meat, milk, fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes
  • SELENIUM = Organ meats, seafood, walnuts, sometimes plants (depends on soil content), grain products
  • SODIUM = Salt, soy sauce, processed foods, vegetables
  • SULFUR = Protein-rich foods, such as meats, fish, poultry, nuts, legumes
  • ZINC = Red meat, poultry, oysters and some other seafood, fortified cereals, beans, nuts

Remember, while there are guidelines for the intake of each micronutrient, individual needs will vary.

Various health conditions can lead to deficiencies in micronutrients. Certain diets can also lead to deficiencies in micronutrients. For example, gluten-free diets that are necessary for individuals who have Celiac’s Disease can lead to deficiencies in micronutrients such as vitamin D, vitamin B12 and folate, iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium (12).

Furthermore, the interaction between micronutrients is an important consideration in relation to deficiencies. For instance, increased absorption of certain forms of iron can be induced by ingestion of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) (13). This can have important implications for individuals with iron deficiencies whereby concurrent ingestion of foods or liquids containing vitamin C can be beneficial for improvements in the absorption of iron.

wooden platter filled with red peppers, orange slices, cucumber, lemon, tomatoes, onion, lime, lettuce

Fruits and vegetables are the most nutrient dense food that you can eat. They are packed with all kinds of micronutrients. Try incorporating fruits and vegetables with different colors to maximize your micronutrient reach!

Pharmaceuticals can also cause micronutrient depletions as they perform their actions and are metabolized in the body. We have also published a useful guide with more detailed information on possible nutrient depletions with popularly prescribed pharmaceuticals.

In summary, we all need to have a balance of these micronutrients for optimal health and wellness. At a high level, micronutrients are involved in the regulatory processes of digestion and metabolism, the five senses, recovery, growth, movement, nervous system function, and immune system function, reproduction, and cardiovascular function. The FDA has published a useful resource on micronutrients and that provides a nutrient label guideline to demonstrate where these micronutrients can be found here (14).

Now that we know the difference between macronutrients and micronutrients, we hope that this will be helpful in making informed and healthy choices when it comes to your nutrition! Happy eating and remember to always consult a health care professional when it comes to your health and wellness.

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