Macronutrients vs. Micronutrients: The Complete Guide
Macronutrients and micronutrients are the two major food categories that physicians, dieticians, and personal trainers may use to classify items in your diet.
Sometimes abbreviated to macros and micros, these terms encompass the guidelines that nutrition professionals recommend for individuals interested in improving their eating habits.
For example, you may have heard the phrase “counting macros” or “increasing micros.” This often refers to how a person seeks to consume the recommended intake of both nutrient groups. Since many people confuse these nutrient groups at first glance, it is worthwhile to take a detailed look at how the right number of macronutrients and micronutrients can improve your personal well-being.
What are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients refer to the broad nutrition categories (formerly known as “food groups”). The human body requires gram quantities of macronutrients each day for energy and sustenance.
There are five major classes of macronutrients:
- Carbohydrates – Carbohydrates are complex biomolecules that form the starch, sugar, and fiber found in many grains, vegetables, and fruit. Eating carbohydrates provides four calories per gram, and the right carbs are an important source of energy and necessary fiber.
- Protein – Composed of amino acids, protein is the building block of tissue and can provide fuel for high-intensity energy expenditure. Found in foods like eggs, fish, and tofu, protein supplies four calories per gram consumed.
- Fats – In nutrition, healthy fats refer to ester or fatty acids used as an energy source and for important chemical reactions within the body. You can find this necessary nutrient in foods like olive oil, avocado, walnuts, and salmon. Fats supply nine calories per gram consumed.
- Fiber – Dietary fiber is a necessary macronutrient essential to digestive and gut health.
- Water – Water is an inorganic, essential macronutrient vital for the survival of all living things.
Think of macronutrients as “big picture” foods that most people need in fairly large quantities. The word macronutrients derives from the Greek prefix makros, meaning “large.” For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides the following guidelines for macronutrient consumption:
- Carbohydrates – 45-65% of daily calories
- Protein – 10-35% of daily calories
- Fats – 20-35% of daily caloric intake (healthy fats only)
- Fiber – 25-30 grams of dietary fiber each day
- Water – Approximately 3.7 liters (men) or 2.7 liters (women); adjust intake with any rigorous physical activity
What are Micronutrients?
Micronutrients are the four classes of essential vitamins and minerals. These vitamins and minerals can have a major impact on wellness. Fortunately, micronutrients go a long way when consumed in the right amount. Whereas the human body consumes macronutrients in grams, it requires micronutrients in quantities of fewer than 100 milligrams each day. (The term micronutrients derives from the Greek prefix mikros, meaning “small.”)
The four classes of micronutrients are as follows:
- Water-Soluble Vitamins – These vitamins dissolve easily in water with by-products readily excreting from the body after use. Examples of water-soluble vitamins include vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, biotin, and pantothenic acid. The body does not produce water-soluble vitamins on its own, so you usually have to get them from food (e.g. vitamin C from oranges or strawberries).
- Fat-Soluble Vitamins – These vitamins dissolve in lipids. The body tends to store fat-soluble vitamins longer by slowly absorbing them through the intestinal tract. Examples include vitamins A, D, E, and K.
- Microminerals – Microminerals provide specific, often structure roles in your body. Examples include calcium (essential for teeth and bones), magnesium (important for blood regulation), sodium (helps maintain fluid balance), and potassium (important for nerve and muscle function).
- Trace Minerals – These are small compounds necessary for a range of biochemical processes. Examples include iron, zinc, copper, iodine, selenium, and manganese.
Dietary guidelines for micronutrients often depend on age and body size. If you feel that you might have a micronutrient deficiency, speak with your physician for an official investigation. Suggested quantities for selected micronutrients include the following examples:
- Vitamin C – 90 mg for men; 75 mg for women
- Vitamin E – 15 mg
- Vitamin D – 600 international units (IU)
- Vitamin B12 – 2.4 mcg
- Folate – 400 mg
- Calcium – 1,000 mg
- Potassium – 4,700 mg
- Iron – 8 mg for men; 18 mg for women
- Copper – 900 mcg
- Zinc – 11 mg for men; 8 mg for women
Note: All examples refer to individuals ages 19-50.
Why Do Some Nutrition Programs Emphasize “Counting Macros”?
You may notice that some popular fitness programs (such as the ketogenic diet or the paleo diet) require quantifying macros for best results. The reason is that from a micronutrient perspective, these diets emphasize whole foods that provide energy and sustenance like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and lean protein. In addition, these meal plans depend on the individual to obtain micronutrients through antioxidant foods or a high-quality supplement.
Are Micronutrients More Important Than Macronutrients?
Both macronutrients and micronutrients are important to achieve balanced bodily functions. For example, macronutrients are necessary to build and regrow tissues, maintain internal body temperature, and regulate energy expenditure. In comparison, micronutrients are critical to most chemical reactions within the body.
Another distinction is that while most foods contain at least one of the major macronutrients (such as carbohydrates or protein), there is no real guarantee that a food contains any singular micronutrient (such as calcium or vitamin C). This is especially true for processed foods. For this reason, many dieticians recommend always choosing nutrient-dense or antioxidant-rich foods to ensure the recommended intake of vitamins and minerals.
The Bottom Line
Macronutrients and micronutrients are the two major categories that comprise a well-balanced meal plan. While you may monitor macros in terms of caloric intake, it is also important to get the micros necessary the body’s important daily functions. The great news is that the most nutrient-dense foods can supply the recommended amounts of both essential categories.