What are Macronutrients?

Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fat. You’ve heard all of these terms at some point; sometimes praised, sometimes demonized, what foods have each of them in it, and how much of each you need in your diet. Although rightfully popular terms, considering these are the three basic building blocks of all food that we consume, but I’d venture to say many of us do not actually know what these are and what they do for us.

By the title of this post you might could guess the term for these three building blocks of nutrition: we call them Macronutrients. By definition, macronutrients are a type of food required in large amounts. Without getting to scientific, macronutrients break down in our body once we digest them to provide energy. This energy is what we refer to as calories.

What are fats, proteins, and carbohydrates? Why do we need them?

Fat is a compound made from fatty acids. It is the richest form of energy per gram and they play a large part in many of the body’s essential functions. Fat is needed to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, form hormones, support healthy hair, skin and brain health.

Proteins are made up of amino acids. It’s a common knowledge to most that proteins are needed to build muscle, but that isn’t the only reason great attribute protein has. Protein is important for building, maintaining, and repairing all the tissues in our body.

Carbohydrate are all types of sugars. Not just the white sugar you put in your coffee either, these are monosaccharides and disaccharides. Before you think we are getting too scientific for you, these are simply just types of sugars. Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the body. Our bodies quite literally run off of majority carbohydrates.

What foods have which macronutrient?

First and foremost, it’s important to state that most foods contain a combination of all macronutrients. For example, carbohydrate is the main macronutrient in rice, but it also contains some protein and even a small amount of fat. But it is true that each food source has a dominant macronutrient in it. Here are some easy examples:

FAT: any type of oil, butter, fish, eggs, meat, dairy, nuts, nut butters, seeds, avocados

Healthier fats: extra virgin olive oil, fatty fish, avocado, olives, organic/ grass-fed animal foods, nuts & seeds

CARBOHYDRATES: grains (wheat, barley, rye, quinoa, rice), fruits, all vegetables, dairy, beans, fruit, added sugars

Healthier carbohydrates: whole grains, vegetables (both non-starchy and starchy), beans, fresh whole fruit

PROTEIN: any poultry, meat or fish; eggs, tofu/tempeh, meat alternatives, beans, dairy, nuts, seeds

Healthy proteins: all listed above are healthy choices but concerning meats- the cut of meat and preparation will greatly determine how lean the source of protein is or not. For example, a breaded and fried chicken wing will have a higher fat content and more calories per gram than a grilled chicken breast. Both are chicken and both are sources of protein, but not equal in calories.

 An Ahi Tuna Poke Bowl w/ a side of Brussel Sprouts. I had at a local restaurant. Represents all the macronutrients. Rice was complex carb, tuna was protein, and the butter on the Brussels, as well as the mayonnaise based shrimp sauce on the side were my fats. AND IT WAS SO GOOD.

An Ahi Tuna Poke Bowl w/ a side of Brussel Sprouts. I had at a local restaurant. Represents all the macronutrients. Rice was complex carb, tuna was protein, and the butter on the Brussels, as well as the mayonnaise based shrimp sauce on the side were my fats. AND IT WAS SO GOOD.

Is there a certain amount of each macronutrient I should eat?

This is a really, really common question. I’ve heard all different types of answers too. And really, as unpopular as this answer may be- it really is totally relative to the individual.

There are some definite answers though:

1) we need all three macronutrients in our diet

2) our body runs most efficiently off of carbohydrates, so for most people- this will always be the greatest percentage of your diet. They are quite literally your main energy source. That said, protein and fat have their very important place, as well.

As a good rule of thumb, The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institutes of Medicine (IOM) calculated an acceptable macronutrient distribution range:

Carbohydrate: 45%-65% of energy

Protein: 10%-35% of energy

Fat: 20%-35% of energy; limit saturated and trans fats

So as you can tell, no individual person needs the same percentage of each macronutrient or there wouldn’t be a range. Especially not this broad of a range. It really is all about what works best for your body and lifestyle. These ranges are just the baseline. For example, an active person might need on the upper end of the carbohydrate percentage- like 60-65%- because they are burning more carbohydrates than an inactive person. Even then, it can vary day to day. It just depends. Some people also thrive on a higher fat or higher protein diet. Really experiment with this until you find something that works best for you and your body.

When we listen to our body, it will tell us how it feels. Meal to meal and day to day. The problem is that we rarely check-in after a meal or after a day of eating. Take a second to notice these habits and choices, then be willing to change it up. If you are intentional about it, sooner or later you will find a pattern that makes you feel your best This is a large part of an eating style I follow, called Intuitive Eating (if you’re unfamiliar with this word, I highly recommend you read the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch or articles like this about it).

For myself, I really thrive off of higher protein and fat, with an average carbohydrate intake. Do I monitor this very rigidly and keep up with the percentages of each macronutrient? NO. Who has time for that?? Not me. I also know that if I don’t have some form of starchy vegetable or grain at dinner I usually won’t be satisfied very long after. If I don’t have protein and fat at breakfast I don’t have as much energy for my day. BUT AGAIN, it is all relative on the day. How active I was, what I’m in the mood for, how much time I have, what I have on hand. It is SO varied. I should also add that these are things I’ve noticed after years of taking mental notes of my eating habits and meal choices. It takes time. You won’t learn these personal dietary needs overnight. But when you do start to pick up on these things, it is SO helpful. No counting, no meal plans, just following what your body wants and needs. And knowing you can trust that.

 Panera choice on a random Sunday. My Panera order changes every time, but this particular day I had a Cobb salad w/ a french baguette (best bread in my humble opinion) and an apple.  

Panera choice on a random Sunday. My Panera order changes every time, but this particular day I had a Cobb salad w/ a french baguette (best bread in my humble opinion) and an apple.  

Is one macronutrient better than another?

Like we’ve mentioned above, there is not a macronutrient that is “better” and each macronutrient presents a different purpose. But all are EQUALLY good for you. I cannot stress that enough. Sure, are there more natural, whole-food options to choose from each macronutrient? Yes. I believe our bodies run best on majority whole-food sources BUT please please please do not demonize any food group. Life’s too short to micromanage every little thing you eat.

Food and your body are not reasons for living; loving people and pursuing purpose are. Food and body are both just means to help you have and pursue meaningful relationships and accomplishments.

I know I am getting a master’s in Nutrition and plan to become a Registered Dietitian, so I hope this gave you a general educated overview of what macronutrients are and how they relate to body, because the science behind nutrition is important to me. However, understanding how macronutrients relate to your body is the real important take away here. Knowing how nutrition and health as a whole relate to your health and wellness journey is my point I want you to see. That’s what I am all about. That’s what I believe resonates with people and how a healthy lifestyle is lived out well. Cutting out all carbs, eating triple your body weight in grams of protein, extremely low fat, high fat or whatever the diet craze is- if you are doing it because someone else is telling you that you should- that is NOT a sustainable or healthy reason. You have to do what is right for you and your body. Rigid rules dictated by diets forces you to ignore your individual needs. The human body is smart and can adapt to a variety of diet patterns and foods – trust that. Not a TV add or magazine.

If you have any other nutrition-related questions, feel free to email or comment to ask! That’s what I am here for!

Have a beautiful day lovelies!

Kaitlyn Cupples