Both macronutrients and micronutrients are essential for overall health— but just how much of each macronutrient do you need? What are macronutrients anyway? And what about micronutrients? What micronutrients do you need?
Below, we’ll dissect micronutrients vs. macronutrients and give you a better picture of what a balanced diet should look like.
As the prefix “macro” suggests, macronutrients are the nutrients your body needs in large amounts to function. There are three types of macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fats.
Micronutrients, on the other hand, are smaller nutrition categories. Individual vitamins and minerals are classified as micronutrients. Your body needs smaller total amounts of micronutrients compared to macronutrients — hence, “micro.” Unlike macronutrients, micronutrients do not contribute any calories to the diet.
Along with fats and carbohydrates, protein is considered a macronutrient. All macronutrients are essential, meaning that you need all 3 through the diet for survival.
You may have heard the phrase “counting macros” before. “Counting macros” refers to a diet approach in which a person tries to eat a certain percentage of calories from each macronutrient type. This percentage varies based on your end-goal. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, your macronutrient breakdown is likely around 30% protein, 40% carbohydrate and 30% fat. If your focus is on building muscle, your macronutrient breakdown may be closer to 25% protein, 55% carbohydrate and 20% fat.
For a complete diet, you need adequate amounts of all three — protein, carbohydrates and fats. Some people find that diets that emphasize certain macronutrients over the others (such as the keto diet or a very low fat diet) do help them keep in line with their goals and achieve results quicker; however, a diet that eliminates or heavily restricts one of the three macronutrients is often not sustainable.
Protein is a macronutrient that’s used to repair and maintain your body tissues, including muscle. If your goal is to build muscle, then it’s important that you’re getting the right amount of protein in your diet. Muscle protein synthesis — the naturally occurring process in which protein is produced to repair muscle damage caused by exercise — is maximized when you consume doses of around 20–25 grams of a high-quality protein.
Protein is not only important for building muscle, but also energy: A 2016 study published in the Annual Review of Nutrition titled “The macronutrients, appetite and energy intake” notes that protein plays a central role in the maintenance of energy balance. Researchers found that rodents fed a protein deficient diet or animals experiencing protein stress spontaneously select high protein diets under choice feeding conditions. Such a specific appetite does not exist for carbohydrate or fat. Lower energy levels are associated with hunger, and additional research with healthy humans showed high protein intake resulted in lower hunger.
There’s no doubt that protein is an essential part of a healthy diet. But according to the same study referenced above, it’s important to remember that each of the macronutrients — protein, carbohydrate and fat — has a unique set of properties that influence health. That’s why every diet should still involve a balance of all three, with the amounts varying based on your wellness or fitness goals.
In fact, a different study published in the New England Journal of Medicine titled “Comparison of Weight-Loss Diets with Different Compositions of Fat, Protein, and Carbohydrates” found that reduced-calorie diets resulted in clinically meaningful weight loss, regardless of which macronutrients each participant emphasized. For the study, researchers randomly assigned 811 overweight adults to one of four diets. Each diet varied in its amounts of fat, protein and carbohydrates. Some diets had a breakdown that included as much as 65% carbohydrates with very little fat and protein; other diets placed an emphasis on protein and heavily restricted carbohydrates and fats. The diets consisted of similar foods and met guidelines for cardiovascular health. At the end of the study, researchers found that balance of all three macronutrients and reduced calories overall proved to be most important for weight loss in participants — not an “elimination” or emphasis on any one macronutrient. A strategic balance of all three macronutrients was needed for optimal results.
As you know, macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates and fats.
Some food examples of healthy proteins include:
Lean meats such as chicken or turkey
Fish and seafood
Dairy products such as milk and Greek yogurt
Examples of healthy carbs include:
Whole grains such as brown rice and cereals
Starchy vegetables such as potatoes and corn
Finally, examples of healthy fats include:
Nuts and nut butters
Olive oils, plant oils
And for micronutrients, this category refers to vitamins and minerals. As mentioned above, your body requires smaller amounts of micronutrients relative to macronutrients. That said, getting micronutrients through whole foods or supplements is essential, as your body needs them but cannot produce most of them on its own. Vitamins are compounds made by plants and animals which can be broken down by heat, acid or air, while minerals exist in soil or water and cannot be broken down. Both vitamins and minerals are vital for growth, immunity, brain development and many other necessary body functions.
Micronutrients can be broken down further into four categories: water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins, macrominerals and trace minerals.
Water-soluble vitamins dissolve in water. They’re not easy to store in your body, as your body flushes them out of your system with urine. Some functions of water-soluble vitamins include helping nutrients convert into energy (mostly the work of the B vitamins) and repairing and protecting the skin (that’s vitamin C). Water-soluble vitamins are:
Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
Vitamin B3 (niacin)
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
Vitamin B7 (biotin)
Vitamin B9 (folate)
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
You can get your water-soluble vitamins mainly through foods like whole grains (thiamine), meat and seafood (thiamine, niacin, pantothenic acid, folate, cobalamin), veggies (niacin, pyridoxine, biotin, folate, ascorbic acid), organ meats and eggs (riboflavin, biotin) and citrus fruits (ascorbic acid).
Unlike water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins do not dissolve in water. Instead, they’re stored in your liver and fatty tissues. These vitamins promote healthy organ function and immune function, bone development and blood clotting. Fat-soluble vitamins include:
You can get fat-soluble vitamins through foods like sweet potatoes and carrots (vitamin A), leafy greens (vitamin K), fish and fish oil (vitamin A, vitamin D), sunflower seeds and almonds (vitamin E).
As for minerals, the “macro” prefix comes into play again with macrominerals, as these minerals are needed in larger amounts than trace minerals. Macrominerals help regulate blood pressure and maintain fluid balance and bone structure. These include:
You can find macrominerals in foods like milk products (calcium, phosphorus), nuts (magnesium), salt (sodium, chloride), bananas (potassium) and eggs, garlic and onions (sulfur).
And then finally, there are trace minerals, which help form healthy tissues, provide oxygen to muscles and assist in thyroid health. These include:
You can get your trace minerals in foods like red meat and beans (iron), oysters, crab and cod (manganese, zinc, copper, fluoride, iodine), pecans and peanuts (manganese) and Brazil nuts (selenium).
Gainful believes there’s nothing more personal than your health because everybody — and every body — is different. You want to make sure you’re getting the essential nutrients your body needs to achieve your own personal goals, whether that’s increasing muscle mass, losing body weight and reducing body fat or simply prioritizing your overall health and giving your energy levels a boost.
If you still need help settling any confusion over micronutrients vs. macronutrients, Gainful is here to assist you: Each subscriber has unlimited access to a personal Registered Dietitian. Your R.D. is there to answer any questions you may have about maintaining a balanced diet or incorporating nutrient-dense foods into your meals.
Always remember you can turn to Gainful as your trusted nutrition resource.