"Do you keep track of your macros?" This fairly common question among today's health enthusiasts may not have made sense to those with nutritional knowledge of the past. Macros, short for macronutrients, are the building blocks of any diet. Break down food into its basic molecular components and you will find the proteins, fats and carbohydrates that give us the energy to live. And it is becoming more common to pay close attention to what proportions you eat, whether your goal is weight loss, muscle building, less hunger or just improving general health.
Your body uses proteins to build and repair muscles, organs and other tissues in your body. So even if you're not working on your bulging biceps, you need enough protein in your diet to keep your body functioning. For example, hemoglobin – the molecule that makes your red blood cells carry oxygen around the body – is a protein. Proteins are also important for building components of your immune system, hormones, neurotransmitters and many structures in each of your cells.
Proteins are made from different combinations of amino acids. The body can make many amino acids itself, but there are nine amino acids that you can only get from your diet – these are called the essential amino acids. People following a diet that contains animal protein typically have no problem getting them all, but vegans and vegetarians should be sure to consume high-protein foods such as beans, nuts and seeds to meet their protein needs.
The current recommended daily amount of protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. That's about 73 grams for a 200-pound person. However, studies have suggested that it is more of a minimum for a healthy diet. The jury does not yet know what the upper limit for dietary protein is, although it is known that excessive protein consumption can lead to this kidney stonesNot to mention the side effects associated with eating too much of certain foods, such as red meat, including high cholesterol and heart disease.
Protein also makes your body feel full. A recent guide published in the British Journal of Diabetes explained that people naturally want to keep eating until they get enough protein, which can lead to overeating if your meal is out of balance. Their suggestion? Make sure your meal has 15 percent of the calories from protein – even if that means swapping a McDonald's Big Mac for a double cheeseburger, which has a similar amount of protein, but fewer calories and carbs.
Fats are still recovering from the undeserved bad reputation they had in the 90s. More recent research has shown that, perhaps counterintuitively, it's not necessarily fat-containing foods that make a human, well, fatIn fact, fats are a crucial part of any balanced diet.
Fats come in two forms: saturated and unsaturated. The two come from different sources, and their chemical differences affect how you cook with them and how they affect your health. Saturated fats come from animal products and are firmer (photo: butter, cheese or lard). They have also been strongly associated with high cholesterol and increased risk of cardiovascular disease, therefore it is recommended to limit them in your diet. Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, come from plants. This includes olive oil or the fats in nuts and avocados. These are considered healthy fats – your body needs them just like it needs proteins to build and repair. Every cell in your body has a membrane made of lipids or fats. Body fat is also important for that cushioning of your internal organs and the absorption of nutrients.
By the way: The saturated term refers to hydrogen atoms covering fat molecules. Both saturated and unsaturated fats have these atoms, but saturated fat molecules contain as many hydrogen atoms as their chemical formula can contain. This is also why the "hydrogenated oil" in your peanut butter is considered a saturated fat, even though it comes from a vegetable source – it has been chemically modified with hydrogen atoms to make it that way. While this may seem like a slight difference in the chemical formula, it changes how the fat molecules behave in your bloodstream and whether they raise or lower your cholesterol.
Carbohydrates are the starches and sugars in our diet, and they provide us with energy. That's because your body converts the carbohydrates you eat into glucose – your so-called blood sugar nourishes your body cells and brain.
The two types of carbohydrates are simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are already in the form of sugar and are found in foods such as honey, fruits and dairy products containing lactose. Complex carbohydrates are starches, such as potatoes and grains. These are larger carbohydrate molecules and your body takes longer to digest, causing glucose to enter your bloodstream more slowly.
Some people swear by low-carbohydrate diets as a weight loss strategy, but researchers have not yet been able to confirm the long-term safety of eating in this way – especially low-carb diets like keto. While there are numerous theories as to why this seems to work for some people, researchers agree that it works when it makes people eat fewer calories in an easy, sustainable way.
Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals your body needs to maintain good health. Six of the most essential micronutrients for health are iron, vitamin A, vitamin D, iodine, folic acid (vitamin B9) and zinc. They are called "micro" because you need them in much smaller amounts than the macronutrients for your health, but that doesn't make them any less important. Vitamin A deficiency, for example, can lead to blindness while iron is essential so that your hemoglobin continues to carry oxygen throughout your body.
While taking a multivitamin is in theory a good way to make sure you're getting all of your micronutrients – research has repeatedly shown shown that they don't actually work and that eating a balanced diet is a better way to get your vitamins and minerals.
But with fad diets on the rise, many people are choosing to eat explicitly not-balanced diet. A study from 2020 in Food Science & Nutrition found that cohorts of people on high-fiber or low-carbohydrate diets were not getting enough micronutrientsAnytime you cut something out of your diet, it's important to know what else you could be losing.
How much do you need?
Nutritional advice is difficult, because everyone is so different. Researchers are constantly learning more about how different macro and micronutrients affect our health. If you are looking for numbers, this online calculator gives you recommendations for your macronutrients and micronutrients based on your height, weight, age, gender and activity level. Ultimately, however, you need to find a nutritional plan that is right for you and approved by your doctor.