What's the Difference Between Macronutrients and Micronutrients?


A simple "salad" of avocado, hard-boiled egg and red quinoa is not only healthy, it's also a great source of both micro and macronutrients. lacaosa/Getty Images

Once upon a time, calories bore the brunt of dieters' ire. Would-be weight watchers meticulously crunched numbers on nutrition labels, and brands made major bucks shilling snacks made of little more than artificial sweeteners and air.

Then, as the world learned more about the potential waistline-expanding (and unhealthy) power of processed sugars, many people began paying less attention to their total caloric intake and more attention to the composition of their meals.

Focusing on quality over quantity isn't a bad idea, since nutritionists are adamant that not all calories are created equal (meaning your body will process 100 calories of kale much differently than it will process 100 calories of Nutella ... which, sadly, isn't very much Nutella). But breaking down the benefits of what's on your plate requires some basic knowledge of the building blocks of food.

Do You Even Count Macros?

Should you ever find yourself down an Instagram fitspo rabbit hole, you may be overwhelmed by the amount of talk about "macros." Along with pounding protein powder and nailing deadlifts, fitness enthusiasts often discuss the practice of counting macronutrients to hit their goals.

Macronutrients are what constitute the calories you eat, and they can be broken down into the following categories (experts often also tack on water and fiber to this list):

  • Carbohydrates
  • Proteins (including essential amino acids)
  • Fats (including essential fatty acids)

Different types of macronutrients have different amounts of calories per serving: fats yield 9 calories per gram, while proteins and carbs contain 4 calories per gram. Dietitians generally recommend divvying up your diet so you get a variety of macros, since each type provides different payoffs:

  • Carbs found in foods like grains, fruits, beans and veggies fuel your brain and body with energy.
  • Protein in meat, dairy, eggs, tofu and legumes helps repair and build your muscles, skin and organs, and aids in hormonal production.
  • Fats found in foods like avocados, olive oil, seeds and nuts are stored in your body and then used as backup fuel, and protect and insulate your organs and bones.

Everyone's nutritional needs are different, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services generally recommends the following daily macro ranges for adults:

  • 45 to 65 percent of your diet from carbs
  • 10 to 35 percent of your diet from protein
  • 20 to 35 percent of your diet from fat

Micros Matter Too

Dr. Donald Hensrud, head of the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, recently talked about micro and macronutrients in an edition of "Mayo Clinic Minute." "We need both macronutrients to help with energy, and we need micronutrients to help our body be healthy and digest those macronutrients," he said.

The World Health Organization has an even more colorful definition of micronutrients. "Called micronutrients because they are needed only in minuscule amounts, these substances are the 'magic wands' that enable the body to produce enzymes, hormones and other substances essential for proper growth and development."

What both of those definitions mean, essentially, is that micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals found in food, and as you can imagine, there are a ton that keep your brain and body in top shape. They typically fall into the following categories:

  • Water-soluble vitamins: Vitamin C, B complex (biotin, folate, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin/vitamin B2, thiamine/vitamin B1, vitamin B6/pyridoxine, and vitamin B12/cobalamin).
  • Fat-soluble vitamins: Vitamins A (retinol), D (cholecalciferol and ergocalciferol), E (alpha-tocopherol), and K (phylloquinone and menaquinone).
  • Essential trace minerals: Chromium, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, and zinc.

About 30 vitamins and minerals are considered "essential" — that means your body can't manufacture enough of them on its own, so you need to get them from food. And five micronutrients — vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, and zinc — are important for keeping your immune system boosted, so it's a good idea to ensure your food choices are chock full of them.

And one last thing: There's no evidence popping over-the-counter micronutrient-heavy pills will keep that cold at bay. As Dr. Howard D. Sesso, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told Harvard Health, "You should ideally try to meet your vitamin and mineral needs through your diet rather than supplements." So eat up — just make sure you're eating the right stuff.


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