What are Macronutrients (Macros)?
In terms of health and fitness, macronutrients are most often defined to be the chemical compounds that humans consume in large quantities that provide bulk energy. Specifically, they refer to carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
Micronutrients are another essential part of human nutrition and consist of vitamins and dietary minerals such as Vitamin A, copper, iron, and iodine. While macronutrients are necessary daily in amounts on the order of grams, humans typically only need fewer than 100 milligrams of micronutrients each day.
Proteins are organic compounds comprised of amino acids, and are one of the types of macronutrients. Amino acids are essential to a person’s well-being, and there are certain amino acids that can only be obtained through diet. These amino acids are typically referred to as “essential amino acids,” and are obtained by humans and other animals through the consumption of protein.
There are numerous sources of protein, both animal (meat, dairy, etc.) and plant-based (beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, etc.). There also exist protein supplements that are sometimes used by people who are trying to build muscle. Although protein is a necessary part of the human diet, as with most things, moderation is important. There are also healthier and unhealthier proteins.
Healthier proteins include:
- Skinless poultry
- Lean beef
- Low-fat dairy products
Unhealthier proteins include:
- Fried meats
- Processed meats (deli meats, sausages, fast-food burgers etc.)
- High sugar yogurts
- Processed protein bars
- Many kinds of cheese
Carbohydrates, often referred to as simply “carbs,” are compounds that are typically classified as sugar, starch, or fiber. Sugar is the simplest form of carbohydrate, while starch and fiber are complex carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are often also classified based on the number of saccharides that comprise them: monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides. Monosaccharides and disaccharides are often referred to as “simple carbohydrates,” while oligosaccharides and polysaccharides are referred to as “complex carbohydrates.”
Glucose is a monosaccharide and is one of the key sources of energy for humans, as well as other animals. Polysaccharides such as cellulose cannot be easily metabolized by many organisms, including humans, but can still provide them with valuable dietary fibers, which helps with digestion. Too many carbohydrates in the form of sugar (common in processed foods) can have negative health effects, but more complex carbohydrates (from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, etc.), particularly those that provide dietary fibers, are beneficial, and necessary for the human body.
Fats are molecules that are comprised primarily of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Common examples include cholesterol, phospholipids, and triglycerides. Although fats, in the context of nutrition, are typically viewed as unhealthy, they have both structural as well as metabolic functions, and are a necessary part of the human diet. They are also highly energy dense and are the most efficient form of energy storage.
Fats are typically classified based on the bonding of carbon atoms. In terms of dietary fats, the most commonly referenced fats include saturated fats, unsaturated fats, trans fats, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids. Generally, saturated and trans fats are considered unhealthy fats, while monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and omega-3 fatty acids are considered to be healthier, better sources of fat for the body.
General recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for 2015-2020 include entirely avoiding trans fats where possible, limiting saturated fat intake to comprise less than 10% of calories consumed per day, and ideally replacing saturated fats in the diet with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.