What are Macronutrients?

Understanding carbs, fat and protein.

With the popularity of counting macros, people are more aware than ever of what macronutrients are, yet there is still a lot of misunderstanding about carbs, fat and protein that can make eating stressful. This post answers the question “what are macronutrients” and will hopefully help you feel less stressed knowing how to feed yourself!

There is so much misunderstanding about macronutrients, however, some basic understanding of them can be really helpful in making food and eating decisions.

So, What Are Macronutrients?

Macronutrients are nutrients in food that break down to provide your body with energy (aka calories). The three primary macronutrients in food are carbs, fat, and protein.

Humans don’t photosynthesize. We don’t fill up our tank with petrol or plug into batteries. We eat food, and that’s how our body obtains energy to breathe, walk, talk, think, and do all our daily activities. Macronutrients are the compounds that provide your body with energy. They break down into smaller units that are absorbed into the bloodstream during digestion, and eventually distributed to cells so they can do their thing.

The term "macro" means large, meaning these nutrients are needed in large amounts, and that they are larger chemical compounds. This is opposed to micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, which are also important, but needed in smaller amounts for human functioning. Also, while micronutrients are needed in various metabolic reactions to convert macronutrients to energy, and in other bodily processes, they do not break down to provide the body with energy.

What are Macronutrients: Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel. They break down into monosaccharides - simple sugars that include glucose, fructose, and galactose (although often these are grouped together and referred to as glucose). There are three main types of carbohydrates found in food: sugars, starches and fibre. Most carbohydrate containing foods will have a combination of these three. We’ll also note, fibre is a type of carbohydrate that does not break down to provide the body with energy, but it does play other important roles, including aiding digestion, supporting healthy blood sugar levels, and promoting satiety.

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel, including the only source of fuel your brain can use. Technically, your body has a backup fuel source through ketosis, which produces energy your brain can use in the absence of adequate carbohydrate. A good thing because otherwise we would go braindead if you went too long without eating or went on a low carb diet! However, this is a backup system designed to protect you against starvation and death, and has side effects including loss of muscle mass, headache, fatigue, nausea, cramping and funky breath/body odour. Because carbs are so essential, one doesn’t need to go into ketosis to have side effects of inadequate carbohydrate intake. Not eating enough carbs can lead to difficulty concentrating, fatigue, anxiety, mood swings (hello hanger), and extreme hunger as your body signals its internal fuel tank is low.

Carbs are found in the following foods:

  • Grains - anything made with flour (i.e., bread, pasta, baked goods, tortillas, cereals, crackers, pretzels, etc), rice, quinoa, oats, corn, millet, teff, barley, buckwheat, etc.

  • Beans and pulses - black beans, chickpeas, lentils, butter beans, pinto beans, etc.

  • Starchy vegetables - potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, parsnips, etc.

  • Milk and yogurt

  • Fruit

  • Table sugar and other sweeteners (i.e., maple syrup, honey, agave, etc.)

  • Non-starchy vegetables - non-starchy vegetables like tomatoes, zucchini, lettuces, etc. contain verysmall amounts of carbohydrate, and mostly fibre, but we’ll include them here.

What Are Macronutrients: Fat

Fat is the most calorie-rich macronutrient. It breaks down into fatty acids to provide our body with energy. Diet culture says this is a bad thing, but fat provides some major satisfaction factor to meals. Besides being a rich source of energy, fat plays many essential roles in the body. Dietary fat provides the body with essential fatty acids, structural compounds the body cannot make itself and can only obtain through food. Fat is also needed to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E and K. Fats are needed to create hormones, and supports healthy skin and hair. They are also essential to brain health, as the brain is composed of 60% fat.

Fats are found in the following foods:

  • Oils - olive, canola, sunflower, vegetable, soybean, sesame, peanut, etc

  • Butter, lard, shortening and margarine

  • Full fat and reduced fat dairy

  • Eggs

  • Meat, poultry, and some types of fish

  • Nuts & seeds

  • Avocado

What Are Macronutrients: Protein

Protein breaks down into amino acids. Most people are aware that protein is needed to build muscle, but it has many other functions as well. The amino acids obtained from protein are used in the growth and maintenance of all body tissues, to create enzymes needed in the thousands of different enzymatic reactions that take place in your body, as messengers between cells, and to create hormones.

Protein is found in the following foods:

  • Meat and poultry

  • Fish and seafood

  • Eggs

  • Dairy - milk, yogurt, cheese

  • Beans and pulses - black beans, chickpeas, lentils, butter beans, pinto beans, etc.

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Soy products - tofu, tempeh, soybeans

  • Meat alternatives - Beyond/Impossible Burger, foods made with wheat gluten/seitan, etc

*Common Sources

We’ve listed these above foods as the most common sources of the macronutrients, but please note that most foods contain a mixture of macronutrients. For example, milk contains fat, protein and carbohydrate, beans contain protein and carbs, and eggs contain protein and fat.

How Much Carbs, Fat and Protein Should You Eat?

This is really dependant on your goals, lifestyle, likes and dislikes. But what is important to remember is that you are consuming a combination of all macronutrients as they each play vital roles in the body.

For simplicity sake, here’s the percentage of caloric intake recommended for each of the three macronutrients:

Carbs: 45-65%

Fat: 20-35%

Protein: 20-35%

As you can see, these are pretty wide percentage ranges!

Without knowing much about your personal situation it is pretty challenging to give any kind of precise gram recommendation.

Here's our take: for most people, the majority of your energy intake should come from carbohydrates. It's the body’s main and preferred source of energy. Plus, carbohydrates are extremely common in food, especially the foods we do best eating more of.

You should also ensure you are getting enough protein within your diet – it is not uncommon for people to under consume protein.

That said, beyond that, it’s pretty tough to give precise recommendations. People vary in their health needs, taste and cultural preferences. One day varies from the next. And that’s OK!

*Please note that these are general recommendations, and some people may naturally eat outside these ranges, and that’s OK! Also, you might find that on certain days you eat more or less of certain macronutrients.

What Macronutrient is Best - Carbs, Fat or Protein?

Each of the three macronutrients are essential - we don’t consider one to be better or more essential than another. We all need adequate amounts of fat, protein and carbohydrate for our body to function and feel it's best.

But then there's the question of what's right for you. Different people with different bodies and different activity levels and different genetics thrive on different macronutrient balances. Some people may notice they feel better eating a dietary pattern that’s more carbohydrate rich, while others may notice they feel better eating meals that are more focused on proteins or fats. Some people may need to focus on different nutrients above others for a variety of reasons.

How Do I Eat a Balance of Macronutrients?

Getting a balanced meal is helpful for satisfaction, keeping blood sugar levels steady, and getting a variety of nutrients. But what does it mean to eat a balanced meal? Is there a right amount of carbs, fat and protein to be eating at each meal for it to be considered balanced?

There’s no “right” way to balance your plate. To us, a balanced meal means you’re eating a satisfying amount of food, and there’s some amount of carbs, fat, and protein involved, and ideally some produce as well. That doesn’t mean a meal that is missing or light in a macronutrient is wrong, it just might not be as satisfying.

We hope this blog post answered some of your burning questions about macronutrients, and helps you feel more secure in knowing how to feed yourself in a flexible way.

Let us know if you have any specific questions related to this topic!