Macronutrients vs Micronutrients: The Complete Guide
By Scott Burgett | 3.4.19
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Macronutrients and micronutrients are the basis of human metabolism. Each of them plays a specific role in the body that helps us grow, repair, and fend off disease.
While macronutrients make up where we get our calories to grow, micronutrients represent the vitamins and minerals that helps our cells function optimally.
This article will break down the difference between macronutrients vs micronutrients.
Additionally, you’ll learn the functions, food sources, daily needs, and benefits of each.
What are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients are the building blocks of our body. They are primarily made up of three categories – protein, carbohydrates, and fat – and are the building blocks of our diet.
Each macronutrient provides us with energy (calories) and helps our body grow and repair itself. The term macro itself means “large”, alluding to the fact that we need these nutrients in larger quantities.
Macronutrients are typically measured in calories.
However, there are two exceptions to this rule – water and alcohol.
In addition to protein, carbohydrates, and fats, the fourth and fifth macronutrients are water and alcohol.
Water is essential to life and consumed in large quantities. That’s why it qualifies as a macronutrient.
Although it does not provide our body with calories, it helps with other important functions like nutrient transport, waste clearing, and protecting our organs.
Alcohol is just the opposite. It is not essential to life and is actually interpreted as a poison in our body, but it still provides energy through calories. That is why alcohol is a macronutrient.
Macronutrients supply the energy grow, and repair, and defend our body.
They are also consumed in large quantities and are calorically dense, water being the exception.
On the other hand, micronutrients play a totally different role in our survival.
Types and Functions of Macronutrients
There are three primary macronutrients in our diet – protein, carbohydrates, and fat. In addition to those, water and alcohol are also considered a macronutrient.
The functions of each macronutrient play a specific role that contributes to our nutritional needs (besides alcohol).
Often referred to as the workhorses of our diet, carbohydrates provide energy through calories. Despite what you may have read elsewhere, they are essential for human health.
Carbohydrates have three major processes:
- Fuel during high intensity exercise
- Spares protein (to preserve muscle mass during exercise)
- Fuel for the Central Nervous System (aka your brain)
Additionally, one gram of carbohydrates has four calories.
The recommended daily allowance for carbohydrates ranges between 45 percent to 65 percent daily calories. Sedentary people are best at the lower end, and active people, at the higher end.
Plant Based Carbohydrate Sources
Stick to nutrient dense carbohydrates sources that come from whole foods. Foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils, and other fiber-rich foods.
Avoid foods high in refined sugar (candy or soda) or highly processed (packaged sweets and snacks).
Fats play a central role as a macronutrient by providing the body with long-term energy. Even in their role as an essential macronutrient, they still have a poor reputation because they’re calorically dense.
One gram of fat has nine calories, so overeating this macronutrient can pack on unwanted weight if you’re not careful.
Fats have four major bodily processes:
- Energy reserve (or long-term energy)
- Protects vital organs
- Insulation (keeps us warm)
- Transport for fat soluble vitamins
Each gram of fat yields nine calories. The recommended daily allowance from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for fat is 20 percent to 35 percent daily calories.
However, the World Health Organization recommends keeping fat under 30 percent.
Plant Based Fat Sources
Unsaturated fats are the healthiest because they contain the highest amounts of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Our body cannot make those fatty acids, which means we need to get the through our food.
The best fatty food sources include nuts, seeds, avocados and certain vegetable oils (like flaxseed, olive, and avocado).
Additionally, coconut oil produces medium-chain triglycerides, which is helpful for quick energy use and appetite control. However, because coconut oil is a saturated fat, it’s recommended to limit it and other sources to less than 10 percent of calories.
Lastly, avoid any and all trans-fats. They have been linked to increasing risk for high cholesterol, heart disease, and even stroke.
The building blocks of the body, proteins are essential to human life. Without them, we simply would not exist.
Proteins are made up of amino acids. Some are essential, meaning we must get them through our diet, and others are non-essential.
Non-essential amino acids are made by other proteins that we eat.
Proteins have several major processes in the body:
- Tissue structure (muscle, hair, skin, organs, etc.)
- Create the structure for hormones, antibodies, and other important substance
- Enzymes that regulate our metabolism
- Growth, repair, and bodily maintenance
Our protein needs can vary greatly depending on activity level or stage of life. Similar to carbohydrates, one gram of protein is four calories.
Plant Based Protein Sources
When choosing whole food plant-based protein sources, stick to foods like tofu, tempeh, natto, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Other high protein plant-based options include vital wheat gluten, vegan meat alternatives, spirulina, vegan protein powder, and lentil or chickpea pasta. Use these options less often than other whole food plant-based options above.
Lastly, as long as you are eating a variety of proteins, there is no need to combine proteins at meals. That myth as been debunked.
Similar to proteins, water is essential to survival.
Water makes up about 60 percent of our body weight and plays a part in just about every major mechanism in the body.
In effect, water plays these roles:
- Moistens tissues.
- Protects body organs and tissues.
- Helps prevent constipation.
- Helps dissolve minerals and other nutrients to make them accessible to the body.
- Regulates body temperature and lubricates joints.
- Flushes out waste products.
- Carries nutrients and oxygen to cells.
It’s no secret we need water daily, but how much exactly? Well, there’s no definitive number because we can get water from different sources (food and beverages).
However, generally speaking, men should consume 125 ounces and women 74 ounces of total water.
Experiment what amount works best for you with these numbers as a starting point.
Alcohol is a macronutrient because it provides energy through calories. Although, it is not essential to life, it’s still important to understand its effect on the body.
When alcohol enters the bloodstream, it’s registered as a poison.
Our body wants to dispel it as soon as possible to protect our organs, brain, and heart.
As it begins this process, our fat-burning processes shut down; meaning we are no longer burning carbohydrates or fat as energy, but alcohol instead.
Ever wonder why you can tear up the dance floor with a good buzz? It’s your body using alcohol as energy to burn it off and get it out.
Nutritionally speaking, one gram of alcohol has seven calories. So not only does alcohol shut down ability to burn fat, it’s calorically dense. There’s a reason they call it a beer belly.
What is a moderate amount of alcohol?
For men, two drinks daily and for women, one drink.
- Beer: 12 fluid ounces
- Wine: 5 fluid ounces
- Distilled spirits (80 proof): 1.5 fluid ounces
Although, alcohol is not all bad. In moderate amounts, it can actually offer a few health benefits.
Red wine, in particular, can help lower oxidative stress and increase antioxidant intake.
However, anything other than a moderate intake negates any of the benefits.
What are Micronutrients?
Micronutrients are made up of vitamins and minerals. They help carry out specific chemical reactions in our body, regulate hormonal function, and are vital to preventing disease.
We only need small amounts of micronutrients in our diet, hence the term “micro” nutrients.
Unlike macronutrients, micronutrients don’t provide energy through calories. However, they are still essential for growth.
Vitamins are organic compounds broken down with heat, acid, or air.
Minerals are inorganic compounds that cannot be broken down, and originate in soil and water.
In effect, we consume the vitamins and minerals that our food consumes (plants and animals alike). Since absorption rates can vary for many reasons, it’s important to eat a variety of different foods in your diet.
Types and Functions of Micronutrients
There are 26 essential vitamins and minerals that activate an endless amounts of chemical reactions.
They are crucial for good health, but unlike macronutrients, micronutrients are required in small (or trace) amounts.
Additionally, vitamins, are broken down into two categories: water-soluble and fat soluble.
These types of vitamins dissolve in water within our body. The Achilles heel of water-soluble vitamins is that since they dissolve in water, and get excreted in large amounts through waste.
Moreover, it’s easier to become deficient because of that fact.
Most vitamins in this category have similar functions. For example, B-complex vitamins (those involved in metabolism) live in this category.
The list below has all water-soluble vitamins and their high-level functions:
- Vitamin B1 (thiamine): Converts nutrients into energy.
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin): Involved with energy production, cell function and fat metabolism.
- Vitamin B3 (niacin): Produces energy from food.
- Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid): Aids in fatty acid synthesis.
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine): Creates red blood cells and use stored sugar as energy.
- Vitamin B7 (biotin): Helps break down fatty acids, amino acids and glucose (sugar) for energy.
- Vitamin B9 (folate): Assists with cell division.
- Vitamin B12 (cobalamin): Crucial for red blood cell formation, nervous system and brain function – this is essential for vegans, vegetarians, and those who eat a plant-based diet.
- Vitamin C (ascorbic acid): Required to form neurotransmitters, collagen, and is the main protein in your skin.
All play a key role in your health. Therefore, it’s imperative to eat a varied diet that is particularly rich in plant foods.
Use the chart below to understand what plant-based foods contain water-soluble vitamins:
Fat Soluble Vitamins
Contrary to water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins do not dissolve in water. In fact, they are best transported when consumed with a fatty food source.
When consumed with a fatty food, they are then shuttled the liver and fatty tissues, and stored for use at a later time.
The functions of the different fat-soluble vitamins include:
- Vitamin A: Mandatory for proper vision and organ function.
- Vitamin D: Assists in calcium absorption, bone growth, and proper immune function.
- Vitamin E: Protects cells from damage and assists with immune function.
- Vitamin K: Imperative for blood clotting and bone development.
Use the chart below to understand what plant-based foods contain fat-soluble vitamins:
Macrominerals represent the largest portion of our mineral needs.
The list of macrominerals and their high level functions include:
- Calcium: Required for developing bones and teeth. Also assists in muscle function and blood vessel contraction.
- Chloride: Helps maintain fluid balance and used to make digestive juices.
- Magnesium: Assists in regulating blood pressure.
- Phosphorus: Helps structure bone and cell membranes.
- Potassium: Serves as an electrolyte that helps with nerve transmission and muscle function.
- Sodium: An electrolyte that helps maintain blood pressure and fluid balance.
- Sulfur: Part of every living tissue.
Use the chart below to understand what plant-based foods contain macrominerals:
We need trace minerals in even smaller amounts than macrominerals.
The list of trace minerals and their high-level functions include:
- Iron: Provide oxygen to muscles and helps create hormones.
- Manganese: Assists in metabolism of carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
- Copper: Necessary for forming connective tissue, and assisting in brain and nervous system function.
- Zinc: Imperative for normal growth, immune function and healing wounds.
- Iodine: Regulates thyroid regulation.
- Fluoride: Develops bones and teeth.
- Selenium: Assists in reproduction, defending against cell damage, and helps control thyroid health.
Use the chart below to understand what plant-based foods contain trace minerals:
Health Benefits of Micronutrients
Micronutrients have many health benefits associated with them. For starters, they act as antioxidants, which help clear our bodies of harmful enzymes called free radicals.
Free radicals work against us and aid to progress diseases like Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
Antioxidants (or micronutrients) work by acting as street sweepers, clearing out those free radicals.
This reduces the oxidative stress in our body and helps repair organs and tissues so they function optimally.
Micronutrients also help fight the aging process. Along with the street sweeping antioxidants mentioned above, micronutrients allows are cells to rejuvenate to a more youthful state.
Vitamin C, in particular, specializes in this rejuvenation process.
In fact, Vitamin C helps to rid the skin of wrinkles and heal wounds faster. Thus, revitalizing the skin to seem more youthful, hydrated, and healthy.
Micronutrient Deficiencies & Toxicities
There are negative side effects for getting both too much or too little vitamins and minerals.
Unlike macronutrients, it’s much more common to become deficient in micronutrients. This is one area where macronutrients vs micronutrients becomes more relevant.
Certain populations are more susceptible to these deficiencies because of the foods they do and don’t include in their normal diet.
The five most common micronutrient deficiencies include:
- Vitamin D: Approximately 42% of Americans are deficient in vitamin D.
- Vitamin B12: Vegans and vegetarians may develop Vitamin B12 deficiency unless they supplement.
- Vitamin A: This may lead more frequent acne and breakouts.
- Iron: Childbearing women are at higher risk for iron deficiency because of the loss of blood during menstruation.
- Calcium: Men and women over 50 tend to have low calcium levels.
A deficiency in any of the above the nutrients is harmful to one’s health. Signs and symptoms of these will vary.
However, eating a varied diet that is vegetable and fruit heavy is a great place to start to avoid any deficiency.
You should also check your blood levels regularly and check for any unusual changes in your body over time.
Micronutrient toxicities occur when one supplements with too many vitamins. Not through food sources, but through supplements.
Although micronutrient toxicities are less common than deficiencies, more is not better.
Vitamin A is one supplement in particular that’s been well-studied and shown dangerous at extremely high levels.
Supplementation of 25,000 IU daily over the course of years may lead to an increased risk of cancer.
Although, that is a highly unlikely scenario unless you were consciously taking multiple doses every day.
Over half of all Americans take a vitamin supplement. In elderly populations, that number jumps to 70 percent.
Researchers who look at market trends in the supplement industry predict it will have a global worth of almost $300 billion by 2024. That is astounding.
Many people take supplements in the hopes that it will cover them from deficiencies or boost their current health status. Yet, an analysis performed on over 450,000 subjects concluded “that multivitamins did not reduce risk for heart disease or cancer.”
Moreover, this review that looked at Vitamin C, Vitamin D, and calcium found “no reduction in incidence of heart disease, stroke or premature death.”
This means wasting your hard-earned cash on micronutrient supplements is not a magic bullet for optimal health.
Larry Appel, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research says it best “pills are not a shortcut to better health and the prevention of chronic diseases.”
Getting micronutrients from whole food plant sources is the most ideal method to avoid a micronutrient deficiency, with one exception
Macronutrients and micronutrients both play essential roles for several functions in our body.
The five major macronutrients include carbohydrates, fat, protein, water and alcohol. Furthermore, the first four are essential for optimal health.
Just as important, vitamins and minerals make up four categories – water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins, macrominerals and trace minerals. They are the sparks for the chemical reactions in our cells.
When comparing macronutrients vs micronutrients, it’s best to thing of them as intertwined.
They are a symphony of health keepers that ward off disease and help us grow.
Although it’s best practice to get them from whole food sources, supplements may be necessary. Specifically for those who live a more active lifestyle and follow a plant-based diet.
Overall, to maximize health and longevity, strive to eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.