Here's Why Macronutrients Are a Big Deal

There's a lot of buzz about macronutrients in the health and fitness world—but how much do you really know about them? It's a given that all nutrients are essential to any healthy diet, but are some more important than others? And how many are there, anyway?

Nutrients can fall into one of six categories: Vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and water. Three of these—carbohydrates, proteins and fats—form the macronutrient family. As the name implies, these are the "big ones"…the major energy sources our bodies need to grow, digest food, build and repair muscle tissue, and perform basic bodily functions.

Are you getting enough of these powerful nutrients? "There is no one 'right' macronutrient distribution for everyone," says Sarah Bright of Bright Fitness & Nutrition. "How you choose to consume protein, carbohydrates and fat should be based on your body type, exercise schedule and health goals."

Read on to learn more about each macronutrient, along with ideas for working them into your diet.

Protein: The Powerhouse of Nutrients

Quite possibly the hardest-working nutrient, protein provides the body with the amino acids it needs to build and repair muscle tissues, supply oxygen to the cells, create the enzymes and hormones that control basic bodily functions and bolster the immune system to fight sickness and infection. A protein-rich diet could even help you lose weight by curbing food cravings and promoting healthy digestion.

According to the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), a healthy 150-pound female should consume 54 grams of protein per day, or 71 grams for a 195-pound male. Endurance athletes and competitive-level strength trainers will need more protein to aid in muscle recovery. As our dietitian Becky Hand notes, SparkPeople's Nutrition Tracker has slightly higher protein requirements than the RDA (60 grams daily for females and 75 grams for males).

Hand suggests the following great sources of protein: Hand suggests incorporating at least one of these foods into each meal and snack. "For example, try eggs for breakfast, grilled chicken with greens for lunch and a pork and veggie stir-fry for dinner," she says. "If you're a vegetarian, or choose to consume fewer animal products, try a tofu scramble, lentil soup or beans and rice."

Vesanto Melina, registered dietitian and co-author of Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition, points out that meatless eaters can get plenty of protein from plant foods. "Beans, grains, seeds and vegetables provide more than the 10 percent calories from protein that our bodies require," he says. "Legumes (beans, peas, lentils and soy foods) are the protein superstars of the plant kingdom, with 20 to 40 percent calories from protein, similar to typical animal products." (Find other ways to meet your protein needs without meat.)

Fat: The Misunderstood Macronutrient

If you're trying to lose weight, fat can seem like an evil adversary to meeting your goals, but consuming too little can actually be detrimental to your health. During the '80s and '90s, there was a big push for low-fat or fat-free foods, but today we know that it's more important to focus on the quality of fat than the quantity.

Sure, fat improves the taste and texture of foods, but it also has some important jobs within our bodies. It supplies the essential fatty acids that regulate bodily processes, protects vital organs, transports fat-soluble vitamins throughout the body and stores energy reserves that we use in work, play and exercise.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, fat should comprise 20 to 35 percent of daily calories for healthy adults.(Refer to our Recommended Daily Fat Intake chart to find out how much you need.) Not all fats are created equal: Saturated and trans fats can raise cholesterol and make you more susceptible to heart disease, while unsaturated fats (considered "good fats") actually help to regulate cholesterol levels.
Some healthy fat sources include:
  • Fish (mackerel, herring, salmon, tuna, trout, etc.)
  • Avocados
  • Olives
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Seeds (hempseeds, chia seeds and ground flaxseeds are especially high in essential omega 3 fatty acids)
  • Walnuts
Try to limit saturated "bad" fats, including cheese, cream cheese, butter, sour cream, bacon, lard, whole milk and coconut and palm oils. Artificial trans fats—often found in pastries, cookies, crackers, fried foods and processed snack foods—should also be avoided.

Carbohydrates: The Macronutrient that Moves You

In the past couple of decades, carbohydrates have gotten a tarnished image as diet destroyers—but they're not all bad. In fact, they're downright essential. "Carbohydrates are the body's ideal fuel for most functions," says Hand. "They supply the body with the energy needed for the muscles, brain and central nervous system. In fact, the human brain depends exclusively on carbohydrates for its energy." Carbs also provide the fuel for the body's metabolic engine.

So why the bad rep? "Carbs have a bad reputation because 90 percent of the carbohydrates eaten by North Americans are refined, in the form of starches and sugars," says Melina. Not all carbs are created equal. Simple carbs, which are composed almost primarily of sugar, can cause a "sugar rush" and increase insulin resistance, which can increase stored fat and hamper weight loss efforts. Complex carbs—including starches like brown rice, whole-wheat pasta and whole-grain breads—enter the bloodstream more slowly and result in less stored fat.

That said, both types of carbs have a place in a healthy diet, as long as they're used appropriately, according to Bright. "For example, oatmeal is a complex carbohydrate that is excellent for long-term fueling of the body, so it's easy to think that all your carbohydrate intake should be 'complex,'" she says. "But an apple is a simple carbohydrate, and is also a healthy choice. The key takeaway is to strive for the appropriate combination of simple and complex carbohydrates."

Additionally, carbs encompass a lot more than just bread and pasta. "Fruits and vegetables are carbohydrates," Bright says. "This group is large and contains a lot of foods you might not realize."

Below is Hand's simple plan for carbohydrate control:

RULE 1: Include the following in your diet:
  • Fruits: 2-4 servings daily
  • Vegetables: 3-5 servings daily
  • Whole grain breads, muffins, bagels, rolls, pasta, noodles, crackers, cereal, and brown rice: 6-11 servings daily
  • Legumesbeans and peas: 1-2 servings daily
  • Low-fat and non-fat dairy products: 3 servings daily
RULE 2: Limit the following to less than 2 servings daily:
  • Fruit juice
  • Refined and processed white flour products (bread, muffins, bagels, rolls, pasta, noodles, crackers, cereal)
  • White rice
  • French fries
  • Fried vegetables
RULE 3: Eliminate the following from your diet or eat only on occasion:
  • Sugary desserts, cookies, cakes, pies, candies
  • Doughnuts and pastries
  • Chips, cola and other carbonated beverages
  • Sugar, honey, syrup, jam, jelly, molasses
Multi-tasking Macronutrients

You don't necessarily have to eat multiple foods from each list to hit your macronutrient target intake. As Bright points out, some foods that seem like excellent sources of one macronutrient are actually an excellent source of another.

"For example, nuts are often cited as a great source of protein," she says. "While this is true, a serving of nuts actually has more fat than protein. Again, this isn't necessarily bad, since nut fats are often heart-healthy—we just need to be aware of the fact so we understand overall calorie intake."