What Are Macronutrients (‘Macros’) and Why Are They Important to Your Health?
Many modern approaches to nutrition focus on the role of macronutrients (‘macros’) as opposed to micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. Naturally, both micronutrients and macronutrients are important, but many health-conscious individuals are unsure how to balance macronutrients, monitor them and create an appealing food plan that achieves that balance.
What Are Macros?
Macro means ‘large’, and macronutrients are molecules that make up a large part of your diet. Examples of macros include:
Macros have some qualities that distinguish them from micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals.
- They are nutrients that people eat in large amounts (grams) rather than thousandths and millionths of a gram.
- Many macros are large molecules composed of smaller components.
The Benefits of Counting Macros
Health-conscious people in the 21st century already have a wealth of health and nutrition data at their fingertips. Between fitness trackers, nutrition labels, supplement data, prepackaged food and a host of diet tips on the internet, the deluge of information can easily overwhelm us. Why add more work by counting macros?
Although tracking your carbohydrates, proteins and fats is an extra daily task in your routine, it can pay dividends in several ways, such as:
- Making sure that you do not overlook key macronutrients.
- Maintaining a healthy balance between the three types of macronutrients.
- Helping you adjust your diet to accommodate lifestyle changes, aging and medical conditions.
Types of Macros
The three types of macros are fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, and each of them is indispensable for life. Knowing the structure, types, benefits and health effects of each type of macronutrient helps one to develop food plans that make the best use of these nutrients.
Carbohydrates are our source of immediate energy that keeps the cells in our bodies running. Without carbohydrates, our muscles could not move, our brains could not function and our internal organs would stop working. Our bodies can store energy as fat, so a low carb diet is not necessarily bad, but it is important to consume enough energy from fats and carbohydrates to meet our daily needs.
Complex carbohydrates are chains of simple carbohydrates (sugars). Sugars tend to have names ending in ‘-ose’, such as sucrose, lactose, maltose and glucose. Two types of complex carbohydrates are important to our health: starches and fibre.
Starches are chains of sugars that we can break down for energy. We find them in grains and vegetables. When we eat starches, we break them down for energy slowly. This is generally better for the body than simple sugars, which can enter the bloodstream more quickly.
Choose foods high in complex carbohydrates and avoid relying too much on highly processed foods. Natural sources of starches include:
Multi-grain products, such as bread and cereal, are a good source of starches. It’s best to limit baked goods and cereals with high sugar content and saturated fats.
Unlike some animals, we cannot digest fibre as an energy source, so it passes through us. However, dietary fibre is important for the health of your digestive system.
Why Are Carbohydrates Important?
The fact that so many of us have to limit carbohydrate intake is, oddly, a sign of the importance of carbohydrates in our lives. We developed a need for carbohydrates through evolution because finding energy-rich food has challenged humanity throughout its history. In our ancient past, the typical diet included fruits, vegetables and sources of dietary fibre. Our digestive system depends on them for regularity, smooth functioning and long-term health.
Proteins consist of amino acids arranged in specific sequences. Proteins compose many crucial structures in our cells, such as enzymes, collagen and receptors for hormones and neurotransmitters. Our bodies break down the proteins that we eat into amino acids and recombine them to create the thousands of proteins we need.
Good sources of protein include:
Amino acids are the individual units that combine to form proteins. Each one has a slightly different structure, and the body strings them together like letters in a word to create a wide variety of proteins.
People often say that the genetic code in our DNA is our blueprint. If this is true, then amino acids are the building blocks of our body’s structure. The genes in our bodies are the codes for specific sequences of amino acids for specific proteins.
The body can synthesize some, but not all, of the amino acids that we need. Of the 20 amino acids that we use to make proteins, nine are essential amino acids, which we need to acquire from food. Even for the amino acids that we can create, it is generally more efficient for us to absorb them in food than to create them from scratch.
A diet rich in a variety of proteins helps to ensure that our bodies have the proteins that we need.
Why Are Proteins Important?
Proteins are vital to allow our cells to grow, reproduce, metabolize energy and carry out all the functions that we need in our daily life.
Proteins are important for brain function, muscle development, the immune system and many body functions. Your body can make some of the amino acids you need, but others have to come from your diet. For this reason, it’s best to eat a variety of proteins from different sources rather than relying on only one source of protein in the diet.
Fats contain glycerol and fatty acid components. They serve as an energy source and provide cushioning to body structures. Too much fat can produce negative effects on the diet, such as.
- Increased stress on joints, muscles and bones.
- Insulin resistance and type II diabetes.
- Increased risk of stroke and heart disease.
The body can convert carbohydrates into fats for energy storage, so the body can cope with low levels of fat in the diet. However, polyunsaturated fats have to be part of your diet. If the level of fat in your diet is too low, it can impact cognitive function, the effectiveness of the immune system, skin health and other important physiological functions.
Not all fats are created equal. Some fats should not be present at all in your diet, while other fats and fatty acids are important for cardiovascular and brain health. It’s important to look beyond the fat content on the label to consider the specific types of fat and choose foods that include the most beneficial types of fat.
Fatty acids contain long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Most of the links in this chain consist of a ‘backbone’ of connected carbon atoms, each with two hydrogen atoms attached on the sides. The chemical structure of these chains determines the physical properties, taste and nutritional value of fats.
Saturated fats have fatty acid chains that contain only ‘links’ with two hydrogen atoms for each carbon atom, except for the one at the very end. They are ‘saturated’ because they contain the maximum number of hydrogen atoms for their length.
Dieters should limit their intake of saturated fats due to the potential increased risk for cardiovascular disease. When possible, replace them in your diet with unsaturated fats.
In monounsaturated fats, one of the links in the carbon atom chain includes a double bond between two carbon atoms. The two carbon atoms on either side of the double bond have only one hydrogen atom attached to them instead of two. The reduction in the number of carbon atoms is the reason why people call these fats unsaturated.
Poly means ‘many’, and polyunsaturated fats have more than one carbon-carbon double bond. The human body does not have the enzymes to create polyunsaturated fats, so it is important to include sources of polyunsaturated fat in our diets. Sources of polyunsaturated fat include:
- Fish such as salmon and tuna.
- Corn oil.
- Flaxseed oil.
- Soybean oil.
Many people take flaxseed oil and fish oil supplements for essential fatty acids. Although the benefits of these supplements are a subject of ongoing research, many people take them for help with cardiovascular disease; inflammation; cognitive function; specific neurological conditions, such as autism; and specific medical conditions, such as cystic fibrosis.
Trans fats are a variety of fats that have recently faced public scrutiny and regulation due to health concerns.
To appreciate the difference between trans fats and other forms of fat, consider that each double bond in the chain adds a twist or bend into the molecule. In trans fatty acids, the carbon atoms have a different arrangement, so there is no bend in the molecule.
While trans fats do occur naturally in beef, dairy products and other foods, they have been most commonly found in hydrogenated oils that food manufacturers used for decades. These artificial fats increase the risk of heart disease. As a result of these risks, many countries have banned trans fats.
Essential Fatty Acids
Consistent with the idea that polyunsaturated fats are in general better than saturated fats, certain subtypes of fatty acids are particularly important for physical and mental health. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids get their name for the location of the carbon double bond relative to the end of the molecule.
Determining Your Macro Requirements
Different diets have different recommendations for the optimal balance of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. In general, it’s a good idea to get about half of your calories from carbohydrates and about a quarter of your calories from fats and proteins. The balance that works best for you depends on how much you eat, how much exercise you get and your personal physical fitness goals.
The Basal Metabolic Rate
Since its development more than a century ago, the basal metabolic rate (BMR) has become a key variable in determining your macro requirements. It is essentially a measure of how much energy your body needs for its basic cellular functions even if you do not get any exercise. Naturally, if you do get exercise, you will have to consume more calories from food to maintain constant body weight.
To calculate your BMR, you will need to use your height, weight and age. BMR is different for men and women due to differences in typical muscle mass, hormone balance and other factors. The BMR is typically higher in men. You can find many simple BMR calculators on the internet for assistance.
If you are more physically active, you will burn more calories than if you get little physical exercise. Physical activity can increase your calorie requirements by one-third to half of your BMR. Your diet and exercise regimen might involve a shift in the balance of your macro ratios if you change your workout routine or take up any additional physically demanding activity.
You might find it helpful to consume particular macronutrients at specific times of the day. For example, you can consume carbohydrates when your body needs energy, fats to replenish long-term energy stores and protein for the growth of new muscle mass.
Your Body Weight Goals
Your recommended calorie intake based on your BMR and other factors will be different depending on the changes that you are hoping for in the future. If your goal is to lose weight, it might be beneficial to reduce carbs and fat intake so that you can lose weight naturally by drawing upon your fat reserves. If your goal is to add muscle, you might increase your protein intake to build muscle and maintain your body weight.
If you are counting macros as part of your nutrition plan, it’s important to diligently keep a record of the nutritional content of your food and drink. Many phone apps and fitness programs can help you track your food. Some save you time by allowing you to search for packaged foods that you eat rather than having to copy the information from the food’s nutrition facts label.
Prepackaged food designed with macronutrient balance in mind is another way to simplify counting. Once you finish a portion of food, you can simply count the macros in the meal as a whole without having to calculate all the ingredients as you would if you cooked the food yourself.
Tips on Using Macros to Achieve a Healthy Diet
- As you plan meals, remember to balance your macronutrients. Specifically, incorporate sources of starch, fibre, protein and fat.
- Accept that there will be variability in your diet from one day to the next. Don’t stress if you miss your daily target as long as you are striking the right balance in the long term.
- Also, don’t focus exclusively on macronutrients. Choose foods that provide macronutrients as well as minerals, antioxidants and other important nutrients.
- Discuss any dietary changes with your doctor and other people who are helping you meet your fitness goals, such as a nutritionist or personal trainer. They can help you tailor your diet and your physical fitness routine to complement each other.
- Identify healthy foods that you like and preparations that excite you so that healthy eating doesn’t have to be a chore.
- If you are running short on time, consider prepared meals that already have a balance of macronutrients so that you can focus on healthy living without having to worry about the cooking.
Manage Your Diet the Smart Way With Wholistically Healthy
Wholistically Healthy provides healthy eating options for meat-eaters, vegans and people who need a gluten-free diet. We’re happy to work with you to accommodate other diets and dietary restrictions as needed.
We deliver hand-crafted, nutritious meals within the Perth metropolitan area so that all you need to do is heat them in your oven or microwave and enjoy. We charge a flat rate for delivery. For more information about our healthy meals guided by our Ayurvedic philosophy, call 0450 344 607 today.