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Macronutrients: What are they? What do they do? How do they work?

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Macronutrients: What are they? What do they do? How do they work?

A lot of us in the realm of fitness and nutrition have heard of macronutrients, or macros as most people refer to them.  At the same time, a lot of us are unsure as to what they are. Macros circulate social media and fitness trainers/coach’s language all the time, but many of their clients don’t truly understand the meaning or importance of them.  Before we jump into what macronutrients are, let’s back up and talk a little bit about what nutrients are as well as micronutrients.

Nutrients are defined as, “a substance that provides nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life” (Google dictionary, 2019). There are six vital nutrients that our bodies need in order to survive and function on a day to day basis.  These include the following: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water. These six nutrients are further broken down into two subcategories: macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients consist of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.  Micronutrients consist of vitamins, minerals, and water. Most of our micronutrients come from daily multivitamins we take and the fruits and vegetables we eat. The micronutrients that we consume through either food or supplements include vitamins B1, B2, B6, B12, vitamins C, A, D, E, K, and folic acid.  Minerals include calcium, potassium, sodium, iron, and zinc.   

Our macronutrients come from the foods we eat daily.  We need to consume macronutrients on a much greater scale since these are the nutrients that give us energy to live (energy is measured in calories).  Sources of carbohydrates, to name a few, include whole grains, brown rice, white rice, sweet potato, white potato, and oatmeal. Proteins include both animal-based proteins: beef, chicken, turkey, fish, etc.as well as plant-based proteins: soy, tempeh, legumes, nuts, pea plant protein, etc.  Fats include things like dairy, eggs, nuts, nut butters, olive oil, fish, and some other types of meat, etc. 


Roles of Macro-nutrients

Carbohydrates help to fuel high intensity activity (ex. sports) as well as high intensity workouts, like high intensity-interval training (HIIT).  By doing so, it helps to mitigate the usage of proteins as an energy source when performing these very intense activities. This in turn helps to preserve muscle mass.  Carbohydrates also help sustain and fuel our central nervous system. (Washington State University, n.a.). Our central nervous system, or CNS, includes our brain and spinal cord.

Proteins help to build, maintain, and recover the structure of our tissue throughout the body.  This includes “part of organ tissues, muscle, hair, skin, nails, bones, tendons, ligaments and blood plasma” (Washington State University, n.a.).  Proteins also make up part of the structure of the cell plasma membrane, help to make up enzymes that regulate metabolism, involved in metabolic pathways, transport systems, systems that involve hormones, and the production of hormones. 

Fats help create an energy reserve for when we haven’t consumed enough calories or if we are in a state of starvation/malnutrition, provides insulation in and throughout the body, helps to protect our vital organs, and transport fat soluble vitamins. (Washington State University, n.a.)

When consuming macronutrients, it is important to keep in mind that not only do they affect our overall health, but these energy sources are influenced by what kind of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins we ingest.  For example, Pop Tarts, sugary cereals, white bread, and candy are all sources of carbohydrates. However, these sources are made with refined sugar (not natural) and may give us energy for a few minutes, but in the long run there are zero health benefits to them and sooner or later will crash from depleting the added sugar that was in those foods.  You are better off eating whole grains, oatmeal, or fruits (as an example). When it comes to our macronutrients, the source of food we take in can play a very large role in how our metabolism runs, how our endocrine system functions, as well as how our neural system works and maintains itself.

Macronutrients and calories are very individualized.  They are based on a multitude of things: how many calories you burn at rest (or the number of calories it takes just to be alive) also known as non-activity energy expenditure (NEAT), as well as your total daily energy expenditure (or TDEE).  Everyone is different when it comes to this, and that is why “cookie-cutter” meal plans have a very high percentage of not working. Sure, they may work for a month but it’s more than likely because you’ve done a 180 on what you were previously eating (which typically consists of not the best eating habits and sources of food).  Now that you are just generally eating healthier, you will for sure lose weight – not because you are on a new fad diet. Macronutrients are simple in that fact that we need them to survive, but challenging in the fact that they are very unique to each and every person.


When it comes down to it, all three macronutrients are vital to human life.  You will come across fad diets – Keto, Paleo, South Beach, etc. – that may or may not work for you, and there is definitely a time and place for them.  What it truly comes down to is balance and the source of energy (calories) you are taking in. There is a time and place for pizza, cake, cookies, and French fries.  However, the foods you eat each and every day should consist of whole, natural fruits and veggies, whole grains, healthy fats (nuts, avocados, olive oil, fish), and lean proteins. It is important to listen to your body and fuel it with the appropriate nutrition.  If you are hungry, eat. If you’re not hungry, don’t force it. The human body is extremely intelligent and resilient. It will notify you when something is off and when you aren’t getting adequate nutrition your body needs.     




Googledictionary. (2019).  Retrieved on December 4, 2019 fromhttps://www.google.com/search?sxsrf=ACYBGNROLC6829zkhbVKebbP4vCVsuT1Tw:1575495251755&q=Dictionary&stick=H4sIAAAAAAAAAONQesSoyi3w8sc9YSmZSWtOXmMU4-LzL0jNc8lMLsnMz0ssqrRiUWJKzeNZxMqFEAMA7_QXqzcAAAA&zx=1575495317746#dobs=nutrient

Washington State University. (n.a.).  nutrition basics [website]. Retrieved on December 4, 2019 fromhttps://mynutrition.wsu.edu/nutrition-basics/#protein

Carreiro, A. L., Dhillon, J., Gordon, S., Jacobs, A. G., Higgins, K. A., McArthur, B. M., Redan B. W., Rivera, R. L., Schmidt, L. R., Mattes, R. D. (2016).  The macronutrients, appetite and energy intake. Annual Review of Nutrition, 36, 73-103. DOI:10.1146/annurev-nutr-121415-112624https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4960974/

Verywellfit. (2019).  What is energy expenditure? [website].  Retrieved on December 4th, 2019 fromhttps://www.verywellfit.com/what-is-energy-expenditure-3496103

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