You may have heard your health-conscious friends talk about “counting macros” or the macronutrients in the foods they eat.
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But what exactly are they doing and how does counting macros, or macronutrients, help you lead a healthy life? And what’s the difference between macronutrients and micronutrients?
Think of macronutrients as the lead actors in the production of your body and micronutrients as the supporting cast. Each is vital to a successful performance.
Registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, explains exactly what macronutrients and micronutrients are and why they’re so important to your health.
What are macronutrients?
As the main nutrients found in food, macronutrients maintain your body’s structure and functioning. You typically need a large amount of macronutrients to keep your body working properly. But don’t stress: macronutrients come from proteins, fats and carbohydrates, which give your body energy in the form of calories.
Macros are typically measured in grams (g) and can be a useful way to track what you’re consuming.
“Someone might want to count their macronutrients to be sure they’re meeting their needs and not overconsuming or under consuming certain nutrients,” says Zumpano.
Overall, counting macros is a way to focus on the variety of foods you’re eating — and how much of each — instead of counting calories.
Even certain diets like the keto diet and the paleo diet use a macronutrient approach.
Examples of macronutrients
During digestion, foods that tend to fall into one of the three macronutrients are broken down to be used for different functions. Macronutrients include:
- Carbohydrates. As the main source of energy, carbs break down into glucose and aid digestion and fullness. Carbs include bread, rice, pasta, grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, beans, milk and yogurt. They provide 4 calories per gram.
- Fat. Fats are broken down into fatty acids and glycerol and provide fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Foods like nuts, seeds, oils, butter, sour cream, mayo and cream cheese provide 9 calories per gram.
- Protein. Protein helps build and repair muscle, tissues and organs, as well as aid in hormone regulation. Foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, cottage cheese, plain Greek yogurt and tofu provide 4 calories per gram.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends the following:
- 45% to 65% of calories from carbohydrates.
- 20% to 35% of calories from fat.
- 10% to 35% of calories from protein.
To count macros, you need to determine how many calories you typically need in a day. Then, you set up goals on what percentage of calories from the three groups above you need to eat to meet your goals.
Goals can be different for everyone. Someone may want to count macros for weight control, while someone else might want to use them to help build muscles or even sustain their blood sugar levels.
And your percentages of macronutrients may change based on your age, sex, medical conditions, lifestyle and how active you are.
But counting macros involves a lot of math and can be difficult for most to follow. Additionally, there’s no solid research to say that this approach is effective. You can work with a registered dietitian or nutritionist to help you determine the best plan for you.
What are micronutrients?
Micronutrients consist of vitamins and minerals and are measured in either milligrams (mg), micrograms (mcg) or International Units (IU).
Compared to macronutrients, your body needs a smaller amount of micronutrients for optimal performance. Though micronutrients don’t provide energy, they’re essential for functions like digestion, hormone production and brain function.
And while it can be beneficial to track your macronutrients, it can be hard to measure and gauge how many micronutrients you consume each day.
Examples of micronutrients
Just like macronutrients, micronutrients can be found in the foods that you eat every day — think fruits and vegetables.
“Most vitamins are water-soluble,” says Zumpano. “That means they get flushed out of your system when your body is done using what it needs.”
Some vitamins that are examples of micronutrients include:
- Vitamin B1. Also known as thiamine, vitamin B1 aids in converting nutrients into energy. Foods include white rice, fortified breakfast cereals and black beans.
- Vitamin B2. Also known as riboflavin, this vitamin is good for energy production, cell function and fat metabolism. Foods include instant oats, fat-free yogurt and milk.
- Vitamin B3. Also known as niacin, vitamin B3 drives the production of energy from food. Foods include chicken breast, turkey breast, salmon and tuna.
- Vitamin B5. Also called pantothenic acid, this vitamin helps with fatty acid synthesis. Foods include shitake mushrooms, sunflower seeds and avocados.
- Vitamin B6. Also called pyridoxine, vitamin B6 helps your body release sugar from stored carbohydrates for energy, and creates red blood cells. Foods include chickpeas, tuna and potatoes.
- Vitamin B7. Also known as biotin, it aids the metabolism of fatty acids, amino acids and glucose. Foods include eggs, salmon, pork chops and sweet potatoes.
- Vitamin B9. Also known as folate. Vitamin B9 is important for proper cell division. Foods include spinach, fortified breakfast cereals, white rice and asparagus.
- Vitamin B12. Also called cobalamin, vitamin B12 helps with red blood cell formation and proper nervous system and brain function. Foods include beef liver, salmon, milk and yogurt.
- Vitamin C. Also known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C is required for the creation of neurotransmitters and collagen. Foods include red peppers, oranges, grapefruits and kiwis.
Minerals that are good examples of micronutrients include:
- Calcium. This mineral helps build strong bones and teeth and helps with muscle function. Foods include yogurt, orange juice, cheese and milk.
- Magnesium. Found in foods like pumpkin seeds, almonds and spinach, this mineral aids in the regulation of blood pressure.
- Sodium. You need sodium for optimal fluid balance and to maintain your blood pressure.
- Potassium. Potassium helps with muscle function and nerve transmission. You can find potassium in foods like apricots, lentils, prunes and raisins.
Why are macronutrients and micronutrients important?
“Your body can’t function without them,” says Zumpano. “Your body will work at its highest potential when all macros and micros are met on a consistent basis.”
So, how do you know if you’re getting enough of each?
“You want to look at your diet and be sure you are getting food sources from each food group,” notes Zumpano. “Taking a vitamin/mineral supplement can also be helpful, although macros can’t be obtained from a basic vitamin supplement.”
Zumpano suggests working with a registered dietitian to help determine if you’re meeting your dietary needs.
“A dietitian can perform a dietary assessment, review your medical history and consider any current health concerns,” she explains. “They can also review labs values and medications, and based on all those results, can develop a personalized meal plan and suggest any further labs to be drawn.”
But at the end of the day, what’s important is getting as many nutrients as possible by choosing a variety of foods from each food group — and by focusing on macronutrients, they can help you plan and make smart decisions.