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What Are Macronutrients? A Guide to Mastering Your Macros

Learn about macronutrients, their roles in the body, and how to balance them to optimize your eating habits.

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Confused about macros? This article’s for you. People swear by “tracking macros” for weight loss and health benefits, but what does that really mean, and why are macros so important?   

We break it all down for you here.

What Are Macronutrients and Why Do We Need Them?

As indicated by the name, macronutrients, or macros<sup>1</sup>, are nutrients that the body needs in large amounts. They are essential for life because they provide energy and are foundational for so many functions, from making cellular enzymes to building muscle.

There are three macronutrients: 

  1. Carbs
  2. Fats
  3. Protein

When you eat each of these macronutrients, they are broken down into smaller components during digestion so they can be easily absorbed to support your body’s functions.

Balancing the right amount of protein, carbs, and fat keeps us healthy, as they all have different jobs in the body.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates<sup>2</sup>, aka carbs, are plant-based foods that are the primary source of energy for the cells in your body (although you can also use other nutrients when carbs are scarce). They include sugar, fiber, and starch. Carbs provide the energy you need for walking, running, breathing, or thinking. There are four calories in each gram of carbohydrate.

Most carbs are eventually broken down to sugar, or glucose, for absorption. Once it enters your bloodstream, glucose<sup>3</sup> moves into your cells to use as energy now or to store for later. Your body can store some carbs in your muscles or liver for quick energy (called glycogen), but excess carbs are stored in adipose tissue as fat.

The exception to this is dietary fiber<sup>4</sup>. While it’s a type of carbohydrate, your body doesn’t make the proper enzymes to digest fiber. Instead, it travels to the large intestine, where it’s fermented by your gut bacteria and eventually excreted.

Fiber<sup>5</sup> is non-negotiable when it comes to health. It’s associated with weight loss, blood sugar management, and even chronic disease prevention. It also helps keep your gut bacteria<sup>6</sup> happy, which may play a role in weight management.

<div class="pro-tip">Learn more about fiber:<ul><li>How Fiber Helps With Weight Loss and Metabolic Health</li></div>

What Are the Healthiest Carb Options?

While carbs have been somewhat villainized in recent years with the growth of low-carb diets, carbs aren’t necessarily “bad.” What matters most is the type of carbs you eat and how your body responds to the carbs in your diet. 

Simple or refined carbs like white bread, white pasta, juice, soda, or sweets are the ones you want to minimize because they tend to be highly processed or high in sugar. Refined carbs<sup>7</sup> lose fiber and other nutrients like vitamins and minerals during processing.

Without fiber, you digest and absorb these types of carbohydrates rapidly, so they quickly spike your blood sugar. Eating too many of these types of carbs is linked to health conditions<sup>8</sup> like type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases.

On the other hand, complex carbohydrates are a better choice because they are digested more slowly due to their fiber content. 

A few of the best carbohydrate choices include:

  • Vegetables like leafy greens, sweet potatoes, zucchini, bell peppers, broccoli, or Brussels sprouts
  • Fruits like berries, oranges, and apples
  • Whole grains like quinoa, sprouted wheat, brown rice, or oats
  • Beans and legumes like lentils, black beans, and garbanzo beans

How Many Carbs Do You Need?

Nutrient needs of any kind are highly individualized depending on health goals, activity level, biological sex, health status, and more. That said, general recommendations<sup>9</sup> for carb intake usually range from 45–65% of total calories, depending on your needs. 

Fats

Similar to the low-carb movement, low-fat diets were once trendy. However, it’s now understood that fat is essential for so many vital functions in the body, and low-fat doesn’t always mean healthier. 

Fat is calorically dense because it provides 9 calories per gram compared to carbs or protein, which provide 4 calories. So if weight loss is a goal, quality and quantity matter, as small amounts of fat can add a lot of extra calories.

Carbs are the primary energy source for your cells, but fat can also be used for energy, as seen in ketogenic diets. Stored fat<sup>10</sup> can also be broken down and used for energy during extended fasts.  

Fats also comprise the cell membrane, provide cushioning around your organs, and are needed to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K, the fat-soluble vitamins<sup>11</sup>.  And since they’re digested and absorbed slowly, they can help support blood sugar balance and satiety<sup>12</sup>. 

Fats are categorized into two main categories: 

Saturated fats 

Saturated fats<sup>13</sup> have single bonds in their fatty acid chain, making them solid at room temperature. They are primarily found in animal products, although some plants like coconuts are also high in saturated fats.

Unsaturated fats

Unsaturated fats<sup>14</sup> have double bonds in their fatty acid chain and are liquid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats are primarily plant-based from nuts and seeds.

Most foods contain multiple types of fatty acids but may include more or less of each type.

It’s worth mentioning trans fats simply because you should avoid them at all costs. Trans fats are processed oils made to extend shelf-life for food products, but they are terrible for our health.

Research shows they are linked to significant chronic disease and even an increased risk of mortality<sup>15</sup>. Trans fats are generally not allowed in the food supply anymore, but you will find small amounts in some types of processed foods.

What Are the Healthiest Fat Options?

The history of fat recommendations is complex, can get confusing, and may even be polarizing. Some swear that saturated fats<sup>16</sup> are not a problem for our health, while others argue<sup>17</sup> they should be avoided at all costs. But research<sup>18</sup> also shows that replacing fat calories with refined carbs and processed vegetable oils may be even more detrimental to our health.

Once again, the type of fat balanced with other nutrients in your diet matters most. A healthy balance of unsaturated fats from plants and saturated fats from lean meats tend to be your best bet. These include:

  • Avocado and avocado oil
  • Olive oil
  • Nuts and nut butter
  • Seeds and seed butter
  • Coconut oil or unsweetened coconut

How Much Fat Do You Need?

Recommendations<sup>19</sup> for fat again vary from person to person. Still, a general rule of thumb is to keep fat intake to 30% of total calories, with about 10% coming specifically from saturated fats.

Protein

Known as the building block for all the cells in your body, protein is made from individual units called amino acids. Some of these amino acids are called essential<sup>20</sup> because you can only get them from the food you eat. The others are non-essential, meaning your body can make them from other protein sources (but they are still essential to your health!). There are 4 calories per gram of protein.

Think of a function<sup>21</sup> in your body, and it needs protein. Your immune cells, muscles, enzymes, hormones, digestive process, and metabolism all depend on protein to work properly. Muscle repair and recovery require adequate protein. It’s also a critical nutrient for weight management and blood sugar balance<sup>22</sup>.

Complete proteins<sup>23</sup> are those that contain all the essential amino acids you need. Generally, animal proteins tend to be complete proteins, although some plant proteins like quinoa or soy are considered completed.

Incomplete proteins are missing one or more of the essential amino acids, so you need to eat a variety of these types of proteins to make sure you are getting all the amino acids you need. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong> <a href="/blog/quinoa-weight-loss">how quinoa supports weight loss</a>.</p>

What Are the Healthiest Protein Options?

Healthy protein options consider the source and processing of the food and how your body uses it. Like both fats and carbs, the more processed a protein is, the less you probably want to include it in your diet. For example, diets high in certain processed meats<sup>24</sup> are linked to an increased risk of colon cancer.

Here are the best protein options:

  • Lean cuts of beef 
  • Bison
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Turkey
  • Unsweetened yogurt (if you tolerate dairy)
  • Eggs
  • Lentils
  • Beans
  • Nuts and seeds

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Protein needs are highly individualized once again, especially regarding activity level or health status. For example, an athlete will need more protein for recovery than a sedentary individual. General protein recommendations<sup>25</sup> range from 15–25% of your total daily intake of calories.

<p><strong></strong><p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong><a href="/blog/protein-for-weight-loss">how protein helps with weight loss</a></p></p>

Macronutrients vs. Micronutrients

While macronutrients are needed in large amounts for optimal health, micronutrients are required in much smaller quantities, although they are just as important. They include vitamins and minerals<sup>26</sup> necessary for life. Like macronutrients, they are essential, meaning you need to get them from your diet.

We usually think of macronutrients as necessary for energy metabolism. While this is true, you can’t extract energy from the food you eat without micronutrients<sup>27</sup>.  Many function as coenzymes for cellular energy production.

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Why Does Macronutrient Balance Matter for Blood Sugar?

As mentioned earlier, certain macronutrients lead to quick blood sugar spikes, while others support a slower, more gentle rise. All carbs (aside from indigestible fiber) will eventually turn to sugar in your blood, so the key is to minimize how much and how fast your blood sugar rises. 

Aside from choosing complex carbs listed above, pairing carbs with protein or fats can minimize how fast and how much your blood sugar rises. One study on diabetic men and women<sup>28</sup> found that eating vegetables and protein 15 minutes before carbs led to significantly lower blood sugar levels than eating high-carb foods (orange juice and bread) first.

We need macronutrients for energy and other body functions. Still, the way we eat them can either help or hurt your blood sugar, impacting your overall metabolic health.

<p class="pro-tip">Related: Tips From A Doctor When Choosing Powder Supplements</p>

Should You Count Macros for Weight Loss?

Tracking macros means you log how much of each macronutrient you eat in a day after setting a specific goal for each. At the end of the day, you want your macros to fit into the predetermined percentages, so it can help you keep your intake balanced. As mentioned earlier, how much you eat of each macronutrient depends on your age, biological sex, activity level, and health goals.

Aside from a healthy blood sugar response, tracking macros can be helpful for people who want to lose weight or make better food choices throughout the day. Tracking macros provides a flexible eating approach. While total intake does matter, you focus more on the balance of the foods you eat than counting calories. 

In a typical calorie-controlled diet, you can eat whatever you want as long as you stay below a certain number of calories. But this way of eating doesn’t consider the other ways food contributes to our health. Food is information for our cells, and it impacts more than just our weight. 

A 1,600-calorie diet based on processed, sugary foods will cause a different physiological response than 1,600 calories balanced with healthy fat, complex carbs, and healthy protein sources. Counting macros takes into consideration the importance of balancing all three macronutrients.

For some people, tracking macros can also be a short-term tool that raises awareness of the food you eat. You may start tracking only to realize that you eat much more or less of a specific nutrient, and raising or lowering it can make a big difference in energy levels, hunger, or even the ability to put on muscle while losing fat.

How to Get Started Tracking Macros

You can get started tracking macros using the general recommendations above, but if you don’t meet your goals, you may want to consider working with a professional or signing up with a program that helps you find an individual goal.

If you want to track macros, doing it by hand is probably too burdensome. Luckily, apps are available to help you track percentages, total calories, and macros per meal to give you real-time feedback. The Signos app provides a percent breakdown of the macros in the meals and snacks you log each day. 

If you’ve never tried tracking macros, it may be worth trying to see where your macronutrient balance is and if you have any room for improvement. It’s also a tool you can use short-term and always return to if you need to reset your diet.

Making sure your macronutrient intake is balanced can support healthy weight, energy, blood sugar, and overall health.

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About the Author

Caitlin Beale is a registered dietitian and nutrition writer with a master’s degree in nutrition. She has a background in acute care, integrative wellness, and clinical nutrition.
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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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