The prefix "macro" means large in scale, while “micro” means very small; both helpful to know to better understand the differences between macronutrients and micronutrients.
Health is all about balance, including the nutrients you eat. Macro- and micronutrients are critically important for our health. Including the right amounts in your diet is essential to avoid deficiency and support optimal health.
In this article, you'll learn the differences between macronutrients vs. micronutrients and how the right balance of both sets you up for optimal health.
What Is a Macronutrient?
As you learned, macro indicates something large, so macronutrients are nutrients your body needs in a large amount to function. At a baseline, macronutrients (macros) are life-sustaining because they are required for energy, cellular growth, and repair.<sup>1</sup>
But further, the right balance of macronutrients contributes to weight management, blood sugar balance, and chronic disease prevention.
The three macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
Proteins are large molecules made up of amino acids that have many critical jobs in the body. They are necessary for the structure, function, and repair of cells and tissues.<sup>2</sup> Protein is also vital for maintaining muscle mass.
Proteins are made up of long chains of individual units called amino acids. The order of the amino acids controls the shape and function of the protein.<sup>3</sup>
Protein sources in your diet include:
Carbohydrates (carbs) are molecules broken down into sugar, or glucose, in your body. Glucose is the primary source of energy used by your cells. When you eat carbs, the glucose is either used for immediate energy or stored in the body.<sup>4</sup>
Carbs are considered simple or complex. Foods like sweets or juice are considered simple carbohydrates, meaning they are easily broken down and quickly raise your blood sugar.
Complex carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, or whole grains take longer to break down, resulting in a much more gradual rise in blood sugar.
Fiber is also a complex carbohydrate, but your body lacks the enzymes needed to break it down. High-fiber carbs are helpful for blood sugar balance, among many other health benefits, especially gut health (more on this in a moment).<sup>5</sup>
Carb sources in your diet include:
- Sweets and sweeteners
- Juice or other sweet beverages
Fat is an essential nutrient for energy, fat-soluble vitamin absorption, cellular health, and more.<sup>6</sup> There are several types of fats, including unsaturated fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Unsaturated and saturated fats are found naturally in foods. In contrast, trans fats are manmade and associated with significant health concerns.<sup>7</sup>
The balance between unsaturated and saturated fats in the diet is also important.<sup>8</sup> Saturated fats come primarily from animal products, while unsaturated fats are found in plant foods.
Fat sources in your diet include:
- Meat, poultry, and fish
What Is a Micronutrient?
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals needed in small amounts. There's often a primary focus on macronutrients, but micronutrients are just as essential. They are responsible for turning on reactions required for cellular metabolism so we can actually transform and use the macronutrients in our food for energy.<sup>9</sup>
Optimal micronutrient intake is also associated with chronic disease prevention and wellness. On the other hand, deficiency of micronutrients can lead to life-threatening diseases or significant development issues.<sup>10</sup>
Essential micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals your body can't make (or make enough of), so you have to get them from the food you eat. They are found in many foods, especially fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Vitamins are required for cellular health and function. There are two categories of vitamins: fat-soluble and water-soluble. Water-soluble means they can't be stored in the body, so excess amounts are excreted in your urine.<sup>11</sup> Fat-soluble vitamins can be stored in the body.<sup>12</sup>
Essential water-soluble vitamins and some of their primary roles are:
- Vitamin C: Antioxidant needed for optimal immune health, iron absorption, wound healing, gum/teeth health
- Thiamin: Required for carbohydrate metabolism and energy production
- Riboflavin: Important for cellular growth and repair, and energy metabolism
- Niacin: It's estimated that hundreds of enzymatic reactions in the body require niacin and its active forms. Also needed for cellular energy production and mitochondrial health
- Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid): Needed for nutrient metabolism, especially fat breakdown, and red blood cell production
- Vitamin B12: Essential for healthy metabolism, red blood cell formation, and brain health
- Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine): Helps with red blood cell formation and brain function; it’s also a coenzyme for many enzymatic processes
- Folate: Needed for red blood cell formation, DNA and cell function, and reproductive health.
The fat-soluble vitamins and their roles include:
- Vitamin A: Critical for skin, eyes, soft tissues, bones, and teeth
- Vitamin D: Known to be essential for immune health, bone health, teeth, and chronic disease prevention
- Vitamin K: Necessary for blood clotting and bone health
- Vitamin E: An antioxidant that protects cellular health; necessary for the immune system and red blood cell formation.
Minerals are nutrients found in food. They’re absorbed from the soil and water where the plants are grown. Like vitamins, minerals are necessary for cellular health, metabolism, function, and repair. They help make enzymes and hormones, and optimize your immune response.
Like macro- and micronutrients, there are two types of minerals. Macrominerals are those you need in more significant amounts, while you need much less of the trace minerals.<sup>13</sup> While tiny, each mineral has many different jobs in the body, from cellular health to immune health and even DNA and protein repair.
Trace minerals include:
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong><a href="/blog/vitamins-and-minerals-weight-loss">vitamins and weight loss</a></p>
Macronutrients and Micronutrients for Optimal Health
After reading about all the functions of macro- and micronutrients, it helps explain why they’re essential for life. Deficiency of any nutrient can lead to significant adverse health outcomes.
Suboptimal nutrition status, whether from macronutrients or micronutrients, can negatively impact your health over time. It may not be enough to show up in lab tests or to be considered malnutrition, but it can interfere with optimal health.
Imbalances, or too much or too little, of certain nutrients can throw off nutrition status and, therefore, overall health. Nutrients don't exist alone, and many work synergistically together. A simple example: diets high in refined carbohydrates and lower in protein or healthy fat. While you may not notice it every day, eating this way can lead to weight gain and increase your risk for chronic diseases.<sup>14</sup>
Dietary imbalances are also seen with vitamins and minerals. For example, we know that calcium is vital for bones. But just popping calcium pills all day long won't solve the problem and isn't even good for us. You also need magnesium, vitamin D, and vitamin K for optimal bone health.<sup>15</sup> And too much calcium is associated with arterial plaque formation, which increases the risk for heart disease.<sup>16</sup>
While each nutrient could have an individual article about its health benefits, here are some of the top reasons optimal nutrient intake is important:
Blood Sugar Balance
A healthy blood sugar balance is well accepted as a primary target for wellness. Your blood sugar response indicates metabolic health and how well your body responds to various types of foods.<sup>17</sup>
Macronutrients are clearly crucial for blood sugar balance because they control whether your blood sugar rises in the first place. As you learned earlier, carbohydrates are digested and absorbed as glucose, the sugar in your blood.
Refined or simple carbohydrates will spike your blood sugar or keep it elevated longer than other types of carbs. In contrast, complex or high-fiber carbohydrates can blunt the response.<sup>18</sup>
Additionally, protein and fat help slow down the process because they are digested more slowly. So combining macronutrients can lead to better blood sugar control, supporting metabolic health.
Micronutrients may not be as well-known for blood sugar control, but they’re still important. Since many vitamins and minerals are necessary for cellular metabolism, it means that you need sufficient levels to properly metabolize carbs, fats, and proteins.<sup>19</sup>
Some studies suggest that micronutrient deficiencies could lead to impaired blood sugar. People with blood sugar dysregulation often have micronutrient deficiencies, a vicious cycle.<sup>20</sup> For example, suboptimal zinc status is associated with diabetes, and increasing intake could support better blood sugar control.<sup>21</sup>
Additionally, some research suggests that micronutrient deficiencies are associated with oxidative stress in the body, increasing the risk of insulin resistance or eventually diabetes.<sup>20</sup>
Once again, macros are foundational for weight loss because they amount to the calories you take in. But more than that, the balance of macronutrients matters for maintaining a healthy weight. Overeating one macronutrient or not eating enough of another can interfere with your weight loss goals.
Read more: Check out our article on macros to learn more about finding the optimal macro ratio for weight loss.
And while micronutrients may not directly add or take away calories from your diet, they should be considered for healthy weight. Diets that aren't well-balanced in macronutrients can also lead to a less than optimal intake of micronutrients.<sup>24</sup>
Interestingly, when people go on restrictive diets, they may unintentionally take in fewer micronutrients when cutting certain types of foods or even significantly cutting calories.
Further, micronutrients are critical coenzymes for optimal cellular metabolism. Coenzymes are needed for enzymes to do their job to start the metabolic reactions in your body. <sup>25</sup> So to use the energy from your macronutrients or to break down fat efficiently, you need the proper micronutrients that act as coenzymes.
Optimize Macronutrients and Micronutrients for Health and Longevity
Part of the reason nutrition is so hard to study, and why recommendations seem to change, is because it's not enough to study a single nutrient and translate the findings to the general public. Instead, the balance of all of these unique nutrients, including micronutrients and macronutrients, matters.
By eating a varied diet, with plenty of lean protein, healthy fat, fiber-rich carbs alongside fresh fruits and vegetables, you should be able to meet recommendations. But if you want to take a closer look, tracking your food can be a way to better understand your diet's strengths or weaknesses and optimize your intake.
For Signos Users
Use the food log in the Signos app to track everything you eat, and you’ll even get a breakdown of your macronutrient percentages for each day.
Get more information about weight loss, glucose monitors, and living a healthier life