What the heck is a macronutrient, anyway? RDs help explain how they fit into a balanced diet.

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When diving into the world of nutrition, there are a lot of different factors you can focus on. Everywhere you turn it seems that someone is touting the next obscure micronutrient purported to radically change your health. When it comes down to it, though, nutrition is built on three main macronutrients that pretty much everyone is at least somewhat familiar with: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Consuming these important macronutrients in their proper ratios is one of the simplest ways to ensure you're getting adequate nutrition to fuel your body and mind, and keep you energized for life's daily activities. 

What Are Macronutrients?

So what exactly is a macronutrient (sometimes referred to as a "macro") and how much of each should we be eating? "To put it simply, a macronutrient is a nutrient that your body needs to maintain its structure and systems," explains Carissa Galloway, RDN, registered dietitian and Premier Protein nutrition consultant. "When we say 'macronutrients,' we're typically referring to carbohydrates, protein, and fat—the three nutrients we use in the largest amounts." 

While you might be familiar with calories as the main unit of energy that food provides, calories from each macronutrient differ in how they affect your health. Therefore, it's important to eat all three macronutrients for balanced nutrition and overall health. "The macronutrients fat, protein, and carbohydrates provide energy and essential components that the body needs to maintain its natural functions," says Cara Harbstreet, RDN, founder of Street Smart Nutrition . "Regularly consuming all three can help ensure normal growth and development, adequate fueling for day-to-day activities and athletic performance, and promote better satiety (fullness) and satisfaction when eating."

High angle view of nuts on blue background
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How much of each macronutrient do you need?

Each macronutrient has unique benefits, and should make up a certain ratio of your plate at each meal. For healthy adults, the USDA and National Academy of Sciences both recommend a diet with: 

  • 45 to 65 percent of daily calories from carbohydrates
  • 10 to 35 percent from protein
  • 20 to 35 percent from fat

Both Galloway and Harbstreet are quick to note, however, that specific dietary needs will vary among individuals based on lifestyle, preferences, goals, and overall health. 

Macronutrients vs. Micronutrients

If these macronutrients are the main building blocks of our diets, where do micronutrients come in? "Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that help with your well-being, your development, and aid in disease prevention," says Galloway. Micronutrients (other than Vitamin D) can't be made in the body, and must be consumed as part of the diet, but on a much smaller level than a macronutrient. 

One way to think about the difference between them is the amount in which you need to consume macros vs. micros. "A macronutrient is a nutrient needed in gram amounts, vs. milligrams or smaller amounts with vitamins and minerals," explains Harbstreet. Some examples of essential micronutrients include Vitamin D, Vitamin A, iron, iodine, folate, and zinc.

The 3 Macronutrients, Explained

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1 Protein

Protein is a big topic in the macronutrient discussion, especially among people who love to work out, as it can be especially helpful in recovering from exercise. "Protein is mainly known for its role in rebuilding and repairing muscles and tissue," explains Galloway. "However, protein is also an important nutrient for maintaining our hormones, metabolic systems, enzymes, and balancing our acid/base system." Including a protein source with every meal and snack can also help with staying full for longer between meals and keeping blood sugar levels steady, avoiding that 3 p.m. crash that leaves you reaching for the nearest sugary snack

Protein also contains amino acids, which play important roles in the growth and development of body tissues, aiding the immune system, and keeping muscles, bones, and tissues healthy. Harbstreet explains that there are two types of amino acids: essential and non-essential. "Eating adequate protein involves consuming essential amino acids, which are the amino acids that cannot be synthesized or produced by the body," she explains. Non-essential amino acids are naturally produced by the body and don't need to be consumed.

The best food sources of protein include seafood, eggs, lean meats, nuts, beans, lentils, tofu and other soy products, and seeds. "Because protein is such an important macronutrient, I always encourage clients to keep on-the-go and convenient sources of protein in the pantry or maybe stashed in their car to help maintain a healthy diet on those crazy-busy days," Galloway says. This could include options like protein shakes, jerky, nuts, or nut butter packets. 

RELATED: 22 Healthy High-Protein Recipes (That Taste 10 Times Better Than a Shake or Snack Bar)

2 Fat

Fat might get a bad rap sometimes, but it's essential for your body to function properly. According to Harbstreet, fat helps your body protect its organs, regulate temperature, and absorb vitamins from food. Galloway adds that fat also assists in generating energy, making hormones, and building the exterior of your cell walls. "There are also essential fatty acids that your body cannot make and must be consumed," says Gallloway. "These include alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid),"

In addition to assisting with those (extremely important) bodily functions, fat plays another important role in our daily diets: taste! "Fat also carries flavor, so including a fat source in cooking can intensify flavors and thus, increase satisfaction and fullness in meals," Harbstreet says. 

The key is to understand the difference between healthy fats and unhealthy fats—and to eat plenty of the former while limiting the latter. Good sources of healthy fat include seafood, avocado, olive oil, nuts, seeds, nut butters, full-fat yogurt, and olives. "Try to aim for unsaturated fats and items that contain omega 3s," Galloway says. "My favorites are wild salmon, canned tuna, olive and avocado oils, and peanut butter."

RELATED: 10 Top Heart-Healthy Foods You'll Love Eating

3 Carbohydrates

Despite the rise of low-carb and keto proponents out there, carbohydrates are not something that the average healthy adult needs to avoid. "Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is your body's preferred energy source," Galloway explains. Carbs allow the body to perform vital functions like keeping the heart beating, digesting food, and fueling the brain's activity. 

That said, not all carbohydrates are equally nutritious. Simple carbohydrates—like refined sugars (think: candy, raw sugar, white bread, corn syrup, pasta)—don't contain much (if any) fiber, and will be broken down immediately by the body into glucose. Complex carbohydrates pack in more nutrients and will take longer to break down in your body, resulting in increased satiety, better digestion, and more stable blood sugar. 

"The healthiest [carbohydrates] not only provide your body with energy, but also fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients," says Galloway. Good sources of healthy carbohydrates include whole grains, beans, legumes, oats, sweet potatoes, and fruits.

Balanced Meal and Snack Ideas That Pack in the Macronutrients

Now that you have an idea of what macronutrients are and how much of each you should be aiming for, you might be wondering how you make meals that will help you reach your nutritional goals on a daily basis. Once you start thinking about macronutrient ratios, you'll probably find yourself automatically adjusting your meal planning and recipe choices to fit. But there are a few types of meals that lend themselves particularly well to macronutrient balancing. And remember, there's no need to get overwhelmed or feel you need to overhaul your entire diet. Start with one meal a day and see how you feel, and you can build from there. "Nutritionally balanced meals don't need to be overly extravagant, expensive, or complicated to prepare, and can include culturally significant foods and recipes," Harbstreet says.

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Smoothies

You can include a protein powder (you can use a whey protein like Premier Protein or a plant-based option such as Vega), a spoonful of nut butter for fat (and more protein), and a banana for the complex carbohydrate. Try freezing your banana for extra creaminess.

Oatmeal

While oats on their own are mainly carbohydrates, Harbstreet recommends cooking them with milk or a non-dairy alternative and topping with your favorite fruit, nuts, and/or nut butter for a balanced combination of all three macronutrients. 

RELATED: 14 Oatmeal Recipes That Are Seriously Comforting (and Healthy!)

Omelette or Egg Scramble

We already know that eggs are an incredible source of protein, and when you combine them with an array of veggies, fats, and carbs, they become a complete power breakfast (or lunch or dinner!). "Try an egg scramble with spinach and tomatoes topped with avocado and served with a whole grain English muffin, slice of grain toast, or roasted potatoes," Harbstreet recommends.

Vegetarian Bowl

Getting in your protein doesn't have to mean eating excessive amounts—or any—meat. Galloway recommends building a bowl with a base of rice (carbohydrate), black beans (carbohydrate and protein), avocado (healthy fat), and topped with salsa (carbohydrate). Throw in whatever veggies you have on hand, raw or cooked, for an extra dose of fiber.

Loaded Salad

Skip the boring salad that leaves you hungry an hour after eating it. Harbstreet suggests making a big leafy greens salad topped with sweet potatoes, black beans or chickpeas, chicken or tofu, and sprinkled with sliced avocado or an olive-oil based dressing as a fat source (psst—homemade dressing is healthiest and tastiest).

Protein Plate

Build a perfectly simple, balanced, and nutritious meal by pairing 4 ounces of wild salmon, which serves as both a protein and a healthy fat, with some roasted potatoes and broccoli sauteed in olive oil. Hearty, wholesome, and delicious!

Simple Stir Fry

A great way to use up whatever you have in the fridge and pantry while meeting your nutritional goals is to throw everything into a stir fry. Any vegetable and proteins will work here, but try onions, peppers, broccoli, and snap peas with chicken breast or sirloin strips. Serve with a grain like brown rice or quinoa and season with a flavorful sauce like peanut or sweet and sour.