Macronutrients (or “macros” as you may have heard them called) are the three major nutrient groups: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. A proper balance of these macronutrients allows our body to function optimally by assisting in the absorption and utilization of smaller nutrients (micronutrients), which are all the vitamins and minerals. Macros have gotten a pretty bad reputation over the years as something that you need to continuously monitor, track (see: My Fitness Pal), or even eliminate to achieve “perfect health.” You can thank diet culture for that.
A lot of claims about macros have stripped them of their true scientific significance and replaced that with harmful, fear-mongering messages that can be confusing for someone on the road to recovery. Perhaps you have found that you still have some deep-rooted biases towards different macros and it’s inhibiting you from experiencing true food freedom. It’s hard not to when click-bait ads and the new celebrity diet fill your social feed with messaging such as carbs are bad, eat more protein, only eat fat (hello, keto diet). It’s not only confusing, but the directives seem to change every other week.
Arming yourself with the science of nutrition and understanding the crucial role of each macronutrient in the body can not only help you challenge the intrusive, disordered thoughts but also bring you closer to stopping the diet roller coaster once and for all.
Below, we’ll explain what each macro is, its importance in the body, and how we can use this knowledge to promote satisfaction and satiety at meals.
The Macronutrient Breakdown
The three main macros are protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Let’s dive deeper into what each one does for us daily.
Carbohydrates are our bodies’ main source of energy.
At their core, carbohydrates are just molecules of hydrogen and oxygen bonded together in varying lengths. Their length determines the category of carbs that they fall under (either simple carbohydrates which are short-chain, or long-chain complex carbohydrates).
Simple carbs, also known as simple sugars, have been demonized by virtually all diet propaganda — but our body actually needs them to function. All digested forms of carbohydrates are eventually transformed into glucose, a simple sugar, and glucose feeds our cells and provides us with the energy we need to carry out daily activities. Glucose is the primary source of fuel for our brains and without it or enough of it, we run the risk of feeling fatigued, foggy, cranky, and unfocused.
The roles of carbohydrates include:
- Providing the body with energy
- Serving as the body’s storage form of energy
- Sparing protein so it can perform its roles (see more on this below)
- Preserving muscle
- Can help control blood sugar and cholesterol
Let’s break these functions down a little:
- When you eat enough carbohydrates to fulfill the body’s energy needs (which vary every day!), any leftover glucose gets stored in the liver for later use. This storage glucose is called glycogen. When the body’s carb intake is lower (or during exercise), glycogen can be broken down back to glucose to maintain proper blood sugar levels and provide more energy.
- If you run out of both glucose and glycogen, your body can break down muscle and protein to provide energy, but it would prefer not to. Maintaining muscle mass and adequate protein stores are equally important for overall body functioning. So, eating enough carbs actually helps your body preserve muscle and allows protein to keep doing its job(s).
- Lastly, let’s talk about how carbohydrates promote digestive health. One type of complex carbohydrate is called fiber, of which there are two types: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber - found in oats, legumes, vegetables and fruit - helps us feel full and satisfied, while also stimulating easy, consistent bowel movements. Insoluble fiber - found in whole grains and the skins of fruits and vegetables - helps alleviate constipation by adding bulk to the stool. Eating both types of fiber helps keep us regular!
As you can see, we can thank carbs - a balance of both simple and complex - for performing a multitude of essential functions.
Do you have increased cravings for carbs? Don’t avoid them! These cravings are likely a result of deprivation and are only going to worsen if you continue to avoid them. Your brain and your body are telling you what it needs. Listen and honor these signals. Your body will not steer you wrong.
We can find carbohydrates in many different food sources, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy products. A combination of these various types of carbohydrates will not only help make sure our satisfaction needs are met, but also help to ensure we’re taking in a balance of vitamins and minerals and fiber necessary for optimal health.
Proteins are made up of varying chains of amino acids (the protein building blocks) and are in charge of many important bodily functions.
The roles of protein include:
- Building and repairing body tissues and muscles
- Enzymatic reactions that facilitate energy production, digestion, blood clotting, and muscle contraction (to name just a few)
- Hormone messenger for various important reactions
- Providing structure in the body— like maintaining proper pH levels, balancing fluids, bolstering our immune health, and storing nutrients
Although protein is also capable of providing energy like glucose, it is the last thing your body wants to use since it’s such a key player for so many other functions. Let’s use the car as an analogy here. If you are eating a low carbohydrate, high protein diet, it’s like expecting your car to run on oil and not gas for energy, which is not an ideal situation!
Protein can come from animal sources (dairy products, meat, poultry, fish) or plant sources (soy, legumes, and nuts).
Although diet culture would tell you otherwise, your body needs fat. Fat in the diet does not lead to an increase in fat in the body. They are two separate things.
Fat’s roles in the body include:
- Providing your body with energy to support cell growth
- Protecting your organs and nerves
- Regulating internal temperature
- Absorbing vitamins A, E, D, and K and other micronutrients
- Producing important hormones (such as leptin, which regulates appetite)
Fats can be found in both plants (oils and nuts) and animal sources (fish, red meat, eggs, and dairy).
Should I be tracking my macros?
Having an idea of your different daily macro percentages is important but can also keep you stuck in the diet mentality.
Ultimately, our bodies need a higher percentage of carbs than protein and fat, but we also need different percentages each day depending on stress, exercise, and sleep patterns. If we strive to hit "perfect" percentages (we meet again, MyFitnessPal), we’re not tuning into our body's internal cues, which tell us what we truly need for our sustenance.
Regardless of the percentages, a relatively balanced intake throughout the day is important for our daily functioning.
Providing your body with a mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fats will ultimately help aid in digestion, absorption, the functionality of vitamins and minerals, increased satiety, fewer cravings, and keeping blood sugar stable.
All three macros are a very important part of our daily intake. Even though diet culture likes to demonize some, the truth of the matter is that they are all necessary for a healthy relationship with food and proper bodily function.
In general, it is best to keep it simple and to listen to your body. Seek out protein, carbohydrates, and fats at all meals to help with satisfaction and satiety. It's also okay to NOT have all of these components at each meal (you can still have a bowl of cereal without milk as a snack if that’s what you’re craving).
Learn to trust that your body needs energy from all macros to help you live out your everyday life — despite what diet culture would have you believe.
If you need a little more support navigating your relationship with food and body or a community to vent to (who doesn’t?) - we’ve got you covered. Make sure you join our newsletter to stay up to date on all our practice has to offer!