Macronutrients (or “macros”) are the three major nutrient groups we get from food: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. A proper balance of these macronutrients allows the body to function optimally by assisting in the absorption and utilization of micronutrients, (vitamins and minerals). Macros have gotten a pretty confusing reputation over the years. You might think of them as something you need to continuously track or even eliminate to achieve “perfect health.” You can thank diet culture for that.
Most claims about macros have stripped them of their true scientific significance and replaced that with harmful, fear-mongering messages. Perhaps you have some deep-rooted biases towards a certain macronutrient which is inhibiting you from experiencing true food freedom. It’s hard not to think this way when click-bait ads and new celebrity diets fill your social feeds with messaging such as "carbs are bad, eat more protein," and "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 can not only help you challenge the intrusive, disordered thoughts, but can also bring you closer to stopping the diet roller coaster once and for all.
The Nutrient Breakdown
The three main macros are protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Let’s dive deeper into what each one does for us daily.
Carbohydrates are the body's main source of energy.
At their core, carbohydrates are molecules of hydrogen and oxygen bonded together in varying lengths. Their length determines whether they are considered simple carbohydrates, which are short-chains, or complex carbohydrates, which are long-chains.
Simple carbs, also known as simple sugars, have been demonized by virtually all macro diet propaganda. But the body actually needs them to function. All digested forms of carbohydrates are eventually transformed into glucose, a simple sugar. 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!), the body stores leftover glucose in the liver for later use. This stored glucose is called glycogen. Glycogen can be broken down to maintain proper blood sugar levels overnight or to provide energy during exercise.
- 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 protein stores are 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 fiber. There are two types of fiber: 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!
Do you have increased cravings for carbs? Don’t avoid them! These cravings are likely a result of deprivation and will only 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 keep us satisfied, but will also ensure we’re taking in a balance of vitamins, minerals and fiber necessary for optimal health.
Proteins are made up of 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 messaging 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. This is because protein is such a key macro for so many other functions. Let’s use the car as an analogy here. Eating a low carbohydrate, high protein diet is like expecting your car to run on oil and not gas for energy. Not an ideal situation!
Protein comes from animal sources (dairy products, meat, poultry, fish) and plant sources (soy, legumes, and nuts).
Although diet culture tells you otherwise, your body needs you to eat fat. Fat in the diet does not inherently lead to an increase in fat or weight gain 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 needs is important, but placing too much emphasis on tracking can keep you stuck in the diet mentality.
Ultimately, our bodies need a higher percentage of carbs than protein and fat. We will need different amounts each day depending on stress, exercise, and sleep patterns. If we strive to hit a "perfect" macronutrient breakdown based on numbers alone, we’re likely to tune out our body's internal cues. Meanwhile, our internal cues tell us what we truly need for our sustenance.
Regardless of the grams of proteins or fats, a relatively balanced intake throughout the day is important for our daily functioning.
Providing your body with a mix of macronutrients 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.
Keep it simple
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. Here's a handout that might be helpful if you're wanting to try to improve your macronutrient balance without tracking any numbers. 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). Trust that your body will be your guide, whatever you decide to eat.
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. Our individualized and group services are here to help you feel supported in your journey.