Breaking Down the Building Blocks of a Healthy Diet: Understanding Macro and Micronutrients
A proper diet can have a massive impact on your physical and mental health. It can ensure that you’re able to meet the day with sufficient energy to not only face but also process all of each day’s little (or not so little) challenges and opportunities. Nutrition is fundamental to our well-being. However, fad diets are notoriously fickle, passing in and out of popular culture with such regularity that it can be difficult to know what actually matters at all, much less figure out the difference between terms like micro and macronutrients, among a host of other jargon. These terms, however, are vital to general nutrition. Letting go of the other noise and considering diet in the context of macro and micronutrients can help give you a better idea of what underpins a healthy nutritional balance and how it can be best managed in order to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle.
What are Macronutrients?
To begin with, it is important to separate out what those terms mean, beginning with macronutrients. These are nutrients that are most immediately necessary in terms of making sure your body has enough energy. They are the fuel that powers your bodily engine, as it were, and they are made up of four* distinct groups:
- Proteins: These are highly important for muscle growth, tissue and skin health, maintaining healthy blood plasma, and regulating metabolic and hormone systems.
- Carbohydrates: While plenty of fad diets often target this macronutrient, they are nevertheless a necessary part of a healthy balanced diet. They help fuel the body during intense physical activity and likewise nourish the brain as well as the central nervous system.
- Fats: Another common target of fad diets, these are another necessary source of energy. The main culprit here is saturated or trans fats. While these are not bad per se, too many can create conditions that can lead to arterial clogging and other heart-related issues. However, unsaturated fats can help protect and insulate organs inside the body, making them an important part of your diet.
- *Water: Water is included or excluded in the main macronutrients list depending on the source referenced. However, the importance of water in any diet is obvious – without it, we simply cannot survive. Water is necessary for everything from quenching thirst, to maintaining body temperature, to keeping tissue moist, transporting oxygen, and assisting with all manner of other essential functions that make life possible.
Some diets attempt to eliminate one or more of these macronutrients under the guise of losing weight. However, this can oftentimes lead to problems when the systems that depend on these macronutrients have to either adjust to finding other ways to get what they need or go without if there is no alternative. Rather than totally eliminating entire macronutrients from your diet, it’s more important – as well as far safer and more beneficial – to work on the balance of each component in relation to one another, as well as their relationship to micro ingredients. Healthy diets, versus fad diets, are about balance and moderation, rather than radical elimination.
What are Micronutrients?
Larger quantities of macronutrients are necessary for good health in comparison to micronutrients. This is because micronutrients are things like vitamins and minerals – elements your body needs to function, but that you wouldn’t consume in large quantities like proteins or carbs. Rather than whole foodstuffs or meals unto themselves, they’re meant as supplements, and micronutrient vitamins are those that are necessary for the human body to function but are not produced in sufficient quantities by the human body itself. This means we need to consume supplements that provide these micronutrients or, better yet, eat foods that contain trace elements of them.
Here’s a handy micronutrient guide:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B (1, 2, 6, and 12)
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
- Folic Acid
These nutrients can aid in a wide variety of things, including promoting hair and skin growth, helping keep your gums healthy, supporting strong bones and teeth, and aiding in blood cell formation. They also help regulate hormones, protect against membrane damage, and assist in preventing blood clots. If that weren’t enough, these little guys also give our muscle and nerve systems much-needed support, as well as help transport oxygen around our bodies.
Choosing Quality Macros
Potato chips and whole wheat bread both fall under the category of “carbs.” However, these foods are not created equal. When you’re considering what foods with which to fill up your macronutrient intake, consider which might also add to your micronutrients at the same time. For example, potato chips (while they might satisfy a craving) aren’t going to supply the micronutrients like thiamin (vitamin B-1) and iron. Likewise, ketchup might be made up of tomatoes, but it’s not going to give you the micronutrient boost that spinach can. (For arguments’ sake, we could decry that ketchup has some traces of vitamins in it; however, that doesn’t make it healthy – not to mention even condiments like ketchup are often full of added sugar.) This implies a distinction between high and lower-quality foods depending on their nutritional content. A good rule of thumb is to look for foods that are unrefined and largely unprocessed. These can include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy sources of protein, and healthy fats. By contrast, lower-quality foods tend to be more highly processed and can include everything from refined sugars and added fillers to saturated and trans fats.
In addition to choosing high-quality macronutrient-rich foods, it is vital that consumers make the most of them. But how do you know how much to eat of each? If you know how many calories you need in a day, you can use that figure to help guide you. This will vary widely, as it depends on several factors, including things like gender. On average, adult men need slightly more calories than women. Additionally, your unique recommended calorie count will vary based on how active you are in the day. If you don’t know how many calories you need, there are a number of online calculators that can help with these calculations. Meanwhile, even if you don’t have a number, you can still get a ballpark idea of how to manage your macros in relation to each other. Bearing in mind that there is no single breakdown of different macronutrients that suits all people exactly equally, having carbs account for 45 to 65 percent of your diet, fats 20 to 35 percent, and proteins ten to 35 percent is a frequently recommended guideline. The more active you are, the more carbs and protein can make up a higher percentage of your diet (exercise for the win!).
Ideas to Consider
While you don’t want to reduce everything to calories, as it can be overly simplistic and ignore more important aspects like focusing on quality of foods, they can be a useful tool for keeping track of your daily macronutrient intake. Keeping a list as well may enable you to keep closer tabs on what nutrients are being consumed on which days, which can help with that all-important question of balance. Analyzing your intake can also give you a clearer idea of which macros are being consumed in excess and help you adjust your ratios.
In the end, fad diets come and go. But maintaining the balance between different macronutrient staples and supplementing them with the right micronutrients is a consistent concept that is one of the foundations of healthy eating and living.