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Macro- and Micronutrients: What Do I Need to Know?

by | Oct 24, 2020 | FAST FACTS

You may have heard the term “macros” floating around lately in the health world, but might not be quite sure exactly what that means. “Macros” is short for macronutrients, meaning nutrients you need in large quantities. On the flip side, micronutrients are those you need in smaller quantities. Basically, the macronutrients and micronutrients are just different categories of essential nutrients you need in your diet. 

What are Macronutrients?

The macronutrients provide calories for energy and are needed in large quantities. The three macros are:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Protein
  • Fat

These are typically measured in grams, which is how you will find them listed on the food label.  Carbs and protein provide 4 calories per gram, while fat provides 9 calories per gram. 

Water could also be considered a macronutrient, since it is needed in large quantities. But it doesn’t provide calories like the others. Almost all foods contain some water. 

Most foods can be categorized by which macronutrient they primarily provide, but many contain two or more of the macronutrients. In general, here are the foods that fit into each category:

  • Carbohydrates: fruit, vegetables, grains. 
  • Protein: meat, fish, eggs, poultry, beans, legumes.
  • Fat: oil, solid fats, avocados, olives, nuts and seeds.

Most regular dairy products contain all three macros. Animal protein, depending on the cut, may also be high in fat. Beans and legumes are a good source of protein, but are also high in carbohydrates. 

How Many Macronutrients Do You Need?

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans has a general recommendation for the amount of each macronutrient you need based on individual calorie intake.[1] The guidelines recommend:

  • Carbohydrates: 45-65% of calories
  • Protein: 10-35% of calories
  • Fat: 20-35% of calories

Although this may seem like a wide range, but that is intentional. The Dietary Guidelines are meant to be flexible enough to account for people’s different nutrient needs. 

Ideally, to ensure you are getting the nutrition you need, you should keep the macros in balance. A diet with the right balance of macros has also been associated with a healthier body weight and appetite regulation.[2]

What Are Micronutrients?

The prefix “micro” means small. Micronutrients are those you need in a small amount, but this doesn’t mean they are not important for your health. The micronutrients are the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients in your diet.

Micronutrients are usually measured in milligrams (mg) or micrograms (ug). There are many more micronutrients than macronutrients, but here are some of the main ones:

  • B-vitamins
  • Vitamin A, D, E, K, C
  • Folate
  • Iron
  • Calcium
  • Potassium
  • Zinc
  • Copper
  • Phosphorus
  • Magnesium
  • Sodium

Food contains different quantities of each of these micronutrients, which is why a varied diet is the best way to meet your daily needs. Eating adequate amounts of micronutrients has been shown to help reduce the risk of many chronic diseases.[3]

How Many Micronutrients Do You Need?

Daily micronutrient requirements for all age groups can be found in the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) created by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine. These recommendations are meant to meet the nutritional needs of 97-98% of the population. People with specific health conditions may need different amounts of each nutrient.[4]   

The DRIs provide three different values, these are:

  • Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA): average level to meet nutrient requirements of nearly all people, as determined by high quality evidence.
  • Adequate Intake (AI): insufficient evidence exists to determine an RDA, the AI is the level that is assumed to ensure nutritional adequacy.
  • Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL): maximum level to prevent toxicity or other health problems.

If you review the DRI charts, it is easy to get overwhelmed by trying to figure out how to create a diet that meets all your needs. But there is no need to be concerned! No one eats 100% of their daily nutrient requirements every single day. Luckily, your body is incredibly smart and is able to grab the nutrients it needs when they are available. 

The best way to ensure you are meeting all your micro needs is to eat a wide variety of foods day to day, with a particular focus on nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, and protein.

The “Macros” Diet

Discussion around macros and micros has become more popular lately due to several diets that involve eating a specific number or ratio of “macros” daily for weight loss or body composition goals. You may have heard of these diets referred to as “If it fits your macros” (IIFYM) or flexible dieting.

There are possible benefits to tracking macros. Keeping a balance of carbs, protein, and fat may help increase satiety and regulate blood sugar. Eating a balance of macros can also ensure you are meeting your daily nutrient needs. 

But, is unclear if macro tracking will result in weight loss or increased muscle mass as research on this type of diet is limited.[5] 

Also, many use macro tracking as an excuse to eat unhealthy foods. Technically, on this diet if a food “fits” your macros you are allowed to eat it. Although this makes the diet appealing for many, since it doesn’t restrict any foods, it could lead to less than ideal eating patterns. If you choose to follow a macro tracking diet, make sure you are also making healthy choices.

Balancing Macro- and Micronutrients for a Healthy Diet

For most people, breaking down macro- and micronutrients to their gram level is not necessary. Since all foods contain some macros and micros, if you simply eat a variety of foods from each food group, you are likely to meet your requirements effortlessly. 

There are some cases where you might want to get more granular with your nutrient requirements. For example, if you have been struggling with an iron deficiency (usually diagnosed by a doctor) you may want to ensure you are eating 100% of your daily iron needs. Or if you have issues with blood sugar, you may need to become more aware of your carbohydrate intake. Additionally, depending on your individual nutrient needs and deficiencies, supplementation might be required to meet your needs.  

If you are just concerned about being healthy and not developing any nutrient deficiencies, tracking is not required. A diet that is adequate in calories and that includes all the food groups, i.e. grains, vegetables, fruit, protein, and healthy fats will meet all your needs. Going back to the basics, a simple balanced diet based in whole foods is all you need to get all your macros and micros.


Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD, CDE

Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD, CDE

Ana Reisdorf has 13 years of experience as a Registered Dietitian and freelance writer. She has a passion for creating incredible health and nutrition content. She is the author of three books, the “The Lupus Cookbook”, “The Anti-inflammatory Diet One Pot Cookbook.” and the “21-day arthritis diet plan”. Find her at