What Are Macronutrients?

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on July 13, 2023
4 min read

Macronutrients are the nutrients that your body needs in large amounts, which include fat, carbohydrates, and protein. They're the nutrients that give you energy and are often called "macros".

Macronutrients contain the components of food that your body needs to maintain its systems and structures. You need all three macronutrients as part of a healthy diet, so you shouldn't exclude or seriously restrict any of them. 

Protein is essential to many of your body's functions, including:

  • Tissue structure
  • Hormone system
  • Metabolic system
  • Transport system
  • Enzymes that regulate metabolism
  • Balancing the acid/base environment 

The amount of protein you need depends on your weight and how much exercise you get. The official recommendation from the Dietary Reference Intake Report is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. An average sedentary man should eat around 56 grams of protein daily. An average sedentary woman should eat around 46 grams daily. 

The more exercise you get, the more protein you can safely eat. You should aim to get between 10% and 35% of your daily calories from protein. Your body can't store protein. Once you reach the amount you need, your body will convert the rest to energy or fat. You should get your daily requirement and then focus on carbohydrates and fat for the rest of your calories.  

When it comes to protein, where it comes from matters. While processed meat may have a lot of protein, it also has saturated fats and other ingredients that are bad for you. Whenever possible, you should get your protein from plant sources. Plant sources provide not only protein but also fiber and micronutrients as well. The best plant sources of protein include: 

If you do eat protein from animal sources, choose healthier options such as: 

  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Seafood
  • Eggs
  • About 3 servings of dairy daily, particularly yogurt

Carbohydrates provide fuel for your body during high-intensity exercise. They allow your body to use carbohydrates instead of protein during exercise, which helps preserve your muscle mass. Additionally, carbohydrates provide energy for your central nervous system, which includes your brain. 

Carbohydrates are the primary fuel for your body. You should get between 45% to 65% of your calories from carbohydrates. As with protein, the type of food that you get your carbohydrates from is important. Carbohydrates can be found in healthy and unhealthy foods. 

The healthiest sources of carbohydrates can provide you with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are compounds found in plants that can help fight diseases. These include unprocessed whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits. 

Unhealthy sources of carbohydrates can cause spikes in your blood sugar. They can lead to weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease. These include easily digestible foods such as white bread, pastries, soda, and other highly processed foods.  

Fat is an important part of your diet. Your body needs fat for: 

  • Essential fatty acids your body can't make
  • A component in cell walls
  • A source of energy
  • Absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins K, E, D, and A
  • Insulating your body and protecting your organs

You should try to get 20% to 35% of your total daily calories from fat. As with other macronutrients, it's important to get your fat from healthy sources. The healthiest types of fat come from plants and are called monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Good sources of these types of fats are: 

  • Olives and olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Avocados
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Corn oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Soybean oil

Saturated fat comes from mainly animal sources and tropical oils and shouldn't make up more than 7% to 10% of your diet because they are associated with bad cholesterol and internal inflammation. Sources of saturated fat include:

  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Lamb
  • Veal
  • High-fat dairy products
  • Processed meat such as hot dogs
  • Butter
  • Processed baked goods such as pastries
  • Coconut and palm oil

You should avoid eating any trans fat because it raises your bad cholesterol and lowers your good cholesterol. Cholesterol only comes from animal products. If your cholesterol is normal, you should eat 300 grams or less of cholesterol daily. If your cholesterol is elevated, limit your dietary intake to less than 200 grams. 

Your body needs large amounts of macronutrients to function. Your body only needs small amounts of micronutrients to function properly. Micronutrients include.

Water-soluble vitamins. These vitamins include: 

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin B1 (thiamin)
  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin)
  • Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
  • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
  • Vitamin B7 (biotin)
  • Vitamin B9 (folate)
  • Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)

Fat-soluble vitamins. These are found in foods containing fat and include:

Minerals. All minerals are micronutrients, but your body needs more of some minerals than others. A balanced diet normally provides all of the minerals your body needs. Minerals your body needs more of are called macrominerals and include: 

  • Sodium
  • Chloride
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Magnesium
  • Sulfur

Minerals that your body doesn't need as much of are called microminerals or trace minerals and include: 

  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Iodine
  • Selenium
  • Copper
  • Manganese
  • Fluoride
  • Chromium
  • Molybdenum

Your body also needs some minerals in only tiny amounts. These include:  

  • Nickel
  • Silicon
  • Vanadium
  • Cobalt