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What Are Macronutrients and Micronutrients?

avocado vegetables peas
Last Updated on July 2, 2022

Everything we eat and drink contains both micronutrients and macronutrients. So, when we consider our food and beverage choices, understanding their nutritional value becomes very important.

Nutrients are the chemicals and substances your body needs for healthy growth and development. They also help to regulate the processes that sustain our body’s functions. When we take in too much or too little, the inadequacy or abundance of our diet can become harmful to our overall health.

Understanding both how our body processes nutrients and what foods contain them makes it easier to plan and maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Macronutrients: Essential Nutrition

cooked food in a plate

Macronutrients are the essential elements found in food that sustain the growth and functions of our bodies. Macronutrients must be part of our food intake, as our bodies can’t manufacture them on their own. They fall into three main categories:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Proteins
  • Fats

Some scientists also consider water a macronutrient, but not all agree. Others believe water is a micronutrient, as it often contains minerals. The distinction isn’t anything to worry about, but it’s essential to know that water and proper hydration are as important as any other aspect of nutrition. Perhaps more so.

Macronutrients: Beyond the Basics

Since we need large amounts of macronutrients, typical lifestyle modifications and diet planning focus on these three primary sources of our nutrition. Regardless of the type of diet you are trying to design or follow, you will need some of each macronutrient each day.

For example, bodybuilding diets tend to prioritize proteins and fats over carbohydrates. But, without carbs, you’re starving your body of its primary source of energy, leaving yourself sluggish and irritable.


fruits and vegetables

Carbohydrates, or carbs for short, are our primary energy source. Once they enter the body, they are a quick fuel source for exercise and movement. But, if the amount of carbs we take in exceeds the amount of energy we use, these nutrients end up as reserves.

Carbohydrates fuel body processes, including brain activity, the oxidation of fats, and more. Taking in excess carbohydrates leaves your body with an extra energy supply that is stored as fat. Taking in fewer carbohydrates than we need for our daily energy supply will see your body use up fat reserves for energy. If there aren’t sufficient fat reserves, your body will begin to break down muscle tissue for energy.

Excess carbohydrate intake is a significant driver of America’s obesity epidemic. So while striking a balance of exercise and nutrition is difficult, it’s essential for maintaining healthy body weight.

Carbohydrates have about four calories per gram. Some common sources of carbohydrates include:

  • Grains
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Sugars
  • Energy drinks and sodas

When considering your diet of starches, fibers, and sugars, remember that all carbs aren’t created equally. Just as there are healthy carbohydrates in vegetables and fruits, there are unhealthy carbs like cakes, cookies, processed foods, and sugary sodas that can wreak havoc on your body.

So, understand that, in general, healthy carbs are broken down slowly and contain lots of other nutrients. Bad carbs are often called empty calories, as those that offer a quick sugar fix from processed or refined sugars don’t contain significant quantities of other nutrients.

Here is a quick breakdown of good versus bad carbs to make it easy. It will give you a good idea of which carbs to eat most often and which ones to save for treats. It’s almost impossible to avoid all bad carbs, but understanding the difference is a good way to prioritize the best ones in your diet.

Good Carbs


High in nutrients

Free of refined or processed sugars

Low in saturated fats

Typically contains a lot of fiber 

Take time to break down

Bad Carbs

Low in nutrients and fiver

Contain refined white sugar

Full of processed sugars like corn syrup

High in saturated fats

Loaded with refined grains like white flour

Rapid breakdown


cooked meat on black plate

Proteins contain the essential amino acids that fuel cellular processes and keep cells healthy. Once broken down into individual amino acids, these proteins provide the catalysts that drive many functions of the body.

Like carbohydrates, proteins have about four calories per gram.

Protein sources in our diets include:

  • Meats and fish
  • Soy products like tofu
  • Nuts
  • Legumes
  • Whole grains
  • Seeds
  • Some meat ‘alternatives’


butter on a table

Fats are dense bundles of energy. They assist the body in synthesizing hormones, act as a transporting solvent for fat-soluble vitamins, and assist with hormonal regulation. Plus, when stored, they act as a reserve energy supply.

Fats contain nine calories per gram. So, while they’re essential for health, taking in too much fat and not using it up for energy can easily lead to excess weight gain.

Typical sources of fat in a diet include:

  • Meats and fish
  • Dairy products
  • Oils
  • Nuts
  • Avocados

Fats are also broken into two categories: Saturated and unsaturated fats. Common saturated fats include animal fats, coconut oil, and butter. Unsaturated fats include oils like canola, flaxseed, and olive. Some fish (salmon and mackerel especially), nuts, and avocados are also good sources of unsaturated fats.

Saturated fats are not necessary to sustain life, but we need them in small amounts for the cholesterol they contain. Cholesterol helps regulate hormone production, and while our bodies do produce some on their own, it’s often insufficient for proper metabolism and other body functions.

The downside of taking in saturated fats is that eating too many can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

We need unsaturated fats in our diet, as they are essential for the health of our cells. They regulate metabolism, promote blood flow, and help bring fat-soluble vitamins into our bodies.

So, it’s best to limit the amount of saturated fat you eat to about 10% of your total fat intake.


Water is often part of the foods we take in, and it’s also something we drink on its own. While it’s not necessarily a source of nutrition and it doesn’t have calories, it is essential for many body processes, and it is crucial to stay properly hydrated.

There is some conflict among scientists about whether water fits better into the micronutrient or macronutrient category. But one thing is clear. Water is essential for sustaining our bodies.

Without water, we don’t have enough moisture to urinate, which is the principal means of excreting waste from our blood. It also helps keep our body chemistry in balance, lubricates cells, distributes nutrients, and in part, regulates our internal temperature.

Water is essential for proper metabolism, so staying hydrated is crucial for every individual. When you alter your eating habits to try and burn stored fats, it’s also important to add extra water. Doing so may help speed the processes that break down fat into energy, and it will help speed the excretion of waste byproducts.

Just be careful to remember that some beverages that we drink contain a lot more than just water. Try to avoid sugary drinks and prioritize hydration for the healthiest results.

Interestingly, a lack of water for more than 48 to 72 hours is potentially lethal. But, our bodies can sustain life without any food intake for weeks, depending on how much fat we have stored.

Micronutrients: Essential Nutrition, Smaller Quantities

Micronutrients are just as essential as macronutrients. However, we don’t usually need them in such large volumes. We need external sources for many micronutrients, whereas some are made inside our bodies. They also fall into three main categories:

  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Organic compounds

Micronutrients: Beyond the Basics

A diet that lacks micronutrients can make an individual quite sick. It’s important to ensure that the foods you eat and the drinks you consume provide you with these essential vitamins and minerals.


Let’s look at some of the most important dietary vitamins.

Thiamin: Vitamin B1
beans legumes

Thiamin helps our body release the energy in the foods we eat. It also helps prevent beriberi, a disease that may affect the nervous or cardiovascular system.

Foods that contain plenty of thiamin include

  • Animal proteins from meat and fish
  • Whole grains
  • Dried beans
  • Peas
  • Nuts, especially peanuts
Riboflavin: Vitamin B2
salmon fish

Riboflavin is essential for building and sustaining our body’s tissues. Major dietary sources of riboflavin include

  • Animal proteins from meat and fish
  • Whole grains
  • Yellow and green vegetables
Pyridoxine: Vitamin B6
banana and nuts

Pyridoxine aids in nervous system development. It’s important for the production of blood and assists our body with breaking down both protein and glucose and producing energy for the body.

The best food sources for pyridoxine include

  • Potatoes
  • Bananas
  • Chickpeas
  • Nuts
  • Fish
  • Rice
  • Yeast
Cobalamin: Vitamin B12

Cobalamin helps to promote nervous system growth and development. The best food sources for cobalamin include:

  • Fortified food products like cereals and non-dairy ‘milk’
  • Algae
  • Animal products like meat and fish
Ascorbic Acid: Vitamin C

Ascorbic acid is a building block for strong dental and bone health. It also helps the body generate growth hormones and acts as an anti-oxidant. Major food sources of vitamin C include:

  • All citrus fruits and most berries
  • Cabbage and some other leafy greens
  • Peppers
Folic Acid: Vitamin B9

Folic acid assists in the building of DNA and proteins. It also promotes healthy bone growth and is important for the health of our intestinal tract. Pregnant women and those who are breastfeeding need to monitor their folic acid intake, as a deficiency may increase the risk of particular birth and developmental defects.

The best food sources for folic acid include

  • Leafy, dark green vegetables like kale
  • Wheat germ, and yeast
Retinol: Vitamin A

Retinol is very important for our vision. It’s also essential for the maintenance of healthy skin and hair. Major food sources for vitamin A include:

  • Vegetables with carotene (carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and most orange-to-red vegetables)
  • Animal products like meat and fish
Calciferol: Vitamin D

Vitamin D prevents rickets in children and staves off osteoporosis in aging adults. It also promotes strong, healthy teeth and bones. Our bodies naturally produce some vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. People with limited sun exposure due to geography or lifestyle may want to consider using a vitamin D supplement.

The best dietary sources of vitamin D include

  • Dairy products
  • Fortified foods like cereals and non-dairy ‘milk’
  • Some fish products like salmon, cod liver oil, and tuna
  • Some mushrooms
  • Eggs, particularly yolks
Vitamin E

Vitamin E helps our body circulate blood throughout the cardiovascular system, aids in the prevention of damage to cellular membranes, and also acts to protect vitamin A within our body.

You can obtain vitamin E by eating:

  • Seeds and Nuts
  • Vegetable oil
Vitamin K

Vitamin K is an essential component for helping our blood to clot properly. Those who take certain anticoagulant medications, like warfarin, need to be extra careful about how much vitamin K they take in. If you take an anticoagulant, make sure that you discuss the medication and any dietary restrictions it requires with your doctor. You may need to restrict your intake of vitamin K.

The best dietary source of vitamin K is:

  • Green leafy vegetables


Let’s review some of the most important minerals to consider as part of your diet planning.


Calcium helps our body to maintain healthy bones and teeth. It also aids in the clotting of blood and assists in the proper function of our muscles and nervous system.

The best sources of calcium are

  • Legumes
  • Almonds
  • Natural milk and fortified non-dairy ‘milk’
  • Sardines
  • Shellfish, especially clams and oysters
  • Foods treated with calcium, like some tofu
  • Dark, green vegetables

Potassium is essential for the regulation of our overall cellular balance and saturation. Maintaining a healthy level of potassium is also vital for our core cardiac functions, heart rhythm, and nervous system.

The best sources of potassium include:

  • Fruits, like oranges and bananas
  • Beans
  • Potatoes
  • Some cereals

Sodium is important for the stimulation of our nerves, and it helps our body to regulate its internal water balance. Taking in too much sodium can cause water retention, and those with hypertension (high blood pressure) often have to reduce their sodium intake.

Almost everything we consume has some salt in it. So, you should be very careful about adding additional salt to your diet. We typically get almost all of the salt we need from simple foods, so be careful about adding extra salt to your meals.

The biggest sources of dietary sodium include:

  • Processed foods
  • Bread
  • Table salt

Iron is essential for forming blood cells. Red blood cells transport oxygen around the body, and iron is also essential. People with low iron levels are at risk for anemia and other health conditions.

Adding vitamin C to meals with a lot of iron can aid in its absorption and uptake within the body. For example, having citrus fruits with a meal of iron-rich animal protein will boost your iron uptake. On the flip side of that coin, anyone with an iron deficiency should limit their mingling of iron-rich and calcium-rich foods.

The best sources of iron include:

  • Meat and fish products
  • Fortified foods like cereals
  • Legumes
  • Lentils
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Some fruits, especially dried varieties

Zinc works within the blood to help transport carbon dioxide through the cardiovascular system and to the lungs, where we can expel it through expiration. It also promotes wound healing and is essential for the formation of enzymes.

The best foods for ingesting zinc are:

  • Whole grains and bread
  • Fortified foods like non-dairy ‘milk’ and cereals
  • Legumes

Trace Minerals

In addition to the above micronutrients, our bodies also need very small amounts of certain minerals. We call these trace minerals. They include:

  • Manganese
  • Copper
  • Selenium

Micronutrients, Macronutrients, and Your Diet

When considering changes to your diet, it’s essential that you think objectively. There are some popular examples of diets and meal plans that make significant changes to your food intake, altering the nutrients you take in.

Here are some examples of popular diets. Remember, our goal isn’t to promote these diets but to give you the information you need to decide if they’re right for you. Each of them has a significant effect on your intake of essential macro and micronutrients, so you need to account for any nutritional deficiencies.

It’s always best to consult with a dietician or physician before implementing a dietary change. They may recommend countermeasures, like taking a multivitamin to offset the risks of not gaining adequate nutrition from your diet.

Atkins Diet

The Atkins diet has been around for decades. It took in a new level of popularity in the early 2000s. Many people credit its low-carbohydrate intake with helping them to lose weight, but there is limited evidence that it works in the long term.

The basic premise of the diet is that by limiting carbohydrate intake and instead prioritizing fats and proteins, you will lose body fat. It is indeed pretty easy to take on extra energy in carbohydrates. It’s also true that unused energy will eventually become body fat, potentially leading to unhealthy weight gain.

However, consuming vast quantities of protein and fat isn’t healthy either. The Atkins diet is very unbalanced, and the result may be that you do more harm than good. Typical Atkins diet meals include proteins like steak, chicken, ground beef, turkey, and eggs, sometimes in almost comical portions.

Rounding out the meal would be fat sources like butter, sour cream, mayonnaise, cheeses, legumes, and other dairy products.

Since they all contain some carbohydrates, vegetables, fruits, and grains are severely limited in Atkins-type diet plans.


  • Severely limit the intake of carbohydrates, reducing the risk of them becoming fat
  • Your plate always seems full


  • Fats and proteins don’t provide the nutrients you need from carbs
  • Unhealthy amounts of protein and fat can lead to heart disease, high cholesterol, and other health issues
  • Limited evidence that Atkins dieting is sustainable 
  • Weight loss may be only temporary 


  • There is some evidence that a modified-Atkins diet may help reduce seizures for those with epilepsy


  • Cardiovascular disease
  • High cholesterol
  • High triglycerides
  • Stroke
  • Not enough carbs to sustain high levels of brain function

Keto Diet 

Avocado toast with soft-boiled egg

The ketosis or ‘keto’ diet is sort of like an umbrella over many other reduced-carbohydrate eating plans. The goal of all low-carb diets is to create a ketogenic effect, forcing your body to use stored fat reserves for energy.

To create this situation, you need to reduce your carbohydrate level. Unlike the Atkins diet, protein is not the focus. Instead, the keto diet prioritizes eating fats and curtails the consumption of both protein and carbs.

The downsides of this diet are three-fold. First, you have to limit protein intake, which can deprive you of a second macronutrient alongside carbs. The second downside is that you must severely restrict your carb intake consistently. The maximum daily carbohydrate intake will be the equivalent of one to two small servings of fruit.

The third downside is that it takes a few days for the ketogenic effect to kick in. 

A typical keto-friendly meal will have very small amounts of fruits, as they contain a lot of carbohydrates. Leafy green vegetables, small amounts of proteins, and fats will make up the backbone of a keto diet. You can also add brussels sprouts, asparagus, peppers, mushrooms, onions, celery, squashes, and cucumbers to your keto meals.

You will stick to a plan of about 75 grams of protein, 40 grams of carbs, and 150 grams or more of fat, provided you are aiming for a daily caloric intake of around 2,000 calories.


  • Tasty, satiating fats are OK to eat
  • May help with weight loss, especially short term
  • May help people with epilepsy


  • Medically dangerous due to extreme limits on macronutrients
  • May limit micronutrient intake as well
  • Constipation, as there is little fiber in a keto diet
  • Low energy, decreased attention span
  • Potential confusion and irritability from low energy levels
  • Hard to make work long-term


  • Helps to burn stored fat


  • Cardiovascular disease
  • High cholesterol
  • High triglycerides
  • Stroke
  • Not enough carbs to sustain high levels of brain function

Vegan Diet

vegetables lot

The vegan diet eliminates all animal-based foods. Vegetarian diets allow some intake of animal proteins, like eggs, milk, and natural dairy products. But strict vegan meals eschew all foods that come from animals.

Therefore, typical vegan diet meals are mainly plant-based. While there are some ethical and health considerations that might prompt one to avoid the consumption of animal-based foods, it’s also undeniable that meats, fish, eggs, and dairy are great sources of essential micro and macronutrients.

Accordingly, smart vegan eaters make sure to incorporate quantities of protein- and fat-rich vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fortified foods. This will help to offset the imbalance in their nutrient intake created by avoiding so many foods that contain essential proteins and fats.


  • Vegan diets can be quite heart-healthy
  • You may lose weight 
  • Easier to manage long-term, as compared to fad diets


  • Important nutrients may be missed
  • Can be difficult to manage when eating out


  • Reduces cholesterol
  • Reduces risks of certain health problems
  • Reduces dependence on factory-farming


If you follow a vegan diet, you risk serious health issues if you don’t take a B12 supplement. This is because animal products like meat, eggs, and milk are primary sources of this essential vitamin. A vitamin B12 deficiency can potentially cause fatal conditions, like:

  • Severe anemia due to poor DNA synthesis
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Degeneration of the nervous system

Along with the B12 supplementation issue, there are plenty of other nutrients that are easily obtained by eating meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. If you remove those food sources from your diet entirely, you should definitely consider consulting with your physician about how to ensure you get all the micro and macronutrients you need.

Macronutrients Vs. Micronutrients: Nutrition and Lifestyle

Aside from focusing on specific diets, it’s essential to consider macro and micronutrients as part of your overall nutrition goals and the lifestyle you lead.


Achieving overall healthy nutrition doesn’t have to be elusive. By taking in balanced quantities of foods, you can often obtain all the nutrients you need. But, since we’re all different, it’s always best to consult with a physician about your particular needs and goals.

For example, if you have difficulty absorbing certain nutrients, you might want to supplement your diet with foods that contain higher amounts of them.

There are also risks associated with consuming too much of specific nutrients. For example, while we need carbohydrates for proper mental acuity, taking in too many can lead to weight gain, which eventually may create a situation where we’re suffering from cardiovascular disease and other associated health issues.

Lifestyle Factors and Choices

Lifestyle and diet choices often go hand-in-hand. So, consider your daily activity levels, the type of things you do, and your overall nutritional needs when planning your food intake. Micronutrients and macronutrients are all good for you, but when we don’t ingest them in a balanced way, and as part of an overall healthy lifestyle, we risk developing severe health problems.

For example, failure to take in an appropriate protein stymies certain body processes. So while a keto diet may help you lose some fat from around your middle, it might also reduce your ability to build and retain muscle mass.

Bodybuilders and heavy weightlifters will want to take in much more protein than someone who is trying to cut down their overall weight. Similarly, a figure model may want to eliminate carbs from their diet almost entirely, but they won’t have the energy to perform demanding athletic pursuits.

It’s essential for each individual to maintain a diet and lifestyle that complement one another. Otherwise, things can go off the rails fairly quickly. One good example is that of a retiring professional athlete. They are used to grueling exercise regimes, which often makes them less likely to become overweight, even if they tend to overconsume.

Then, as their career comes to an end and the hard workouts become fewer and farther between, failure to cut down on the amount of food they eat leaves them in a situation where they gain weight quickly.

Striking a balance is always best.

Micronutrients: Common Sources

The best sources of micronutrients in general are:

  • Seafood, especially salmon and tuna
  • Lentils
  • Peas
  • Seeds
  • Bell peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Grains, especially quinoa, oats, and brown rice
  • Eggs
  • Mushrooms
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Swiss chard
  • Avocados
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Lean meats, especially beef, venison, and lamb
  • Beans
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Melons
  • Berries

Macronutrients: Common Sources

Let’s look at some of the best dietary sources of macronutrients.


The best sources of carbs include:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Legumes, like chickpeas and lentils
  • Grains like brown rice
  • Wholewheat bread


The best protein sources are:

  • Legumes
  • Fish
  • Nuts
  • Eggs
  • Seeds
  • Meat


The best sources of fats, with an eye toward limiting overall saturated fat intake, include:

  • Eggs
  • Dairy products
  • Nuts
  • Chia seeds
  • Fatty seafood, like sardines, mackerel, salmon, and tuna
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Avocados

Eating For Life: Building a Healthy Diet

A healthy meal plan or diet might not look the same for every individual. Even scientists and public health officials may disagree about the right amount of foods we should eat to obtain the proper quantities of all the essential nutrients.

But, where there is consensus is that eating natural, whole foods is always better than eating processed foods. This dietary focus helps us avoid the worst aspects of processed foods and their potentially harmful overabundance of nutrients.

What Are Micronutrients and Macronutrients? Now You Know!

With all of this information about macronutrients and micronutrients, you have a better handle on how they help sustain our health. Plus, you know which foods contain them and a bit about how to balance your intake to suit your overall lifestyle.

If you’re looking to make changes to your diet, talking with a nutritionist or a doctor is your best bet. But there’s no reason you can’t focus on improving your nutrition today!


Rocky Mountain Health Plans, What Are Micronutrients and Macronutrients, retrieved from:

Get Smarter, What Are Micronutrients and Macronutrients, retrieved from:

Stephanie Kay, Micronutrients Vs. Macronutrients, retrieved from:

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Generation Iron, Macronutrients Vs. Micronutrients: What They Are & How They Differ? retrieved from:

Kris Gunnars, BSc, 5 Diets That Are Supported by Science, retrieved from:

Vitamin B12, retrieved from:

Vitamin D, retrieved from:

Folic Acid, retrieved from:

The Atkins diet, retrieved from:


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