There is no denying that nutrients are essential for optimal health. An adequate intake of nutrients allows us to look, feel, and perform our best, but what exactly is the difference between macro- and micro-nutrients? And where do we find them? Here is everything that you need to know about macronutrients vs. micronutrients.
What’s the difference between macronutrients and micronutrients?
Nutrients are compounds found in food that the body requires for essential functions. Since the human body cannot produce nutrients itself, they are required from the diet and are essential to human health as they are used for energy, growth, reproduction, and disease prevention. (1) In total, there are 6 essential nutrients required by the body: carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water. While all of these nutrients are essential, they are classified into two categories: macronutrients and micronutrients.
Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches, and fibers found in plant foods and are the body’s primary source of energy. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose through digestion, which the body uses for energy throughout the day, and help to control blood glucose and insulin metabolism, participate in cholesterol and triglyceride metabolism, and support gut health. (2) Carbohydrates provide 4 calories of energy per gram and are found in grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, and dairy.
Proteins are made up of amino acids and are found in animal and plant forms. Protein contributes to structural and mechanical function, regulating processes in the cells and body, and provides energy if necessary. (3) Protein provides 4 calories of energy per gram and is found in meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds.
Fats are made up of fatty acids and come in saturated and unsaturated forms. Fats are the body’s main source of stored energy, contribute to cellular structure and function, regulate temperature, protect body organs and provide fat-soluble vitamins to the body. (3) Fat provides 9 calories of energy per gram and is found in animal fats, oils, dairy, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
Water is also a macronutrient in the sense that it is required in large amounts by the body. Although water does not provide energy via calories it is essential to human life.
Micronutrients are responsible for a wide range of metabolic processes in the body and are made up of vitamins and minerals, however, unlike macronutrients; micronutrients are not a source of calories. In total, there are 13 vitamins and 15 minerals that have been identified as essential for health. (4)
Vitamins are required for cellular function, growth, metabolism, and development, and are found in fat-soluble and water-soluble formats. (5) Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamin A, D, E, and K, which can be stored in the liver and fatty tissues of the body for extended periods of time, while water-soluble vitamins include the B vitamin and vitamin C cannot be stored in the body and, therefore, more regular consumption is required. (6)
Minerals are inorganic substances required for bone structure, hormones, and much more. (7) Minerals can also be classified by macro and micro terms and include calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, iron, zinc, iodine, chromium, copper, fluoride, molybdenum, manganese, and selenium.
Phytochemicals, also known as phytonutrients, are antioxidants, flavonoids, and other chemicals that contribute to overall health; however, they are not technically vitamins or minerals and are, therefore, sometimes but not always considered micronutrients. (8)
While both types of nutrients are essential, gram per gram, the human body requires larger amounts of macronutrients than micronutrients, hence the terms macro (large) and micro (small) nutrients.
Macronutrients vs. Micronutrients Examples
Macronutrients include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and are required relatively in larger amounts, while micronutrients include vitamins and are required in relatively smaller amounts by the human body. (9)
|Role||The body’s primary source of energy and plays various roles in overall health; carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram, protein provides 4 calories per gram, and fat provides 9 calories per gram.||Support various metabolic processes, such as cell function, development, and growth.|
|Types||Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fats||Vitamins and Minerals|
|Required In||Relatively larger amounts||Relatively smaller amounts|
Macronutrients vs. Micronutrients: Why Quality Matters
The food that we consume is the primary source of nutrients for the body; therefore, the quality of the food that we consume has a major impact on our overall health. Generally speaking, whole foods are more nutrient-dense sources of both macronutrients and micronutrients than processed foods. While processed foods do contain protein, fat, and carbohydrates, their sources are often refined and lacking in vitamin and mineral content. In fact, some research shows that a higher intake of micronutrients is associated with improved energy and reduced hunger. (10) Therefore, consuming a well-balanced diet of whole foods, with regular and adequate consumption of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, is the best way to support your overall micronutrient intake.
The Bottom Line
Macronutrients and micronutrients are nutrients required by the human body and are found in food. Macronutrients include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, while micronutrients include vitamins and minerals. Although all nutrients are essential, gram per gram, the human body requires macronutrients in larger amounts than micronutrients. Generally speaking, consuming a well-balanced diet of whole foods is the best way to ensure you are consuming the required macronutrients and micronutrients for optimal health, with the support of supplementations as needed.