You’ve likely heard about “macros” on the news, at the gym, or from you favorite fitness personality. The term macro is an abbreviated term for macronutrients and is separated into three divisions. Proteins, carbohydrates, and fats make up this category while vitamins and minerals are classified as micronutrients. This article will focus on macros so you can have an understanding of what each one is, the functions they have in your body, and dietary sources of each.

Carbohydrates are organic compounds made up of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen. Your body has the ability to store them in the liver and muscles as glycogen so they can readily be converted into energy. In fact, the main function of carbohydrates is to provide you with energy and supplies 4 kilocalories per gram. In addition to being a quick fuel source, carbohydrates help to conserve protein, assist to burn fat more efficiently, and aid the function of your intestines with their fiber content.

Carbohydrates are divided into simple (sugars) and complex (starches) classifications. These terms reference their structure and are further divided into monosaccharides (one), disaccharides (two), and polysaccharides (multiple). Regardless of which type you consume, your body has to break them down into their singular components (simple sugars) to be absorbed.

Carbohydrates are found in grains, vegetables, fruit, milk, nuts, seeds, and beans. Your consumption should focus on the whole forms that have been minimally processed. Carbohydrates can play an important role regarding your body composition. This is because once the body’s energy requirements are met, and glycogen is fully stored in the liver and muscles, your liver can convert any remaining glucose into triglycerides storing them as body fat.

Fiber is also an important aspect of carbohydrate intake. It is separated into soluble and insoluble types. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and has a gel like consistency. It is found in vegetables, oats, beans and fruits. It can slow glucose absorption helping to stabilize blood sugar and binds with bile acid to reduce cholesterol. Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water and comes from vegetables like cabbage and the bran layer of cereal grains. It provides bulk to your stool. We aren’t able to digest (break down) fiber, so it keeps your intestines moving along.

Fat is made up of the same components as carbohydrates, but they have less oxygen and provide more than double the amount of energy. Each gram of fat provides 9 kilocalories. Clams that your body “prefers” carbohydrates over fat for fuel are based on the premise that fat is more complex and therefore takes greater effort to metabolize. Fats are divided into triglycerides, phospholipids, and sterols. These classifications are based on their fatty acid chains.

Triglycerides are further separated based on their hydrogen bonds with carbon into either saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats have all four binding sites joined and are mostly animal fats. They remain solid at room temperature and have high melting points. Unsaturated fats still have binding sites available resulting in double bonds between carbon atoms. They tend to come from plants, are soft or liquid at room temperature, and have a lower melting point compared to saturated fats. Additionally, unsaturated fats can be split into monounsaturated (olive oil) and polyunsaturated (nuts). Depending on which type of fat you consume, it can affect the flavor, texture, and satisfaction of your meal.

Fats have functions in additional to being an energy source. They provide essential fatty acids and lubricate body tissue. Vitamins A, E, D and K all need fat to allow for absorption. Fat supports and protects your organs and helps regulate your body temperature. It even acts as an insulator for your nerves to help the transmission of their signal.

Most of the fat you consume is absorbed. If it isn’t utilized, it can be stored as body fat to be used as energy in the future. If your body doesn’t have adequate glucose available, as happens during fasting, it will convert fat into ketones for energy. Grains, fruits, beans and vegetables contain little to no fat. The exceptions are avocados, coconuts, and olives so most fat comes from animals, nuts, seeds, and oils.

Proteins are also made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen with the addition of nitrogen. They have 4 kilocalories per gram, and though they can be used as energy, their main function is the growth, repair, and maintenance of body tissues and structures. They also make up parts of some hormones, maintain fluid and electrolyte balance, act as enzymes, balance your pH, move substances in the blood, and help the immune system protect you.

The building blocks of proteins are amino acids and are separated into essential (needing to be consumed) and non-essential (produced by the body). A complete protein is one that contains all of the essentials in the right amounts. Meat, eggs, and soy are considered to be essential protein sources. Incomplete proteins are missing one or more essential amino acids, but when accounting total food intake over the course of the day most plant based diets are found to be complete. A common strategy utilized by vegetarians, looking to ensure they get them all, is to combine them into each meal. (e.g. peanut butter on whole wheat, rice and black beans, hummus and pita).

Your body stores a very limited amount of amino acids in its cells. Beyond that, the body doesn’t store protein for later use so you must get adequate amounts regularly in your diet. If not, your body will break down its own tissues. There are varying levels of quality when choosing your protein sources, and your body’s demands can vary. Physical activity, emotional stress, infection, and injury can all require higher amounts of protein. Therefore, you want to regularly choose the highest quality sources available.

There are many varied and conflicting recommendations regarding macronutrient consumption. We are not proponents of eliminating one entirely, as each has its own unique functions and processes, and ratios should be individualized based on your personal requirements. Adjusting your levels should be closely monitored by you and your medical health professional. If your body composition improves, you avoid illness, recover quickly from injury, sleep better, and have more energy it can indicate you are consuming the right proportions for your health.