July 5, 2021
There are certain words you will hear in the fitness and nutrition industry over and over again. Among the most common are macros and micros.
You may already have a good idea of what these two things mean, but I wanted to take a deeper dive to talk about the two more in-depth.
People often talk about tracking their macros, but it is less common to hear of someone paying such close attention to their micros. Is one really more important than the other?
Macronutrients are the nutrients that are consumed in large quantities when compared to others. It generally includes protein, fat, carbohydrates, and water. For this discussion, we will just use a common definition that macros are the nutrients that provide energy, so water will be left out. Of course, if water were to be included it would decisively be the most important nutrient due to the severe consequences of dehydration. Considering the topic of this article is related to health, we will ignore alcohol as a macro despite the fact that it does provide energy. However, if you are interested, the topic of whether alcohol and water are macronutrients is an interesting one!
Micronutrients are of course consumed in smaller quantities! Micronutrients are nutrients that do not have calories but are essential for human life. You may know them better as vitamins and minerals. Vitamins are organic compounds that are created by plants or animals, and minerals come from soil and water. Minerals can come from drinking water, or from the plants and animals in your diet. All of these nutrients are needed in different amounts, and you can read about them individually from your health authority. For the US, you can find the info for Recommended Dietary Allowances and Dietary Reference Intakes on the USDA website.
Well, it’s just not that simple. It depends on what you are talking about. All of these nutrients are essential for life, so let's establish some context first. Let’s talk about how they relate to survival, and then we will discuss how they relate to living a healthy life.
If you don’t get enough energy (Calories) from your macronutrients, your body will look elsewhere for the necessary fuel. To give a simplified explanation, once your body runs out of food, it will begin drawing energy from your body fat. When your fat stores start getting low enough, you will begin to break down proteins all over your body. At first, this will occur mainly in the muscles, but eventually, it will lead to organ damage. Starvation death is usually due to cardiac failure caused by this organ damage.
However, even if you are consuming enough calories, a lack of dietary protein can be troublesome. Although this is very rare in developed countries, it is the leading cause of death of children in many developing nations. The National Academy of Medicine recommends a minimum of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (about 0.36 grams per pound) which is very achievable if you are eating a normal amount of calories and a varied diet. This is only 67 grams of protein for someone weighing 185 pounds. Provided you are eating enough food, and have a somewhat varied diet, you likely have no concerns of dying from protein deficiency.
There are two essential fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid). Essential means that humans cannot create these fatty acids on their own, and they need to be introduced via diet. Non-essential fatty acids on the other hand can be created by the body when necessary by modifying these two essential fatty acids. Not only are some fats directly essential, but some vitamins are only soluble in fat. This means you need to be eating fat to absorb other vital nutrients. As with protein, provided you are consuming a normal diet, you will struggle to suffer any consequences due to inadequate intake of essential fatty acids.
At first, micronutrients may not seem to be as critical for survival simply due to how easy it is to understand the concept of starvation. However, micronutrients are essential for human life, meaning you can’t go on without them. There are far too many to cover individually, including Vitamins A,B,C,D,E,K, and 10 trace minerals. but it is important to note that each one is necessary in a certain amount.
The World Health Organization reports that undernutrition causes 45% of child deaths around the world. Many people who are food insecure do not have access to enough food or an adequate variety of foods and may be susceptible to a lack of micronutrients. If someone doesn’t have access to enough calories, they are usually deficient in many micronutrients as well.
Many developed countries have even taken to adding certain nutrients to common foods to reduce the prevalence of disease related to deficiencies in the population. One such example is white flour which is fortified with folate to reduce the prevalence of neural tube defects in infants.
Micronutrients are also critical for survival, although, in developed nations, we are lucky to have our health authorities addressing common deficiencies by fortifying common foods. It ensures that our health is not in danger simply because we didn’t know any better.
If you have access to enough food, you will not have any trouble achieving the survivable amount of each macro. But how much can eating a specific amount of each macro help your health? The acceptable ranges of each macronutrient are so large that you will nearly always eat within the limits set out by health authorities. But what is most important is that they can help with weight control. So how much can you get out of paying attention to them? Are there different types of each macronutrient? Of course there are! And beyond weight loss, this is where paying attention to your macronutrients can improve your health the most.
Since macronutrients are the source of our energy, they are directly related to our ability to gain or lose weight. Maintaining a healthy body weight is crucial for your health, as adult obesity is associated with large decreases in life expectancy. Focusing on consuming the right amount of macronutrients can help you gain or lose weight predictably.
Each protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. These are molecules that are either used to synthesize other proteins in the body or are broken down for energy. Some amino acids cannot be created by our bodies, and therefore are considered essential in our diets. A high-quality protein is one that has all of the essential amino acids in proportions similar to those that humans need. Different proteins have varying levels of quality. However, it is unlikely that you will have to worry about the quality of the protein that you are consuming. When eating a varied diet, the types of protein that you consume will vary enough that you are likely to get plenty of each essential amino acid.
If building muscle is your goal, then it is important to ensure you are getting enough protein. Most sources claim that 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight should be sufficient for maximizing muscle growth.
Some fats you will want to limit such as saturated and trans fats. But there are other healthy fats that most people don’t get enough of, including polyunsaturated fatty acids like omega-3s and omega-6s, and monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). Both types of healthy fats can serve to reduce LDL (low-density lipoproteins, or bad cholesterol), and reduce the risk of heart disease! This effect is most pronounced when these fats reduce your consumption of saturated and trans fats and are consumed in their place.
Some common types of carbohydrates include sugars, starches, and fibers. Sugar is not always the bad guy. Foods like fruit, which are high in natural sugars, are an exception because they contain lots of micronutrients. While sugar is not necessarily bad for you, foods with a lot of added sugar provide plenty of calories with little to no nutrients. Limiting added leaves more room for higher quality foods that contain more micronutrients. There are often better choices for any refined carbohydrate food that provides no micronutrient value. Regarding fiber, there are two types of fiber: insoluble, and soluble. Insoluble fiber helps to promote healthy bowel movements and regularity, and soluble fiber may lower blood cholesterol. Also, a diet high in fiber can help you feel fuller for longer.
Health Benefits of Focusing on Micronutrients
We mentioned earlier that there are too many micronutrients to cover in this article. This point shows exactly why it isn’t possible to focus on each micronutrient individually while trying to build your diet. Micronutrients are a critical part of so many different bodily functions. Just to list a few functions of a few nutrients to draw a picture: Iron is required for hemoglobin and myoglobin, which are responsible for oxygenating tissue all over your body, Vitamin K is an important factor for blood clotting, and Vitamin D helps you absorb calcium!
These micronutrients are responsible for a wide variety of bodily functions, and some of them are even interconnected. This is why aiming for specific amounts of each macronutrient is just too tough. There are acceptable ranges for the consumption of each nutrient, and if you haven’t viewed the Recommended Dietary Allowances and Dietary Reference Intakes I would encourage you to look at them for yourself! These ranges are also quite wide, so the main goal is getting enough of your micros. It is difficult to exceed safe doses without supplementation.
Micronutrients are available in different quantities in all foods and are actually sometimes responsible for some of their color, flavor, and other physical traits. For example, carrots are orange due to their high concentration of beta-carotene. The best strategy is to cast a wide net and capture some of them all. It is commonly recommended to eat all colors of vegetables (eat a rainbow), as this ensures that you are getting a wide variety of different vitamins and phytochemicals from your food (phytochemicals are non-essential nutrients found in plants that are not necessary for survival, but help us thrive). If you eat meat, then variety may involve eating some poultry, red meat, white fish, fatty fish, shellfish, and even organ meat such as liver if you are up to it. Don’t forget to include different types of whole grains, legumes, and other healthy options.
Another helpful tip for including more micronutrients in your diet is to avoid heavily processed or refined foods. Usually, these processes strip the original food of a lot of nutritional value. A well-known example of this is a high prevalence of beriberi (thiamine deficiency) in East Asia caused by the polishing of rice. Consume your foods in their most unaltered form possible (of course, cooking your food is fine!) to increase your intake of micronutrients across the board.
Both macros and micros are important to pay attention to, and the bottom line is that you would not live without either. You don’t have to focus on just one. You just have to decide how much you will focus on each.
If weight control and muscle growth are at the top of your priority list, macros will have the most noticeable effects on your progress. Protein is important for supporting muscle growth, and calories are the reason for weight gain and loss.
For your overall health, it’s important to eat lots of micronutrients. In addition to the benefits of ensuring your body has all of the nutrients it needs to function properly, you will consume lots of other non-essential nutrients that help you thrive! And, when you eat less processed foods, you are less likely to overeat and more likely to listen to your hunger signals.
I hope if you were asking this question that you see the importance of both classes of nutrients. Hopefully, you’ve taken away some information to help you improve your diet!
I'm a strength-sport enthusiast with a passion for nutrition. I'm also one of the co-founders of Prospre. I started weight training at 13 and from my time competing in bodybuilding, powerlifting, and weightlifting, I've developed a few different perspectives on fitness and nutrition. I like to write about cool things I have learned about nutrition, and easy things you can do to improve your eating habits.