Macronutrients: Everything you need to know

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Macronutrients can be quite a confusing topic for many people. In this article, we’ll cover the role macronutrients play in our diet, so you’re better equipped to make informed choices about the food you eat.

What are your macronutrients?

The three main macronutrients are: fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Our body breaks down these foods to provide energy, or calories. Macros also serve a lot of other vital functions in our bodies too. ‘Macro’ means large, so these nutrients are required in large amounts. This is the opposite to micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals that are equally important for maintaining optimal health, but we need them in much smaller quantities.

💡Fat is the macronutrient that provides the most energy

Here's a calorie comparison:

Carbs: 4 calories per 1g

Protein: 4 calories per 1g

Fat: 9 calories per 1g

On the whole, most foods contain a combination of macronutrients, rather than being only fat, protein or carbs. For example, half a can of kidney beans is made up of a bit of protein (9.2g), mainly carbs (13.5g) and a small amount of fat (0.6g).  

Let’s look into each macronutrient in more detail now...

Carbohydrates: are you bready for this?

Carbs are either simple or complex. Where possible, you should opt for complex carbs over simple ones. They’re richer in fibre and minerals – they keep you feeling fuller for longer and don’t tend to spike blood sugar levels. This wonder macronutrient can also promote good gut health and may help manage cholesterol levels – just as long as you stick to the complex ones.

We’ll try not to make it complicated, here are some key complex carbs:

  • Fresh, whole fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Legumes, e.g. beans and chickpeas
  • Wholegrains
  • Sweet potatoes

Simple carbs are the ones to avoid, including refined flour, cakes, biscuits, sweets, sweetened soft drinks and fruit juices. Yes! Even the breakfast staple orange juice can cause a glucose crash.

A note on Glycaemic Index and Glycaemic Load

When you talk about carbs, you might hear phrases thrown around like Glycaemic Index (GI). The term GI refers to the effect that a food containing carbohydrates has on resting blood glucose levels. Generally, the simple carbs we talked about just now are higher on the GI scale like white bread, basmati rice and sugar. These carbs quickly turn to glucose, causing your blood sugar to rise then plummet. But rather surprisingly, healthier options such as carrots and pineapple actually have very high GI scores. What’s happening there?

Before you start chucking out all your delicious fruits and veggies, it’s best to consider something called Glycaemic Load (GL). It’s basically another tool for weight and blood sugar level management that might be a bit more helpful than GI. It takes into account the total carb content of a food, giving a much more accurate picture of the overall effect that food has on your resting blood sugar levels. To learn more about how to effectively manage your blood sugar, take a look at our article that compares GI and GL foods.

Chewing the fat

Fats are divided into saturated (including animal fats, dairy, butter, and coconut butter) and, mono- and polyunsaturated fats (such as olive oil, cold water fish, avocadoes, and nuts). There’s also trans fats, which includes baked goods, fried foods, and some margarines. Trans fats are a real ‘no-no’ for your health and cholesterol. Avoid anything labelled with ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’ which might be in margarine, spreads, cakes and biscuits too.

The saturated fats do raise your ‘bad’ cholesterol, but studies have also shown that some saturated fat isn’t all bad. Some cholesterol is essential for processes in the body, but there needs to be a balance, so your cholesterol doesn’t go too high. A small amount of fat is required as part of a healthy diet. It’s a source of essential fatty acids, which the body can’t make itself. Fat helps the body absorb vitamins A, vitamin D and E. Unsaturated fats regulate metabolism, improve blood flow, and promote cell health.

Knowing your DNA

The amount of carbs and fats you should consume varies from person to person, so it’s hard to say how much of your diet should be made up of carbohydrates. For instance, your activity levels and genetics play a part in how much you need. Knowing your DNA could help you to know how well your body metabolises carbohydrates and certain types of fat, so you can find the right macronutrient balance for you.  

Become a pro at proteins

A protein is made up of linked chains of amino acids – you’ve got a total of 20 different amino acids in the body. They’re split into essential and non-essential amino acids. As the human body isn’t able to produce enough essential amino acids, you have to make sure your diet provides enough of this food group.

A source of protein can sometimes be categorised into either complete or incomplete. That indicates whether they’ve got enough of each 9 essential amino acids. By eating a varied number of foods throughout the day, you should be getting enough – but it’s worth paying attention to good complete protein sources.  

Complete sources of protein include:

  • Red meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Soybeans
  • Quinoa

Other foods which are high in protein (but don’t contain all nine essential amino acids) include other grains and nuts.

But what do proteins actually do? They carry out a wide range of functions in the body, acting as a hormone, enzyme and an antibody in the immune system. As if it hadn’t already done enough, it also makes up certain bodily structures, like connective tissue, skin, hair, and muscle fibre. Phew! Busy protein. But protein isn’t a direct source of energy, it works more like a building block for other structures in the body.

Like carbs and fats, the amount of protein you need depends on your body composition and your health or fitness goals. A general rule for the minimum amount is 1 gram of protein per 1 kilogram of your own weight. If you want to build muscle mass, you can increase your protein intake to see better results.  

🐓A cooked chicken breast or salmon fillet contains 26g of protein and 1 large egg provides 6g of protein. 🥗For veggies and vegans, ½ cup of beans contains 8g of protein and ½ cup of cooked quinoa provides 4g of complete protein.

Take control of your nutrients

Understanding more about nutrients in your diet, is key to making healthier decisions that are right for you and help you feel more well. If you want to know more about what nutrients your body needs, discover our DNA tests and get tailored recommendations on what foods to include in your diet.  


Written by
Evergreen Life

Article updated:
December 5, 2019
Reviewed by:
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