You probably hear your doctor throw around a lot of fancy medical terminology. He discusses your lab work with you and you nod politely like you know what your hemoglobin A1c is and why you should care about it. Chatting with a dietitian or any other health professional is probably a similar story. Sometimes, we do it out of habit. Sometimes there just aren’t any simpler or more common terms to use. And sometimes we just want to sound smart. 🙂 So, today, let’s talk a bit about two major terms that come up in nutritional articles, research, and consultation – macro and micro nutrients.
Macronutrients are, in the most basic terms, the components of food that contribute calories. There are only three – protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Protein has 4 calories per gram, carbs have 4 calories per gram, and fat has 9 calories per gram. Alcohol, while not actually considered a “macronutrient”, also contributes calories –7 calories per gram, and that’s not including the additional calories from sugary additives, etc. As you can see, the low-fat diet craze is built greatly on the foundation of the “bigger bang for you buck”. If you cut 1 gram of fat, you’ll be cutting 9 calories, twice the amount of calories you cut if you avoid 1 gram of carb or protein. Is this the best approach to weight loss? That’s a discussion for another day, but the bottom line is, to lose weight, your calories ingested must be less than your calories expended. And your calories come from the three macronutrients – protein, fat, carbs. Briefly, carbs are found mostly in plant products like grains, veggies, and fruits. Protein and fat tend to be found more plentifully in animal products like eggs, fish, meat, and poultry, but are also found in nuts, seeds, and in smaller amounts, in some grains and veggies.
While macronutrients are the only sources of calories, their food sources (like meat, veggies, etc.) are also sources of micronutrients. Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals in each food. Vitamins are organic (contain carbon and come from other living organisms like plants and animals) substances, while minerals are inorganic (come from rocks, metal, etc.). Both types of compounds are essential to the body, although not all vitamins and minerals are needed/useful for humans. For example, lead is a mineral, but is toxic to the human body, hence the change to non lead-based paints. Major vitamins used by the body include vitamins A,D,E,&K, as well as Vitamin C and the myriad of B vitamins (B12, B6, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, biotin, pyridoxine, folate). Major minerals used by the body include iron, zinc, selenium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and manganese.
Micronutrients are necessary for the daily operations of the body, often serving as a key “piece” in bodily processes like hormone production, energy synthesis, digestion, muscle contraction, etc. etc. Selenium, vitamin C, and vitamin E are also very potent anti-oxidants, helping keep the body free from damaging free-radicals and cell damage, as well as reducing inflammation that results from such cell damage. Fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, are wonderful sources of vitamins and some minerals. Dairy contains vitamin D and A, as well as calcium, and if grass-fed, vitamin K in a very special form, K2 (better absorbed by the body and used for different purposes that that found in plants). Phosphorus is plentiful in meat and poultry, as well as dairy. Iron is found in green leafy veggies, but in higher amounts and a more absorbable form in red meat. Zinc and selenium are plentiful in red meat, as well as seafood, but can be found in lower amounts in nuts and seeds. B12 is a very special vitamin, as it is ONLY found in animal sources (dairy, eggs, meat, fish, poultry) and must be supplemented in the diet of those who are strict vegans or very restrictive vegetarians. There is no one food that contains all the vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) our bodies need. While supplements or a daily vitamin may be appealing, these synthetic versions of micronutrients are not as easily or readily absorbed by the body, making it possible for you to still be deficient. They are also not used in quite the same way (for reasons researchers still don’t understand). Bottom line? Get your micronutrients from real food, not synthetic supplements to give your body the best chance for good health and wellness.
So, to summarize, macronutrients contribute calories. Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals in your foods. Each food contains both macro and micronutrients, but your best choices are typically foods that are high in micronutrients and lower in macronutrients (i.e. full of health benefits, without a ton of calories!). Your body needs both macro and micronutrients, and when losing weight, you want to make sure you don’t compromise the micronutrients in order to consume fewer calories. Want more info on macro and micronutrients and how they impact your health? Come on in for a visit!
Aubrey MS RDN