Macros and Micros: What’s the Difference?

There’s a lot to be confused about when it comes to nutrition. Sometimes it seems like you need a nutrition dictionary just to keep up with all the terms you find in nutrition articles on the Internet: keto, pescatarian, ghee, kefir, freekeh, paleo, gorp, Dukan, Ayurveda, quinoa, Himalayan salt…it’s dizzying.

Perhaps eventually I’ll have time to write about all of these (and more). But it’s important to walk before you run, and understanding the difference between “macros” and “micros” is a good place to start.

“Macro” is short for macronutrient, while “micro” is short for micronutrient. “Macro” means big, “micro” means small.

The list of macronutrients is pretty short: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. These are nutrients that contain calories (energy) for our bodies. Technically alcohol can be considered a fourth macronutrient because it can provide energy, but it’s not essential like the first three.

The full list of micronutrients is much longer. The term “micronutrient” covers all the vitamins and minerals our body needs from the food we eat. Think of vitamins A, C, D, E, K, all the B vitamins (there’s a bunch), plus iron, calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, magnesium, and many more.

Both macronutrients and micronutrients are needed for our body to function. We need macronutrients in much larger amounts in order to meet our energy needs. If we have extra macronutrients that means extra calories, which means weight gain (either fat or muscle tissue). A lack of macronutrients means an energy deficit, likely leading to weight loss (which, once again, can be fat or muscle tissue).

Micronutrients can have side effects when consumed in excess as well. While they won’t lead to weight gain, they can turn your skin orange (vitamin A toxicity). Deficiencies can also lead to osteoporosis (calcium), anemia (iron), scurvy (vitamin C) goiter (iodine), and death (many vitamin and mineral deficiencies can be fatal past a certain point).

So both macronutrients and micronutrients need to be consumed in a balance with what our body needs. Our body uses hunger and fullness signals to signal how much to eat, and we have the capability to digest a wide variety of foods so that we can obtain all the micronutrients our bodies require.

Most people consume plenty of macronutrients – in fact, consuming more calories than we need contributes to the high levels of obesity here and throughout the world. Conversely, most people do not get enough micronutrients. Potassium, calcium, iron, and vitamin D are all commonly deficient in our population.

Interestingly, it is entirely possible for someone who is obese to be “malnourished” – they simply eat more calories than they need but are deficient in one or more micronutrients. A straightforward way to address both of these problems at the same time? Increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, assuming those foods replace foods that are dense in calories but not vitamins and minerals.

Worried about meeting your “macro” and “micro” needs? Listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues to guide your food portions and include protein, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables on a daily basis. Also consider dairy to help ensure calcium needs are met. While the field of nutrition has become very complicated, eating doesn’t have to be.

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