Macronutrients: Everything You Need to Know (And More)

Q: What are macronutrients?

A: Macronutrients are nutrients that give members of the animal kingdom energy. There are four different types of macronutrients. Three of of them are commonly talked about in nutrition: carbohydrates, fats and proteins. The fourth one is alcohol. Because individuals don’t normally consume alcohol to receive nutrition and isn’t necessary for survival, we’ll concentrate on the first three: carbohydrates, fat and protein.

I don’t count number of calories from each of the macronutrients or the number of grams I eat of each macronutrient. This behavior restricts either the number of calories an individual can consume or the weight of food that can be taken in throughout the day.

Rather, I concern myself with the percentage of calories that come from each macronutrient and I encourage you to do the same. This way you aren’t restricted to a certain number of calories or weight you can consume per day. If you follow the guidelines below you can eat to your hearts content.

Choosing a whole foods, plant-based (WFPB) diet allows you to feast until you are full without worrying about overeating. Percentages don’t need to be calculated like calories do. As long as the majority of your food iswhole plant foods you’ll get the proper calorie percentage of each macronutrient.

Fat

Chia seeds are a source of healthy vegan fat. Plus: they're high in omega-3 fatty acids!

Fats contain the most calories by weight with 9 calories per gram. Fat is necessary in the body to absorb fat-soluble micronutrients like vitamin A, D, E, K and carotenoids. Fat maintains cell membranes and is important to facilitate growth and development. Stored fat helps keep our bodies warm and can provide extra energy when food is scarce through a process called ketosis.

One of the main functions of fat is to help the body grow and develop. Children and teenagers who are still maturing need more fat than adults do. Pregnant women will need slightly elevated levels of fat compared to a non-pregnant adult, though not a level as high as developing children. While everybody will prefer slightly different percentages of calories from fat, a good guideline for adults is 10% of calories.

This is a drastic difference from guidelines government institutions such as the USDA provide. However, a good saying accurately represents our need (or lack thereof) for so much fat: “the fat you eat is the fat you wear”. So, if you consume a high percentage of your calories from fat, then a greater percentage of your weight will be from fat versus a person whose calories from fat is a lower percentage.

There are some people who maintain healthy body weights by taking in a large percentage of calories from fat. These people must restrict their food in order to maintain healthy weight. Feeding abundantly is much more satisfying than restriction.

The main sources of fat in a standard western diet are meat, dairy, eggs and oils. Nuts and avocados provide a considerable amount of calories from fat, too. Nuts and avocados are less common in the western diet.

  • Skim milk provides 5% of calories from fat
  • 95% lean ground beef patties provide 33% of calories from fat (pan-broiled)
  • Cooked ground turkey provides 50% of calories from fat
  • 70% lean ground beef patties  provide 59% of calories from fat (pan-broiled)
  • Hard-boiled eggs provide 62% of calories from fat
  • California avocados provide 70% of calories from fat
  • Brie cheese provides 73% of calories from fat
  • English walnuts provide 83% of calories from fat
  • Oils provide 100% of calories from fat

Items labeled low fat have more fat than you think

Many foods labeled low fat and no fat still contain more fat than expected.

Fat is normally measured in percentage of total weight of the product or grams per serving. This is in contrast to how we measure calories: in percentages not usually calorie percentages.

A low fat item according to the FDA either

  1. contains 3 grams of fat or less per serving
  2. contains 3 grams of fat or less per 50 grams if the serving size is small or
  3. contains 3 grams of fat or less per 100 grams for main meals or dishes (and no more than 30% of calories from fat).

Even under these rules, 30% of your calories can come from fat in a “low fat” food.

Hypothetically under this example, a food that has a serving size of 4 grams could be considered low fat even if it contained 3 grams of fat.

This along with the misleading leanness percentages shown above shows how screwed up the food labeling system is.

Whole, plant-based foods provide a more appropriate percentage of calories from fat. Broccoli has a reasonable amount of fat

  • Cooked lentils provide  3% of calories from fat
  • Bananas provide 3% of calories from fat (raw)
  • Tomatoes provide 9% of calories from fat (raw)
  • Broccoli provides 10% of calories from fat (cooked)
  • Cooked chickpeas provide 13% of calories from fat
  • Spinach provides 14% of calories from fat (raw)

If you are consuming enough calories in the form of a WFPB diet you will not need to worry about taking in the proper percentage of calories from fat as long as you are eating a variety of foods.

While it’s not necessary to wholly abstain from ingesting foods that provide a large percentage of their calories from fat in a WFPB diet, these items should be eaten in small amounts. I encourage most adults to have a handful of nuts or seeds a day. These nuts are best consumed with vegetables, which contain more fat-soluble nutrients than fruit.

ProteinLentils contain plenty of healthy protein

Protein contains 4 calories per gram. Animalia need protein in the diet to grow (mainly children, teens and pregnant women), sustain immune function, repair tissues and create essential hormones and enzymes. The body uses protein as a last resort to fuel itself.

Protein is made up of different types of amino acids. There are more than 100 amino acids known to man but only 21 are active in the human body. The body is able to create around half of them; adults need to consume 8 and developing children have 9 essential amino acids that need to be obtained through diet.

These 8 amino acids are called the essential amino acids and can be broken down into simpler forms to recreate the remaining amino acids that are nonessential to get from diet.  We are able to synthesize many chemicals, hormones, enzymes, etc. using the 9 essential amino acids.

The myth of “complete protein” is a lie.

"Complete protein" is a mythA “complete protein” is a food that contains all 8 amino acids in certain amounts.  Meat is a “complete protein” because that is essentially what muscle is—a combination of these the amino acids in large proportions.

Plant sources of protein are often called “incomplete proteins” by some sources because they do not contain all amino acids in the same amount. Many people say that plant sources need to be combined in certain ways in order to create “complete proteins”, like beans and rice. These foods are supposed to be eaten together because where one is lacking the other makes up for the difference.

This isn’t necessary.

Look at the amino acid score for cooked black beans and see for yourself that they have a “complete” amino acid score. Cooked long-grain brown rice contains all of the amino acids; it just has a lower level of the amino acid lysine than the other ones.

Understand that amino acids don’t need to be eaten in the same amounts because different essential amino acids are used in varying amounts. Therefore, we don’t need to worry about getting even amounts of each amino acid, only sufficient amounts of each throughout the day.

I recommend between 10-20% of calories to come from protein.There’s larger variance for protein because some adults may need more because of their lifestyles, body function and activity levels. Recommended levels can also depend upon where you get your protein from.

A higher level of protein coming from a plant-based diet is more acceptable than a high percentage coming from animal products. Plant and animal proteins act in different ways within the body and 20% of calories coming from wholly animal protein can increase risk for cancer and other diseases.

A diet that consistently has a significantly larger percentage than 20% of its calories from protein can cause liver problems. High protein diets are also associated with lower lifespans.

Here are protein levels for the foods that I already used above:

  • Oils provide 0% of calories from protein
  • Bananas provide 4% of calories from protein (raw)
  • California avocadoes provide 4% of calories from protein
  • English walnuts provide 8% of calories from protein
  • Tomatoes provide 12% of calories from protein (raw)
  • Broccoli provides 17% of calories from protein (cooked)
  • Cooked chickpeas provide 19% of calories from protein
  • Cooked lentils provide  27% of calories from protein
  • Brie cheese provides 27% of calories from protein
  • Spinach provides 30% of calories from protein (raw)
  • Hard-boiled eggs provide 35% of calories from protein
  • 70% lean ground beef patties  provide 41% of calories from protein (pan-broiled)
  • Skim milk provides 42% of calories from protein
  • Cooked ground turkey provides 50% of calories from protein
  • 95% lean ground beef patties provide 67% of calories from protein (pan-broiled)

As a last note, contrary to popular belief, all whole, plant-based foods have protein in them. It might not be much but protein is necessary to keep all living things together.

CarbohydratesWhole wheat bread has healthy carbohydrates

Like protein, carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram. The main duty of carbohydrates is to provide the body and brain with energy to function. While the body is able to obtain fuel from both protein and fat, carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy.

There are 3 types of carbohydrates: starch, sugar and fiber. The first two give us most of the energy we need; fiber does not provide a substantial amount of calories (i.e. energy) for us.

Sugar is most easily broken down by the digestive system and enters the bloodstream rather quickly.  However, even different sugars enter the bloodstream at different rates. For example, sucrose, also known as table sugar, will enter the bloodstream quicker than fructose.Bananas are full of healthy sugar

A large percentage of the carbohydrates in fruit, dairy products and refined sweets like candy, chocolate, soda and cookies come from sugar. Moderate amounts of sugar are found in vegetables. Grains and legumes provide small amounts of or no sugar, depending upon the variety. Carbohydrates classed as sugars are either monosaccharaides or disaccharides. You don’t need to remember these names but this just means that they are made up of only one or two sugar chains (di meaning two and mono meaning one). That’s why they are digested so quickly.

Starches are more difficult to break down because starches are actually sugars with a higher level of complexity. Starches are sugars bound into longer chains, so they digest slower. Starches are oligosaccharides or larger (oligo meaning three and saccharides meaning sugars). Refined sweets and dairy products normally have none or tiny amounts of carbohydrates from starch. Fruits have some starch in them. Vegetables have larger amounts of starch in them than fruits and finally grains and legumes have the greatest amount of carbohydrates from starch.

Lastly is fiber. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.

The difference between soluble fiber and insoluble fiber is that the body is able to break it down with water while this cannot be done with insoluble fiber. Foods that have both types of fiber will be less processed. Whole meal bread, rice, bananas, carrots and chickpeas all have insoluble fiber. White bread and most other heavily processed starches like cereals, pastries, cookies and cakes contain soluble fiber but none or very little insoluble fiber.

Insoluble fiber aids in digestion and removal of toxins from the digestive system. Diets that contain low amounts of insoluble fiber can cause digestive issues like constipation, hemorrhoids and increased risk of cancer in the digestive organs.

Both soluble and insoluble fiber are necessary in the diet, but less foods have insoluble that is the one I concern myself more about.

Carbohydrates have a bad reputation for making people fat. In reality it’s actually fat that makes people fat.

refined white sugar

One of the reasons that carbohydrates get blamed for weight gain is because refined carbohydrates, which often contain no insoluble fiber, spike blood sugar quickly and creates a spike in insulin as well. Insulin is the body’s hormone that regulates blood sugar helps store fat.

When refined carbohydrates are eaten with fat (like cake with buttercream frosting), the low-fiber carbohydrates spike the blood sugar. The fat prevents the carbohydrates from being stored in the muscles so they end up being stored as fat. This is just one of the reasons that refined carbohydrates do not promote health.

The majority of our calories should come from carbohydrates— between 70-80% of daily calories.

  • All meat provides 0% of calories from carbohydrates
  • Oils provide 0% of calories from carbohydrates
  • Brie cheese provides 0% of calories from carbohydrates
  • Hard-boiled eggs provide 3% of calories from carbohydrates
  • English walnuts provide 9% of calories from carbohydrates
  • California avocadoes provide 19% of calories from carbohydrates
  • Skim milk provides 53% of calories from carbohydrates
  • Spinach provides 56% of calories from carbohydrates (raw)
  • Cooked chickpeas provide 68% of calories from carbohydrates
  • Cooked lentils provide  70% of calories from carbohydrates
  • Broccoli provides 73% of calories from carbohydrates(cooked)
  • Tomatoes provide 79% of calories from carbohydrates(raw)
  • Bananas provide 93% of calories from carbohydrates (raw)

80-10-10Variety of produce

An adult desiring a healthy body should eat around 10% of calories from fat, 10-20% of calories from protein and 70-80% of calories from carbohydrates. This ratio of 80-10-10 is one that I try to stick to and is easiest to follow.

Though not as maintainable, humans can live off of a ratio of 90-5-5 and still be healthful; it requires the majority of calories coming from fruits, which can be difficult to manage. However, I do believe that the ratio of 80-10-10 is easily attainable with a diet largely consisting of fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains with a small amount of fat from either avocadoes, seeds and nuts. 80-10-10 can be maintained with the consumption of animal products  limited to a small amount per day or even per week.

Remember: this is ideal. If you are taking in a high-fat diet at the moment, you will find it hard to switch quickly to a low-fat diet. A quick swap, while doable, can cause cravings often result in either overeating or binges.

Fun Fact: Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram
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  • Updated 11 months ago
Sara Binde
 

Sara is a health and nutrition coach. She advocates for a whole foods plant-based lifestyle and teaches the world how to achieve weight loss.

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