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Understanding Macronutrients: A Guide to Balanced Eating

Counting macros is a hot topic in the fitness world, but what does it mean? The term “macros” refers to macronutrients — the main substances that form the foods we eat. The “big three” macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Below, learn more about these macronutrients, their roles in the body, and the best foods to eat for a balanced macro profile.


Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash


Three Important Macronutrients

Each macronutrient has an important job, supplying the energy and nutrition to support your body’s cells and help with growth and functionality. Eating enough of these nutrients can help you achieve optimal health.

Since our bodies can’t make or make enough macronutrients, we must get them in our diet. The type of macro affects the amount of calories you consume. For example, fat is the highest-calorie macronutrient and provides 9 calories per gram, while protein and carbohydrates each have 4 calories per gram.


The Role of Protein, Fats, and Carbs

Carbs serve as the body’s fuel source. Athletes use “carb loading” for this reason, as carbs increase glycogen reserves in the muscles and help boost endurance. When you eat foods high in carbohydrates, your digestive system converts those carbs into glucose. Glucose gives your body energy for daily tasks, exercise, and body functions.


Protein breaks down into amino acids that build and repair tissues throughout the body. This macronutrient also makes many enzymes and hormones, such as insulin and estrogen. Animal and plant proteins offer 20 different types of amino acids, of which nine are considered essential.


Fat plays a crucial role in supporting cell functions, protecting your organs, and helping the body absorb minerals and vitamins. It also serves as an energy source when your body doesn’t get enough carbohydrates. For example, fat is the primary fuel for people following a ketogenic diet.


Recommended Daily Intake

The amount of each macronutrient you should consume depends on your health and fitness goals. Your healthcare provider or fitness coach can help you determine macro guidelines based on your height, weight, gender, and fitness level.


According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), healthy adults should use the following macro percentages as a general guideline:

• About 45 to 65% of daily calories from carbohydrates

• About 10 to 35% of daily calories from protein

• About 20 to 35% of daily calories come from fat


Counting and tracking macros can be helpful as you learn to create wholesome, balanced meals. Many people use apps or write down what they eat to help track the fats, proteins, and carbs. If you want to gain muscle mass, you may need to consume more daily calories from protein, as protein is essential in muscle synthesis.


Foods With Each Macronutrient

Your food choices help ensure you get enough of each macronutrient. It’s also important to consider the type of carb, protein, or fat you eat. For example, consuming complex carbs — such as those in sweet potatoes — is preferable over the sugars found in processed foods.


Understanding which foods contain each nutrient makes grocery shopping easier, too. You can read food labels for more information on the macros of individual foods.


Bread and grain products, such as whole-wheat bread or brown rice, are excellent sources of carbs. Alternatively, you can find high amounts of carbohydrates in starchy vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, and some types of dairy.


When looking for high-protein foods, consider poultry, beef, eggs, seafood, and fish. Dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt are other good protein sources.


Cooking with healthy fats like coconut oil or olive oil can help you reach your fat macros. You can also find good fats in foods such as avocados, salmon, tuna, mackerel, and cottage cheese.


Tips for Creating Balanced Meals

Creating balanced meals might not come naturally, but that’s okay! Start with a sectioned plate to help you learn more about the macros in each food. This approach divides the plate into portions that let you visualize the amount of carbs, proteins, and fats you eat.


Consuming enough fruits and vegetables is also important for a balanced meal; these foods help you get fiber and micronutrients — the vitamins and minerals your body needs.


Fill your plate halfway with non-starchy vegetables, such as asparagus, carrots, or broccoli. Next, fill one-quarter of the plate with a complex carbohydrate like butternut squash or potatoes for energy. The final quarter should have a type of protein, such as chicken or turkey.


At breakfast, this could look like a hearty serving of fresh berries, carbs from toast, and protein from eggs. For lunch, a well-rounded meal might include a sandwich made from whole-grain bread, complete with veggies and proteins such as meat and cheese.


Balancing Meals With Ease

Balanced meals — which contain all three macronutrients — can support your health and help you maintain a healthy body weight. Eating meals with enough proteins, fats, and carbohydrates will also help keep you full and energized.

Explore the ActiveFit+ blog to learn more ways to reach your potential and improve your health and wellness.

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