Macros vs. micros. Sounds like a hotly contested battle in some gaming fantasy world—except we’d spell it Makros vs. Mykros, and set the scene in an ancient Greek amphitheater. In modern reality, macros vs. micros (shorthand for macronutrients vs. micronutrients) isn’t about a fight at all; rather, it’s a way of differentiating two types of nutrients that our bodies need for different reasons.
If you’re in the fitness world, you’ve probably heard of micro and macronutrients. Gym culture is especially obsessed with macros. But what are micros and macros, really? What roles do they play in our bodies? Why do they matter? Let’s break it down.
Macronutrients are nutrients that our bodies need in large amounts to create energy and fuel the activities of every physiological system. Protein, carbohydrates, and fat are the primary macros, and we need plenty of each of them to maintain energy and function properly. Macronutrients are important for everyone, and they play an especially key role for anyone participating in vigorous exercise or trying to build muscle or gain weight.
That’s not to say you should pile on unhealthy carbs, fat, and protein. Quality is important in every aspect of nutrition, and macros are no different. A donut, for example, is loaded with carbs and fat—but it’s completely void of nutritional value. Sure, bacon and sausage contain protein and fat, but they’re generally highly processed and contain far too much saturated fat and sodium. On the other hand, lean meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs are great protein options. Healthy carbohydrates, like brown rice or whole-grain bread, will help your body utilize energy in a more consistent way (i.e. less blood sugar spikes and drops) and the added fiber will help you feel full longer.
Nuts and nut butters are rich in healthy fats, protein, and carbs. We’re not saying ditch the donuts and bacon entirely—just make those type of treats the exception, and high-quality macros the rule.
Tracking macros—specifically, measuring the ratio of protein, carbs, and fat consumed—is an increasingly popular nutrition trend in the fitness community, geared to help reach specific body composition or fitness goals. For example, if your focus is on building muscle, you need enough protein to enable that muscle growth. If you train intensely, you need enough carbs to fuel those hard sessions. Macros work together, so the percentage of protein, carbs, and fat is the focus of many diet plans. But what is the right balance of macronutrients? It depends. Factors such as body type, fitness goals, and gender all play a role. Check out this guide for help in determining the proper percentages for you—and be sure the majority of macros you consume are healthy ones.
Since macronutrients are the nutrients we need in large amounts, it makes sense that our bodies only need trace amounts of micronutrients. But that doesn’t mean that micros are of any lesser importance. Micros are essential to our overall health and wellness. They aid in the production of enzymes, hormones, and proteins that are critical to body and brain function, and help with the regulation of metabolism, heartbeat, and bone density, among other processes. Micronutrient deficiencies can cause significant, lasting health problems, both physically and cognitively.
Micros include vitamins, minerals, trace elements, phytochemicals, and antioxidants that are found in natural food sources—most commonly fruits and vegetables, as well as dairy, nuts, poultry, and lean meats. Adding a variety of fresh produce and other nutrient-dense foods to your diet will provide most—if not all—essential micronutrients. Plus, eating fiber-rich fruits and veggies, similar to eating whole grains, will help keep you feeling full and satisfied. So be sure to include plenty of fresh, healthy, whole foods in your nutrition plan.
If you’re not getting enough micros from your diet, however, multivitamins can help supplement your daily meals. Some people have trouble absorbing certain micros, despite their best efforts at eating well (for example, people with gluten intolerance or irritable bowel syndrome may not absorb all the nutrients from their natural food sources). Supplementation can help shore up your micronutrient levels; however, attention should be paid to the volume, timing, and quality of supplement intake, so that the micros are optimally absorbed. Some vitamins are more easily absorbed in the body when taken in conjunction with other foods, or when paired with other supplements (think calcium and magnesium, which are frequently taken together). Synthetic vitamins, as opposed to natural, plant-based vitamin supplements, can be difficult to absorb due to the interference of various filler ingredients, so quality is key. Taking too much of some vitamins can also cause health problems—or simply be a waste of money, as excess amounts of some micros will naturally flush out of your body.
Again, supplements are no substitute for healthy eating; rather, they can enhance an already nutrient-packed diet plan, or help with anyone with absorption issues. Micronutrients will not help you bulk up or gain weight, but regardless of your fitness goals, these nutrients play a critical role in keeping your mind and body on track. If you do opt to take supplements, be sure to they are high quality, taken in appropriate quantities, and timed for maximum absorption. A great starting point to find your micronutrient needs? Consult with your physician, who can perform simple blood tests to learn which micros you’re already getting in adequate amounts, and identify any deficiencies you may have.
See—there’s really no battle of macros vs. micros. Instead, macronutrients and micronutrients are both essential elements to good health, each playing a role in keeping our bodies functioning at their best.
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