If you’ve ever been on a weight-loss journey, you might have come across messaging telling you to eat smaller portions, lessen your intake of sugar and fat, and increase the number of fruits and vegetables in your diet. While all these choices can contribute to weight loss, they are only a surface-level approach to improving your nutrition.
Every meal you eat is made up of macronutrients—the nutrients your body needs to function. Many people are aware of the most common macros: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. However, the USDA actually recognizes five types of macronutrients as essential for proper nutrition: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fiber, and water.
Ideally, you should be consuming meals with a balance of all these macronutrients. The percentage and amount of each macronutrient you need per meal depends on factors including your age, weight, and wellness goals, but there are guidelines you can follow to help you get started.
First, you need to understand what macronutrients do for your body and why they are so important when planning your meals.
The five essential macronutrients
When you think of carbohydrates, you may conjure images of garlic bread, spaghetti, and french fries. You might even associate carbs with negative eating habits. The truth is, carbs are not the enemy; in fact, you need them to sustain your energy. Furthermore, most people need to consume them in larger quantities than they might think.
There are two different types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple carbs, also known as simple sugars, are often found in less nutrient-dense foods like candy and can contribute to a sharp spike in blood sugar levels. Complex carbs, also known as starches, can be found in grains such as rice and quinoa as well as bread and pasta.
Both types of carbohydrates are broken down into sugar that your body uses for energy. Complex carbs, however, contribute to more sustained energy and can keep you feeling full for longer, making them the better choice overall.
Protein has gotten a lot of attention in the wellness world recently, and for good reason. In many ways, it’s the foundation for what physically makes you you. It helps form your hair, skin, nails, muscles, bones, and tissues, and it is vitally important for anyone who’s looking to build or maintain muscle mass.
Chicken, beef, fish, and other animal proteins are the most protein-rich foods available. However, you don’t necessarily need to consume animal products to get the recommended daily amount of protein in your diet. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health also recommends consuming a high volume of protein-packed plant items like lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, as well as higher-protein veggies like brussels sprouts, asparagus, and artichokes.
Fat is possibly the most misunderstood macronutrient because of its connotations with weight gain and unhealthy foods. But just like carbohydrates and protein, your body needs fat to sustain essential processes such as nutrient absorption and hormone production.
There are four different types of fats, and it’s important to know the distinction between them. Trans fats, for example, occur naturally in animal products but in qualities too low to impact cholesterol levels. However, artificial trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated oils on nutrition labels, can contribute to health problems like heart disease.
Prioritize monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in your diet; these can be found in olive oil, nuts like almonds and walnuts, seeds, and fish. Salmon is a particularly good source of healthy fats thanks to its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which your body needs but cannot make on its own.
Many people struggle to eat enough fiber, which can contribute to gastrointestinal problems. Fiber intake also plays an important role in weight management since it can help you feel satiated longer. Because fiber is found in plants and whole grains, the best way to ensure you’re eating enough of it is to consume more whole foods. Soluble fiber, which is found in foods like oats, nuts, and seeds, helps maintain your blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Insoluble fiber aids in digestion and can be obtained by eating whole grains like quinoa and rice, leafy greens, and fruits with edible skin such as apples.
Consuming enough fiber is important not only for proper nutrition and digestion but also for disease prevention. Studies have shown that fiber intake can help lower your risk of developing diabetes and heart disease, and its anti-inflammatory properties can reduce the risk of a variety of other diseases attributed to inflammation.
Last but certainly not least, water is a vital macronutrient because it’s what makes up 50 to 70 percent of your body. How much water you need to drink is dependent on your age, weight, activity level, and environment, but most people should aim to drink between four and six cups per day. Consuming enough water is crucial for regulating your body temperature, digestion, and absorption of essential nutrients.
Finding the right balance
Now that you know what macronutrients are and the functions they serve in your body, you can explore the percentage of macronutrients you need to consume at each meal.
As mentioned above, the proper ratio of carbs, protein, fat, fiber, and water varies from person to person. However, the US Department of Health and Human Services recommends the following guidelines for the average adult consuming between 2,000–3,000 calories per day:
- Carbohydrates: 45–65 percent of total calories
- Protein: 10–35 percent of total calories
- Fat: 20–35 percent of total calories
- — 28 g (women ages 19–30)/ 25.2 g (women ages 31–50)/ 22.4 g (women ages 51+)
- — 33.6 g (men ages 19–30)/ 30.8 g (men ages 31–50)/ 28 g (men ages 51+)
With these guidelines in mind, you’ll want to make sure you include plenty of carbs, protein, fat, and fiber in every meal, which can be achieved by balancing your plate or bowl with foods in the ratios above. An example of a healthy meal with these recommended macros could be a grain bowl made up of a base of whole grains like quinoa, farro, or rice (carbs/protein/fiber), topped with roasted vegetables (carbs/fiber), chicken or tofu (protein/fat), and a dressing of olive oil, vinegar, and seasonings (fat).
This example is just one of countless ways to create meals you enjoy that meet the recommended ratio of macros. Experiment with ingredients and foods you like, and you’ll be well on your way to meeting your nutrition goals.
*Speak to your physician to make sure you’re meeting your nutrition needs.
For more info, visit dietaryguidelines.gov