June 30, 2021

Some Clarity on Macronutrients vs Micronutrients

Macronutrients vs micronutrients, carbs, fat, protein, calories, fiber. These are some of the many nutrition-related words that people hear, read and use frequently. But let’s back up a second. What actually are these things? If you’ve been a bit confused about some or all of these terms, you are not alone! Most of us unfortunately do not learn this kind of information when we are in school growing up. Fortunately, here at Nutriving we went to school (for a long time) to learn ALL about nutrition and how we can help others using that knowledge. So, let’s clear some things up.

 

Macronutrients vs Micronutrients

Macronutrients are the building blocks of our food, aka carbohydrates, fats and proteins. We did a deep dive on each of these in previous posts, so be sure to check those posts out! We receive energy (i.e., calories) from these macronutrients to do all the functions our bodies need to do to keep us alive. Calories are literally a unit of energy, and we use calories to quantify how much energy foods give us. A gram of carbohydrate gives us 4 calories. A gram of fat gives us 9 calories. A gram of protein gives us 4 calories. A well-balanced meal that has all 3 macronutrients will help your body meet your energy needs and help you feel full and satisfied after that meal. 

Micronutrients are substances required by humans in trace amounts for normal growth and development. Trace amounts meaning smaller amounts as compared to the amounts of macronutrients we need, hence the “micro” and “macro” distinction. Micronutrients is an umbrella term that encompasses vitamins and minerals. Both vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients since the human body cannot synthesize them. We get vitamins and minerals from the plants and animals that we eat. 

  • Vitamins are organic compounds we get from our food. Vitamins can be divided into water-soluble and fat-soluble based on how the body handles them. Water-soluble vitamins include vitamin C and B vitamins. In general, water-soluble vitamins cannot be stored in the body as long as fat-soluble vitamins. Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamin A, D, E and K and can be stored in body lipids (= fat). 
  • Minerals are inorganic compounds that are found in soil and water. The plants and animals we eat absorb and store minerals, and then we receive them when we digest those plants or animals. Minerals can further be divided into macrominerals and microminerals based on how much of that mineral the human body needs to function properly. This cut-off is around 100 grams/day, so macromineral means we need more than 100 grams/day of that mineral and micromineral means less than that. Macrominerals include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride. Microminerals include iron, zinc, selenium and copper to name a few.

 

Where are the macronutrients located on a nutrition label?

Okay now that we are clear on what macronutrients are, where in the world do you find this information on a nutrition label?! 

nutrition label of rice with macronutrients highlighted

 

Above is the nutrition label from a long grain brown rice. Within the blue boxes we added, you’ll find the amounts for each macronutrient: carbohydrate, fat and protein. 

Let’s look at another one for oatmeal. Again within the blue boxes we added below, you’ll find the amounts for each macronutrient.

nutrition label for oatmeal with macronutrients highlighted

Every nutrition facts label will have lines for total fat, total carbohydrate, and protein along with the grams of each macronutrient. Some labels are laid out horizontally like the rice, while others are in a vertical format like the oatmeal. Regardless of the format, the same information will be there. 

 

Where are the micronutrients located on a nutrition label? 

The only micronutrients required by the FDA to be on nutrition labels in the US are Vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium. Some foods will have only these, while other foods list other micronutrients in addition to the required 4. 

nutrition label of rice with micronutrients highlighted

Above is that same nutrition label from long grain brown rice. Within the blue boxes we added, you’ll find the amounts for exactly the required 4. 

nutrition label of oatmeal with micronutrients highlighted

Above is that same nutrition label from oatmeal. Again within the blue boxes we added, you can see the required 4 along with 3 additional micronutrients. Many times when a food provides a good amount of additional micronutrients, the manufacturer will add those to the nutrition label so that the consumer knows their product is a good source of x, y or z. 

 

Is water a macronutrient?

Given that most textbooks and authoritative sources define macronutrient as a “dietary nutrient that supplies energy, including fats, carbohydrates and proteins,” water does not fit this description since we do not get energy (i.e., calories) from it. That being said, we do obviously need water in large or “macro” quantities. It’s splitting hairs honestly. If you emphasize the “macro” part of the definition, you could argue water is macronutrient. If you emphasize the “nutrient” part of the definition, then you could argue water is not a macronutrient. Regardless, water is essential to our functioning.

 

Is alcohol a macronutrient? 

Alcohol is an interesting one. As we discussed in our margarita recipe, each gram of alcohol has 7 calories. This means alcohol does give us energy, so in that sense it is a “nutrient.” That being said, it is certainly not a nutrient we should aim to consume in large or “macro” quantities. It is definitely not essential to life either; although on a warm summer Friday, at a baseball game, at a celebration, some of us could argue otherwise ;) Just kidding, just kidding! Sort of. For the sake of clarity, alcohol is not an essential macronutrient in the scientific sense of the word.

 

Is fiber a macronutrient?

Dietary fibers are nondigestible carbohydrates that are found in plants. Nondigestible in this sense means that we do not receive energy i.e., calories from the majority of dietary fibers. The bacteria in our gut however can digest some of these fibers and as a result use some of the products of digestion for energy. As discussed above with water, the technical definition of a macronutrient as a “nutrient that supplies energy” means that fiber does not quite fit that definition since we do not digest fiber and receive energy from it like we do with other carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

That being said, fiber is extremely important for bowel health, blood sugar management, heart health and overall disease risk. Higher fiber intake has been associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, stroke and Type 2 Diabetes. 

 

If you’re like okay this is cool, now how do I use this information, then you are heading in the right direction!! It is certainly helpful to understand definitions and a bit of the basics, but it is another thing entirely to take that information and put it into practice to improve your own nutrition. Are you getting enough fiber to meet your needs? To reduce your disease risk? Do you generally have a good balance of carbs, fat and protein with your meals?

It can be tough to answer these questions on your own based on random facts the internet gives you. Nutrition is so personal and so individual, as we’ve discussed before. If you are ready to take it a step further and really look at your individual diet with the help of a professional, we got you!

 

Sources:

Gropper SS, Smith JL. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. 6th ed. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning; 2013.

Veronese N, Solmi M, Caruso MG, Giannelli G, Osella AR, Evangelou E, Maggi S, Fontana L, Stubbs B, Tzoulaki I. Dietary fiber and health outcomes: an umbrella review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2018: 107(3): 436-444. Doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqx082.

Photo by Jarek Jordan on Unsplash

 

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About the Author: Kelly Wagner, MS, RD, LDN

I'm a Registered Dietitian (RD) based in Chicago, IL. I have worked in both inpatient and outpatient settings, including dialysis, ICU, as well as one-on-one nutrition counseling and groups.
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