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Macronutrients 101

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If you’re just starting out thinking about nutrition in a more detail-oriented way, in hopes of understanding your diet better and eventually improving it, it’s really important to have a good understanding of the very basics.

You already know that the foods you eat are the fuel you need to function, grow, and thrive, but you might not yet be familiar with how we categorize those foods, and what they actually do for you.

The first thing to know is that nutrients are the substances in your food that are actually used by the human body. The next thing to know is that they are further classified into macronutrients and micronutrients. We explain both here on the blog, but in this particular article, we’re going to focus on macronutrients.

Below you’ll find a quick and simple explanation of these crucial parts of your diet, and links to articles that go more in depth into what these are.

What are macronutrients and why are they important?

Along with water, macronutrients are the “big three” components of nutrition – carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. You’ve likely heard of these things before, but maybe you didn’t know that these are actually the most significant things in your diet.

Why is this the case? Two major reasons:

  • They’re your primary source of energy.
  • They’re essential for the maintenance and proper functioning of your body’s fundamental structures.

Let’s clear things up about calories

We say that macronutrients are your primary source of energy, but another way of saying it is that macronutrients are the body’s biggest source of calories.

Now it’s important to note here that popular culture sometimes seems to have a murky idea of what a calorie is.

A calorie is not actually a physical thing; it’s a unit of energy that we can measure in the various foods that we eat. The energy our bodies need to train (and just to take care of basic life processes!) can be measured in these calories. Sitting upright, walking, breathing, fighting off infections, circulating blood through the body—all of these things require a certain number of calories.

We tend to associate calories with unhealthy foods and think of them as things we need to get rid of through continuous calorie-burning activities. However, they aren’t bad in and of themselves! It’s only when calories are consumed in excessive amounts that they end up being unhealthy.

Calories are completely necessary, and to come back to our main topic, it’s through macronutrients that we get them into our system.

According to the World Health Organization, “[m]acronutrients are nutrients that provide calories or energy and are required in large amounts to maintain body functions and carry out the activities of daily life.

Not just a fuel source

As mentioned earlier, macronutrients have other major uses in our bodies besides as a source of energy, and if you’re eating the right balance for your energy and health needs, you’ll also experience the many other benefits of macronutrients. Some of the main ones are the following:

  • Macronutrients are building blocks for important bodily structures (cells, muscles, hair, nails, etc.)
  • Proteins play a role in our hormone systems.
  • Macronutrients are required to process certain micronutrients (so-called fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamin A, etc.)
  • Fats help our bodies store the energy we eat.
    • While fat usually gets talked about as the enemy, let’s not forget that it serves a function! You can go without eating for a while without collapsing. Fat can act like a battery – a store of energy – so you don’t always have to be “plugged in” and eating. Stores of fat actually protect vital organs, serving as a kind of cushion.
We explore each macronutrient in a bit more detail through a number of articles here on the blog, so definitely check out the following articles, as well as our Macronutrients reading list if you want to learn more about a particular kind.

More about Proteins

More about Carbohydrates

More about Fats

So how much of each macronutrient do I need?

This is where calories as a unit of measure becomes a useful tool. You can think about your macronutrient intake in terms of calories.

Consult with your doctor and think about the following questions: How many calories do you need in order to maintain your current weight? How active are you currently, and what’s your energy balance?

You can then begin to segment your diet into the different categories of macronutrients based on your needs.

A brief general example: macronutrient breakdown during strength training

A good way to do this for strength training athletes (like people who do Freeletics!) is to think about each macronutrient in the following sequence: proteins, carbohydrates, fat.

According to the Institute of Medicine, macronutrient guidelines for athletes are:

  • Protein, 10-35% of caloric intake
  • Carbohydrates, 45-65% of caloric intake
  • Fat, 20-35% of caloric intake (try to limit saturated and trans fats)

For strength training athletes, protein is important, so get 1.2-1.8g protein per kilogram (0.5-0.8g per pound) of bodyweight, per day.

Remembering that protein has about 4 calories per gram, you can then calculate how many calories should come from protein.

For instance, if you are a 80kg man who does strength training, you would want to consume about 144 grams of protein per day (since you want to hit the upper end of the protein recommendation). That means 576 of your calories need to come from protein.

That puts you at a calorie range of 5760 calories per day (protein is 10% of calories) to 1646 calories per day (protein is 35 percent of calories).

Pick a calorie intake within that range that matches your goal. Say you want to maintain weight, and your maintenance calorie limit is 2500 calories.

In that case, protein would ideally be about 23% of your calories. Then it would be up to you to choose a carbohydrate and fat distribution that works for you.

Never decrease fat below 15% of your caloric intake!

Get comfortable thinking about your macros

So those are just some of the very basics about what macronutrients to get you started on the path of thinking more about the foods that you eat so that you can maintain the diet you need for the goals that you set.

Keep checking back here in the future for even more content on nutrition, nutrients, and wholesome foods. We want both complete beginners and those more experienced in their nutritional planning to be able to eat healthy as you progress in your Freeletics training!