Not all food is created equal, and getting a good balance of macronutrients and micronutrients is an essential part of eating a healthy diet.
When was the last time you examined a nutrition label on the side of a packaged food item? If you did so recently, you would have noticed a breakdown of the contents of your food, organized into the categories of macronutrients and micronutrients. You’ve probably become accustomed to hearing phrases such as “carbohydrate content” and “grams of protein.” Still, you may not be aware of why these characteristics are vital for your daily food intake.
At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we have a mission to keep our patients healthy and living well—and that starts with education about all health and nutritional matters. Your diet, defined as what you eat daily, is a critical component of your lifestyle. And, as the saying goes, food is medicine—being deliberate about what you’re eating every day can have positive ripple effects over the long term.
Here’s what you need to know about the nutritional categories of macronutrients and micronutrients and why they matter.
What is a Macronutrient?
A macronutrient describes a category of food molecules with a specific chemical structure. There are three dietary macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. All of your daily food can be described based on its macronutrient profiles. For example, a cucumber is primarily a carbohydrate with a bit of protein content. On the other hand, a spoonful of olive oil is exclusive of fats.
Experts create dietary recommendations based on macronutrients because they are your body’s primary energy sources. Here is the recommended macronutrient breakdown for the average person (if you have specific health conditions, your macronutrient needs may vary—make sure to check in with your medical provider about your personal nutritional needs).
Experts recommend that 45 to 65% of your daily calories come from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide a quick source of energy for your brain and muscles, and they are used up first when you are exercising and performing other tasks. Good sources of carbohydrates are known as “complex” carbohydrates, which means that they have a chemical structure that breaks down more slowly because of the presence of fiber. Examples of complex carbohydrates include whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, peas, and dairy products. Processed foods such as crackers, bread, cereals, desserts, fruit juices, and sodas are also considered carbohydrates, but they are processed differently by your body and should be limited.
Experts recommend that 10 to 35% of your daily calories come from protein. Protein can be broken down for—such as creating cell membranes, tendons, ligaments, hair, and nails. Proteins are also critical for enabling the cells of your body to communicate with each other. Examples of foods with high protein content include lentils, beans, tofu, tempeh, nuts, whole grains, and animal protein. Processed foods such as bacon, lunch meat, and hotdogs are also high in protein content, but they should be limited.
Experts recommend that 20 to 35% of your daily calories should come from fat. The best fats come in vegetable oils (like olive oil or avocado oil), fish like salmon or tuna, avocados, flax seeds, chia seeds, and nuts. Foods like butter, cream cheese, full-fat dairy products, animal fats, and fried foods are also considered fats; however, they should be limited.
Why Do Macronutrients Matter?
Medical providers care about macronutrients because of the system in your body that controls how you derive energy from food, known as your metabolism. There are different ways that your body absorbs and processes the food you eat, determined by the macronutrient content of your food. For example, simple carbohydrates get digested the most readily, which means that when you eat a saltine cracker, it will be broken down, and its energy contents will reach your bloodstream faster than if you eat a walnut.
The way that macronutrients affect your metabolism can influence how your hormones work. For example, eating a lot of carbohydrates in one sitting, without any protein or fat to slow the absorption, can increase the production of the hormone insulin. When your insulin levels are high, you may overcompensate while attempting to regulate the amount of sugar in your bloodstream, causing the phenomenon known as a “sugar crash,” which is a state of low blood sugar.
Macronutrients also matter because they are involved in certain disease states, such as diabetes and chronic kidney disease. For example, when you have Type 2 diabetes, your body is less sensitive to the effects of the hormone insulin, meaning that when you eat carbohydrates, you can’t use their sugar byproducts in your blood for energy as effectively. This can cause the sugar in your blood to stay at a high level for a more extended period, damaging your organs. However, staying aware of how many carbohydrates you’re consuming, and making sure that you are eating a balanced diet, can help your body process the food you eat in a better manner, even when you have diabetes.
What is a Micronutrient?
When you’re looking at a nutrition label, you’re looking at macronutrients—and you’re also looking at micronutrients. Micronutrients, also known as vitamins and minerals, are essential to your body’s everyday processes. Still, they are necessary for a much smaller quantity when compared to macronutrients (hence the name “micro”). Getting a proper amount of vitamins and minerals is vital for your body to carry out its processes, so having a balanced diet is essential.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are six essential micronutrients as follows:
- Iron: Involved in motor and cognitive development
- Vitamin A: Involved in eyesight and immune system function
- Vitamin D: Involved in bone function, immune system function, and muscle and nerve function
- Iodine: Involved in growing a fetus and an infant’s development
- Folate: Involved in creating new cells and in the development of a healthy brain and spine when a fetus is in the womb
- Zinc: Involved in immune system function
When you’re not getting enough of these micronutrients, it can lead to a nutritional deficiency and many other problems.
Why do Micronutrients Matter?
Micronutrients matter because they are critical ingredients for many of the processes in your body and because not having enough micronutrients can lead to a disease state. For example, a lack of iron can lead to a condition known as anemia, and having a lack of Vitamin A can lead to an increased risk of blindness. Except for Vitamin D, micronutrients cannot be produced by your body—they have to be absorbed from your diet.
The Importance of a Balanced Diet
Eating a balanced diet is essential to staying healthy over the long term and ensuring that you get a proper ratio of macronutrients and micronutrients. However, far too many people in America are not on target when it comes to the makeup of their diets. In fact, according to the CDC, less than 1 in 10 adults in America eat enough fruit and vegetables daily. When your diet is not optimized, you risk downstream health consequences, such as becoming overweight or obese. These conditions can lead to other chronic illnesses, such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and dementia.
How to Eat a Balanced Diet
It can be bewildering to think of specifically tracking your macronutrients and micronutrients to ensure that you and your loved ones are getting the proper amount each day. However, simply eating a balanced diet every day can help ensure that you’re getting the appropriate mix of these crucial ingredients. The CDC recommends eating whole foods that are a variety of colors every day to ensure that you’re reaching your target. They also recommend the following tips:
- Add in healthy fats—try adding nuts or seeds to a salad
- Reduce your sodium by limiting the number of processed foods that you eat
- Eating fruits or veggies as snacks throughout the day
Sometimes, eating fresh produce daily can be financially limiting. However, the CDC emphasizes that buying frozen fruits or vegetables can be just as valuable as eating fresh ones—and they can be a lot easier on the pocketbook, too. For more about improving your eating habits, check out this website.
Partnering with Lompoc Valley Medical Center for Nutritional Guidance
What you eat daily plays a big part in your risk of developing chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. And if you are managing a chronic disease, what you eat every day takes on even greater importance.
At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, our team of primary health care providers and nutritionists is devoted to helping patients learn about macronutrients and micronutrients, their impact on metabolism, and making food choices that will optimize their future health.
Contact us today to learn more or connect with our outpatient dietitian services.