Macro v micronutrients: Why you need them

Dietitians often talk about macronutrients and micronutrients, but what are they and why are they so important to our health?

In order to effectively maintain our immune system, brain, skin, bones and nerve function, and blood circulation – essentially, survive – our bodies require a range of nutrients, which mostly come from food.

These nutrients can be divided into two categories – macronutrients and micronutrients.

The difference between macronutrients and micronutrients

“Macronutrients are nutrients that your body needs in larger quantities (grams) so it can function properly,” The Wellness Group founder and nutritionist Madeline Calfas says.

She explains there are three macronutrients we require – fats, proteins and carbohydrates.

“Fats help the body store energy, are a source of essential fatty acids (which your body cannot make itself), and help the body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins,” Madeline says.

“Protein provides the body with amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscle and bones, and help to repair them.

“Carbohydrates are the preferred energy source for the body, and fuel the brain, central nervous system and the kidneys.”

Micronutrients, on the other hand, are the vital but invisible nutrients present in foods alongside the macros, such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and polyphenols, Pillar Performance sports dietitian Pip Taylor explains.

“It’s the micros, including vitamin A, B, C, D, E, K and minerals such as iron, calcium, sodium, potassium, that are essential to our overall health and wellness,” Pip says.

“Micronutrients are required for a range of functions including enzyme and hormone production, regulation of metabolism, bone density and growth, nerve function, production of neurotransmitters and DNA synthesis, inflammation control and immune function.”

How macro and micronutrients work together

While macronutrients can be seen as the big guys as we need more of them, micronutrients are equally important.

“We need them all,” Pip says.

“The foundation of performance is health and without adequate macros as well as micros in the diet, deficiencies mean suboptimal function at some level.”

Madeline explains good health relies on a balance of macro and micronutrients, and getting the body to work synergistically.

“Every single nutrient whether macro or micro is essential to our health,” she says.

“It’s much more accurate to consider them as two separate health requirements and focus on meeting each group’s daily requirements so that it becomes macros and micros.”

How much macro and micronutrients do we need daily?

Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand provide recommended intakes for energy, protein, carbohydrate, fibre, fats, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients based on age, gender and life stages.

“What that looks like in practical food terms varies,” Pip says.

“Something like vitamin C is so common in fruits and vegetables that it’s very easy to obtain enough, just one salad or an orange will suffice.

“Other vitamins can be more difficult – magnesium, which is important for muscle function but also sleep and stress – is found in leafy greens as is vitamin K for bone health and blood clotting.

“Many of us don’t get nearly enough greens on a daily basis, so these micros can be lacking.”

Practical tips to get your macros and micros

While it can seem complicated, Pip insists getting adequate macro and micronutrients in our diet is not too difficult.

“Start with the basics, think about meals that include lots of colours (fruit and veg), a healthy protein source at each meal or snack (fish, yoghurt, legumes, nuts, chicken – they all count), and include a fat source (avocado, olive oil, nuts),” she says.

“Think about ways you can add more colour and fibre to your day such as smoothies, spinach and mushrooms as a side to your eggs; vegetable sticks as a mid-arvo snack; top a grainy porridge with berries.”

It’s important to take your activity levels into account, too.

“Try to match your energy needs with training, exercise and other goals,” Pip says.

“Investigate where you might have gaps – especially if during a high training load, under cumulative stress or perhaps dealing with an injury – or if you just can’t meet all your requirements through diet alone, add in some smart supplements.”

If you need help, consult a dietitian to devise a nutrition plan to suit your needs.

Written by Claire Burke.