Nutrition Basics: Macronutrients

I've noticed many of my nutrition clients are lacking basic nutrition information. Since health classes aren't teaching the basics and many can't afford to see a dietitian, I thought I would share nutrition basics here for free...

Macronutrients are the 3 types of nutrients we need in large amounts. I'll get into Micronutrients, or those that we need in small amounts, in an upcoming post.

Macronutrients the nutrients that provide calories, which is a measure of energy we gain from food. The three macronutrients are carbohydrates (carbs), protein, and fatty acids (fats). Sometimes alcohol is also grouped as a macronutrient, because it provides calories; however, it is not an essential nutrient and I typically do not recommend its consumption.

Carbohydrates or Carbs
Carbohydrates are found in most foods, including grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and dairy.
When I say grains, includes anything made from oats, wheat, barley, rye, buckwheat, spelt, rice, and amaranth. There are many different types of carbs. Many people know that sugar is a carb. Fiber is another carb. Lactose, as in lactose intolerance, is a carb from in cow's milk. If you make your own jam, you may also be familiar with pectin, another carb.

The brain needs carbs to function. However, the exact amount it requires has been debated, likely because different people have different requirements.
That said, the Institute of Medicine recommends 45-65% of our Calories come from carbohydrates. Each gram of carb provides 4 Calories. So, for a 2,000 Calorie diet, the recommended daily intake would be 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrate per day.

Many people know that meat and fish contains protein. Protein is also found in dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes, and in small amounts in grain, fruits, and vegetables. Proteins are made up of amino acids. You might have heard of an "incomplete protein," often used to described plant-based protein. This term means it doesn't contain all of the essential amino acids. However, this does not mean the vegetarians, vegans, or others who eat mostly plant-based foods cannot get enough protein or cannot get all of the amino acids they need. In fact, I am a vegetarian and I support vegetarianism as a healthy diet. That said, vegans may need to be more conscious about what they eat to get all of the amino acids. Some people like to eat the essential amino acids in one meal, which can be called eating "complementary proteins." A common example is rice and beans or lentils. The amino acids in the rice an the amino acids in the lentils or beans combine to make all the essential acids. Although some people worry about getting enough protein, it's fairly easy to get enough. The Institute of Medicine recommends that only 10-15% of our Calories come from protein. Each gram of protein provides 4 Calories. So, for a 2,000 Calorie diet, someone would eat 50 to 75 grams of protein each day.

Fatty Acids or Fats 
Fat is found in meats, fish, eggs, dairy, grains, nuts, and some fruit, like avocado and olives. There are 3 main types of fat: saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats. The popular omega-3 fats are a type of unsaturated fat. Omega-3 fats are discussed more in this post. You may have heard that man-made trans fats are banned in the U.S.A. This is because they were found to increase heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and even allergies. They may also affect fetus growth during pregnancy. Dairy products can still contain natural trans fats that are produced by cows and sheep. Fats often get a bad rap, but we need both saturated and unsaturated fats. There are 2 specific unsaturated fats that are considered essential: alpha-linolenic and linoleic. Both of these are found in plants, so vegans need not be worried.
The Institute of Medicine recommends 20-35% of our Calories come from fats. Each gram of fat provides 9 Calories. So, for a 2,000 Calorie diet, someone would eat 44 to 78 grams of fat daily.

A balanced diet is one that contains all 3 macronutrients--carbohydrates, fat, and protein.
I recommend eating all three of them with each meal and snack.

Disclaimer: The information provided above is for educational purposes only. Please talk to your dietitian or another healthcare provider for individualized advice. To find a dietitian, visit


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