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Macronutrient Basics | Key Facts About Carbohydrates, Fats, and Proteins

In this article, you'll find detailed explanations about the three main macronutrients in our food. You will learn what the difference is between macronutrients and micronutrients, what each macronutrient is responsible for in our bodies, and in which foods the most important nutrients are found.

In-depth knowledge for your new & fit self.


What are Macronutrients?

Nutrients are small components of our food. They can serve as an energy source, building material, or regulatory substance in our organism (body).

Macronutrients are the nutrients that primarily serve us for energy supply; they have calories that we consume when we eat food.

Our body can obtain energy from 3 macronutrients or main nutrients – carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Alcohol is also an energy source, but it is not essential for our organism and is therefore mentioned here only for completeness' sake.

Whether you gain, lose, or maintain weight solely depends on your overall energy intake. You can make your diet much easier and more enjoyable if you hit the right amount of each individual macronutrient for your goal.

Optimization is not only about the total number of calories; it's also about your macronutrient distribution.

The right distribution can help you maintain as much muscle mass as possible while losing fat, and it can help you feel more satiated from your meals.

Your macronutrient distribution also affects how much calories you burn, especially when comparing a high-protein diet to a low-protein diet. In this article I'll give you an explanation of the roles of the three macronutrients and a little bit of background on their chemistry.

calories macronutrients

What are Micronutrients?

In addition to the energy-supplying macronutrients, there are also the so-called micronutrients. These do not provide energy in the form of calories, but they do provide important vitamins and minerals that our body needs for all kinds of functions and processes.

Vitamins are divided into water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins. The latter can only be absorbed by the body when the macronutrient fat is simultaneously ingested.

Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamins E, D, K, and A. B vitamins and vitamin C are water-soluble.

Minerals, including trace elements and major elements (electrolytes), as well as secondary plant substances, also belong to the group of micronutrients.


The 3 Macronutrients: Carbs, Fats & Protein

1. Carbohydrates (Carbs)

Carbohydrates, or "carbs," are the most known macronutrient. Carbs have 4 calories per gram, the same as protein. From a chemical standpoint, carbohydrates consist of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen in approximately a 2:1 proportion.

Carbohydrates can be divided into two main types: simple and complex carbohydrates. Depending on the length of the compounds, carbohydrates are categorized as monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides.

  • Monosaccharides: Simple sugars

  • Disaccharides: Double sugars

  • Oligosaccharides: 3 – 10 simple sugars

  • Polysaccharides: Multiple sugars (>10 simple sugars)

In the order of this listing, the number of glucose molecules increases; thus, polysaccharides consist of up to 100 glucose molecules. These are also called complex or long-chain carbohydrates. Mono- and disaccharides, on the other hand, consist of one or two glucose molecules and are also referred to as short-chain or simple carbohydrates.

From a health perspective, complex carbs are preferable to simple carbs because they keep us satiated longer, do not cause such a sharp rise in our blood sugar levels, and provide valuable fiber that contributes to a healthy digestion.

Short-chain carbohydrates, however, cause our insulin levels (=blood sugar levels) to rise more and usually provide us with not as many valuable micronutrients. Short-chain carbohydrates are often used in sports to provide quick energy, for example, before or during a marathon or an intense strength session, which is sensible to ensure that performance does not decline and energy is continuously available.

Rule of thumb: The more active you are, the more carbs your body can 'handle' without negative effects (such as gaining fat or developing insulin resistance).

During digestion, all carbs are broken down into their basic saccharides. Then, they enter circulation as monosaccharides. In this way, all carbs (except for fiber) get converted into glucose in the body after they're properly digested.

Glucose can be stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. I don’t want to confuse you, so please understand that glycogen is just the stored form of glucose, and glucose is just the carbohydrates that you ingest from food.

An average adult stores around 350 to 700 grams of glycogen in skeletal muscle and around 100 grams in the liver.

We can "train" our glycogen stores to increase, for example, through endurance and strength training.

But If muscle and liver stores are already full and additional carbohydrates are consumed, the body converts them into fat and stores them in our fat depots. 

Gaining fat is the result of an energy surplus, not the result of consuming carbs themselves. There is nothing inherently bad about carbs in general, as long as they are not consumed in greater quantities than needed over a long period of time.

Types of Carbs and Their Occurrence

Types of Carbs and Their Occurrence
Types of Carbs and Their Occurrence


2. Fats

Fats are an essential macronutrient, without which we wouldn’t be able to survive. Therefore, it’s necessary to incorporate the right amount and the right kinds of fats into your daily diet. In technical terms, fats are also referred to as triglycerides.

It’s clearly a myth that fat itself is the reason for us getting fat (this is just the calorie surplus). I know that it is currently a trend to buy everything low fat, and fat still keeps being demonized, especially in the bodybuilding sport.

But when you focus too much on cutting out all the fat in your diet, you can actually deprive your body of what it needs most.

Our body is not able to synthesize the so-called essential fatty acids (EFAs). That's why we have to eat them.

Fat has 9 calories per gram and therefore more than double the amount of calories as carbs and proteins. But this doesn’t make fat less valuable. Fat has fewer performance-oriented functions and is not the number one focus when your goal is to build muscle. Unlike protein and carbs, the daily fat intake for goals like fat loss or muscle gain plays a less important role.

Nevertheless, fat plays many physiological roles in your health.

Fats in our diet are also a major nutrient and, as explained in the section on micronutrients, are needed for the absorption of vitamins E, D, K, and A.

Fats are classified by their type into saturated and unsaturated, as well as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Additionally, fats are divided into essential (= vital & not produced by the body itself) and non-essential fats.

The main important functions of fat are:

  • Hormone production

  • Absorption of the fat soluble vitamins E, D, K and A

  • The subcutaneous fat tissue provides protection for our kidneys, heart, bones and all other organs

  • Support of cell growth

  • Keeping control over blood pressure and cholesterol levels

  • Giving your body energy

  • Improving your brain function and brain health

  • Storage reservoir for energy (our body fat)

  • Last but not least: tastes delicious and makes your food more flavorful and tasty

Your body cannot produce sufficient amounts of essential fatty acids by itself. This is why you need to eat them. There are different kinds of fat. I don’t like to use the word “good” or “bad” fat, but let’s say there are some kinds that you should avoid or reduce, because they can promote health issues, like heart attacks or strokes.

Others are more on the healthier side, because they provide the functions that are listed above and can actually cure diseases and improve your health enormously.

Overview: Types Of Fats

Overview: Types Of Fats
Overview: Types Of Fats

Choosing unsaturated fats over saturated fats is generally healthier.

Unsaturated fats improve blood flow, support metabolic processes, aid in cell growth and regeneration, and they are easier to digest.

Saturated fats, primarily found in animal-based foods, can lead to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases when consumed in excess amounts. While cholesterol is essential, the body can produce it on its own, so excessive consumption through food should be avoided.

Saturated fats should make up no more than 10% of our total energy intake.

Avoiding trans fats is also advisable, as they are commonly found in pastries, processed meats, chocolate, chips, cream, mayonnaise, margarine, and various sweets.

Opting for plant-based fats and fish is a better choice. These include fats from flaxseeds, chia seeds, sunflower oil, olive oil, walnut oil, safflower oil, olives, nuts, and avocados. Polyunsaturated fats found in fish, especially EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, are crucial for cardiovascular health. Aim for at least 100–200 grams of fatty fish per day, or consider taking 1–2 grams of an EPA/DHA supplement if you don't consume fish regularly.

Maintaining a balanced ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, ideally around 4:1, is important for overall health.

Overview of All Types of Fats and Their Food Sources

Overview of All Types of Fats and Their Food Sources
Overview of All Types of Fats and Their Food Sources

How much fat should we consume?

The recommended daily fat intake is 20 to 35% of total daily calories. For women, I would highly recommend not going lower than that because it can mess up your hormones and cause you to lose your period or irregular menstrual cycles.

If you’re a woman and know that you are genetically predisposed to lose your period or have long cycles, I would recommend increasing your fat intake (from good fats, of course) and your overall calorie intake. Men are a little bit more resistant towards lower fat intakes, but many cross-sectional studies have shown that a consistently low fat intake leads to lower testosterone levels.

There is generally nothing wrong with consuming higher amounts of fat, up to 50% of your daily calories. If this is sustainable for the individual, there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach. If you enjoy eating higher amounts of fat, go for it. Just make sure that you eat the right kinds of fat and avoid too many saturated fats and especially trans fats.

Many people feel more satiated from a lower carb and higher fat diet because it keeps their insulin levels lower. This helps to control cravings and snacking throughout the day. But you should keep in mind that fat doesn’t provide any real performance-enhancing effect when it comes to strength training and building muscle. If you eat higher fat, it requires eating lower carb or otherwise you will be in a bigger surplus and gain weight. You definitely don't want to reduce protein in favor of fat!

I recommend experimenting with it and finding out what works better for you personally. Do you love carbohydrates more than anything? Then don't reduce them, but make sure to eat your minimum amount of fat. If you realize that fat keeps you full for longer and you don't crave any carbs, then give the higher fat, lower carb diet a chance.


3. Proteins

No other macronutrient surpasses the functional diversity of proteins. Protein is derived from the Greek "proteios," which means "primary" and underscores the importance of proteins. Our muscles use proteins as building materials and build themselves from them. Likewise, our connective tissue, including skin, hair, nails, cartilage, and tendons.

Proteins are building blocks for our body in many ways. They are used for the formation of hormones, enzymes, and antibodies.

Our body consists of about 17% protein, and our muscles use proteins as building materials. Approximately 20% of muscle is made up of protein, while about 70% is water. This means that without protein, there is no muscle. Overall caloric intake is an undisputed factor for muscle gain, but consuming more protein allows for greater muscle growth.

Proteins are used to build hormones, neurotransmitters, immune factors, enzymes, and antibodies.

Protein is an essential macronutrient because the body cannot produce enough on its own to survive and maintain health, so it must be obtained from the diet.

Now, let’s briefly discuss the chemical structure of proteins: The basic building blocks of protein are amino acids. There are 20 amino acids that make up proteins, and 9 of them are considered essential amino acids (EAAs), meaning they must be obtained from food. Different combinations of amino acids can result in a multitude of protein variations (over 1000).

By combining different foods, an essential amino acid profile can be created. The other non-essential amino acids do not necessarily need to be obtained from food. Proteins in food always consist of various amino acids, forming what is known as amino acid profiles.

The quality of a protein depends on its Biological Value (BV), which indicates how many grams of body protein (e.g., muscles) can be produced by 100 grams of the respective food. The more essential amino acids, the higher the quality of the protein. Combining different amino acids can increase the Biological Value.

The 9 Essential Amino Acids And Their Food Sources

The 9 Essential Amino Acids And Their Food Sources
The 9 Essential Amino Acids And Their Food Sources

How Much Protein Do We Need?

Regardless of your goal, you should always ensure you eat enough protein because of its numerous functions. The minimum range you should consume is between 1.2 and 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.

If you are on a fat loss diet and in a caloric deficit, you should aim for a higher protein intake to prevent muscle loss. In a deficit, there is a higher risk of muscle loss, which is undesirable because less muscle leads to a slower metabolism, making your diet harder and slower.

Therefore, aim to eat 1.6 to 2.4 grams per kilogram per day if you are in a caloric deficit. If you are really active and engage in intense resistance training (more than four times per week), you can go up to 3.0 grams per kilogram, but it's not necessary.

Contrary to many myths, it is not harmful to consume such large amounts of protein; it simply does not provide additional benefits in terms of fat loss or muscle growth in those higher ranges.

If you want to gain muscle and improve your physical performance, aim to eat 1.6 to 2.2 grams per kilogram of protein per day. When aiming to gain muscle, it can be beneficial to distribute your protein intake over 3-4 meals during the day.

The anabolic (muscle-building) effect of protein is especially high within 5-6 hours after your resistance exercises, so make sure not to wait too long to consume protein after your workouts.

Protein Intake Recommendations Based On Goals

Protein Intake Recommendations Based On Goals
Protein Intake Recommendations Based On Goals


This post contains a lot of detailed knowledge and I know it can be overwhelming. If you are interested in learning more and optimizing your own macronutrient balance, I am available for individual nutrition counseling and meal planning.

Achieve your fitness goals now through personalized guidance from your online nutritional and fitness coach. Book a call now!


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Sources Of Information:

  • Willems AEM, Sura-de Jong M, van Beek AP, Nederhof E, van Dijk G. Effects of macronutrient intake in obesity: a meta-analysis of low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets on markers of the metabolic syndrome. Nutr Rev. 2021 Mar 9;79(4):429-444. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuaa044. PMID: 32885229; PMCID: PMC7947787.

  • Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, Cribb PJ, Wells SD, Skwiat TM, Purpura M, Ziegenfuss TN, Ferrando AA, Arent SM, Smith-Ryan AE, Stout JR, Arciero PJ, Ormsbee MJ, Taylor LW, Wilborn CD, Kalman DS, Kreider RB, Willoughby DS, Hoffman JR, Krzykowski JL, Antonio J. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Jun 20;14:20. doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8. PMID: 28642676; PMCID: PMC5477153.

  • Aragon AA, Schoenfeld BJ, Wildman R, Kleiner S, VanDusseldorp T, Taylor L, Earnest CP, Arciero PJ, Wilborn C, Kalman DS, Stout JR, Willoughby DS, Campbell B, Arent SM, Bannock L, Smith-Ryan AE, Antonio J. International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Jun 14;14:16. doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0174-y. PMID: 28630601; PMCID: PMC5470183.

  • The Renaissance Diet 2.0: Your Scientific Guide to Fat Loss, Muscle Gain, and Performance Paperback – February 1, 2020 by Dr. Israetel, Mike (Author), Dr. Davis, Melissa (Author), Dr. Case, Jen (Author), & 2more


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