What Are Macronutrients?

carb needs for exercise

While I love cooking, baking, and all things food, there’s a lot of science available on what foods and nutrients are best to fuel our fitness. So, I’m excited to finally be getting more of that info out there on my You Tube channel and this blog. Before I go into depth on some of the trendy topics out there in the fitness and nutrition space, I thought starting with the most basic info on macronutrients (often referred to as “macros”) would serve everyone best. This should lay a solid foundation for some videos and post coming this fall and winter, while helping you better understand the “why” behind some of the ingredients and recommendations with my recipes. By the end of this post, you’ll be able to answer the question, “what are macros?” and better understand the role of macronutrients for fitness!

What are macronutrients? Learn about macronutrients for fitness.

Macro-what? What are macronutrients?

There are three macronutrients – carbohydrate, fat and protein – and ALL are necessary to fuel your active body, even on rest days (or rest weeks). Cutting out any of these nutrients can lead to detrimental effects on the body, mind, and performance. They are the only nutrients that provide us with energy – otherwise known as calories – and as their name suggests, we need a lot of them!

Carbohydrates for Fitness

First on the list is carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the most recent target of diet culture. Contrary to popular belief, carbs are not the enemy. In fact, they should be the body’s primary energy source. Stop. Breathe. Repeat that. Carbs should be the body’s primary energy source. They’re the preferred energy for the central nervous system and muscles among many other body functions. Carbohydrates also provide a protein sparing action — meaning they are used for energy so that protein can be used for its critical functions, such as tissue synthesis and immune support.

There are many types of carbohydrates, like:

  • “sugar” (mono- and di-saccharides)
  • starch
  • fiber
  • oligosaccharides
  • The former two are simply our energy sources and the latter two are not digested, but elicit benefits to gut health.
    carbohydrate macros

A Constant Energy Supply

It’s time to change your mindset around carbs and realize they aren’t to be demonized. First, to squash the “carbs make you fat” thought: no single nutrient increases fat storage. A calorie surplus may, and so may gut health, genetics, and other individualized health considerations. Cutting carbs, or even just sweets, often just leads to craving them more since the body is wired to prefer using them.

Think about “blood sugar”. Its purpose is to have a constant supply of energy running through our body’s road map (the circulatory system) so that cells are able to obtain it consistently. What happens when blood sugar drops? Well, if you don’t take in carbs, you may find yourself irritable, overly hungry (#hangry), maybe even dizzy or with a headache. And what happens later? You may overeat, over-compensating for what you didn’t provide your body with earlier.

Carbs fuel you!

If you’re an athlete or active individual, carbohydrates are an especially important macronutrient. We store carbs in our muscles as glycogen so that they’re ready to go when we start exercising. Muscle glycogen and blood carbohydrate (blood glucose) are most critical to optimize exercise of high intensity and long duration. They’re also stored as liver glycogen to help keep blood sugar levels normal during activity (as well as between meals and when we’re sleeping at night). Therefore, decreased carbohydrate consumption can negatively impact training and performance — think of a car running out of fuel.

Carbohydrate Sources

What are macronutrients? Learn about macronutrients for fitness
It’s pretty simple to identify carb sources. Was what you’re eating originally a plant? Other than the carbohydrate in dairy – lactose – or honey, all other carbs come from plant foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. And it’s totally OK to include some refined carbohydrates in your diet here and there too, I promise.

Recipes Rich in Carbs

Dietary Fat for Fitness

Now let’s talk about fats, which are often ignored when covering macronutrients for fitness. Fats are the most energy dense (9 Calories per gram compared to 4 in carbs and protein) and are a necessary energy to store on our bodies. They provide us with energy at rest for basic body functions like temperature regulation, and are a good source of fuel for lower intensity and long duration exercise. On top of being an energy source, fats are important for proper inflammatory responses for recovery, joint lubrication and protection, nutrient absorption and even brain function. They also help us feel satisfied when we eat meals and snacks, so be sure to include a fat source each time you eat. 

Types of Fats

There are many different classifications of fats occurring in nature – and believe it or not, all can have a place within your diet. Mono-unsaturated, poly-unsaturated, and saturated fats may all be familiar terms.  Without getting into the chemistry of them all, the mono-and polyunsaturated sources are those that, in proper quantities and ratios to one another, support brain health, joint fluidity, muscle recover and healthy inflammatory responses. Saturated fats, which we want to limit, are impossible to eliminate from the diet as even our healthiest fat sources – like olives and avocados – contain some saturated fat. It’s all about balance!

Fat Sources in Food

healthy fat sources
My big tip is always to choose more fats coming from plant foods and from fish. Things like avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish (salmon, tuna, anchovies) should be the focus as they contain high amounts of mono- and poly-unsaturated fats.

Saturated fat is found in meats, butter, cheese, many fried foods, and baked goods. These foods can be included in your diet, but in a way that promotes a mindful indulgence. It may be best to avoid these foods in large amounts before a workout or the night before a race, too.

Recipes Rich in Healthy Fats

Protein for Fitness

What are macronutrients? protein macronutrients for fitness
Last, but not least, we have protein. Rather than be a significant energy source, protein is best suited as a structural and metabolic nutrient. In addition to muscle, it also builds all of our organs tissues, makes the framework of our bones and creates compounds like immune proteins, hormones and enzymes to protect the body and regulate metabolism.

It’s important to note that overconsuming protein won’t lead to extra muscle gain; instead it will just be excreted. This is why I recommend eating moderate amounts of protein with all meals and snacks (except for snacks immediately prior to exercise) every rather than a lot of protein post-workout and at dinner. Still, total daily protein intake for active individuals and athletes should typically range from 1.2-2.0 g/kg of body weight per day.

Protein Sources

top protein sources
It’s no secret you can get protein from meat, but you also obtain high-quality protein from foods like eggs, fish, soy products, peas, beans and lentils. Grab a few more grams from nuts, seeds, whole grains and even vegetables! These foods contain varied macronutrients for fitness and health.

High-Protein Recipes

Should I Count Macros?

Now that we’ve answered the question “what are macronutrients?”, you may be wondering if you should count macros. Macro counting is the process of counting how many grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats you consume each day. People who promote macro counting position it as a helpful tool for optimizing nutrient intake. However, there are several reasons that we don’t recommend it here at KJN:

  • “Optimal” nutrient intake looks different for everyone and varies from day to day. Your nutrition needs are complex and cannot be determined by a standardized macro counting formula.
  • For many people, macro counting is not sustainable. It can be difficult to maintain when life gets busy, which often leads to feelings of failure.
  • Counting macros can take away from your enjoyment of food and the social connections that occur at mealtimes, which are also critical components of health and nutrition. 
  • Just like counting calories, counting macros can lead to rigid or even obsessive behaviors around food, increasing your risk for disordered eating and eating disorders. That’s why we recommend honoring your health with a more gentle approach to nutrition

Want to learn how to enhance your nutrition, health, and wellbeing without counting macros? Check out our series on Intuitive Eating for Fitness!

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  1. Your quote about needing to eat more carbs—THANK YOU FOR THAT! So many of those who work out and exercise are cutting them and it pains me so much!

  2. Hi Kelly, you mention that a person will need about 1.2-2.0g/kg protein per day correct? What about carbs, how much is the minimum carbs grams a person will need per day? I have sedentary life, eat 3 servings carbs per day, but at night even if i eat 1/2-1 cup rice next day scale always shows higher weight, why is that? So now i do not eat carbs at night and i am able to maintain weight but i feel so hungry, i usually eat 1 cup rice or quinoa per meal. What about fats, how much is the proper serving fat per meal, if i want avocado or olive oil? Thanks so much.

    1. I wouldn’t give much klout to daily scale changes! I don’t really advocate using a scale regularly because it causes extra attention and stress to insignificant things like you’re mentioning, when they effort can be put towards so many other wonderful or important things in life! Our weight will fluctuate a lot throughout the day and day to day based on many variables. If just eating a small portion of carbohydrate at night causes you to weigh that much more the next day vs. when you don’t, I would attribute it more to better hydration status since each gram of carbohydrate we store as glycogen holds on to 3 ml of water for us, so that it’s available and able to be used for metabolic functions. Without knowing much about you and without you under my care, I can’t legally provide a specific carb rec for you as a RD, but needs usually range from 3-12 g/kg depending on activity level.