Macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs) are required for energy, while micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are required for metabolism (turning food into energy).
True micronutrient deficiencies are rare in developed countries, but inadequacies are common with diets high in processed foods.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a daily intake of roughly half carbohydrates (mainly fruits and vegetables), a quarter protein, and a quarter healthy fats.
Gut health imbalances can affect macro and micronutrient absorption through low or high stomach acid, microbial dysbiosis, and/or leaky gut.
To maintain overall health, our bodies need both macronutrients and micronutrients. An easy way to differentiate between the two is that macronutrients are required for energy, whereas micronutrients are required for metabolism (processing various substances in the body, such as glucose). Macronutrients are also the larger nutritional categories we need, while micronutrients are nutrients we need in much smaller quantities.
The macronutrients we need on a daily basis include protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Macronutrient deficiency isn’t much of a problem in the U.S. [1, 2]. Instead, calorie excess is common and often leads to excess weight, obesity, and type 2 diabetes .
Micronutrients include vitamins (water-soluble and fat-soluble) and minerals (macrominerals and micro or trace minerals), which are needed in much smaller amounts than macronutrients. Similar to macronutrients, true micronutrient deficiencies are rare in the U.S., but nutrient inadequacies often occur, largely as a result of people following a high-calorie, nutrient-poor diet that lacks fruits, veggies, whole grains, and dairy products (if tolerated) .
Both macro and micronutrient absorption and use are also impacted by gut health, such as digestive imbalances (low or high stomach acid, bile, and digestive enzymes) and inflammation [4, 5, 6, 7, 8]. Gut microbiota imbalances likely impede the processes by which we metabolize (make use of) macronutrients digested in the colon as well [9, 10, 11].
The solution can be simple: Eating nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods and beverages that include a variety and balance of fruits, vegetables, grains, and high-quality proteins and fats will most likely provide needed macro and micronutrients [12, 13]. But you may also want to take a high-quality multivitamin as “insurance” against micronutrient inadequacies. If your levels of nutrients are still low, it’s important to address any gut health imbalances that may be affecting your absorption.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at macro vs. micronutrients, how to tell whether you’re getting enough, how to balance macro vs. micronutrient intake, and how gut health affects macronutrient and micronutrient metabolism.
What Are Macronutrients?
Our required macronutrients are protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Each provides a source of energy that the body needs, but they’re used in different ways.
Carbs are our primary energy source and come from foods like grains, fruits, veggies, and milk. Carbs are also important for gut health and immune function, partly because they provide fiber in our diets as well as antioxidants .
Protein plays an important role in body structure and function, regulates cellular and bodily processes, and can provide energy if carbohydrate or fat levels are low . Proteins are available in meats, dairy, legumes, veggies, and grains.
Fat is the top source of stored energy in the body. Fat also plays important roles in cell structure and function, temperature regulation, and forming a protective layer around the body’s organs. Fats (mostly as triglycerides) are found in fatty foods, oils, meats, dairy, and some plant foods .
How Do You Know You’re Getting Enough Macronutrients?
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), kids and adults may need carbs to comprise 45-65% of calories to have healthy brain function .
For someone who eats 2,000 calories a day, that’s 900-1,300 carb calories or 225-325 grams of carbs per day. Depending on height and weight, adults need between 25-38 grams of fiber per day to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Keep in mind that individual ideal carbohydrate intake does vary. Some people feel best on a lower carb diet, while others find that if they go too low carb, they feel worse. It’s always best to experiment with your own carbohydrate intake to see what general percentage of carbs works best for you. And remember that we’re talking about healthy carbohydrates here.
What this looks like:
One medium baked potato/sweet potato: ~30 g carbs
3/4 to 1 cup berries: ~15 g carbs
1 cup cooked squash: ~15 g carbs
1 large banana: ~30 g carbs
1 slice of bread: ~15 g carbs
1 cup spinach: ~1 g carbs
Also according to the DGA, most people may need 0.8-1 gram of protein per kilogram (about 2.2 lbs) of body weight each day .
For example, take a 130-lb woman. If you divide her weight by 2.2 lbs (which is about a kilogram), you get about 59. Multiply 59 by 0.8 and 1, and she should aim for roughly 47-59 grams of protein per day. In caloric terms, that’s 188-236 protein calories a day .
However, some researchers believe that in order to build muscle and promote bone growth, people should consume slightly more than 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, depending on their level of daily physical activity. Research also shows that long-term consumption of 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day is safe for healthy adults . This leaves some room for experimentation in your diet if you want to test out a higher protein intake for your energy levels, muscle mass, and bone strength.
What this looks like:
6 oz. chicken breast: ~30 g protein
1 egg: ~6 g protein
8 oz. steak: ~40-45 g protein
6 oz. salmon filet: ~40 g protein
1/2 cup cooked black beans: ~8 g protein
1/2 cup cooked chickpeas: ~7 g protein
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults should eat 20-35% of their daily calories as fat .
Someone who eats 2,000 calories a day should include about 44-77 grams of fat per day.
No more than 10% should come from saturated fat (like in butter and the marbling on steaks), which means 90% should be from monounsaturated fats (like avocados and olive oil) and polyunsaturated fats (like walnuts, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, and soybeans and their oils).
About 5-10% of daily fat should be omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (high in plant-based oils, nuts, seeds, meats, and eggs) and about 0.6-1.2% should be omega-3 fatty acids (from cold-water fatty fish, chia seeds, and flaxseeds and walnuts and their oils) .
What this looks like:
1 avocado: ~29 g fat
1 tablespoon olive oil: ~14 g fat
1 tablespoon butter: ~12 g fat
2 tablespoons peanut butter: ~16 g fat
1 oz. almonds: ~14 g fat
1 oz. walnuts: ~18 g fat
3 oz. salmon: ~11 g fat
What Are Micronutrients?
Micronutrients can be divided into two main categories: vitamins and minerals.
Vitamins include both water-soluble vitamins and fat-soluble vitamins. The water soluble vitamins include vitamin C and the B vitamins: thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9), and cobalamin (B12). Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Minerals include macrominerals and microminerals (or trace minerals). The macrominerals are calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, and chloride. Microminerals include iron, zinc, copper, iodine, and selenium, among others.
How Do You Know You’re Getting Enough Micronutrients?
Micronutrient deficiencies can lead to serious and even life-threatening circumstances. Deficiencies occur mainly in developing countries where poverty, food scarcity, and poor farming soils create impoverished diets.
But that doesn’t mean that developed nations have it all figured out. In countries like the U.S. and Canada, nutrient inadequacies, while less likely to be life-threatening, still tend to cause more covert illness, such as fatigue, lower immunity, cognitive difficulties, and chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes .
So any of these conditions, among other chronic illnesses, may be a sign that you have a micronutrient inadequacy.
The problem is that micronutrient inadequacies can be difficult to pinpoint before they really become a health issue because they don’t display immediate or obvious symptoms. Additionally, micronutrient testing (blood testing) isn’t always reliable because they don’t indicate the levels of micronutrients in your cells and tissues, or how your body is utilizing those nutrients.
Still, we can identify a baseline for micronutrient status through RDA (recommended daily allowance) guidelines :
RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance)
RDA is 700 micrograms/day for women and 900 micrograms/day for men
Vitamin B1 (thiamin)
RDA is 1.1 mg/day for women and 1.2 mg/day for men
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
RDA is 1.1 mg/day for women and 1.3 mg/day for men
Vitamin B3 (niacin)
RDA is 14 mg/day for women and 16 mg/day for men
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
AI (adequate intake) is 5 mg/day for adults
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
RDA is 1.3 mg/day for adults
Vitamin B7 (biotin)
AI is 30 micrograms/day for adults
Vitamin B9 (folate)
RDA is 400 micrograms/day for adults, and women with the potential to conceive should double that amount to avoid birth defects
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
RDA is 2.4 micrograms/day for adults; older people absorb less and may need to supplement
RDA is 75 mg/day for women and 90 mg/day for men, and 35 mg higher for smokers
RDA is 10-15 micrograms/day for adults
RDA is 15 mg/day for adults
RDA is 90 micrograms/day for women and 120 micrograms per day for men
These are good baseline numbers, but it’s important to remember that the RDA amount indicates the quantity needed to prevent deficiency, not ensure vibrant health. Your needs for certain nutrients may be much higher depending on your life stage and any health conditions.
If you’re wondering whether you’re meeting your daily micronutrient needs, it’s best to work with a healthcare professional who can consider your medical history and perform a clinical evaluation to determine recommendations for you.
Common Micronutrient Inadequacies
Common nutrients that are inadequate in the Western diet include:
A 2020 literature review using U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data (2005-2016) from 26,282 U.S. adults (older than 19) found the following :
45% did not meet the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) for vitamin A
100% did not meet the Adequate Intake (AI, approximate nutritional intake values based on observations and studies, used when recommended dietary allowance cannot be determined) for potassium
91.7% did not meet the AI for choline
66.9% did not meet the AI for vitamin K
52.2% did not meet the EAR for magnesium
Some of the reasons behind these inadequacies are likely ones you’ve heard before: diets high in processed foods and low in whole, nutrient-dense foods, and systemic societal issues like poverty, food scarcity, and food deserts.
Other reasons we’re only beginning to understand include the burden of chronic illness on the body (a vicious cycle that depletes micronutrients and causes a higher need for them), nutrient-depleted farming soils, and potentially the rise of exclusionary diets like vegan and vegetarian diets, and even perceived “healthy” diets like low-carb and keto. Choline, for example, is a nutrient found mostly in animal products like meat and eggs, so vegans and vegetarians may lack enough choline in their diets.
How to Balance Macro vs. Micro Nutrients
If you’re eating a well-rounded diet like the Paleo diet that includes a variety of plant and animal foods, carbs, healthy fats, and protein and you feel good, then you likely don’t need to worry about your macronutrient and micronutrient intake. However, one nutrient to be mindful of on a Paleo diet is calcium, since Paleo restricts dairy products. But there are other ways to get more calcium in your diet if you can’t tolerate dairy, including green leafy vegetables, cruciferous veggies, and canned bone-in fish.
For macronutrients, many dieticians and nutritionists recommend a meal that looks like:
Half non-starchy vegetables and a small amount of fruit, if you wish
A quarter protein
A quarter starchy vegetables, whole grains, or whole fruits
Add a small amount of healthy fats, often in the form of healthy cooking oil.
Eating meals three times a day that roughly follow this pattern should get you to the recommended percentages of carbohydrates, fats, and protein that we mentioned earlier. Mixing up the variety of those foods (think of eating all the colors of the rainbow) should supply all of the micronutrients you need as well.
What About Therapeutic Diets Like Keto?
Popular alternative diets may recommend a different balance of macronutrients than the RDA recommendations, like the Keto diet, which trades a significant amount of carbohydrates for fats instead. Other diets like autoimmune paleo (AIP), low FODMAP, and low histamine diets also restrict certain foods that may provide needed macro and micronutrients.
These diets work well for many people as a tool to calm chronic illness symptoms, lower systemic inflammation, and rebalance the gut microbiome. However, they’re typically best used as a short-term intervention (usually a period of months) to recalibrate the body. Keto diets, for example, often cause hormonal issues for women in the long term because most women require a higher carb intake to produce and keep hormones in balance.
The key idea with trying different diets is to continually reevaluate how you feel, and don’t be afraid to make changes when necessary. Working with a healthcare professional can help you get an outside perspective on when it might be time to switch up your diet.
How Digestive Health Affects Nutrient Absorption and Use
Digestive health imbalances (throughout the entire digestive tract, not only in the gut/intestine) can impair micronutrient absorption. The small intestine is the main point of nutrient absorption, taking in 90% of nutrients, including micronutrients and macronutrients [4, 5].
Digestive system imbalances can disrupt complex digestive functions that allow for nutrients (including supplemental vitamins) to be absorbed, resulting in malabsorption .
Inflammatory intestinal diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis [6, 7]
If you’re not absorbing nutrients from your food and/or supplements, you can be eating a super-healthy diet and still have symptoms as though you’re constantly eating junk food . This is something I discuss in depth in my book Healthy Gut, Healthy You.
Liver, gallbladder, and pancreas functions have a major impact on digestion and absorption of nutrients as well. They release bile and digestive enzymes that help break down macronutrients, alongside stomach acid.
We’re still learning about its effects on digestion and absorption, but the microbiome seems to play a crucial role in metabolizing macro and micronutrients [9, 10]. Not only that, our gut microbes and their metabolites seem to tell cells in the intestinal lining to make hormones that help regulate insulin sensitivity, glucose tolerance, fat storage, and appetite .
As a result, it’s likely that gut dysbiosis (when the unhelpful gut microbes outnumber the helpful ones) disrupts our ability to properly metabolize macronutrients, and perhaps encourages the production of metabolites that don’t do the body good [9, 10, 11].
If you have gut issues, or suspect imbalances in your digestive system, working with a knowledgeable clinician can help you get to the root cause of those issues and help your body absorb nutrients efficiently again.
Prevent Nutrient Inadequacies With a Well-Balanced Diet and Optimized Digestion
In order to get enough macro and micronutrients, we need a few different pillars in place:
A healthy diet that is high in whole, nutrient-dense foods
A daily balance of roughly half carbs (lots of fruits and veggies, some starches and grains), a quarter protein, and a quarter healthy fat
A healthy gut, free from digestive and/or microbial imbalances
When all of these players come together, they set the stage for healthy nutrient absorption and a healthy you. Getting these pillars in place can be a little more complicated if you have a chronic illness like autoimmune disease or IBS. If you want guidance on your diet and gut health, book a consultation with us at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine.
The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.
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