The macros: carbohydrate, protein and fat
Macronutrients, or macros for short, include carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Almost everything we eat contains a certain amount of macronutrients. Our body needs the nutrients for various important functions such as growth, development and energy supply.1 Learn more about what macronutrients can do in our body.
Carbohydrates are our body’s primary source of energy. They consist of chains composed of starch and sugar which the body breaks down into glucose. A distinction is made between simple (short-chain) and complex (long-chain) carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates can be processed more quickly by the body and cause blood sugar levels to rise rapidly, but only briefly, while complex carbohydrates provide us with energy for longer.2
In order to function, our brain needs energy – as macronutrients, carbohydrates are the main source as they help maintain normal brain function. Our body can also efficiently store the energy from carbohydrates in the liver and muscles.3 The store in the liver ensures that our blood sugar levels remain as constant as possible. So that we move without a constant supply of carbohydrates, the body relies on the carbohydrate store in the muscles. This is particularly helpful when we are playing sport. Highly intense and/or prolonged physical exertion leads to muscle fatigue and depletion of the glycogen stores of the skeletal muscles. Carbohydrates can help restore normal muscle function (contraction).
Proteins are chains of amino acids that are present throughout the body – including in muscles and bones. Protein contributes to the growth and maintenance of muscle mass as well as the maintenance of normal bones. Proteins are also of central importance in the development of adolescents. It’s needed for normal growth and development of bones in children.
There are 20 amino acids, eight of which are known as essential amino acids. The body cannot produce these itself, which means that we need to absorb them through food.
Fats and fatty acids
We can meet our energy needs with carbohydrates and proteins but also with fats. By consuming fats, our body can be provided with essential fatty acids that it cannot produce itself. Omega 3 fatty acids, for example, are among the essential fats. A basic distinction is made between saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Saturated fatty acids are often referred to as “bad fats” while unsaturated fatty acids are known as “good fats”.
It has been shown that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats in food lowers or reduces the level of cholesterol in the blood. High cholesterol is a risk factor for developing coronary heart disease. Reducing the consumption of saturated fatty acids can therefore help maintain normal blood cholesterol levels.
Which foods contain macronutrients?
To help you create an optimal nutrition plan, we have put together some natural macronutrient sources for you. According to the D-A-CH reference values for nutrient intake, over 50% of the nutritional energy consumed daily should come from carbohydrates, preferably via starch and high-fibre foods such as whole grain products, potatoes, legumes, vegetables and fruit.4 You will see that some foods even contain two or three macronutrients.
Sources of carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are found in many healthy foods but also in some unhealthy foods. Because there are these two sources of carbohydrates, some people find making healthy diet choices difficult. Basically, what you should remember: the type of carbohydrates is more important than the amount of carbohydrates you consume as macronutrients through your diet.5
Healthy sources of carbohydrates include:5
- Unprocessed or minimally processed whole grain products
- Vegetables according to the rainbow principle, e.g. carrots, peas, cauliflower and peppers
- Fruit such as grapes, bananas, pomegranates and pineapple
Less healthy sources of carbohydrates include many highly processed or refined foods, such as white bread, pastries or soft drinks.5
Proteins are found in both animal and plant-based products – so we can rely on variety here too. Protein sources include:6
- Meat such as chicken breast and beef
- Fish such as trout and salmon
- Dairy products such as quark and yoghurt
- Eggs or egg whites
- Legumes such as soya, lentils and peas
- Cereal and whole grain cereal products such as bread
Fatty acid sources
While we should largely avoid bad, saturated fats, we can have a positive effect on our body by consuming good, unsaturated fats.
Foods rich in good, unsaturated fatty acids include:7
- Vegetable oils such as olive oil, sunflower oil, linseed oil, rapeseed oil and soya oil
- Nuts such as walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and pecans
- Seeds such as pumpkin seeds, linseeds and sesame seeds
Saturated fatty acids are mainly found in foods high in animal fat such as sausages and high-fat meat but also in butter and cheese.
What does optimal macronutrient distribution look like?
We need each of the three macronutrients to stay healthy but just as important is the quality of the carbohydrates, proteins and fats that we absorb through food. A slice of pizza may offer the same macronutrient ratios as a slice of whole grain toast with avocado and tomato slices but not the same nutritional values. So it is not only the number of calories that is important but also their composition.
As part of a study by the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School8, researchers have observed the effects of dietary and lifestyle changes on health, especially body weight. Every day for four years, the subjects consumed increased portions of individual food components that provide micronutrients and macronutrients. It was noticed that people who mainly ate potatoes and crisps, sweetened drinks, unprocessed red meat, but also processed meat gained a significant amount of weight. In contrast, subjects who consumed more fruit, vegetables, whole grain products, nuts and dairy products such as yoghurt experienced weight loss. The results of the study support the findings from research into macronutrients that the type of food is just as important as its calorie content.
The German Nutrition Society (DGE)9 has also been looking into how we can achieve an optimal distribution of macronutrients in food – namely with a diet that includes:
- a high intake of fibre, especially from cereals
- a high intake of secondary plant metabolites as well as
- a moderate fat intake.
A prerequisite for this is that foods rich in fibre, especially whole grain products, make up the largest proportion of the carbohydrate-supplying foods. It is also advisable to include a high proportion of plant-based products with minimal processing in the diet. You can find out how to whip up delicious dishes with raw or largely unprocessed foods in our article on raw food nutrition.
Calculating macronutrients – what is my macronutrient requirement?
As with many nutritional concepts, there is no “one size fits all” for the proportions of macronutrients. There is no ideal ratio that is right for everyone. If your lifestyle changes, for example, so do your macronutrient requirements. People who want to lose weight have different needs than people who want to maintain their body weight. The same applies, for example, to building muscle – should the macronutrients be used to build muscle or maintain muscle mass?
Those who know their macronutrient requirements and how much energy their own body needs can create an ideal nutrition plan and eat a balanced and healthy diet. Online there are many useful macronutrient calculators that will do all the maths for you. After entering some key data, such as body weight, age, gender and height, the calculator shows you the amount of macronutrients your body needs per day. Try it out and calculate your personal macronutrient requirements.