Anyone interested in eating healthy foods for optimal nutrition may have read up on the subject, but still find certain terms to be a little ambiguous. The differences between macro and micro nutrients is a perfect example. You need at least a small amount of micronutrients and quite a bit of the macro kind.1 Both are needed for the aforementioned optimal nutrition, but they’re also necessary for survival.

While macronutrients are important for everyone, they play an especially crucial role for anyone trying to build muscle, gain weight or those involved in vigorous exercise.2 Just like plants, the human body needs balanced nutrition, especially in the critical development stages infants and children are going through, but there also must be a sustained intake through adulthood.

Plants can’t complete their life cycles without these elements, which is why they’re called essential.3 They fall into two categories: mineral- and non-mineral elements. There are 16 non-mineral elements; non-mineral elements include carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. In addition, essential mineral elements are called macro or micro nutrients according to the amounts found in plant tissue.

Each plays several roles, such as energy storage, acting as cofactors for enzymes, participating in electron transferring and in the formation of carbon compounds.

At the Laboratory of Neurosciences, National Institute on Aging, one review4 outlined evidence from epidemiological studies suggesting that dietary phytochemicals, many of which are micronutrients, may protect against certain cancers, as well as inflammatory and cardiovascular diseases. They’re also beneficial to your nervous system. Consumed regularly, they may prove neuroprotective, decreasing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease risks.

Macronutrients in a Nutshell

Macronutrients make up the biggest percentage of foods we eat, made up of:

Primary nutrients — Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K)

Secondary nutrients — Calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and sulfur (S)

Proteins, carbohydrates and fats fall into the macro category. Broken down, here’s why each is important:

Proteins, known as the “building blocks of life,” reflect the basic composition of your body. They’re made of amino acids, with good sources including wild-caught fish, organic pastured poultry, grass fed beef, organic free-range eggs, seeds such as chia, hemp and flax seeds and nuts. Avocados, beets and raw greens like kale and spinach are also good protein sources. Many people consume too much protein; limit protein to a maximum of 1 gram of protein per kilogram of lean body mass per day.

Carbohydrates, found in all foods to some degree, are composed of sugar or starches, which provide energy, but excess carbohydrates are converted and stored as fat. Limit your net carbs (total carbs minus fiber) to a maximum of 30 to 40 grams per day. You can consume as many high-fiber veggies as you like. They’re carbs, but since they’re high in fiber, they’re typically quite low in net carbs

Fats are stored for future use. While some still believe they should be avoided altogether, it’s important to understand that there are good fats and bad fats, and your body needs good fats in order for your body to function as it should.

Good fat sources include almonds and walnuts, pumpkin and chia seeds, olives and avocados, along with grass fed meats, ghee (clarified butter), lard and tallow, organic pastured egg yolks, animal-based omega-3 found in small fatty fish like sardines and anchovies, coconuts and coconut oil.

These are all examples of what should make up 50 percent to 85 percent of your daily calories. Good fats protect your organs, help your body absorb vitamins from other foods, and improve both brain and overall function. Natural Balance Food explains:

“The three macronutrients all have their own specific roles and functions in the body and supply us with calories or energy. For this reason, the body requires these nutrients in relatively large amounts to grow, develop, repair and feel good! Each macronutrient is almost always found in every item of food, whether that’s a healthy snack bar or a raw vegetable.

The only difference is how the macronutrients are balanced. As an example, the nutritional composition of an avocado is generally made up of 75 percent (good) fats, 20 percent carbohydrates and 5 percent protein, therefore this is clearly a fat-based food. On the other hand a banana consists of 95 percent carbohydrates, with only small amounts of protein and fats.”5

The takeaway is that for all three, proportion is everything. Otherwise, you leave yourself open to disease. Bonfire Health has a good way of explaining why it’s important to eat balanced meals that include several types of foods to get the greatest spectrum of nutrients. In addition:

“Your body has the amazing ability to take the foods you eat and turn them into you. How incredible is that? Whether you eat an apple, a steak or a kale salad, your amazing body is able to break that food down into its chemical parts and reassemble those parts into your cells and the energy you use all day.”6

Micronutrients: Vitamins, Minerals and Organic Acids

Micronutrients are the vitamins, minerals, trace elements, phytochemicals and antioxidants that are essential for good health. You don’t need a lot in comparison to macronutrients, but without them, health problems will eventually occur. It’s one reason why you see so much disease and malfunction in so many people today; diets are often sadly deficient in the most basic but critical nutrients. When you see the micronutrients list, you’ll find most are very familiar; others you may have never heard of. Here they are in alphabetical order:

Vitamins — Vitamins A, B, C, D, E, K and carotenoids

Minerals — Boron (B), calcium (Ca), chloride (Cl), chromium (Cr), cobalt (Co), copper (Cu), fluoride (F-, a negative ion), iodine (I), iron (Fe), magnesium (Mg), manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), phosphorous (P), potassium (K), selenium (Se), sodium (Na) and zinc (Zn)

Organic acids — Acetic acid, citric acid, lactic acid, malic acid, choline and taurine

Micronutrients can be found in a wide variety of healthy foods, from vegetables and fruits to grass fed meats, raw nuts, wild-caught fish, eggs and raw organic grass fed dairy products. Unfortunately, some micronutrient-containing foods require precautionary measures, particularly those that are heavily processed. In addition, fruits and vegetables are sometimes grown in ways that make them less than they once were, nutritionally, and the balance of nutrients consumed is often skewed.