What are macronutrients, and why are they so important for weight loss? Does it matter when it comes to the balance of macronutrients you consume?
Macronutrients, or “macros,” fuel your body and come from the foods you eat. Not to be confused with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), macronutrients are broken down by the body to provide energy. To understand what macronutrients are and how they impact weight loss, we sat down with Jenny Craig’s Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Briana Rodriquez.
There are three types of macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins and fats – and each one provides the body with a certain number of calories per gram.
A calorie is a measurement of energy, so when you see a food’s caloric content on a nutrition label, you’re really seeing the total number of macronutrients (or energy) it contains.
Let’s break down macronutrients by their caloric content:1
- Carbohydrates: 4 calories per gram
- Proteins: 4 calories per gram
- Fats: 9 calories per gram
As you can see, all calories aren't created equally. When you’re seeking weight loss advice, you may notice an emphasis on eating a moderate amount of carbohydrates and proteins, and eating smaller amounts of fat. This can help you to create a calorie deficit where you’ll burn more calories than you’ll eat. Fortunately, you don’t need to count calories to lose weight.
“Our bodies need macronutrients to function, they are our energy source. And since we don’t naturally produce macronutrients, eating high-quality, nutritious foods in appropriate portions will help make sure you’re getting the proper nourishment. When you portion your meals correctly and enjoy a balanced diet, you can create a calorie deficit without needing to count calories,” Rodriquez says.
The three types of macronutrients: carbohydrates, fats and proteins
Carbohydrates, fats and proteins are the three macronutrients your body needs to thrive. You can find macronutrients in both plant and animal-based foods.
Everything you eat provides your body with macronutrients, but choosing the best sources can make a difference in your weight loss journey.
Carbohydrates are your body’s most important energy source, explains the U.S. National Library of Medicine.2 Here’s the good news: You don’t necessarily need to cut carbs to lose weight. Carbs provide dietary fiber, sugars and starches that the body can turn into energy.3 And depending on how your body processes carbohydrates, your weight loss may even benefit by including a healthy amount of carbs in your diet.
Carbs can be simple or complex: Simple carbohydrates break down quickly, sending glucose (blood sugar) into the bloodstream, while complex carbohydrates slowly release glucose into the body. Eating carbohydrates that are rich in fiber will help you to feel full and satisfied, since fiber takes the body longer to break down and mostly passes through the body without being digested. Eating poor sources of carbohydrates can often result in a “sugar crash,” which may leave you feeling tired, hungry and irritable.
Good sources of complex carbohydrates: non-starchy vegetables, whole grains, fruits
Less healthy sources of carbohydrates to limit or avoid: candy, sugar-sweetened beverages
Healthy fats are made up of linoleic and linolenic essential fatty acids that your body needs for brain health, blood clotting and inflammation control.4 Fat enables the body to absorb vitamins A, E, D and K, and also helps promote skin and hair health.5 Your body turns excess calories into fat and uses that fat to store energy. Typically, your body will use carbohydrates for energy first. But by exercising and eating balanced, thoughtfully-portioned meals, your body may gradually begin to use stored fat for energy.5
Rodriquez points out, “Fat has gotten a bad rap over the years. It’s a common misconception that you need to avoid or dramatically reduce your consumption of fat to lose weight. On the contrary, eating a small amount of healthy fats each day may support your weight loss efforts.” But it’s still important to monitor your intake as not all fats are considered “healthy” and they are more calorie (or energy) dense.
There are several types of fat, each with different health benefits or concerns:
- Saturated fat. Many saturated fats are solid at room temperature and can come from plants and animals. Plant and animal-based sources of saturated fat, including meat and dairy products, contain beneficial nutrients; however, eating them in excess may contribute to unhealthy levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol and lead to other health concerns.
Unsaturated fat. Experts recommend including unsaturated fats over saturated fats in your diet.4 Unsaturated fats are often liquid at room temperature. There are two types of unsaturated fats: polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat, which provide the body with essential nutrients.
- Polyunsaturated fat may help decrease LDL cholesterol levels, which may reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association.6 Walnuts, tofu, sunflower seeds and soybeans are all good sources of this type of fat. Polyunsaturated fats can also provide essential omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which the body can’t produce on its own. Seafood is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. Research suggests consuming omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.7
- Monounsaturated fat, like polyunsaturated fat, may reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke by lowering LDL cholesterol levels.8 Olive oil, avocados, almonds, cashews and peanuts are good sources of monounsaturated fat.
- Trans fat. There are two types of trans fats: naturally-occurring and artificial trans fats, the American Heart Association explains.7 Small amounts of naturally-occurring trans fats are found in meat and dairy products, while artificial ones, known as partially hydrogenated oils, are often used to deep-fry foods and can be added to margarine and store-bought baked goods.9 Eating trans fats may raise your LDL cholesterol, lower your “good” HDL cholesterol, and may also increase your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke.5 Rodriquez cautions to avoid trans fats for better health and weight loss.
Good sources of fat: lean protein, avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil
Sources of fat to limit or avoid: deep fried foods, shortening, lard
Protein is an important macronutrient that’s found in each of your body’s cells. When it’s digested, protein is broken down into amino acids,10 the body’s “building blocks” that help maintain all its cells.11 Amino acids can be classified as essential and non-essential. Essential amino acids are not produced in the body and are obtained from the foods you eat, whereas non-essential amino acids are made in the body. Protein-rich foods can come from both plant and animal sources.
Proteins can be categorized as:
- Complete proteins. These contain all the essential amino acids your body needs in the ideal amounts.13 Some examples of complete proteins include eggs, meats, poultry and seafood.
- Incomplete proteins. These are either missing essential amino acids or don’t contain enough of them to support the body’s needs.13 Many plant proteins fall into this category such as beans and peas, nuts and vegetables.
- Complementary proteins. These are two or more sources of incomplete proteins that can be eaten together (at mealtimes or on the same day) to create a complete protein.13 An example would be eating rice and beans together or on the same day.
And like eating healthy carbohydrates and fats, eating protein-rich foods may help support your weight loss goals. Including lean proteins in your diet helps your body to rebuild all throughout the day, Rodriquez says.
Good sources of protein: chicken, fish, quinoa and legumes, nonfat yogurt, nut butter
Sources of protein to limit or avoid: hot dogs, high-sodium processed meat alternatives
How to use macronutrients for weight loss
All three macronutrients – proteins, fats and carbohydrates – are needed for your body’s everyday processes, as well as for weight loss. Macronutrients provide you with energy, help you to feel full, assist with maintaining muscle mass, and even promote good digestion, Rodriquez explains.
If weight loss is your goal, Rodriquez recommends eating appropriate portion sizes, enjoying a healthy, balanced diet that includes the right amounts of macronutrients, and taking part in physical activity.
“Macronutrients allow everything to function properly so your body can work toward healthy, gradual weight loss,” she says. “But keep in mind, it’s the distribution that matters.”
She cites Jenny Craig’s weight loss program as an example:
In Jenny Craig’s Classic and Rapid Results menus, macronutrients are broken down into these ranges: 45–60% carbohydrates, 20–30% protein and 20–30% fat.
“Jenny Craig’s menus use insights from multiple health organizations to provide a macronutrient range that works well for most people. This way, you can still eat foods you enjoy without feeling like you’re being restricted.”
The appropriate amounts of macronutrients are key for healthy weight loss. “As you lose weight, you can lose muscle mass,” Rodriquez explains. “If you’re not fueling your body with the right proportions of macronutrients, specifically protein, you may lose muscle mass before you lose fat.”
Protein helps the body to repair its damaged cells and tissues, to create hormones and to support the metabolism.
To maintain your muscles during weight loss, research indicates including an adequate amount of lean proteins into your meals and engaging in strength training can help.15
Try to avoid eating macronutrient-dense foods in excess
While macronutrients are great for you, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
Overeating at mealtimes can impact weight loss and may influence weight gain.
When you’re trying to lose weight, you should have the right amount of macronutrients that work for you and your body.
“Eating foods in excess typically leads to weight gain and might make you feel fatigued and bloated,” she says. “Honing in on only one food group and completely avoiding others can also cause you to eat certain foods in excess.”
“With appropriate portion control and balanced meals, you can have all these things – carbs, proteins and fats – and still lose weight. Keep an eye on the right portion sizes,” Rodriquez says.
Finding the right balance for weight loss
So, how do you determine how many macronutrients you need to lose weight?
If you’re just starting to research weight loss options, begin by considering your eating habits and listening to your body to learn what might work best for you.
- Do you feel satisfied when you eat more protein?
- Do you have enough energy to get through the day?
- Do your meals help you to feel full throughout the day?
Depending on your answers to these questions, your macronutrient distribution may need to be reviewed, Rodriquez explains.
Following a balanced, structured meal plan is a good place to start, she says. A meal plan will give you the basis you need to continue eating healthily on your own.
Macronutrients and Your DNA
For a more high-tech approach, a DNA-backed weight loss plan may provide specific information that’s tailored to your needs. Your DNA markers can help identify a variety of traits that could shed light on the best approach for you: everything from how your body processes fats, proteins and carbohydrates, to how your metabolism may affect your weight loss potential.
Based on your DNA test results, the amount of macronutrients you need could vary. But regardless of your DNA results, you should include all three macronutrients in your diet for your body to feel and work at its best, says Rodriquez.
Feeling like you’ve hit a weight loss wall? Before you spring for a fad diet, know this: Counting calories and keeping a tight lid on the cookie jar aren’t the only things you can to do to lose weight. When it comes down to it, the nutrition of the foods you eat, the sizes of the portions you enjoy and the support you receive can make all the difference in your weight loss journey.
Learn more about how to manage your macronutrients and how to develop the best weight loss strategy for your lifestyle by getting started with Jenny Craig today!
Stephanie Eng-Aponte is a copywriter for Jenny Craig and has written for the health and wellness, tech, and environmental industries. Stephanie graduated from Rutgers University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Media Studies. They employ an “eat first, write later” approach to food blogging and enjoy the occasional Oxford comma. Outside of writing, you can find them photographing a muttley crew of rescue pups, brewing kombucha, or exploring San Diego.
Favorite healthy snack: Green apple slices with sunflower butter
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and reviewed by certified professionals.
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