You are what you eat—sound familiar? Undoubtedly, your health is linked to your food. Many factors play a role in maintaining good health and reducing the risk of developing certain conditions but nutrition is one of the most important ones. You may have heard people talking about counting ‘macros’ and micronutrients in the food they consume. So, how do these macro and micronutrients help your body and what do you need every day for good health?
Get answers to these questions and discover more about foundational nutrition in this interesting read.
What Are Macro and Micronutrients?
Macronutrients and micronutrients are critical as your body simply cannot function without them. In fact, experts believe that your body works at its highest potential when your body’s macros and micro needs are met consistently.
Macronutrients are the main nutrients needed for body functioning and structure. Generally, your body needs large amounts of macronutrients—proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Macros are measured in grams (g) and this is an effective way to track what you are consuming.
Carbohydrates are a major source of energy in our diet, and the quantity and quality of carbohydrates are important for maintaining good health.
Proteins obtained from your diet provide amino acids that are involved in various body functions such as structure, immunity, growth and repair. Dietary proteins should provide you with all nine essential amino acids.
Fats or lipids provide energy and also essential fatty acids (omega-3s) and help absorb fat-soluble vitamins. They also serve as the structural building blocks and are involved in various important physiological processes.
Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals that are needed by the body in small amounts. However, they are vital in the growth and development, well-being, and prevention of diseases. Macronutrients except vitamin D are not synthesised by the body and must be obtained from diet2.
They are usually measured in micrograms (mcg), milligrams (mg), or International Units (IU). Some micronutrients include magnesium, calcium, zinc, vitamins B12, A, C, K, E, etc.
So, how do you know how much macronutrients and micronutrients you need and whether you are getting enough? This takes us to our next section on RDA.
All You Need to Know About RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance)
The Recommended Dietary Allowance or RDA is defined as the average daily dietary nutrient intake level sufficient to meet the requirement of nearly all healthy individuals of a specific age and gender group1.
Put simply, it means the level of nutrients that must be present in your daily diet, enough to meet your physiological requirements. RDA is, in fact, based on scientific knowledge.
The nutrient requirements of individuals depend on their age, body weight, as well as physiological and metabolic status (physical activity). For instance, pregnant women, children, athletes, or lactating mothers may have different requirements than the average person. Similarly,, the RDA for energy for a heavy adult male worker is more as compared to that for a sedentary adult male.
Recommendations on nutrients for Indian men and women by ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research)-NIN (National Institute of Nutrition)3
What About RDA on Labels?
The FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) has laid out guidelines on labelling of nutritional information per 100 grams or 100 millilitres, or on a per single consumption pack and per serve percentage contribution to RDA.
The %RDA stands for the percentage of the Recommended Dietary Allowance for each nutrient in a serving of food. RDA can be considered as reference amounts, expressed in grams, milligrams, or micrograms of nutrients that need to be consumed or not to be exceeded each day.
The %RDA shows how much a nutrient in the food serving contributes to the total daily diet. It also helps you determine if a serving of food is low or high in nutrients.
Tip: If you want to consume less of a nutrient (such as saturated fats or sodium), go for foods with a lower % RDA (≤5%). However, if you want to intake more of a nutrient (such as fibre), choose foods with a higher % RDA (≥20%).
But is following RDA just enough for you?
It is important to note that RDAs are not applicable to people who are suffering from certain diseases which might influence their nutrient intake. In fact, RDAs apply only to healthy individuals.
Additionally, RDA calculation takes into account variability in the nutrient requirements of a group of people. This means, RDA is not a minimum requirement and is also not necessarily an optimal level intake.
So, based on your health status, activity levels, and fitness goals, you need to revisit what nutrients you are taking and how much.
Can You Get your Daily Nutrient Requirements from the Food You Eat?
In theory, yes. However, there are multiple factors to be considered before you draw a conclusion.
- Maybe you are just not eating enough
Interestingly, surveys conducted by the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (NNMB) observed that the daily intake of all foods except cereals and millet in Indian households is lower than the recommended guidelines4. In fact, the average consumption of pulses and legumes, which are sources of protein, was less than 50% of recommended guidelines. Additionally, intake of green leafy and other vegetables, which are rich sources of micronutrients including beta-carotene, folate (vit B9), iron, riboflavin (vit B2) and calcium, was also found to be inadequate4.
- Lead an active lifestyle or have specific fitness goals
For individuals who are recreationally active, athletes, or regular exercisers, their nutrition needs vary significantly from sedentary individuals. To recover and repair tissues and muscles, fulfil energy deficit, improve energy reserves, etc. the body needs more than minimum or baseline macro and micronutrients.
For instance, for men and women, who have a sedentary or moderately active lifestyle, the recommended protein intake is 0.83 to 1.0 grams per kg of body weight per day3. Whereas, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends an overall daily protein intake in the range of 1.4 to 2.0 grams per kg body weight per day for most exercising individuals for muscle mass building and maintenance5.
- Follow restrictive diets
Since vegan diets exclude animal-origin food products, they are deficient in protein, iron, calcium, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, vitamin D, vitamin B12, etc. Moreover, low-carb or keto diets result in a deficiency of macronutrients as well as micronutrients, especially in vegetarians as it restricts a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains.
- Food is less nutritious than it used to be
There is increasing evidence which shows that whole foods today are not as nutrient-rich as they used to be 50 to 70 years ago6,7,8. If you have heard quite frequently that what our grandparents ate was much healthier than what we’re eating today, then it does hold true. This nutrient decline due to modern agricultural processes means that you may not be meeting your nutritional needs.
Moving Beyond the Minimum
It is important that healthy adults obtain at least the Recommended Dietary Allowance to support their normal body functions. However, what if you have certain medical conditions, have specific health goals, your meals are not always healthy or wholesome, or you do not get access to a variety of whole foods?
This is where supplementation comes into the picture. Multivitamins and minerals are some of the most common supplements around the globe and may help fulfil the nutritional gap. Usually, these supplements contain different minerals, vitamins, and other active ingredients but their nutrient composition may vary by the product or brand.
Supplementation and Nutrient Deficiency
Here are some instances, where you can consider supplementation to support your overall health after consultation with your healthcare provider.
- Eat a limited diet or have a poor appetite that makes you eat less than normal or usual.
- Follow a restricted diet (keto, vegan, vegetarian, etc.)
- Practising a self-imposed diet for weight loss
- Have a condition that limits your body’s ability to absorb nutrients effectively
- Undergoing changes beyond a specific age (menopause, getting older, etc.)
- Have undergone surgery that requires you to be on a restricted or liquid diet
- Experiencing increased nutritional needs temporarily such as training for a marathon, pregnancy, muscle building, etc.
- Have a busy schedule and can’t ensure a balanced diet daily
Macronutrients and micronutrients are critical in many life-sustaining functions. You need to make sure that you intake at least Recommended Dietary allowance (RDA) for optimal functioning. With that being said, every person’s dietary needs vary based on gender, age, lifestyle, health status, goals, etc. So, if you tick any of the boxes discussed above, consider supplementation to fulfil nutritional deficiencies.
- Institute of Medicine (US), Institute of Medicine (US). Food, Nutrition Board. Dietary reference intakes: a risk assessment model for establishing upper intake levels for nutrients. National Academies Press; 1998.Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK45189/pdf/Bookshelf_NBK45189.pdf
- Micronutrient facts [Internet]. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2022 [cited 2023Mar3]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/micronutrient-malnutrition/micronutrients/index.html
- Nutrient Requirement for Indians. Indian Council of medical research and National institute of Nutrition; 2020 [cited 2023Mar3]. Available from: https://www.nin.res.in/RDA_short_Report_2020.html
- Dietary Guidelines for Indians-A Manual. National Institute of Nutrition ; 2011 [cited 2023Mar3]. Available from: https://www.nin.res.in/downloads/DietaryGuidelinesforNINwebsite.pdf
- Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, Cribb PJ, Wells SD, Skwiat TM, Purpura M, Ziegenfuss TN, Ferrando AA, Arent SM, Smith-Ryan AE. International society of sports nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2017 Jun 20;14(1):20.
- Davis DR, Epp MD, Riordan HD. Changes in USDA food composition data for 43 garden crops, 1950 to 1999. Journal of the american College of nutrition. 2004 Dec 1;23(6):669-82.
- Eberl E, Li AS, Zheng ZY, Cunningham J, Rangan A. Temporal Change in Iron Content of Vegetables and Legumes in Australia: A Scoping Review. Foods. 2022 Jan;11(1):56.
- Mayer AM, Trenchard L, Rayns F. Historical Changes in the Mineral Content of Fruit and Vegetables in the UK from 1940 to 2019: A Concern for Human Nutrition and Agriculture. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. 2022 Apr 3;73(3):315-26.