Nutrition crash course: macronutrients

Read on to learn about the building blocks of nutrition. This week we will talk about macronutrients, and next week we’ll revisit nutrition to talk about micronutrients and water.

Ellie Brewer

We are going to talk about some foundational concepts of nutrition. If you get confused when our Rise coaches talk about the nutrition focus for the week, or if you want to learn more about why we encourage you to fuel your body the way we do, this blog is for you!


There are three different nutrients we eat that provide us with energy. We call them macronutrients because we need lots of them for our body to function properly. The three macronutrients are proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Alcohol also provides our bodies with energy, but the way we digest it creates harmful byproducts that interfere with the breakdown and use of the macronutrients. Alcohol also does not provide any beneficial micronutrients like food does. Because of this, we don’t include alcohol as a macronutrient.


  • What they are: Carbohydrates are strings of simple sugars linked together to form long molecules that are capable of storing energy in the bonds that connect them together. Most carbohydrates are broken down into three small pieces (glucose, fructose, and galactose) that our body uses for energy, with glucose being the primary energy source our body uses for fuel. Fiber is also included as a carbohydrate, but is formed in a way that our body cannot fully digest it. Even though we can’t break it down and use it for energy, the helpful bacteria in our large intestine are able to digest fiber and it keeps them healthy and happy. 

  • Why we need them: Glucose (the end result of carbohydrate breakdown) is the body’s preferred energy source. Our muscles, digestive system, brain, nervous system, bones, and other organs break down glucose to get energy they use to continue functioning properly. Especially when we are exercising for shorter periods of time (less than an hour), we need carbohydrates in our system to provide quick energy for our muscles to keep working hard. 

  • What foods they are in: Carbohydrates are in a variety of different foods, including grains, vegetables, fruit, starchy vegetables (think potatoes and squash), pasta, and bread. There are two groups we can think of when we picture carbohydrate foods: more nutrient dense and less nutrient dense. These can be tricky terms since there is no specific definition for the term “nutrient dense” or guidelines for what a food has to contain to be labeled as such. We can think about it as a group of carbs that contains other nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals in addition to energy-yielding glucose, and a group that is mostly carbohydrate (often in the form of added sugar) paired with fats. For example, more nutrient dense carbohydrate sources would include whole grain bread, whole wheat pasta, whole vegetables (unpeeled so the fiber in the skin of the vegetable is still present), and whole fruits. These foods provide energy through carbohydrates, and they also contain important vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Compare this to a piece of cake, which contains carbohydrates, but does not have a lot of fiber and contains greater amounts of fat and added sugar instead of vitamins and minerals that are found in whole foods. More nutrient dense foods will fill you up and help you feel full longer. These foods are also digested more slowly due to their fiber content, which causes energy (in the form of glucose) to be released into your bloodstream more slowly, which provides you with a gradual source of energy for a longer period of time. 

  • What types of carbohydrates we should eat: I just threw a lot of information at you, but there are two things to focus on when choosing which carbohydrates to eat. Firstly, aim for half of your grains to be whole grains each day. This could look like eating whole grain toast at breakfast (whole grain), a white tortilla burrito at lunch (not a whole grain), having chips and salsa as a snack (not a whole grain), and eating whole grain pasta for dinner (whole grain). The other focus is to eat a fruit or a vegetable (or multiple!) with each meal and snack. This will help you eat enough fiber, in addition to providing important vitamins and minerals. And one last note: eating less nutrient dense food is not inherently bad. I encourage you to still enjoy a slice of cake or some candy on occasion! The problem many people run into is eating a majority of less nutrient dense food, which can be harmful to your health in the long run. As always, focus on eating whole, more nutrient dense foods 80% of the time and make room for less nutrient dense foods 20% of the time. 


  • What they are: Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. Think of amino acids as cars on a train. When you eat protein and break it down in your digestive system, the amino acids come apart and can be used to make new proteins; much like train cars attaching to new trains. There are 20 different kinds of amino acids our bodies can use to make new proteins. Some of them we can make ourselves, but 8 of them we are not able to make and have to include in our diet to make sure our body has access to them. These 8 amino acids are called essential amino acids, and it is vital to eat a wide range of protein sources throughout the day to ensure we are eating all of them. 

  • Why we need them: Protein has a wide range of functions in our bodies. Some key functions are its role in muscles, digestion, immune function, and as hormone messengers. As we are training, the protein we eat is used to rebuild and grow muscles after we work hard at Rise. It is important to note that although we are able to convert amino acids into glucose for energy, our body does not like using protein as an energy source. The primary reason we need to eat protein is to ensure we have enough circulating amino acids to make the functional proteins we need to keep our organs and body working properly. If we are not eating enough carbohydrates and fats for energy, our body will break down protein stores (mostly in our muscle) to free the amino acids it needs to make other vital proteins. 

  • What foods they are in: Protein is in a variety of foods, including meat, poultry, fish, beans, soy products, and dairy products. There are two types of protein we usually talk about, and those are higher quality proteins and lower quality proteins. Higher quality proteins are found in animal products (meat, fish, poultry, dairy) and in soy products. These foods contain all 8 of the essential amino acids in a form that is easy for our body to break down and use. Lower quality proteins are found in plant-based products (grains, beans), and do not contain all of the 8 essential amino acids. If you eat meat, poultry, and/or dairy, it should not be a problem to get all the amino acids you need to build functional proteins in your body. If you are vegetarian or vegan and do not eat meat or dairy, it is important to include a variety of plant-based protein sources in your meals to make sure you are eating all 8 essential amino acids throughout the day. This can look like pairing rice and beans, which have the essential amino acids the other is missing. 

  • What types of proteins we should eat: When we talk about protein intake, it is usually phrased as grams per kilogram of body weight (g/kg BW). The average sedentary adult (someone who does not move around a lot and remains sitting for most of the day) requires at least 0.8 g/kg BW of protein per day. As someone who works out at Rise, your protein requirements are likely higher, and I would recommend reaching out to Megan or myself to talk about your protein requirements if you would like to learn more about it! A general piece of advice to help you get enough protein if you are not tracking your calorie or protein intake is to aim for at least 30 g of protein at each meal. This is a great place to start if you are attempting to start eating enough protein.


  • What they are: Fats are the most energy rich macronutrient. Because of the way the building blocks of fats are bonded together, they contain more energy than carbohydrates and protein. Fat provides 9 calories per gram, while carbohydrate and protein provide only 4 calories per gram. Fat is made up of several components, primarily fatty acids. These fatty acids are classified as unsaturated or saturated depending on how they are bonded together in the fat molecule. We’ll talk more about this in a later section. 

  • Why we need them: We use fat in a variety of ways, and it plays a vital role in the functioning of our body. Some key uses are energy storage, insulation and cushioning of our organs, and hormone production. In females especially, it is vital to have enough body fat stored to maintain the menstrual cycle, which is controlled by hormones made from fat. Fat also helps digest certain vitamins that can only be broken down and transported in fat. So next time you are debating whether or not to include dressing on your salad, remember that it will help your body break down and use all the nutrients in the vegetables!

  • What foods they are in: There are many different foods that contain fat, and I want to revisit the different kinds of fat we discussed earlier. All fat sources contain a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, but the proportion of these fatty acids is usually skewed one way or the other. Foods containing more unsaturated fat, which are typically liquid at room temperature, are plant oils, such as olive, safflower, sunflower, peanut, and canola oil. Unsaturated fat is important because it contains certain fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) that we cannot produce in our bodies, but are vital to brain and nervous system development and the production of hormones. The other main type of fat, saturated fat, is found in a higher concentration in foods that are solid at room temperature. Saturated fat is found in higher quantities in animal fat sources and tropical oils, such as butter, ghee, and coconut and palm oil. Our bodies are able to make saturated fat, so it is not necessary that we eat it in our diet. 

  • What types of fats we should eat: Many foods in the American diet are high in saturated fat and lower in unsaturated fat. Eating an excess of saturated fat (in addition to an excess of calories) can contribute to the development of chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension. Because of this, it is recommended to decrease how much saturated fat you eat and focus on replacing saturated with unsaturated fat when you cook. For example, if you are stir frying vegetables, try using canola or olive oil instead of butter. Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and halibut are also excellent sources of the essential omega-3 fatty acids, so it is recommended to include a serving of fish in your diet once a week. 

We just covered a lot of information about macronutrients, and we are excited to dive into micronutrients and water in next week’s blog! We hope these blogs will be a great resource that you can continue to refer to as a way to better your understanding of nutrition, including some of the processes behind what happens when we eat food, and why we recommend the foods we do in our Rise nutrition programs.