How to Build Your Plate With Macronutrients: Protein, Fat, and Carbs

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2023

Eating a balanced diet is essential for maintaining optimal health and achieving your fitness goals. One way to ensure you are fueling your body well is by building your plate with macronutrients – the building blocks of nutrition.1

What are macronutrients?

Macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. They are the main source of energy for our bodies. They help our bodily functions run smoothly. Most of what we eat on a daily basis are macronutrients.1

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are the body's primary source of energy. They fuel our muscles and central nervous system throughout the day. About 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories should come from carbs.1,2

Examples of good carbs to eat include:1,2

  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Whole grains
  • Beans, lentils, peas
  • Low-fat dairy products

Examples of carbs to reduce include:1,2

  • Refined flour (in crackers, breads, cakes, cookies, cereals)
  • Added sugars (in juices, sodas, candy)

Nutrition experts recommend choosing complex carbs, such as vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. Whole grains include quinoa, brown rice, whole-wheat bread, and oats. These provide a steady release of energy and are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.1

Fat

Contrary to popular belief, not all fats are bad for you. In fact, healthy fats are essential for brain function, hormone production, and nutrient absorption. Incorporating sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats into your diet is important. About 20 to 35 percent of your total daily calories should come from fat.1,2

Examples of good fats to eat include:1,2

  • Vegetable oils – olive, canola, avocado oils
  • Fatty fish – salmon, tuna, sardines
  • Avocado
  • Olives
  • Nuts, seeds, nut/seed butters

Examples of fats to reduce include:1,2

  • Butter and margarine
  • Cream cheese
  • Full-fat dairy products
  • Fatty meats like pork, beef, and sausage
  • Fried foods
  • Packaged foods

Embrace healthy fats like avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and fatty fish. Just remember that fats are high in calories (about 9 calories per gram), so be conscious of your portion sizes.1,2

Protein

Protein repairs and builds tissues, supports muscle growth, and maintains a healthy immune system. The amount of protein your body needs depends on your age, any medical conditions you may have, and your activity level.1-3

Including a source of lean protein in your meals is essential. Examples of healthy protein options include:1,2

  • Skinless poultry (chicken and turkey)
  • Lean cuts of meat
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Legumes (includes beans, lentils, peas, and peanuts)
  • Low-fat dairy products

Experts say that anywhere from 10 to 35 percent of your total calories should come from protein. The recommended daily allowance for average adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.1-3

To calculate your recommended amount of protein, multiply your weight in kilograms by 0.8. For example:3

  • 165 pounds (75 kilograms) X 0.8 = 60 grams of protein per day

Be mindful of portion sizes

Even with the right macronutrients, portion control is crucial. It is easy to overeat, especially if you are not mindful of serving sizes.4

You can use these visual cues to help you gauge portion sizes:5

  • A tennis ball is equal to about 1 serving of fruit (carbs).
  • A baseball is equal to about 1 serving of vegetables (carbs).
  • A hockey puck is equal to about 1 cup of cooked pasta or rice (carbs).
  • A deck of cards is equal to about 3 ounces of meat (protein).
  • A golf ball is equal to about 2 tablespoons of nut butter or oil (fats).

Balancing your plate with appropriate portions ensures the you get the macronutrients you need without too many calories.4,5

Build a colorful plate

Here is the US Department of Agriculture’s advice on how to build a healthy plate:6

  • Fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables. This should include a mix of leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, and a rainbow of fruit colors to maximize your nutrient intake.
  • Fill the other half of your plate with whole grains. A smaller portion of your plate can be reserved for lean protein and healthy fats.

Try to work a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables into your meals. For more help on how to build a healthy plate as well as recipe ideas, visit MyPlate.gov.6

Stay hydrated

While water is not a macronutrient, hydration is very important to overall health. After all, our bodies are made up of mostly water! Water is essential for many bodily processes, including nutrient absorption. Aim to drink at least 8 cups of water per day. Depending on your activity level, you may need more water.7

Build the plate that is right for you

How you build your plate with macronutrients will vary based on your:4

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Height and weight
  • Activity level
  • Specific weight goals

You can consult a dietitian or nutritionist to help you make a macronutrient plan to fit your body’s needs. They can help you achieve a balanced and sustainable diet.

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