Hormones affect all aspects of human function, regulating energy, body composition, hunger, sleep, libido, and mood. When hormones get out of balance, bad things happen: At first you might experience increased fatigue, trouble sleeping, and sluggish workouts. You could be hungry all the time and find yourself with an expanding waistline. You might suffer from low mood and irritability.
Over time these problems worsen. Because many different hormones in the body are interrelated, affecting each other in a cascade-like pattern, small imbalances can turn into big problems that lead to disease and fundamentally harm your life.
There are several behaviors that can improve hormone balance and diet is a great place to start. By optimizing your nutrition, you can produce the following effects:
- Increase fat burning and energy use in the body.
- Reduce hunger, appetite, and cravings.
- Improve your body’s immune and stress response.
This article will explain the relationship between hormones and nutrition and give you strategies for developing a hormone-balancing eating plan that will allow you to feel and look your best on a day-to-day basis.
The main metabolic hormones affected by nutrition are insulin and glucagon. Additionally, cortisol, which is often thought of as a stress hormone, has an intricate relationship with food intake and hunger. Let’s take a closer look.
Insulin is an anabolic “storage” hormone made by the pancreas that is released in response to an increase in blood glucose. When you eat a meal containing carbohydrates, those carbs are broken down in the stomach and absorbed into the bloodstream, raising glucose levels. Insulin is released from the pancreas to lower glucose by storing it in cells, either as glycogen (the storage form of glucose in the body) or as fat.
The body prioritizes glycogen replenishment, only resorting to store fat when glycogen levels are topped off. Though they have a much smaller impact on insulin release than carbohydrates, protein foods also stimulate insulin so that the amino acid building blocks can be used to repair tissue and build muscle. Dietary fat has no impact on insulin release, and because it slows digestion, adding healthy fat to a high-carb meal can reduce the insulin spike.
Glucagon is a catabolic hormone made by the pancreas that opposes insulin, breaking down fat and glycogen for energy. In the liver, glucagon stimulates the conversion of stored glycogen in the liver into glucose, which is released into the blood stream for energy. Glucagon also stimulates fat burning.
When blood glucose levels drop, either due to carbohydrate restriction or fasting, insulin goes down, allowing glucagon to stimulate fat for use as fuel. A fat burning enzyme called hormone sensitive lipase (HSL) increases, freeing stored triglycerides (fat) from fat cells. Triglycerides are broken down into fatty acids and glycerol. The fatty acids travel to the liver, which turns them into ketones that can be used for energy. This is what happens with a very low-carb ketogenic diet that shifts your metabolic fuel source from carbohydrate-based to fat.
The following is a chart that summarizes how protein, carbohydrate, and fat impact insulin and glucagon:
|Stimulates glucagon||No impact on glucagon||No impact on glucagon|
|Triggers a small increase in insulin but no change in blood glucose||Raises insulin and blood glucose||No impact on insulin|
|Increases metabolic rate (the body burns 25 percent of the calories in pure protein during digestion)|
This chart illustrates the magnitude of impact of the macronutrients on insulin and glucagon:
|Macronutrient||Impact on Insulin||Impact on Glucagon|
|Fat||No Change||No Change|
|Carbohydrate & Fat||++++||No Change|
|Protein & Fat||++||++|
|High Protein & Low Carb||++||+|
|High Carb & Low Protein||+++++++++||+|
Cortisol is another catabolic hormone that opposes insulin and is released by the adrenal glands. Cortisol raises blood glucose levels by freeing energy stores from muscle and tissue. While glucagon’s effects are immediate and occur under normal physiological circumstances, cortisol has a slower response and is released in response to both physical and psychological stress.
For example, skipping meals is experienced by the body as a stressful event. As blood glucose levels drop, the adrenal glands respond, increasing cortisol to free stored glycogen from the liver and stimulate fat burning. Cortisol turns on the fight-or-flight system, activating the sympathetic nervous system and turning off unnecessary biological processes such as repair and reproduction.
Cortisol leads to an acute decrease in appetite, however, over the longer term, when cortisol is chronically elevated it stimulates increased hunger and cravings for carbohydrates. This is actually a protective mechanism against excessive stress since eating carbs lead to the release of insulin, which allows cortisol to go down. Unfortunately, cortisol also “turns off” rationale parts of the brain and increases risk taking, which makes it nearly impossible to make intelligent food choices or control portions. Over time, chronic stress and high cortisol are associated with fat gain, especially around the abdominal area.
Nutrition For Healthy Metabolic Hormones
Taking control of your metabolic hormones is at the root of many popular diets. For example, both the keto diet and intermittent fasting play with insulin and glucagon to shift the body away from using glucose to burning fat for energy. While these diets can be useful in developing the eating plan that fuels your life, they can be limiting and restrictive in ways that set you up for failure. You should focus on developing a healthy nutrition plan that works for your unique needs. Here are some considerations for making it happen:
Step #1: Restrict Carbohydrates To Restore Insulin Sensitivity
If you are overweight and fairly sedentary, it’s a good chance you have a high degree of insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is the condition in which the body is less able to bind with insulin and accept sugar into the cells. Insulin no longer works as well or does its job as effectively, and more is needed to get the same results. Muscle becomes resistant to insulin and glycogen storage drops, while fat storage increases. Eventually fat cells will become resistant to insulin as well, leaving you with high insulin levels and high blood sugar, a condition that turns into diabetes if left untreated.
Make It Happen: One surefire way of restoring insulin sensitivity is to eat a lower carb diet, higher in fat and protein from high-quality sources. Although a range of lower carb diets can improve insulin health, very low-carb ketogenic diets are the gold standard for restoring insulin sensitivity. Ketones also blunt appetite and have a muscle-preserving impact on the body, helping you lose excess body fat.
Therefore, if you have a lot of fat to lose, cutting carbs to below 50 grams a day for a set period is recommended to restore your metabolic health. Once you restore insulin sensitivity and lean up, you can transition to a more moderate carb intake (generally in the 25 to 35 percent of calories range). For people who are fit and active, it’s reasonable to skip this step and go to step 2 unless you have been living on a diet dominated by refined and processed carbs. Specific carb intake guidelines for a variety of populations are listed in step #5.
Step 2: Combine Exercise & A High-Fat Diet To Get Metabolically Flexible
Being able to burn body fat is a key component of metabolic health. In a carb-dominant world, many people are metabolically inflexible and their bodies do not possess the metabolic machinery to switch between burning fat and glucose. Instead, they rely on a steady stream of glucose from carbs for energy—a metabolic profile that is associated with elevated blood glucose levels and insulin resistance. A strict carb-burning metabolism also predisposes you to crankiness and fatigue when you haven’t eaten recently.
Make It Happen: Shifting to a fat burning metabolism (from one that runs solely on glucose) requires your body to develop enzymes used to burn body fat. If you are fit and not overweight, shifting to a high-fat, lower carb diet will automatically increase metabolic flexibility and get your body burning more fat. For people who are overweight and/or inactive, it’s a little trickier. A high-fat, low-carb keto-style approach (70 percent fat, 25 percent protein, and 5 percent carbs) will improve metabolic flexibility, however, the adaptation process can be unpleasant and take several weeks.
Exercise accelerates the process, forcing the body into fat burning mode. One study found that when obese subjects performed 1 hour of exercise at an intensity of 70 percent of maximal effort in conjunction with a 3-day high-fat, low-carb diet they increased fat burning to the same degree as a group of lean individuals who were already fat adapted. Of course, starting a new exercise program at the same time as you begin a restrictive diet can be extremely challenging so it’s recommended that you do one at a time: Lay the groundwork for success by taking at least a month to develop an exercise habit that you enjoy (aerobic training, intervals, HIT, and strength training are all good options) prior to shifting to a higher fat, lower carb diet.
Step #3: Get The Benefits Of Fasting With Time-Restricted Eating
One of the best things you can do for hormone balance is to establish an organized meal frequency in which you eat at the same time every day. Because your body runs on a circadian clock, hormones are automatically released at certain times based on your behavior. If you skep meals, or eat at random times, hormone release can get out of whack, often leading to increased appetite and food cravings.
Using time restricted eating, which limits your eating to a 8- to 12-hour eating window Incorporates periods of fasting, improving insulin sensitivity and fat burning, while also giving your GI tract a chance to rest. Giving the gut a break from the onslaught of incoming food that is typified when people eat constantly improves gut motility, which occurs once digestion is finished and muscles of the GI tract stretch and contract, enabling food to progress through the intestines, while at the same time, ensuring absorption of nutrients.
Make It Happen: To incorporate fasting, there’s no need to go crazy—an 8- to 12-hour eating window can have enormous benefits if you are used to noshing over all your waking hours. Studies have shown that simply reducing your eating window from 15 to 12 hours improves metabolic hormones and may lead to weight loss.
Depending on your situation, eat two to four times a day, allowing at least four hours between meals. Individuals who are overweight and/or new to healthy eating generally benefit from a higher meal frequency to prevent excessive hunger and preoccupation with food. Leaner, fitter folks can experiment with fewer meals.
Step #4: Maximize Nutrition By Eating The Rainbow
One of the biggest drawbacks of fad diets is that they end up being overly restrictive, leading to lack of nutrients necessary for optimal metabolic function. For example, although a keto diet done correctly can be perfectly healthy if it includes a wide range of low-carb vegetables, most people load up on bacon, butter, and other fatty foods, while skimping on fiber-packed, nutrient-rich plants.
The good news is there is no need to be pigeonholed into one diet. You have flexibility in identifying the optimal nutrition program for your unique hormones. There is no one perfect diet that works for everyone. As long as you are favoring real foods in their most natural state and going for variety, you have a range of macronutrient profiles that can be used to balance hormones.
Make It Happen: Plan every meal to include a high-quality protein (eggs, chicken, turkey, seafood, red meat, and dairy), a rainbow of fibrous vegetables (leafy greens, peppers, cauliflower, etc.) and healthy fat (nuts, seeds, olive oil, coconut oil, etc.). This combination will lead to a more moderate blood glucose and insulin response, while dampening hunger. It also avoids foods that automatically increase cortisol, including trans and other man-made fats and sugar. Favoring whole foods over packaged options will provide the array of nutrients that are often depleted by high cortisol and can increase carb cravings, including magnesium, B vitamins, vitamin C, and zinc.
Step #5: Optimize Carb Intake For A Stealthy Metabolism
You already know that limiting carbs is one of the most efficient ways of fixing your metabolism. Making the shift to low-carb meals can be a challenge, especially if you have been unsuccessful with carb restriction in the past. A surefire way to overcome this obstacle is to shift your mindset: Instead of fixating on the foods you shouldn’t be eating, focus on what you can eat and why those specific foods will provide the best fuel for your body. Shifting your attitude will allow you to re-train your taste buds so that you crave healthier foods.
Research shows that by emphasizing the health benefits of a particular eating plan, you will automatically make better food choices. For example, if you are trying a keto-style low-carb, high-fat approach, your goal should be to focus on whole fats that will stoke your metabolism, maximize brain function, and protect you from diseases linked to high-carb eating. Fat also improves absorption of nutritionally-rich plants and proteins that provide the body with the building blocks to repair the losses sustained in everyday living. For carb-based foods that you are restricting, remind yourself of the negative effects of these foods and why it is not worth it to expend energy on them.
Make It Happen: Determining your ideal carb intake will depend on your situation. Here are some general recommendations:
For sedentary individuals with a lot of weight to lose, less than 20 grams of carbs a day is recommended to induce ketosis, lower insulin, and improve metabolic flexibility.
For active people who are overweight, 50 grams of carbs tend to be the sweet spot, with the option of higher carb intake on workout days once you are metabolically flexible.
For the very active who train hard but want to lose fat, anywhere from 50 to 130 grams a day could be indicated. Most people will likely get the best body composition changes from around 100 grams a day.
Carb cycling may be ideal for people who train hard: Go higher in carbs on training days (anywhere from 100 to 150 grams, depending on multiple factors) and lower on recovery days (anywhere from 30 to 50 grams).
For Diabetes/Prediabetes/Metabolic Syndrome: For this population, a lower carb diet that prioritizes whole foods will restore insulin sensitivity and improve glucose tolerance. It will also encourage fat loss, which is usually a priority for this population. Under 50 grams of carbs a day is generally indicated, although individual need will vary. For example, in certain situations, such as diabetes with a lot of inflammation, a plant-based diet that has a higher intake of carbohydrates (from whole sources) may be beneficial.
For Lean Athletes Trying To Put On Muscle: Strength, power, and even endurance athletes who rely on the glycolytic energy system for a large portion of their training generally benefit from above 3g/kg of carbs a day to offset high cortisol and improve muscle recovery. For an individual weighing 165 pounds (75 kg) this would equal a baseline of 225 carbs a day.
- b vitamins
- body composition
- fat loss
- fatty acids
- insulin resistance
- keto diet
- metabolic hormones
- strength training
- vitamin c
- weight loss