What to Know About Nutrition – the Fundamental Aspects of Food, Calories and Hormones

Siim Land

This is the second part to my article about why we should learn about our physiology, especially food and metabolism. In this one, I’m going to actually be talking about what to know about nutrition. It’s knowledge we should all have.

What to Know About Nutrition

Hopefully you’ve understood the importance of nutrition and are willing to learn more about it. You want to know what you put into your mouth and what further effect it has on your body, right? With that knowledge you will always have a clear understanding of how you feel and what are the reasons for it.

The foundation to deciphering food starts with its caloric content. There are many misconceptions surrounding calories and most people are borderline scared of them. It’s one of those topics that raises eyebrows, causes blushing and is frowned upon by the average person. In the presence of someone overweight you can’t even mention them without being condemned and pilloried. But what are they really?

What to Know About Calories

Calories are units of energy. One small or gram calorie (symbol: cal) indicates the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius at a pressure of one atmosphere. Calories in food are defined in terms of the kilogram, rather than the gram. One large or kilocalorie (symbol: kcal) is equal to 1000 small calories.

Your body composition and how much fat you have is dictated by the first law of thermodynamics. Calories in vs calories out – how much fuel you consume and how much energy you burn off. However, weight loss doesn’t necessarily equal fat loss. Nutrition influences our hormones, which have a much more profound impact on our health and longevity.

Calories, however, are not all equal and are divided into 3 macronutrients which make up the nutritional quality of any given food.

What to Know About Macronutrients

  • Proteins and amino acids. These are the building blocks of our organism. They are the structural framework of all cells that give them form. Our muscles, skin, hair, nails, organs, bones are all made out of protein. Amino acids are necessary for cellular energy metabolism and anabolic tissue repair and enhancement. The richest sources of protein are meat, eggs, fish but it can also be found in nuts, seeds and to a much lesser degree in vegetables, legumes, beans. In 1 gram of protein there is 4 calories.
  • Lipids and fats. They are also known as triglycerides which are 3 long chains of fatty acids. Their function is to govern metabolic, hormonal and structural processes. They are divided into saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fats, which depends on the amount of bonding of the carbon atoms in the chain. Some of them are essential, such as omega-3’s and omega-6’s, because they cannot be synthesized within the body itself. In food, the purest sources of only fat are all types of oils, butter, lard, ghee etc. but it can also be found in nuts, cheese, heavy cream, meat, eggs and fish. If our energy balance is positive we will convert these nutrients into triglycerides and store them in our adipose tissue, or, in more earthly terms, our body fat. Once in the negative we take those same lipids and use them for energy. In 1 gram of fat there is 9 calories.
  • Carbohydrates. The main energy source of the body which are basically sugars. Their role is to fuel our activities and they can be stored within the body as glycogen, in the liver for 100 grams worth and in the muscle cells for up to 400 grams. They’re divided into galactose (milk sugars), fructose (fruit, such as apples, grapes, oranges etc.) and glucose (mainly starchy vegetables, tubers, like potatoes, and grains, such as wheat and rice). Consumption of carbohydrates influences our blood sugar and depends upon the glycemic index/load of a given food. If there isn’t not much fiber content or other macronutrients to slow down the digestion then simple sugars will raise blood sugar quite rapidly. Fiber is the indigestible part of a plant that passes through our gut mostly intact. It’s beneficial for digestion and feeds the good gut microbiome. In 1 gram of carbohydrates there is 4 calories.

How Many Calories Should You Eat?

Well, it would depend on your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). This includes our basal metabolic rate (BMR) and our activity levels.

Use these simple formulas to calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is the number which we would have to consume by doing nothing – simply breathing and lying in bed.

  • Imperial system.
    • Women: BMR=655 + ( 4.35 x weight in pounds ) + ( 4.7 x height in inches ) – ( 4.7 x age in years )
    • Men: BMR = 66 + ( 6.23 x weight in pounds ) + ( 12.7 x height in inches ) – ( 6.8 x age in year )
  • Metric system.
    • Women: BMR = 655 + ( 9.6 x weight in kilos ) + ( 1.8 x height in cm ) – ( 4.7 x age in years )
    • Men: BMR = 66 + ( 13.7 x weight in kilos ) + ( 5 x height in cm ) – ( 6.8 x age in years )

What adds onto it are our activity levels – how much we move around, how often and at what intensity. That’s why an athlete needs more calories than a sedentary person would because they’re constantly using energy. Don’t start basing your daily intake on step-counters or fit-bit watches. Instead, start paying more attention to how much you’re eating and see how it influences your weight.

Do You Have to Count Calories?

Definitely not. Don’t make the false presumption that nutrition is just a game of calories in vs calories out. It’s still pure mathematics, but the equations aren’t just numbers. They’re also symbols that get translated into messages by the body. Food causes different metabolic reactions, depending on the context.

Nevertheless, you should still know the macronutrient ratios and caloric content of any food. Why? So that you would have a clear understanding of what are their values and what effect will it have on you after eating. This way you won’t be dumbstruck about why you’re feeling tired, gain weight or suffer brain fog. You’ll be able to tell what went wrong and can thus make adjustments.

However, that doesn’t mean you have to start quantifying your food intake or carry a measuring scale with you at all times. Don’t be that guy. Instead, merely educating yourself about the topic is enough. I would advise everyone to count calories for a few weeks just to get the knowledge. You’ll be able to objectively see how much you’re really eating and how much of what macronutrient any food group has.

After a while, you’ll have gained enough reference experience as to guesstimate your calories without having to weigh anything. You already subconsciously know everything you need to know. That’s where some simple discipline can set you free. It’s like a real superpower to have. Most people don’t have any clue what they’re putting into their mouths. You on the other hand possess laser-sight that makes you look at food differently. (Click to Tweet)

What You Should Know About Nutrition Vol. 2

On top of calories, there are also other important things you should know about nutrition.

  • The most relevant hormone is insulin. It’s the key to storing and distributing nutrients within the body. If it’s elevated, then we are more prone to store the food we eat whether into fat or muscle cells. When it’s low we start to rely more on our own adipose tissue for fuel. Insulin gets released by the pancreas in response to the rise of blood sugar and tries to bring it back to normal to prevent hyperglycemia (too high blood sugar levels) or hypoglycemia (too low). It’s most significantly caused by the consumption of high-glycemic carbohydrates, very little by protein or fibrous vegetables and not at all by fat. In the case of insulin sensitivity, we’re quite efficient with regulating this hormone and don’t need a lot to shuttle nutrients into our cells. If we’re resistant, however, we can’t bring it back down and will have constantly elevated levels of it, which can lead to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
What to Know About Nutrition - Role of Insulin
What to Know About Nutrition – Role of Insulin
  • Leptin regulates the feeling of satiety and hunger. Its role is to signal our brain to eat to prevent starvation. However, if we’re resistant to it then the lines of communication will be cut short and our mind will never get the information that the body has received enough calories. In that case, your body is satisfied but your brain is still starving and keeps on craving for more food. It usually goes hand in hand with insulin resistance, as it’s caused by the consumption of simple carbohydrates and sugar with a lot of fat at the same time.
  • Ghrelin is the hormone that creates hunger in the first place. It gets released when our stomach is empty, indicating that it wants to eat something.
  • Glucagon is the counterpart of insulin and also gets produced by the pancreas. It gets released when the concentration of glucose in the blood stream gets too low. The liver then starts to convert stored glycogen into glucose and increases fatty acid utilization.
  • Serotonin is a neurotransmitter primarily found in the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system (CNS) of animals. It’s also considered to be the relaxation hormone which contributes to the feeling of well-being and happiness. Proteins contain an amino acid called tryptophan that gets converted into serotonin in the brain. Carbohydrates can also release serotonin.
  • Human growth hormone (HGH) stimulates growth and cell development within the body. Its role is to produce and regenerate the organism’s tissue and has anabolic effects because it raises the concentration of glucose and free fatty acids in the blood stream. Children have a lot of it because they’re constantly growing. For adults this hormone increases muscle building and fat burning. It’s the Holy Grail for longevity, high end performance and excellent body composition.
  • Insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) is a hormone that plays a crucial part in childhood growth and also has anabolic effects in adults as well. It is one of the most effective natural activators of pathways responsible for cellular growth and inhibitor of cellular death. IGF-1 is closely connected with HGH. The release of HGH into the blood stream by the anterior pituitary gland also stimulates the liver to produce IGF-1 which causes systemic growth in almost every cell in the body, especially muscle, cartilage, bone, liver, kidney, nerves, skin and lungs. It can also nerve cell growth and development. Currently research is not clear about whether or not IGF-1 signaling is positively or negatively associated with aging and cancer. Over-expression may lead to cancer but on the other hand natural enhanced actions of HGH and IGF-1 are effective ways of establishing an anabolic state, supporting the immune system.
  • Testosterone is associated with masculine behavior but it’s also found in women as well. This is yet another anabolic hormone that enhances muscle building and strength but also has some cognitive benefits. Too low levels of it will decrease reproductive functions, cause fat storage and increase risk of cardiovascular disease. The best T-boosters are heavy resistance training, high intensity interval training (HIIT), dietary fat intake and proper sleep. Maintaining a straight posture and not slumping over will also release testosterone because of the powerful feeling and confidence we get.
  • Cortisol, also known as the main stress and “fight or flight” hormone, controls our energy in strenuous circumstances. Evolutionarily, its role is to enable us to survive in situations of life and death. It gets elevated when we would have to run away from a lion, fight off a pack of wolves, while drowning or chasing after dinner. As a result, glycogen gets released into the blood stream to provide more energy so that we could escape danger. The body perceives every type of stress response as the same and sitting in traffic, being nervous about public speaking, exercising hard or arguing with someone release as much cortisol as fighting a tiger would. Occasional short spikes of stress are necessary and can be beneficial as it conditions us to handle difficult situations. If it’s elevated for too long, then anabolism and catabolism get out of balance leading to decreased levels of testosterone and excessive breakdown of tissue.

What You Should Know About Food

Now, you might ask, what should I eat then? What’s the takeaway from this? To be honest, then it all depends on what you’re purpose is for reading it. In its core, this article is supposed to be a source of knowledge about some of the simplest yet most fundamental things about nutrition. The reason why you would want to know this is to understand your own physiology and based on that take care of your body.

What to actually eat is a whole nother topic because it includes many aspects that are all based on individuality. This is a rabbit hole too deep for us to delve into right now. Nevertheless, to satiate your now re-invigorated thirst for knowledge, I’m going to give you a few guidelines and bulletpoints to remember.

  • Calories in vs calories out determines your body composition but you should still eat a whole foods based diet 80% of the time. Processed food is full of hazardous substances that wreak havoc to your DNA and biology.
  • The proper control of hormones is more detrimental for overall health. Insulin is the most important one as it regulates your blood sugar levels. Insulin resistance is associated with most cardiovascular diseases.
  • This means that the majority of people would want to limit their carbohydrate intake at least to some extent. Low carb ketogenic diets have been successfully used to battle obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and epilepsy. It also is beneficial for the brain and mitochondria.

Make sure to check out the rest of my content on nutrition. If you’re interested in starting a well-formulated ketogenic diet, then check out my 21-day meal plan Ultimate Keto. Other than that, subscribe to my YouTube channel as well for similar topics, including those of Body Mind Empowerment.