Hormones. “The Big H.”
Many nutrition experts talk about how hormones are a critical factor in losing fat, so you should probably make them a primary concern when planning your diet, right?
Maybe…but maybe not.
There’s no doubt that hormones are absolutely vital. Without them, your body simply wouldn’t work, and it’s true that to lose fat or build muscle optimally you need your hormones to be at a healthy level.
But is it possible to manipulate hormone levels through diet? If internet ads and articles in popular muscle magazines are to be believed, this would seem to be the case. But like so much in the fitness and nutrition world, things aren’t always what they seem. Gurus are often out to make a quick buck, and so certain shady characters promote the idea that you need a diet to address your hormone levels before looking at anything else.
These guys talk about special foods that supposedly jack up testosterone or kick out cortisol to help you get leaner, quicker.
“To lose fat or build muscle optimally you need your hormones to be at a healthy level.”
So what’s the truth? Can diet drastically affect hormones to make the difference between small or jacked? Or is this all some serious bull that has been hijacked by savvy marketers to make a quick buck?
A Crash Course on the Major Hormones That Affect Body Composition
- Testosterone – This is the sex hormone that’s most prominent in males, although females produce it too. It’s responsible for regulating libido, muscle mass, and fat distribution. Generally, it’s thought that higher levels of testosterone are better, though as we’ll discuss later, this isn’t necessarily true.
- Cortisol – Cortisol modulates your body’s response to stress. While high levels of cortisol are often thought of as bad, cortisol has a crucial job. As you will learn shortly, it’s normal and even necessary for levels of this hormone to fluctuate throughout the day and during your training period. Sometimes, you need cortisol to be high!
- Insulin – The double-edged sword of the hormone world, insulin is the storage hormone. Its main job is to take carbs from the food you eat and transport them to your body’s cells to be used for energy or stored for use later. Many people see insulin as anabolic (muscle-building), but it’s actually anti-catabolic (prevents muscle breakdown.)
- Growth Hormone – Growth hormone regulates cell growth in the muscles, organs, and bones among other places, and like insulin is anti-catabolic.
Ghrelin and leptin – ‘the hunger hormones.’ As you would guess, these are pretty pivotal for any dieter out there.
- Thyroid Hormone – Your thyroid gland is located in your neck, and two of the hormones it releases (T3 and T4) play a role in regulating your metabolic rate by making your body’s cells use more energy. If your thyroid is underactive, less T3 and T4 are produced, and energy expenditure goes down and weight loss can slow.
Is There a Dietary Protocol to Optimize These Hormones?
On the face of it, you would think that hormones were the all-powerful guardians of fat loss and muscle gain, and those meager fluctuations could be the difference between getting the body of your dreams and falling short of your goals. You might also think that there’s a dietary protocol to optimize these hormones, helping you cruise to easy fat loss.
But not so fast.
In reality, this isn’t the case at all. While certain lifestyle factors can help fix malfunctioning hormones, specific foods or training protocols won’t do this, and in many situations, it’s futile to even try.
Furthermore, when it comes to hormones, you have what’s known as a ‘normal physiological range.’ This refers to where most healthy human beings are. Within this range, you might have some hormones come in at the high end, some toward the bottom, and others that sit right in the middle.
Provided you’re in this normal physiological range, it’s very unlikely that fluctuations in any of the hormones above will have an impact on body composition. Plus, the effect that individual foods have on hormones is minimal, and certainly not enough to seriously impact or jeopardize muscle growth or fat loss. If you’re still not convinced, keep reading and we’ll run through each hormone in turn.
With all the testosterone-boosting supplements on the market, you would be forgiven for thinking that jacking up your T-levels would lead to superhuman gains.
But research shows that this isn’t the case. Specific foods or supplements might have an extremely small impact on testosterone at the very best (most will have absolutely no effect), and when testosterone is within the normal physiological range, fluctuations in this hormone won’t affect lean muscle mass to a significant degree .
“Ditch the idea that specific foods or supplements will take your physique to the next level”
So when it comes to diet and testosterone, ditch the idea that specific foods or supplements will take your physique to the next level. If you really want to make sure that you keep testosterone at ideal levels for gaining muscle and losing fat, avoid cutting calories and fat too low for too long.
Cortisol has a reputation for being the bad guy in the bodybuilding world, seeing as it’s a stress hormone that has been linked to muscle breakdown.
However, cortisol isn’t quite the bad guy that muscle magazines make it out to be. Research has shown that weight training actually instigates a greater increase in cortisol than testosterone, creatinine, or IGF-1 , meaning that routines designed to build muscle naturally raise this supposedly detrimental hormone.
But why would weight training increase cortisol? The answer comes down to cortisol’s role as a hormone that increases the availability of glucose in the body (a process called gluconeogenesis). When you weight train, glucose in the blood and stored glycogen are depleted, and so cortisol is released to signal the body to make new glucose from protein.
This is a necessary process to give you more energy, and although protein can be leached from muscle to create new glucose if cortisol remains elevated for prolonged periods, new glucose can also be made from readily-available protein that you’ve eaten or is in the bloodstream already—so it doesn’t have to come from muscle tissue.
Not only is an increase in cortisol during a workout to be expected, but it’s actually a great sign! It means you’ve worked out hard and burned through a lot of energy. If cortisol doesn’t increase it probably means either you weren’t training hard enough (which would NOT be productive to building a better physique), or you were extremely well fed with ample glucose going into the workout (if your macros are super high, this could be you).
So when it comes to cortisol, transient increases are necessary and no cause for worry. The only time cortisol is a problem is when it remains elevated long-term. Luckily, there is an easy way to quickly lower cortisol post-workout—simply eat a high carb meal!
Including carbs in your post-workout meal will tell the body that glucose is now available, rapidly shutting down cortisol production and preventing any potential muscle loss. To keep cortisol at bay long-term, you will also want to minimize day-to-day stress as much as possible, make sure you get adequate sleep, take some downtime, and factor rest days and deloads into your training.
Many people are of the false belief that insulin has to be kept low nearly all of the time to prevent you from storing carbohydrates as fat and that the only time it needs to be raised is around training times to aid recovery. The nutrition gurus who preach this idea claim that certain foods are highly insulogenic—meaning that they will raise blood sugar and spike insulin—and that these foods should be avoided to maximize fat loss.
But there’s a major flaw in this line of thinking.
The glycemic index (or measurement of how much a food impacts blood sugar) isn’t the almighty gatekeeper of fat burning that it has been made out to be. In fact, the measurement itself doesn’t hold up in the real world.
The blood sugar response to a particular food will differ from person to person, and once you start consuming mixed meals (i.e. ones that contain a combination of macros rather than just carbohydrate alone) the glycemic response changes and insulin release is reduced . Also, it’s not JUST carbs that increase insulin—protein, especially in the form of dairy and whey, will also raise insulin! If fat loss depended on keeping insulin at its lowest at all times, we’d all be in trouble.
Weight loss and weight gain all comes down to calorie balance! If you eat more calories than you burn you will gain weight, and if you consume fewer than you burn you will lose weight.
While loading up on food that increases blood sugar may be an issue for diabetics, for the otherwise healthy individual following a diet with personalized macros, there’s no need to stress over the matter.
Despite being another hormone that’s been put on a pedestal for years, there’s really very little evidence to support the role of growth hormone (GH) in stimulating muscle synthesis.
Many people who tout the importance of GH in increasing muscle mass are either referring to those who are clinically deficient in the hormone or are confusing the term lean mass with skeletal muscle.
Administering GH to those who are clinically deficient has been shown to increase muscle size and strength, but it doesn’t impact muscle growth or strength in people who already have normal GH levels . Furthermore, while administering GH has been shown to increase lean body mass in the form of connective tissue  and water , this should not be confused for skeletal muscle.
The truth is, GH plays more of a role in promoting fat burning and helping to prevent muscle breakdown than it does to grow muscle tissue. Unless injected in giant doses that fall outside the range of what the human body would produce naturally, body composition will not be affected by changes in GH to any significant degree . This being the case, the tiny fluctuations in GH that might occur in response to food, training, or GH-promoting dietary supplements will certainly not affect body composition.
Ghrelin and Leptin
Ghrelin is secreted by the lining of your stomach and increases hunger, while leptin comes mostly from your fat cells and decreases hunger.
Therefore, the higher your leptin levels and the lower your ghrelin, the smoother your diet will go as you will feel full and satiated more of the time.
The science on this one is simple—no individual food or diet containing specific foods will optimize your hunger hormones. Instead of sweating over specific foods, focus on total calorie intake. Avoid extreme dieting or dieting for too long. As your body fat levels drop, leptin levels obviously drop as well, but this can be minimized by taking regular diet breaks, including high-carb days or carbohydrate-based re-feeds , and getting adequate sleep .
I’d bet my last protein bar that you’ve heard of the thyroid hormone, or that at least you’ve listened to someone bemoan their thyroid issues and say that this is the reason they can’t lose weight. When you diet and lose weight, your thyroid output can decrease [11, 12], making weight loss progressively harder over time.
For those with an underactive thyroid gland, there are no specific foods or diet that will correct the problem (unlike what internet gurus might have you believe). While in some cases, an iodine deficiency can contribute to the problem, this rarely occurs in developed countries. And while cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, brussel sprouts, and cabbage have substances called goitrogens that can inhibit thyroid production, even those who are already compromised would need to have an iodine deficiency or to be eating insanely high amounts of these raw vegetables to see any impact on thyroid production.
Bottom line: if you have an underactive thyroid, you will need to treat it with medication rather than by simply trying to eat or avoid specific foods. If you’ve lowered your thyroid production by crash dieting or undereating for long periods in the past, you will also want to keep total calories high for a while to help your metabolism and body recover.
Just as with leptin and ghrelin, thyroid hormone levels can be jeopardized by cutting calories too low for too long . This is yet another reason to avoid steep calorie deficits and to include diet breaks and re-feeds in your weight loss strategy. Known as cyclical or phasic dieting, you can learn more about how to do this here.
So What CAN You Do to Optimize Hormones?
Simple: don’t over diet and stay consistent.
By and large, your hormone levels can’t be altered much by eating specific foods (with the exception of carbs for reducing cortisol). However, your overall calorie intake can have an effect over time on certain hormones. Obviously, if you’re starving yourself before you work out, not refueling properly afterward, dieting on too few calories, and you’re stressed, then your testosterone and thyroid hormone will be chronically low, while cortisol will be high, which isn’t good long-term.
But if you’re sticking with your macros, training hard, and have no ill health effects, you should be fine, and any small fluctuations within normal hormone ranges won’t have a significant impact on your results.
If you believe any of your hormone levels may be out of whack, then speak to your doctor. Other than that, follow our top tips for healthy hormones and you will be just fine:
- Maintain a balanced macronutrient split
- Keep dietary fat at 20-40% of total calorie intake
- Keep stress as low as possible and get good quality sleep
- Properly fuel up for workouts and refuel afterward
- Don’t implement too aggressive a calorie deficit or surplus
- Avoid dieting for extended periods and take regular breaks or implement reverse diets
Above all, don’t worry about using dated and potentially dangerous practices to boost your hormone levels! Doing so won’t bring about any noticeable visual results whatsoever and will simply leave you feeling frustrated.
You can rest assured that at Avatar Nutrition, we won’t be getting you to smother everything in coconut oil to boost testosterone or add pineapple to every meal for the supposed growth hormone response. We’ll just give you the cold, hard, (proven) science to eat right for your hormones.