Nutrition 101 for Gamers

Good nutrition choices can be a confusing endeavor. Is red meat bad for you or good for you? Should you eat whole eggs or just egg whites? Should you be eating a keto/vegetarian/gluten-free/whatever diet? How much should I be eating in a day? How often should I be eating?

The answer to all of these questions is “it depends”. Red meat is fine in moderation. If you’re watching your cholesterol, egg whites are a better choice but whole eggs are fine otherwise. Different diets work better for different goals–keto can be helpful for weight loss, but isn’t the only way; vegetarian is better for the environment and possibly for your heart (research is conflicted), gluten-free is a necessity for folks with celiac disease and wheat sensitivity but not a must-do for anyone else. The amount and timing depends on your goals (weight loss, weight maintenance, or weight gain) and your activity levels.

Those aren’t the kinds of things you’d know without either a whole bunch of research on specific diets (who has time for that?) or a basic background in nutrition. In this article, we’ll go over nutrition basics: macronutrients, daily calorie intakes, and the science of being hungry.

Macronutrients: The Building Blocks of Nutrition

All foods can be broken down into their component parts, called macronutrients. There are three macronutrients: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Each of them contain varying amounts of calories, which are units of heat that indicate how much energy the food they’re in will produce in the human body when burned. More calories = more available fuel to burn (with leftover fuel stored as either muscle or fat mass, depending on how you use your body).

Proteins

Proteins are found in things like meat, fish, beans, eggs, and dairy products. In every 1 gram of protein, there are 4 calories. Proteins are valuable for their role in building and repairing muscle tissue.

Fats

Fats are found in large quantities things like oils, butter, nuts, seeds, and, yes, avocados. Each gram of fat contains 9 calories. Most fat-containing foods also contain other macronutrients–butter contains protein and carbohydrates, nuts contain protein, avocados contain carbohydrates. Most foods in general aren’t composed of just one single macronutrient.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are found in things like bread, pasta, fruits, and vegetables. In every 1 gram of carbohydrates, there are 4 calories. Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source of your body. Your body converts carbohydrates to simple sugars to be burned straight away, or complex sugars to be stored and used later.

Sidenote: if you’ve heard that you need to cut the amount of carbs in your diet in order to lose weight, and you’re worried about this being a primary food source, DON’T PANIC. For one thing, carbohydrates aren’t evil. It’s entirely possible to get most of your carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, and healthy whole grain sources; it’s a problem if your primary carbohydrate sources are white breads, white flour pastas, and simple sugars like the kinds found in candy. But there’s nothing inherently bad about carbohydrates, as long as you recognize that just like any other calorie, you need to burn as much as you take in to maintain weight and that you need to burn more than you take in to lose it.

And if you’re really worried about carbohydrates and don’t believe me, it’s entirely possible to have a healthy and active lifestyle while eating a protein-heavy diet. It’s even possible to exercise on the keto diet, although you should consult with your doctor first about this as there’s a period of time your body needs to adapt to using fat as the primary fuel source.

There are a variety of ways you can distribute your calorie intake across macronutrients. Generally, carbohydrates will make up the bulk of your diet. A range of 50-55% carbs, 25-35% protein, and 25-35% fat is a good place to start for well-balanced nutrition.

How big is my tank? How many calories do I need?

You’ll notice we’ve been talking about percentages so far, not raw numbers. That’s because the total number of calories you need will depend on three main things: your size, your activity level, and your goals.

Basal Metabolic Rate: What you need to do nothing at all

There’s a certain basic amount of calories everyone needs in a day for their body to function. This is your basal metabolic rate, and it’s a measure of the energy required for things like your heart to pump blood, your stomach to process food, and your brain to keep the whole machine running.

Total Daily Energy Expenditure: Fuel your movement

There’s an additional amount of calories you need depending on how many calories you’re burning and what your goal is. If you’re highly active, you need extra calories just to maintain your weight. If you’re mostly sedentary, those same extra calories won’t get burned and the macronutrients will instead be stored as body fat.

So how do you figure out exactly how much you need? The most accurate number you can get without the help of a nutrition expert like a registered dietitian is with a Total Daily Energy Expenditure or TDEE calculation. If you’re interested in calculating your TDEE, enter some of your information into this calculator to find out! Or if you really enjoy math, the calculation you’ll need is below:

TDEE = BMR x activity multiplier

BMR (Men) = 66 + (13.7 x weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) – (6.8 x age in years)

BMR (Women) = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age in years)

Activity Multiplier

Amount of ActivityDescriptionActivity Multiplier
SedentaryLittle/no exercise, desk job1.2
Lightly activeLight exercise 1-3 days/week1.375
Moderately activeModerate exercise 3-5 days/week1.55
Very activeHeavy exercise 6-7 days/week1.725
Extremely activeVery heavy exercise/physical job 6-7 days/week1.9

“That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always hungry.”

The sensation of hunger is regulated by two hormones: ghrelin and leptin. When your stomach is empty, or your body thinks your stomach is empty, ghrelin is released so that your brain gets the message “hey, I need to eat”. When your stomach is full again, leptin is released to “shut off” ghrelin.

However, just like certain eating habits (high fat, high sugar, low fiber foods) can lead to resistance to the hormone insulin, those same eating habits can lead to your body being more sensitive to ghrelin and less sensitive to leptin. Sometimes, a sensation of hunger doesn’t actually mean your body needs to eat–it just means it’s overreacting to ghrelin.

That’s part of why it’s so important to pay attention to what you’re taking in and how much. If you’re aware of how much your body should need, you’re able to provide just that. If you only ever let hunger be your guide, you’re liable to mix up what your body’s telling you and take in too much. This isn’t Skyrim; your body won’t recover just because you shove food in it. It depends much more on what you’re taking in.

Hunger vs. Thirst

Hunger can also be the result of your body being in the early stages of dehydration. Often, what we interpret as a sensation of hunger is actually our bodies trying to tell us that we’re thirsty. If you’re getting appropriate nutrition but are still feeling hungry, consider both how much you’re drinking and what you’re drinking.

If what you’re drinking is high in sugar, it may be making you hungry more than it’s relieving your hunger. Other drinks, like coffee and soda, can act as diuretics, which stimulate your body to get rid of fluid and can make you more dehydrated, not less. That’s not to say you should never drink coffee or soda–just that you need to be aware of how much of them you’re drinking, how your body responds to them, and to make sure you’re taking in other fluids as well. Water is your best bet. If you find water too bland, there are plenty of flavored waters that make it a little less boring. Check out our Hydration Tier List for other good options!

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