Energy balance - the amount of food that you take in compared to the number of calories you burn - is perhaps the most vital component of living a fit, active, healthy lifestyle. Consume too many calories without enough activity, and you gain weight in the form of increased body fat. If you don't consume enough calories, you will not have the energy to support the physiological adaptations to exercise, or more simply put, muscle growth.
Last week I talked about safely cutting calories through simple, sensible food choices while increasing one's activity level by a moderate amount to eliminate 500 calories a day and lose one pound per week. For basic weight loss, this is the best approach to help retrain the body's metabolism and ensure that one eats enough to sustain a certain level of activity. But what if weight gain is the goal? If someone wants or needs to build muscle mass, she needs a caloric surplus.
The only way to make sure that those excess calories do not turn into increased body fat is through a very careful balance of diet and exercise. It is not enough to lift some weight and eat whatever you feel like as the mood strikes you. The body's metabolism must be carefully manipulated to use its energy pathways appropriately. Protein, fat, and carbohydrates are still necessary, but in slightly different amounts than someone exercising for general fitness or weight loss.
Here, I will address what the body needs for safe muscle mass production and weight gain without added pounds from fat. Please keep in mind that these are merely suggestions based on my knowledge of general nutrition, and not at all a diet prescription. For your body's specific dietary needs, and for people seeking quick results, I highly suggest contacting a local nutritionist if you require a meal plan.
I want to go ahead and address this one up front. This is a substance you see on labels all over supplements, powders and potions marketed specifically for weight lifters. Here are a couple things to know about creatine:
1. Your body does make it naturally. It is stored in the muscles and is necessary for the onset of any activity. Even for long distance runners - those first few strides are are made possible by CP, or creatine phosphate. It is basically your muscles' "on" switch.
2. More is not better. You can take creatine supplements all day, but without the proper amount of resistance exercise necessary to see muscle gains, it will do nothing but dehydrate you and put a load of stress on your kidneys.
3. Unless you are vegetarian, you are already probably getting enough creatine if you are also eating enough protein (read more on that next). To increase that amount naturally, switch from conventional meats to organic, free-range meats and wild-caught fish, which contain more creatine through their own healthier diets. Supplements are most beneficial for vegetarians. An initial dose of no more than 20g per day for about a week, followed by a maintenance dose of 2g-5g per day may be beneficial do those undertaking an exercise regimen which requires short bursts of intensity(1). Adequate hydration is absolutely necessary, and results are not guaranteed, as the success of creatine supplementation is dependent on one's exercise efforts.
4. You should absolutely talk to your doctor before supplementing with creatine, especially if you or someone in your family has a history of illness affecting the liver or kidneys.
Protein protein protein!! That is what the magazines and weight lifting websites will tell you. Some weight lifting enthusiasts may even tell you that you need up to 1g of protein per pound of body weight, or even more! So for a 200-lb person looking to gain a lot of muscle, that's 200g of protein which is...
- nearly 30oz. of beef, or 2 and 2/3 NY strips
- almost two entire chickens
- five cans of tuna
- eight cups of cottage cheese
And I won't even discuss the amount of fiber and water your body would need to process all of that protein, unless you never want to go to the bathroom again. (Sorry, but it's the truth!) There is a far more reasonable approach to give your body what it needs for safe, moderate muscle gains that will not overwhelm your digestive tract.
1. Add some protein to every snack and meal. Make your oatmeal with milk instead of water, add Greek yogurt or whey protein to your smoothies, use quinoa instead of rice as a side dish to your meal. Dietary guidelines recommend around .4g protein/pound of body weight for weight and strength maintenance, but bumping that number up to .6g or .7g is fine if you are active and focused strength training (2).
2. Make sure you get all of your amino acids. These "building blocks" of protein serve special and unique purposes. L-lysine bolsters the immune system. L-glutamine aids in tissue repair, and leucine is the one essential amino acid responsible for protein synthesis. These essential amino acids can not be made within our bodies - they must be ingested. So focus your meals on getting protein from multiple sources, such as meat, dairy, eggs, nuts and legumes.
3. Too much protein becomes fat. To clarify: If you eat too much of anything without enough exercise, your body with convert the excess to fat. I will save you the complicated energy pathway diagram, just know that a calorie is a calorie, and that while you need a surplus to gain muscle, you have to give your muscles the proper load with every work out and keep your metabolism going with some cardiovascular work. Your body is a clever machine that wants to work as efficiently as possible, so it will not burn what it doesn't have to.
4. Don't forget about the other food groups! As mentioned before, your body will need fiber and water if you decide to increase your protein intake. Also, certain proteins and vitamins work synergistically, meaning that they are absorbed better. So load up on fruits and veggies while you pile on the protein!
Carbohydrates and Healthy Fat
Your body still needs SOME carbohydrates to get muscles going. Even in anaerobic exercise, such as short bouts of heavy weight lifting or a 100-meter sprint, glucose most be readily available in the bloodstream to be taken up by cells. When focusing on weight gain, it is important that these sugars come from natural sources, such as fruits and fresh-pressed juices. These are very quick-releasing sugars that give the muscles what they need for ATP production in anaerobic (not Oxygen-requiring) exercise.
If you decide to increase your protein intake, you may risk an increase in "bad" cholesterol, unless you get all of your protein from vegan sources. There is nothing wrong with a steak or some chicken, but your body still needs healthy, polyunsaturated fats to keep your "good" cholesterol up and the "bad" cholesterol down. Olive oil, salmon, nuts, eggs, avocado, flax, and chia are just some of the many great sources of heart-healthy fatty acids.
So if weight gain is what you are after, make sure you do it in a safely. There is simply no benefit to abandoning all regard and eating whatever you want. Likewise, gaining muscle does not mean you are only allowed to eat boiled chicken and canned tuna for the rest of your life. Just like with exercise, moderation is key. Gradually increase your caloric intake, keeping the focus primarily on protein (but not ignoring the other food groups), just as you would gradually increase your exercise.
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1. Wardlaw, Gordon M. and Smith, Anne M. Contemporary Nutrition, Seventh Edition. McGraw-Hill, New York. 2006.
2. Waehner, Paige. "Calculating Your Protein Needs." About Health. About.com, 1 July 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2014. <http://exercise.about.com/cs/nutrition/a/protein.htm>.