It all starts with the first bite. Just as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s road to the Mr. Olympia title began with his first rep and Sir Edmund Hillary’s climbing of Mount Everest began with his first step, your new diet will begin with a single chew.
And like those first reps and steps, your first chew will be followed by thousands more, each one of equal importance as you feed your muscles the fuel they need to build the physique you want. The key, then, is to make every bite count.
“The top diet mistake that I see athletes make when it comes to gaining muscle is they immediately eliminate fats and overdose on protein,” says Pete Bommarito, the president and director of Bommarito Performance Systems (bommaritoperformance.com) in southern Florida. He has trained hundreds of top NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB players, including more than 50 NFL first-round picks and more than 50 NFL Pro Bowlers. “When you want to gain muscle, there are fats that are beneficial and fats that aren’t. And there’s only so much protein that your body can consume, process and utilize in one sitting,” he explains.
Yes, you’re often surrounded by foods containing fats that aren’t good for you, and yes, protein does build muscle, but completely eliminating the former while endlessly shoveling the latter down your throat is akin to taking a chainsaw to your diet when all you really need is a steak knife.
A PROTEIN PRIMER
“The main factor in protein consumption is not necessarily how much protein you consume but when you consume it,” Bommarito notes. “People think that if they lift weights, they need an influx of protein all day. That’s simply not true. The timing of the protein is what’s important.”
So is there a timing window that’s more crucial than others? “Immediately after you’re done exercising,” Bommarito says. “When your workout is over, you want an infusion of proteins with some complex sugars. It’s all about getting the nutrients to your muscles at the right time.” He recommends a postworkout protein shake with at least 20 grams of quality whey protein isolate — which digests rapidly in the body — with branched-chain amino acids to saturate your muscles with the building blocks they need in the wake of a rep-riddled beatdown.
Of course, you also want to eat a healthy portion of protein with each meal — 30 grams seems to be the optimal number, according to the research — from a clean source of protein such as fish, tuna, turkey or chicken. When you’re training to gain muscle mass, three meals a day will do, so long as you approach your 30 grams of protein per feeding.
The old mainstay of eating five to six smaller meals throughout the day is fine, too, but you must keep an eye on your daily total protein intake, which should be 1 to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight. That means a 180-pound athlete should consume anywhere from 180 to 270 grams per day. Aim for the low end and adjust up from there, if needed, based on your body’s rate of muscle gain.
Since the foods most commonly associated with obesity are also heavy in fat (fast food, potato chips, ice cream, etc.), fat itself has earned a bad reputation. But saying that all fats are bad is grossly unfair to the fats that are essential for muscle growth. So if you’re going to bad-mouth fat, at least slander only trans fats and saturated fats, and even then make sure to tread lightly.
Trans fats are what you usually find in fried, processed and packaged foods, while saturated fats are found in meat, dairy and eggs. These are the “bad” fats correlated with high cholesterol, heart disease and weight gain. Even so, saturated fats do have some value to active males because they help keep testosterone levels where they need to be.
“Good” fats are called unsaturated and monounsaturated fats. They’re found in raw nuts, avocadoes, olive oil and salmon. They’re important because they aid nutrient absorption, which is extremely beneficial to your muscles if you want them to grow. They also bolster joint and brain health and can help increase fat burning.
“I’m constantly telling my athletes to increase their intake of good fats,” Bommarito says. “In just 1 ounce of raw almonds or cashews, you’re going to get well over 200 calories and around 15 grams of protein, which is what you need to build muscle.”
Other sources of good fats are pure virgin olive oil and organic, all-natural nut butter. “I’d say the No. 1 thing I go through when I’m training my guys is getting them to have a constant influx of good fats,” Bommarito continues. “After that, it’s getting them to watch their high-glycemic carb index.”
Because fats have a higher caloric density than the other two macronutrients — 9 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram for carbs and protein — it’s a good idea to consume fat with discretion. Generally, 0.5 gram per pound of bodyweight per day is a good target; as always, you can adjust up or down from there.
While protein and good fats build muscle, you still need energy to burn while you work out. That’s where carbohydrates come in. In the body, carbs are broken down into simple sugars that your body then uses as its primary source of energy. Just like there are “good” fats and “bad” fats, there are also “good” carbs and “bad” carbs.
Sadly, bad carbs are the most common and abundant on store shelves, and they’re what you want to stay away from when you’re trying to gain clean muscle while keeping unwanted body fat far, far away. (One exception is postworkout, when you want quick-acting carbs along with your protein to kick-start recovery.) Enriched pasta, white potatoes, processed white rice, cereals, granola and white bread are all considered bad carbs because they raise blood sugar levels rapidly and invite wild surges of insulin that can convince your body it needs to store an extra “layer” for survival. “Basically, anything that’s processed or enriched, you should stay away from,” Bommarito advises.
Good carbs include fiber- and nutrient-rich foods such as long-grain brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, sweet potatoes, red-skin potatoes and whole-wheat bread. “When you’re trying to gain muscle, you want to have a much higher percentage of good carbs in your diet,” Bommarito says. “These carbs will give you the long-lasting energy you need to exercise.”
Those looking to gain muscle while staying relatively lean tend to make the mistake of under-indulging in carbs, which can leave them with an apocalyptic, “walker-like” swagger in the gym. Such subpar workouts will produce subpar gains. Aiming for 1.5 to 2 grams per pound of bodyweight per day, then adjusting up or down based on energy levels and body composition, is a good newbie strategy.
ONE MORE BITE
In the end, getting bigger and stronger comes down to this: You must feed your muscles not only the optimal fuel to maintain high energy levels for better workouts but also the necessary building blocks for recovery after those training sessions. With these nutrition and supplement guidelines, you have the information you need to succeed on both fronts. Are you ready to conquer your personal version of Everest?
The following sample diets are meant to give you a quick-look blueprint at how to construct your own beginner’s diet. It’s important not to obsess over the gram-for-gram guidelines but rather build your dietary acumen through practice. The following takes the math out of the equation and presents what a solid day of chow should look like, with the calories and macros all balanced and accounted for.
SAMPLE TRAINING DAY DIET
½ cup egg whites + 2 whole eggs 1 cup oatmeal Fresh fruit (your choice) ¼ avocado
Snack1 apple (sliced) with peanut butter
Lunch 6-8 ounces chicken breast Mixed green salad with olive oil or balsamic vinegar dressing, or fresh fruit 1 medium to large sweet potato
Preworkout DrinkProtein/carbohydrate drink containing a creatine/amino acid mix
1. Never drastically reduce, eliminate or over-indulge with any macronutrient. Protein, carbs and fat all have a place in your muscle-building diet and should be eaten in relative balance, with a slightly higher calorie count from protein.
2. Drink plenty of water to keep your muscles, brain and organs hydrated. Aim for half of your bodyweight in ounces per day. Falling just short or going just over is fine.
3. Choose good fats over bad fats and good carbs over bad carbs whenever possible.
4. Limit or eliminate from your diet any foods whose labels list “enriched” ingredients.
5. Develop a solid supplement plan to augment your diet. For some ideas, turn to page 44.