Eat Right to Grow Faster

Written by Victor R. Prisk, M.D.

Board-Certified Orthopaedic Surgeon and NPC Welterweight National Champion


You may think you’re doing everything right to grow muscle mass—training, taking supplements, getting plenty of rest—but you’re still not seeing the results you want. It’s likely that your diet may be the culprit. Eat to grow and you’ll start to see the payoff for all of your hard work.

THE CONCEPT

First, you have to determine just how many calories you actually need to maintain your weight with regards to total daily energy expenditure. Log your dietary intake for a couple of weeks, weigh yourself first thing in the morning twice a week and see if your bodyweight fluctuates. If it stays the same you need more calories to grow, if it decreases you need even more calories, and if it increases you’re on the right track, but may even then want to add more calories.
Then you need to consider how active you are in the gym or on your job. One way to get a sense of this is to use a wearable calorie-counting device or phone app. Again, these aren’t very accurate so you will have to adjust as you go, but they give you a starting point. Add your extra calorie burn to your caloric needs and then add up to 500 calories. This will ensure you that you are never energy deficient. More calories will help with gaining weight, but you will run greater risk of storing fat.
Second, you have to adjust your macronutrients (carbs, fats and protein) to meet your individual needs. All proteins, fats and carbs are not created equal.

NOT ALL PROTEINS ARE CREATED EQUAL

We all know that bodybuilders need more protein than the 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight that the RDA recommends. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) also agree with this, recommending nearly 1 gram per pound of bodyweight for strength-training athletes. However, some believe that this may still be insufficient for maximizing gains from heavy resistance training. In fact, I believe that counting the absolute number of all grams of protein may be a little misleading, because all proteins are not created equal.
Once we have verified that we are getting the majority of our protein intake from complete proteins, we must also realize that all complete proteins are not created equal. Each protein has different ratios of the essential and non-essential amino acids. Some proteins such as the dairy proteins are particularly rich in the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs; leucine, isoleucine, valine). It turns out that this difference in BCAA content is an important distinction.
A recently published study has shown that when we consume protein in a skewed fashion (like most Americans) with the majority of our protein intake at dinner and much less at lunch and breakfast, we do not maximize our muscle growth potential. This study looked at the difference between eating ~10 grams, 15 grams and 65 grams of protein for breakfast, lunch and dinner, respectively, versus eating 30 grams for each meal. By increasing the protein content of the first two meals, it is theorized that a threshold was met whereby muscle protein synthesis was turned on at each meal.

HEALTHY AND UNHEALTHY FATS

There are essential fats that we can’t live without. Even though recent studies suggest that saturated fat may not be as evil as once thought, if you eat too much when trying to grow you will probably not be at your healthiest. That being said, restricting your cholesterol and saturated fat intake excessively can cause reductions in testosterone production, potentially hindering muscle growth. So, if you are not a “hormone supplemented” bodybuilder, extreme limitations of your fat intake can be detrimental to your goals. By maximizing the polyunsaturated fatty acids, especially the omega-3s from fish oils, you are more likely to see some health benefits from eating to grow. I would recommend keeping your fat content above 30 percent of your total daily calories and strictly avoid toxic and inflammatory trans fats. As for all of the macronutrients, getting the majority of your fat from whole (unprocessed) foods will help you to avoid unhealthy fats.

CARBOHYDRATES

Carbohydrates stimulate the release of insulin, your body’s most anabolic hormone. By consuming more than adequate amounts of carbohydrates with each meal and around your training, you can maximize strength-training performance in the gym to attain the most adaptive responses for muscle growth. Carbohydrate-deficient diets can limit testosterone production; whether this is significant enough to limit muscle accretion is not known. Regardless, low-carbohydrate diets can limit strength as glycogen fuels weight training.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends consuming 2.7 to 4.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound bodyweight per day. The amount required is very dependent on energy requirements after calculating your protein and fat needs. The more endurance or high-volume training you perform, the more carbohydrate you should consume. Additionally, 0.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound bodyweight will be more than enough in a post-workout meal to restore muscle glycogen stores. Again, whole foods such as yams, potatoes, rice, quinoa and others would be recommended over sugars.
The data about the “anabolic window” has become muddied in recent years. There is data to support consuming protein and carbohydrate within an hour before or after your training. However, other studies have shown that if you are consuming adequate amounts of protein throughout the day the timing around the workout doesn’t matter. Essentially, if you are consuming your protein (and thus leucine) every three to four hours as we previously discussed, you will have some protein fairly close to the start of your training and after. Because the research is so muddied, I still recommend having half of a 40- to 50-gram whey +/- carbohydrate meal before and after your training when “eating to grow.”

VEGETABLES

Another, often under recognized, aspect of “eating to grow” is the importance of vegetables. Vegetables are not only important for their antioxidant vitamin, mineral and fiber content. Veggies, especially green leafy veggies, are rich in nitrates. Nitrates act as nitric oxide donors. This is just like the arginine- and citrulline-rich supplements used to boost your pump in the gym.
Foods like spinach, celery and beets are rich in nitrates and boost nitric oxide. Researchers have found that beetroot juice supplementation results in better tolerance of the intense exercise and better metabolic handling of oxygen than beetroot juice that was depleted of nitrate. The subjects on the nitrate-rich beetroot juice took longer to fail at a high-intensity sprint than those on a placebo-nitrate depleted beetroot juice. With higher intensity training you can imagine this could provide greater potential for muscle growth stimulus. With the added antioxidants, you may even recover from that training faster. Do what your mama told ya: eat your veggies!
The data about the “anabolic window” has become muddied in recent years. There is data to support consuming protein and carbohydrate within an hour before or after your training. However, other studies have shown that if you are consuming adequate amounts of protein throughout the day the timing around the workout doesn’t matter. Essentially, if you are consuming your protein (and thus leucine) every three to four hours as we previously discussed, you will have some protein fairly close to the start of your training and after. Because the research is so muddied, I still recommend having half of a 40- to 50-gram whey +/- carbohydrate meal before and after your training when “eating to grow.”

DIET ESSENTIALS

  1. Whole food sources of quality proteins, fats, and carbohydrates
  2. 0.05 grams of leucine per kilogram bodyweight per meal
  3. Nitrate-rich veggies