Gaining "Good" Weight: Diet (part 2)
Part 1 was a fairly broad look at the importance of targeted training and recovery as essential components of gaining muscle. This entry delves only into diet. But it is important to understand the big picture mentioned in the first entry. Broaching the topic of diet is touchy. Genetics are not all the same. Socioeconomics differ, and largely impact what is practical. Our cultural and even family customs and values are different. At the end of the day, different means and methods do work and fail for different people. Keep that in mind when anyone tells you precisely “What you need to do.” With that being said, here are some essential components for many, possibly the majority of athletes, to gaining muscle. Think of it as an informed starting point for you own journey.
Food Quality and Quantity
You do not need a Four-year degree or the next diet book to know what healthy food looks like. In kindergarten we learned the difference between an “anytime food” and a “sometimes” food. Naturally occurring fats in unprocessed foods like eggs, cheese, fish, unprocessed meat and seeds are GOOD. Minimally processed carbs are GOOD. For athletes -some- extra dietary protein is GOOD above what is advised for the average person. Ignore anyone who tells you that apples, bananas, blueberries, tomatoes and beans are bad. And yes, I understand the idea of the strict two-week “keto” carb watch. These extremes are almost always unnecessary, especially for weight gain. Designer packaged foods that advertise “no/low carb,” “paleo,” “keto,” “vegan,” and “organic” are not always good, and often are some of the worst things for you.
Not, in fact, an "anytime" food
Grandpa’s old fashion advice to eat “natural, less processed foods most of the time” applies to everyone. Now, it’s the quantity of food that needs to vary. Much of the fitness and diet industry is tailored to the middle aged, fairly sedentary desk worker looking to lose weight. Ignore all of that advice. Athletes who are growing and / or training and competing with consistency have different needs than the average person wanting to maintain or lose weight. Just like training and practice, focus on consistency. Pound something quick and easily digested immediately upon awakening and after training. Add some real food where and when you can, an extra half sandwich and the bowl of soup. It is not hard to consistently add a little, two to three times per day. Over the weeks and months, this provides for the type of “good” weight gain we are after.
The body can process a limited amount of protein at any single feeding. This depends on a number of factors, but 20 to 30% of overall calories (or about 30 grams per meal) is usually more than enough. Anything beyond that is excreted or stored as fat. And when you calculate out how much lean tissue (muscle and connective tissue thickness, greater bone density, etc) a human can actually accrue over a given time, it turns out that 2 to 4 pounds of lean tissue PER MONTH is the absolute best you’re going to get. Detailed nitrogen retention studies support this.Too much, too quicklyDon’t be impressed when someone says they gained 50 pounds in a school semester. Unless they were a collegiate linemen, they would have been far better off in both the short- and long-term to have gained around half of that. Gaining 20 pounds of muscle and 20 pounds of fat every 4 to 6 months costs you more than it’s worth in terms of both performance and long-term health. You should not throw down food like a Scandinavian strong man, sumo wrestler, or the “average American diet” of fries and Cheetos, in order to put on some muscle.
Too Little, Too Precise
In my (and others) experience, athletes who seek the Holy Grail of simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain wind up doing neither very well. Again, the body systems function as a unit. Our hormones are literally shifted into either “breaking down” mode -or- “building up” mode, and trying to ride the thin line between the two is almost always counterproductive. Please forget the various notions and iterations of “underfeeds” on off days and “overfeeds” on training days. Your goal is to provide a reasonable surplus of nutrients over all days, whether training or recovering. To drastically change your food intake on off days shows a lack of understanding of human physiology and an under-appreciation for the role of recovery. Under- and over-feeds are unnecessary at best, especially for teen/twenty something athletes who lack decades of experience to know their body well.In theory, it is possible to simultaneously gain muscle and lose fat. But instead of gaining, say 20-30 total pounds over 6-8 months, the thin athlete adds (maybe) a few pounds of muscle in the same time period. And that is precisely “How to not be a game-changer.” The far majority of people claiming to have lost fat AND gained muscle are those who were very overweight to begin with AND they have either never trained before or are coming back after a long period off. Mostly, these individuals have maintained or slightly improved their muscle mass while dropping a lot of fat around the muscles. The appearance appears “more muscular.” But they have spent time in “breaking down” mode. As an athlete, none of those are ideal. Establish good habits and gain a reasonable amount of weight to begin with.
In reality, when the body gains muscle, it almost always gains some fat as well. I like to think that, in theory, one or two pounds of fat is absolutely normal and acceptable for every three to four pounds of muscle gain. That leaves you with a reasonable and easy-to-track goal; gain approximately 5 pounds on the scale per month. If you gain that much over six months, while eating mostly minimally processed foods and hitting the weights intelligently and consistently, you should assume that you’re doing it RIGHT! Most will probably find the first 5 to 10 pounds fairly easily, but the next 10 to 20 will require much effort and discipline in nutrition, training, and rest/recovery.
What’s truly the better option?For weight gain, it’s helpful to see a little less black and white. Just like training and competition, planning ahead is a major part of this. Having a knowledgeable and “into it” parent absolutely helps in terms of meal planning and prep. But these are not always an option or available. Surprises will still come, especially with the simple nature of life as a teenager, with varying academic and sport schedules, with hopefully a balance of both spontaneity and independence in figuring things out. College students are still figuring things out (parents are too!) and also have to deal with major moves and multiple schedule changes three times every year! So be ready to not always be ready! Getting every ounce of your food from specialty and boutique grocery stores may be you (or your parents) preference, but it is just not necessary for better performance or wellness. You should probably disregard the advice from those who do, for they are living in a different world than the other 95% of us. It’s simply not practical to think that you are going to manage to eat from only one source for very long. With the amount of mostly healthy food you’re eating, your few supplements, your training plus any travel/competition, your investment will be plenty high enough. Of course, I think this is a worthy process and investment, as I have shown through the life of my kids and myself.
Wendy’s and the like are not ideal. But if the team is stopping there, or sometimes (not always) you are just in the mood for it, is it really better to always skip it or eat nothing? Going by the general advice outlined above, you absolutely can have something decent and still get your fix. Avoid the deep fried stuff as much as possible, for that is some of the worst of the worst for your health and performance. Rather than a double Baconator (or really any extreme sandwich), fries, and soda, go with a double burger, a grilled chicken wrap, and water. In the morning, skip the pancakes and hash browns and instead have an egg Mcmuffin or two. This is by no mean health food. But please, it’s not – always primarily – about that. There are plenty of simple yet tasty and filling options that at least won’t hold you back, and are compatible with your goals.
Black and white “All fast food is of the devil and Trader Joes is always good”
Seeing the grey “Let me be mindful of any selections, see the big picture, and find something that fits with my goals"
The far majority of supplements are fairly worthless. One handful of trail mix before you train would serve you much better than designer “amino acids.” Chromium Picolonate slightly helps older diabetic patients regulate blood sugar, but does nothing (just for example) for the performance of athletes. Nitric oxide is one of the most hyped and trendy supplements that does practically nothing for strength/speed/power athletes.Some supplements are not necessary, but they are convenient. Protein powder is usually helpful. Keep in mind that loads of extra protein are not necessary when your diet is generally in check, and natural sources are generally better than powders and mixes. But as an athlete, sometimes you wake up without a big appetite and/or just need to get moving on the day without cooking a veggie omelet. I know what it feels like to finish a challenging training or practice sessions, need to refuel, but NOT feel like immediately sitting down to roast chicken or steak stir fry. I understand that while salads and veggie-based, balanced meals are ultra healthy and do need to be part of a weight gain diet, they make it difficult to have enough room and appetite to take in enough total calories. Go ahead and try to get your three to four thousand calories per day in a strict “clean bulk” of all whole foods and no supplements. Get ready to constantly feel stuffed and make trips to the bathroom. Some supplements and a little high glycemic (sugary) type drinks and supplements can help with this.
So, immediately when you wake up, blend some fruit and protein powder into a liquid of your choice and pound it. If that’s asking too much, just go with the liquid and a shaker cup. Do not make this an “all protein” type event, for the body greatly benefits from some carbs to run on. You really need to get some quick, tolerable, quality calories AND still be able to eat a “real” breakfast in an hour or two. Immediately after training or practice, have another smoothie, quick shake, or even chocolate milk. At this time after training, the easily digested protein and sugary carbohydrates are actually BETTER for your recovery (muscular protein and glycogen synthesis) than sitting down to a “healthy meal” of real food. And again, this should leave you feeling hungry rather than stuffed in an hour or so when it is time to eat a normal healthy lunch or dinner. Again, the supplements are still not necessary. But they usually help you to fit in a few more feedings (quantity) of quality calories – exactly what’s needed for “good” weight gain.
Lastly, there are the rare, the few, the proud supplements that actually work. When in doubt, please check out examine.com for some of the most clear cut, scientific, and bias-free reviews in this realm. Vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and creatine are a few of the most researched, proven safe, and -actually- effective supplements out there. I always tell young men and women not to even bother with creatine until they can honestly say that their diet and training is consistently on point for at least five months. If you are mindful of your overall caffeine intake and begin to think of it as a sports performance aid, it is absolutely one of the most effective supplements out there. But just like the space devoted in this article, supplements are at best 5% of what truly matters.
Bob Gorinski, DPT, CSCS
2015 State Road Camp Hill PA 17011