by Robert Maxwell
If you've read the Basics part 1, you know that good nutrition is a big deal. It has even more of an impact on your strength and fitness goals than training. The old saying "you are what you eat" is certainly true. If you're new to fitness and aren't sure where to start with healthy eating, this post is for you. A google search on "how to eat for muscle gain" turns up many opinions. Reading some of them might leave you dismayed at their complication. Eat every 2 to 3 hours. Count calories. Eat a specific mix of protein, carbs and fats at each meal. Have carbs only after workouts. Is getting it right in the kitchen really such pain? I don't think so. I've done my share of counting calories, calculating nutrients and even weighing every meal on a postal scale. After many years of training and eating for strength, I've found a better, simpler way. Here are 4 simple eating strategies that actually work.
1. Eat high protein
Protein is the building block of muscle, so if you want more muscle you'll need to eat plenty of high protein foods. Whole eggs, beef, chicken, fish, pork, and cheese are all excellent protein sources. Try to include protein at every meal, so your body gets a constant supply of the material it needs to build itself up. An average man trying to build or maintain muscle should be eating about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. So if you weigh 185 pounds, your daily target is 185 grams of protein. This applies whether your main goal is losing fat, building muscle, or both. Once numbers get involved it can seem daunting, but don't worry - I'm not going to tell you to keep a calculator in your back pocket to use at each meal. A quick glance at the nutrition facts stamped on the package of your favourite foods will tell you how much protein you're getting. Start to familiarize yourself with these numbers, and before long you won't need to look at the labels anymore.
2. Manage your food intake
If your goal is fat loss, there's no getting around the fact that you need to be in a consistent calorie deficit. This means you've got to eat less calories than you burn for a long time - long enough for your body to consume all the extra energy it's stored as fat around your midsection. This is how weight loss works, and laws of physics dictate it can't happen any other way. Without some method of controlling your food intake, you probably won't lose fat. Whether your goal is losing weight or putting it on, counting calories is highly effective. It's also a huge pain for you and anyone you live with. Starting in 2013, I counted every calorie I ate for nearly two years. My wife and I are now down to only two sessions a week with the marriage counsellor. My goal during the calorie counting phase was to lose fat, and at the time I believed crunching the numbers of every meal was the only reliable way to succeed. Luckily for my marriage, I discovered an easier method.
You can manage your caloric intake with a very simple food measurement tool you already carry with you – your hand. For a man who trains regularly, an ideal meal should include roughly two palms worth of good protein, two fist-sized portions of veggies, two cupped hands of carbs like rice or potatoes, and two thumbs worth of healthy fats, such as nuts or natural peanut butter. Have a meal like this 3 or 4 times daily, avoid snacks and sugary drinks, and you should start shedding excess pounds. If you're no lighter after a couple weeks, eat less carbs while keeping your protein intake high.
If you're skinny and want to gain muscle, you need to be in a calorie surplus. That means eating more than you burn. Have 4 or 5 meals of the style above, and a few extra handfuls of carbs throughout the day. For both weight loss and gain, check the scale once a week or so to make sure you're progressing as you should, and adjust as needed. You shouldn't be gaining or losing more than a pound or two per week.
3. Don't quit junk food cold turkey
It's no secret that chips, pop, and dessert won't make you strong. Quite the opposite. But if you're in the habit of eating these foods, quitting cold turkey probably seems daunting. Even if you succeed for a while, your old habits will keep tempting you, especially if you're in a calorie deficit for fat loss and feeling hungry most of the time. Unless you've got an iron-clad resolve, you'll probably give in eventually. You might even have a full out junk food binge. Not only will this hurt your physical results – it'll do a number on you mentally, too. You might start to have thoughts like "I've already messed up my diet . . . might as well binge some more." This line of thinking is obviously faulty, but if you get to this point, realistically it may already be too late to step back from the abyss of terrible eating. That's why it's far better to occasionally allow yourself small amounts of unhealthy but delicious foods. Key words: OCCASIONALLY and SMALL. Don't lie to yourself about the 3 slices of pizza you just ate – that's not small. Neither is the swimming pool-sized coke and McFlurry you might be tempted to tack on to your McDonald's order. Enjoying little treats now and then is a great way to relieve dietary tension, but it won't change the fact that long term healthy eating takes serious self-control. Do yourself a favour and learn to say no to junk. Otherwise you'll be saying no to health.
4. Have pre and post workout meals
Strength and fitness websites, books and blogs are infamous for their advice on meal timing. Often this takes the form of stern commands to eat at least 6 meals a day. The theory is that frequent, smaller meals increase our metabolism and allow nutrients to be more easily absorbed by our bodies. Sometimes experts take this advice to the extreme, recommending as many as 10 separate meals a day. Not only is this very inconvenient, but I'm convinced, completely pointless. I won't try to establish a scientific case to support my opinion, although I'm sure I could. More than any compelling statistic, my reason for this belief is personal experience. I've tried eating 6 meals a day for long enough to test the theory. I've even tried 10. I now eat 3 meals a day, and am stronger and more muscular than ever before. My opinion, backed by experience, is that meal timing isn't that important. Daily caloric intake and meal composition are far more critical. There are only two times of day I have found it beneficial to ensure food is consumed: 1 to 2 hours before working out, and 10 minutes after. During an intense workout, your body uses lots of energy. Getting through the workout will be tough if you haven't eaten for several hours. The 1 to 2 hour window before you hit the gym is a perfect time to load up on healthy carbs. Don't eat too much though, or you'll regret it when you start pumping iron. If you're aiming for fat loss, make your pre-workout meal veggie-dominant.
Once the workout's done, your body becomes eager to start repairing the microscopic muscle damage you did in the weight room. For this to happen efficiently you need a fast shot of fuel, known as a post workout meal. This is where a protein shake can be very useful. Of the three macronutrients – protein, fats, and carbs – your body relies most on protein to repair and slightly build on the muscle fibres you wore down by lifting weights. This repair process is the reason muscles get bigger and stronger through exercise. But if you finish a workout and there's no protein in your body for your muscles to repair themselves, growth won't happen. Protein shakes are the most easily digestible form of protein your body can consume, which is why they're commonly used right after workouts, when the body needs quality protein fast.
There's certainly more to proper nutrition than what I've covered in this post. Enough to fill several books. But if you follow the guidelines laid out here, while training hard and adjusting food intake as needed, your body will improve. For most people, a lack of knowledge isn't the limiting factor to more strength and better physique. Willpower is. So make a commitment to eat better, and stick with it. Jump in with both feet. I can promise that once you achieve a better body, you won't regret it.