Years ago, it was not uncommon for bodybuilding experts to advocate an unrestricted, very high-calorie diet-in combination with an intensive weight training program-for someone wanting to gain muscle. The rationale was that if you wanted to gain muscle, you could eat basically whatever you wanted in order to bulk up and then later on, you could work on eliminating excess fat if necessary. Nowadays, we’re a lot more enlightened and we know that not only is this not an effective strategy, but it’s not particularly beneficial for your health either. The most effective eating regimen for gaining muscle is one that includes plenty of lean protein, healthy carbohydrates in moderation and unsaturated fats.
Protein is a basic, essential building block of muscle growth and if your objective is to maintain or gain lean muscle mass then you need to eat plenty of it every day. When the body isn’t getting enough protein from the foods you eat, it will use protein from muscle mass to meet its energy needs.
Carbohydrates get a bad rap from a lot of the so-called “health gurus” out there but the fact is they’re not telling the whole story. Carbohydrates provide the body with the fuel it needs for both physical activity and proper functioning of the organs. The key is to recognize the difference between good (“healthy”) and bad carbs. Healthy carbohydrates come from vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans) and whole grains. The bad carbs come from highly processed foods, white breads, sugary sodas, snacks and pastries.
Fat is another oft-misunderstood component of our diets. All fats are not bad for us. In fact, our bodies need some fat in our diet in order to function normally. Again, like carbohydrates, the key lies in understanding the difference between the good fats and the bad ones. Saturated fats are the “bad fats” that we should avoid. Saturated fats come from animal fats, dairy products and oils such as coconut or cottonseed oil. They’re also common in a lot of prepared foods. Unsaturated fats-although they still need to be consumed in moderation-are the ones that are better for our bodies, helping it to perform and function normally.
Okay, so now that some of the basics are out of the way we’ll address the question, “What should I eat to put on lean muscle mass?” Individual protein, carb and unsaturated fat requirements will vary from person to person, depending on body type, weight, physical condition, fitness goals, etc.
A good basic eating strategy for gaining muscle mass is to get the majority of your calories from lean protein sources. A general rule of thumb is about a minimum of 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Limit your intake of healthy carbs and unsaturated fats. Don’t avoid them entirely though because your body-and your muscles-need them, just keep protein the central focus of your diet.
In order to gain muscle mass you’ll need to consume more calories than you burn. You should start out by determining your body’s calorie requirements for maintaining your body weight, account for your activity level and then add from there. You should also eat five to six meals a day, spread out two to three hours apart throughout the day. Eating just one or two large meals a day isn’t the right strategy for putting on muscle.
Since protein is going to be the foundation of your diet, you’ll want to mix up your sources or you’ll quickly get sick of eating the same couple of things day after day. Skinless chicken breast and fish are two excellent sources of lean protein. Grill or broil them-don’t fry or drown them in rich sauces. Other good sources of protein include turkey breast, lean beef or pork, egg whites, cottage cheese (fat free or low-fat), canned tuna (packed in water not oil) and protein powders.
Green vegetables (especially broccoli), leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, potatoes, whole grain breads, whole oats/oatmeal (not the flavored instant packs) and beans are good sources for healthy carbs. Avoid any processed foods, snacks and pastries. You can pretty much eat about as much green vegetables (steamed is best) without worrying about getting too many carbs, but do watch your intake of everything else on the list above-the carbs add up quickly.
Unsaturated fats should comprise the smallest portion of your daily diet. Good sources of these healthy fats include olive oil, sunflower oil and avocados. Almonds and walnuts are both also excellent sources of healthy fats but limit your intake of nuts to no more than a handful a day.
This is of course not everything you need to know in order to eat to gain weight but it should be enough to give you a basic foundation upon which to get started on the path towards putting on lean muscle mass, not just fat.