In this article we discuss several evidence-based, diet-independent, fundamental concepts of nutrition that need to be followed to gain muscle and reach your peak physique faster.
By Dr. Adam M. Gonzalez
SHIFTED’s Chief Scientific Officer
Whether you are new to the weight room or a lifting legend, nutrition needs to be dialed in to optimize muscle growth. While there is not a single best diet that will work for everyone, there are several evidence-based, fundamental concepts of nutrition that need to be followed for reaching your peak physique faster.
- Total caloric needs will vary widely based upon total daily energy expenditure, body characteristics, and goals.
- Once calorie needs are established, you then want to determine how to distribute calories between protein, fat, and carbohydrate.
- Total daily protein intake of 1.6-2.2 g/kg is sufficient to maximize muscle growth. However, you may need more when you are cutting calories during a diet.
- Dietary fat recommendations are generally focused on achieving an adequate fat intake without compromising protein and carbohydrates intake within your caloric budget. This falls in the range of 0.5-1.5 g/kg/day for most active men and women.
- A carbohydrate intake between 4-7 g/kg has been recommended for strength sports to optimize strength performance and hypertrophy . However, an ideal carbohydrate recommendation for optimizing physique goals has not been clearly defined, and it will require some trial-and-error.
Total energy intake is often expressed in terms of Calories, but we don’t actually eat Calories directly. The diet consists of Calories in the form of the macronutrients – protein, fat, carbohydrates, and alcohol.
One gram of protein provides about 4 Calories; one gram of fat provides about 9 Calories; one gram of carbohydrate provides about 4 Calories; and one gram of alcohol provides about 7 Calories.
Using this information, total energy intake can be calculated by summing the Calories provided by daily intake of the macronutrients. Luckily, we don’t have to calculate this all out manually as there are several diet apps that can help us log our Calorie intake from food.
Changes in body weight are dictated by the balance between energy expenditure and energy intake. To lose weight, you must be in a calorie deficit (energy expenditure exceeds energy intake), whereas to gain weight, you need to be in a caloric surplus (energy intake exceeds energy expenditure). Building muscle and losing fat at the same time (known as body recomposition) is possible but it is most consistently observed in individuals that are either untrained and/or overweight .
Nevertheless, muscle building capacity is negatively influenced by the severity of the caloric deficit. Although it should not be treated as a strict cut-off point, you probably don’t want to consistently be in a caloric deficit greater than 500 Calories per day when the goal is to build muscle .
Ideally, you want to stay in a moderate energy surplus to allow for the appropriate amount of fuel required to build muscle. For more information on calculating your calorie requirements, check out How many calories do you need?
Regular intake of adequate amounts of protein during recovery from training sessions is essential to facilitate muscular growth. Protein is indeed the most important macronutrient to prioritize for creating an anabolic environment conducive for muscle growth.
This is because dietary protein is the key activator of muscle protein synthesis by providing the amino acid building blocks to repair and build muscle.
How much protein?
While the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kg of body mass (g/kg), it is clear that this is not an optimal protein target to maximize muscle growth [3, 11]. Active individuals require more protein than sedentary individuals with a recommended range for daily protein intake being 1.2-2.2 g/kg [10, 12].
To maximize muscle gains with training, you want to assure you are on the upper end of this target by getting at least 1.6 g/kg . However, if you are in an caloric deficit, you would want to bump your protein intake up to or above 1.8-2.7 g/kg in some cases .
The quality of dietary protein sources depends upon the amino acid profile, the digestibility, and the nutritional value of the food source (e.g., other macronutrients and micronutrients). Prioritizing complete, high-quality protein that are rich in the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) and contain all 9 essential amino acids is important.
These include animal-based protein such as dairy, meats, eggs, and fish. All plant-based proteins, with the exception of soy, are deemed lower in quality because of their incomplete amino acid profile and lower digestibility .
Luckily, this does not mean that you can’t grow muscle with vegan proteins. You just need to assure that you consume meals that include complementary proteins, which are two or more incomplete protein sources that, when combined, contain all 9 essential amino acids (e.g., grains and legumes). You also would want to increase the serving size of plant protein sources because of their lower amount of total protein content and essential amino acids .
Each protein-rich meal stimulates a short-term increase in the rate of muscle protein synthesis , and the distribution of your protein intake can affect your muscle-building potential [1, 6].
Once you have determined how much daily protein you need, meal-to-meal protein distribution would be the next most important consideration to assure you are getting the most benefit from your dietary protein . The science collectively suggests that regularly consuming at least 20 grams of high-quality protein approximately every 3 hours is ideal for maintaining an anabolic state throughout the day .
Since the daily protein recommendations are between 1.6-2.2 g/kg, an easy approach to hitting your protein target and distribution recommendations would be to consume 0.4-0.55 g/kg/meal across at least 4 meals per day.
One last timepoint worth considering would be pre-sleep protein. Consuming protein before a full night of sleep can increase overnight muscle protein synthesis rates and help support anabolism and muscle growth .
Dietary fat plays an import role in several body functions. Fat serves as a fuel source, provides insulation and protection, aids in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, provides substrates for several essential compounds, and helps maintain sex hormones.
Nevertheless, overconsumption of fat can lead to a caloric surplus and increased storage of body fat. Therefore, the goal is to assure adequate fat intake, but consuming extra dietary fat will not further improve muscle gains or performance.
How much fat?
The acceptable macronutrient distribution range for fat intake is 20-35% of total energy intake in healthy adults. This recommendation generally holds true for athletic populations as well, and typically equates to approximately 0.5-1.5 g/kg depending upon total calorie intake.
Overall, the goal is to achieve an adequate intake of dietary fat without compromising protein and carbohydrates intake within your caloric budget.
Fat sources are generally categorized as unsaturated and saturated fats, and eating more unsaturated fats are typically associated with better health outcomes. Try to incorporate a variety of polyunsaturated fat sources such as nuts, chia seeds, and fish, along with monounsaturated fat sources such as almonds, avocado, and olive oil.
Saturated fat, such as that found in butter and animal fat, should be kept low (<10% of total calories) as part of a nutritionally adequate diet. Trans fat is associated with the worst health outcomes and should be minimized as much as possible in the diet.
Like fat, carbohydrates often get a bad reputation when the goal is to optimize your physique. However, carbohydrates are the most important fuel for high-intensity training, therefore they should be prioritized in those who train hard.
Since carbohydrates’ primary role is to provide energy, the answer to “how many carbs should I eat?” largely depends on factors such as body size and resting metabolic rate along with how active you are. Adequate carbohydrate intake can also be important for muscle growth because it spares protein from use as an energy source during exercise. As carbohydrate stores become depleted, the body starts to ramp up protein utilization for fuel.
How much carbohydrate?
You want to make sure you get at least 130 grams of carbohydrates per day to support basic functions of the brain. For active individuals, carbohydrate recommendations increase in relation to the intensity and duration of exercise .
Carbohydrate recommendations will also depend on your goals of weight loss, maintenance, or weight gain. Carbohydrate recommendations for team sport and endurance sport athletes, such as soccer, basketball, and long distance running, can range from 4-10 g/kg/day.
While high-intensity weight training does rely on carbohydrates as the primary fuel, you do not deplete your gas tank of carbs (known as glycogen) anywhere near the amount of these types of competitions. Thus, a carbohydrate intake between 4-7 g/kg has been recommended for strength sports to optimize strength performance and hypertrophy .
However, an ideal carbohydrate recommendation for optimizing physique goals has not been clearly defined, and it will require some trial-and-error and adjustments on an individual level. For physique goals, you can also tailor carbohydrate intake by first calculating total Calories followed by a determination of an optimal protein intake (i.e., 1.6-2.2 g/kg/day) and fat (i.e., 0.5-1.5 g/kg/day). Then, the remaining calories can be allotted to carbohydrates [4, 5].
Foods rich in carbohydrates aren’t just providing sugar – there are numerous health benefits associated with a wide variety of high-carbohydrate foods. You can get away with eating a cookie here and there but be sure to focus on nutrient-dense carbohydrate sources to hit your daily carbohydrate targets.
Simply, eat more whole foods compared to highly processed foods and foods with tons of added sugar. Eating fiber rich sources can also aid in promoting satiety, improving gastrointestinal health, and reducing the risk of several chronic diseases.
The current recommendation for men and women is to consume approximately 14 grams of fiber per 1000 Calories in the diet. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains such as brown rice, oatmeal, and quinoa tend to be the most nutrient-dense, fiber-rich options, whereas refined grains such as white bread, white rice, crackers, and sugar-sweetened cereals are stripped of most nutrients and fiber.
Lastly, it remains a practical recommendation to limit high-sugar foods, but they do not need to be stringently excluded from your diets. Just be aware that since these high-sugar foods offer lots of calories without much nutrition, it can be difficult to regularly consume them as part of a calorie-friendly diet that meets the needs for vitamins, minerals, and other macronutrients.
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