I read a lot of bodybuilding magazines, read a lot on nutrition, and usually I find a few little gems or tips that I trial in my training. Some things seem to work well while others have no effect. So I got to thinking, what are some of the useful diet tips I've picked over my years in bodybuilding that virtually all trainers should be doing. Here they are in no particular order:
1. Eat enough protein.
If you are seriously trying to add muscle, you have to train hard, heavy and eat plenty of quality protein. As a general rule of thumb, to gain mass you should eat 3 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight every day. Eat plenty of lean meats, chicken and fish. I find that using a good quality protein supplement can easily add a virtually fat free 100+ grams of protein if taken 2 - 3 times a day. The best protein supplements on the market are based on ionised whey protein.
2. Eat 6 smaller meals per day.
This tip appears in just about every magazine you'll ever read. But that's because there are good physiological reasons to eat more frequent smaller meals. Smaller meals don't overload your digestive system as the usual 3 square meals a day will. This means you will utilise the nutrients in each meal more completely. Secondly, you will not allow your body to slip into a starvation mode, where it can begin burning muscle tissue for energy - you definitely don't want this. More frequent meals will prevent this problem. Remember, make sure you get protein in each meal.
3. Cut out simple sugars.
Sugar plays havoc with your metabolism, especially with insulin and blood sugars. The best way to get the carbohydrates you need is through complex carbs such as bread, cereal, rice and pasta. Moderate fruit intake as most fruits are high in sugar. Stay away from lollies, chocolate, ice cream, honey, jam and soft drinks. Your metabolism will be much more stable, you will have more energy, and you will be leaner. Read food labels and check sugar levels on products.
4. Eat more earlier in the day.
Your body will utilise the food you eat much better if you eat more during the first half of the day, and less in the second half. This is generally opposite to how most people traditionally eat. If you eat more of your calories in the morning, you will tend to use the food for energy and building muscle. On the other hand, higher food consumption in the second half of the day will generally lead to higher levels of fat being gained. So the simple rules are, eat a bigger breakfast, morning snack and lunch, then progressively lighter meals through the rest of the day.
5. Take vitamins and minerals.
Taking a good quality vitamin and mineral supplement is like an insurance policy. Studies show that hard trainers require extra nutrients, especially vitamins and minerals. Deficiencies usually don't show up as a problem until you are severely depleted which is often too late. Typically, frequent illness or injury indicates a lack of one or more essential micronutrients. So it's a must to choose a good quality vitamin & mineral supplement - and take it every day! Just a word on a special class of vitamins, the anti-oxidants. Studies show that Vitamin C, E and Beta Carotene are especially required if you are an athlete to reduce the damage caused by free radicals from extra oxygen uptake. All bodybuilders should take 500 - 1000mg of Vitamin C, 500 - 1000 IU's of Vitamin E each day, and ensure your vitamin & mineral supplement contains adequate Beta Carotene.
6. Before training nutrition.
Generally, you don't want to be eating much food for at least an hour before a workout, but there are a number of products specifically designed to boost workout performance, and a few things you can do with your diet to boost workout intensity. On the product side, look for pre-workout supplements that contain nutrients such as complex carbs, Creatine, HMB, L-Carnitine, and energy producing amino acids. Another pre-workout tip is to be well hydrated, drink plenty of water for the few hours before training.
7. After training nutrition.
There are two critical time windows that all trainers can take advantage of after hard training. The first is within 30 minutes of actually finishing your workout. During this time, your muscles and system are extremely sensitive to the uptake of nutrients, however your digestive system is not operating well as it will partially shut down while you train and takes about 30 - 60 minutes to work optimally. So you should concentrate on consuming perhaps an isotonic sports drink, and maybe something like a protein / carb bar and recovery nutrients such as HMB, BCAA's, L-Glutamine and Colostrum. Normally, I would take these sorts of supplements on my way home from the gym. The second window occurs from about 30 minutes to about 2 hour after you train. Your body is now in a state where it will hungrily absorb any nutrition you provide - so feeding it the right mix is essential. Numerous studies have shown that the best nutrition is an easily digested protein / carbohydrate meal - something like MAX'S Extreme Growth is ideal for this purpose.
8. Eat low fat.
While a certain amount of fat is essential in your diet, it's actually a pretty low level, and from a general health perspective, low fat eating will means you will generally enjoy better health, stay leaner, and have more energy to train and build muscle. So stay away from fat laden foods. Virtually all fast food is high in saturated fats - eat only occasionally. Choose lean meats, use butter and margarine sparingly, and stay away from creamy sauces, toppings and deserts. In general, fats should account for no more than about 15 - 20 % of the calories you eat.
As I mentioned in the last point, you need to follow a diet plan that delivers the approximate food proportions:
Protein - 30% of calories
Carbohydrates - 55% of calories
Fat - 15% of calories
Remember that when you are working out your diet plan, protein and carbs contribute about 4 calories for every gram you eat. Fat contributes 9 calories per gram - so you consume more than twice as many calories from eating fat as from protein or carbohydrates, and that's why I advocate eating low fat. Another important point - there are two basic groups of carbohydrates, simple sugars and complex carbohydrates. Simple sugars should be avoided as I outlined above, as they are readily converted to and stored as fat. The carbs you should be eating are the complex type - breads, pasta, rice, potatoes, etc.
9. Count calories.
The only way to really be sure about your food intake is to count calories. I've mentioned this in a previous article but a good little piece of software for analysing food can be found here. An alternative is to go to a good health food store and get hold of a calorie, nutrition analysis book. Simply make a list of everything you eat each day, tally up the calories and compare with your diet plan. As a general guide, if your are on a mass gaining diet, I recommend that you consume 3,500+ calories a day. If you are trying to strip bodyfat, 2,000 - 2,500 calories per day.
10. Record your nutrient intake.
From the previous point, most good competitive bodybuilders plan what they will eat, and record every scrap of food that goes into their mouths, especially during contest preparation. A really good idea is to keep a training diary. I find the best is a purpose designed diary that has sections to record all the information you require. You can buy these from some gyms.
11. Don't skip meals
When you skip meals, your body goes into starvation mode, your blood sugar drops, you get very hungry, and are very likely to binge eat, which is one of the main causes of increased body fat. Having a regular supply of quality food throughout the day means you won't go hungry and your metabolism will remain stable.
12. Pre-prepare your meals.
I'm a big fan of pre-preparing meals for the day, or even for a few days ahead. During my competitive days I would grill several chicken breast and a fresh green salad and constantly snack on this during the day. I often prepared 3 - 4 days of chicken breasts, placed them in plastic containers and put them in the freezer. Then I'd just grab my daily rations on the way to work and I was always sure I got the right amount of quality food every day.
13. Drink plenty of water.
You've probably read this many times, but to a bodybuilder, drinking enough water is vitally important for a number of reasons. Firstly, hard training dehydrates you very quickly, especially in warm weather. Secondly, the extra protein eaten by bodybuilders is broken down and reused to form new muscle tissue as well as used for building other essential enzymes, compounds, tissues, etc. Also, a significant amount of waste product including toxic Ammonia is flushed from your system in your urine. Keeping the body well hydrated is essential to maintain proper elimination of these waste by-products. Generally you should aim to drink 3 - 5 litres per day depending on your activity level.
14. Use creatine.
Creatine Monohydrate is probably the next best bodybuilding supplement to using a quality protein. We consistently see major gains in size (3 - 6 kg) and strength in very short periods (4 - 6 weeks). Creatine works by giving you more energy to train, you can train harder so you make gains faster. It also helps your muscles retain more fluid - your muscle literally pump up. Creatine is a must for all serious trainers.
15. Low carbohydrates to strip bodyfat.
I wrote a long article about this in Ironman a few months ago. Basically, if you change your diet so that you eat very low levels of carbs over a several months or longer, your body reverts to burning fat as its major energy source. The result - you can strip bodyfat at an amazing rate. This is the approach most competitive bodybuilders use to get ripped for a contest.
16. HMB for muscle recovery and growth.
I've already mentioned Creatine, however another extremely promising supplement is HMB (Beta-Hydroxy Beta-Methylbutyrate). HMB is a metabolite of the BCAA L-Leucine and acts by dramatically reduce damage to trained muscle and therefore speeding the recovery and growth process. Recent studies have shown 3g of HMB daily produced a 300% improvement in muscle gains over a control group - definitely worth trying!
17. Eat clean foods.
As a general rule, you should always opt for unprocessed foods over highly refined foods. This means plenty of salads, raw and steamed or microwaved vegetables, wholemeal breads, unprocessed cereals such as rolled oats and natural muesli. You will build a much better quality body if you eat better quality food.
18. Eat slowly.
With today's busy world, its rush, rush, rush! Even when you eat, many of us devour our food rather than eat it properly. If you eat your food deliberately and make sure you really chew it, break it up in your mouth, especially animal proteins such as meat, your system will digest the food much more easily and you will assimilate the optimal levels of nutrient from your food. Just this little thing alone can make a big difference to the value of the food you eat - ensuring maximum growth.
19. Be consistent.
There's nothing like hard consistent training and a good quality high protein diet for consistent natural muscle gains. On the other hand, the easiest way to ensure you don't make gains is by not sticking to the game plan. You must follow your plan, virtually 7 days a week, 365 days a year - and then you will see good results. Many trainers who complain about not making progress are simply not sticking to a consistent game plan.
20. Good fats.
While I mentioned above that you should eat low fat, there are certain fats that are in fact worth including in your diet. The omega-3 oils found in ocean fish, canola, green vegetables and some nuts like walnuts have a very beneficial effect on your metabolism and health. This fat enhances IGF-1 activity, improves bone density, and protects against heart disease. I recommend eating fish twice a week or looking at a good omega-3 supplement.