The Baseline Diet, Part 2: Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fat
Last article, I discussed three of the primary aspects
of the baseline diet: meal frequency, caloric intake and water intake. To recap
briefly, at a bare minimum bodybuilders (and probably everybody else for that
matter) should be eating 4 times per day. Six time per day is probably closer to
ideal, although this depends on caloric intake to a degree (i.e. a female
bodybuilder who only consumes 1500 calories per day will find dividing those
calories into 6 meals results in very small meals).
In regards to mass gains, many lifters who classify
themselves as hardgainers simply don't eat enough. A good starting point for
calories, is 16-18 cal/lb. (for fat loss, a good rule of thumb is 12 cal/lb.).
Some may need less, others more so consider those values starting points only.
Finally, water is intimately involved in just about every reaction in the body,
and water intake should be kept high. In the second part of this article, we
will discuss the macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat in regards to
setting up the baseline diet.
Arguably more has been written about protein than any
other nutrient. Contrary to popular belief, protein is NOT the main component of
muscle, water is. I'm surprised nobody has pushed water supplements for this
reason (new Hydroderm dermal water!). Every lifter knows the importance of
protein intake for mass gains (as well as mass maintenance while dieting).
Research supports the rough value of 1 gram/lb. of bodyweight for mass gains
(actually, research supports 0.8 g/lb. assuming calorie intake is sufficient).
This is for natural lifters. Drug-assisted lifters may be able to assimilate
more protein as protein synthesis is ramped up to much higher with anabolics
(others could comment on this much better than I, so that's all I'll say on the
Despite what is written in muscle magazines, there is
little reason to consume more than 1 gram/lb., IF long as caloric intake is high
enough (this is a big if for many people). There is a limit to how much muscle
protein can be synthesized in a given time period, and eating more protein is
simply converted to glucose.
Although far from scientifically supported, most
lifters feel that spreading protein intake throughout the day is more beneficial
than consuming it in three servings. If you're eating 4-6 times per day, you
should be consuming protein at each of those meals (so if your protein intake is
180 grams/day, you're looking at 30 grams of protein at each meal). This is an
important aspect of the baseline diet, lost on many individuals (i.e. a bagel or
a piece of fruit does not cut it as one of your meals).
Once total protein and caloric intake is met, I don't
feel that there will be a huge benefit to one protein source over another, as
long as your protein sources are high-quality to begin with (think milk,
chicken, fish, meat, etc). Spending twice as much for a protein supplement that
may give a (hypothetically) few percent improvement is sheer folly. To a great
degree protein is protein and amino acid are amino acids and the body will treat
them all the same in the end. Yes, there are some differences in biological
value between different types of protein. At the levels of protein intake seen
in bodybuilders, this becomes a fairly moot point. As a final comment, various
types of proteins (for example chicken vs. whey protein) all have their pros and
cons and there is no single protein which is applicable to all dietary
situations. As long as lifters consume sufficient calories (10-20% above
maintenance) and sufficient protein (~1 g/lb.) from high-quality sources, small
differences in protein type are unlikely to make a big difference in the rate of
Arguably the biggest difference between food protein
and powders (especially hydrolyzed/predigested) is in how quickly they get into
the bloodstream. I could make a case for using a hydrolyzed protein powder right
after workout, when you want to get aminos into the bloodstream as soon as
possible. I could also make a case for eating some whole food protein about 2
hours before the workout, so it will still be digesting and releasing aminos
into the bloodstream during and at the end of your workout.
Before discussing dietary carbohydrates, let's get
something out on the table first. Despite what has been written by otherwise
well-meaning individuals, activities such as weight training can ONLY be fueled
by muscle glycogen (carbohydrate stored within the muscle). No amount of
adaptation can shift the body to using fat for fuel during weight training
(unless your sets last more than about 3 minutes). The implication of this is
that glucose is an absolute requirement to sustain weight training performance.
Carbohydrates are surrounded by controversy in the
world of sports nutrition for lifters. Well meaning dietitians give the same
carb recommendations to lifters as they do for endurance athletes. Others argue
that there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate (true) and prefer to
use excessive protein intakes to produce glucose. For the most part I'm more or
less right in the middle. While I think that lifters generally don't need
massive carbohydrate intakes (well, maybe if you're training 2 hours/day every
day), I consider excess protein intake an expensive (metabolically and
financially) way to produce glucose. Carbs taste better anyhow and produce more
For mass gains, I think 45-55% of total calories as
carbs is a good place to start although some will do better with more, some
better with less. This will generally allow protein to be easily set at 1
gram/lb. as well as allowing sufficient dietary fat intake to optimize
testosterone levels (see next section) and satiety.
Beyond the argument about carbohydrate quantity, there
is a separate (but somewhat related) argument about carbohydrate quality (i.e.
type of carbohydrates). Carbohydrate sources are roughly divided into starchy
carbohydrates (e.g. bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, etc) and fibrous carbohydrates
(e.g. most vegetables). More technically minded nutritionists will frequently
speak of something called the Glycemic Index (GI), which refers to the
propensity of a given food to raise blood glucose and insulin. In general,
fibrous carbs tend to have a lower GI (meaning they have less of an impact on
blood glucose and insulin) than starchy carbohydrates but there are some
There is much debate over the importance of the GI
concept for bodybuilders. On the one hand, excessively high insulin levels
(caused by eating very high GI foods) tend to promote fat storage and cause
problems. On the other hand, when high GI foods are combined with other
nutrients (such as protein, fat and fiber), GI is always lowered, making the
impact on blood glucose and insulin lower. And while current research is
suggesting that consuming lower GI foods has much benefit for individuals with
diabetics, it's still debatable as to whether this has any relevance to healthy,
Additionally, GI interacts with total carbohydrate
intake as well. That is, GI is measured after consumption of 100 grams of a
given food (some studies use 25 or 50 grams). A small amount (10-20 grams) of a
high GI food may actually have a smaller impact on blood glucose and insulin
than a large amount (50+ grams) of a low GI food.
About the best guideline I can give at this point is to
experiment with different sources of carbohydrate in the diet to see if results
(in terms of muscle or fat gain) are significantly different (as well, ensuring
a mix of both starchy and fibrous carbs will help to ensure optimal vitamin and
About the only time that we can conclusively say that
high or low GI foods are ideal is immediately after a workout, where high blood
insulin levels are of benefit. Consuming a high GI carbohydrate (typical amount
is 1-1.5 g/kg) with some protein (about 1/3rd as much protein as carbs) right
after workout helps with recovery and may promote better growth.
Until a few years ago, fats were sort of the forgotten
nutrient in bodybuilding diets. While it was accepted that you'd get some in
your diet, most bodybuilders (and everybody else) tried to minimize dietary fat
as much as possible. Recently, though, the benefits of increased dietary fat has
become more emphasized in most bodybuilding publications. Arguably one of the
main benefits of increased dietary fat is that it makes foods taste better.
Let's face it, any diet that you can't stand (because the food is unpalatable)
isn't one you're going to follow in the long- term. As well, for many
individuals it can be difficult to consume sufficient calories when dietary fat
intake is too low. The caloric density of dietary fat is an easy way to raise
calories. However, some individuals find the opposite to be true, in that
increased dietary fat promotes such feelings of fullness that caloric intake is
more difficult to keep high. The health benefits of the essential fatty acids (EFA's,
found in vegetable source fats such as flax and safflower oil, and most nuts and
seeds) are becoming increasingly emphasized.
Perhaps the biggest argument for raised dietary fat for
bodybuilders is that a number of studies have documented decreases in blood
testosterone (both bound and free testosterone) with low-fat, high-fiber diets.
As well, a few studies have documented improved nitrogen balance with higher-fat
(and lowered carb) diets.
So this raises the question of how much dietary fat to
consume? The unfortunate reality is that a great number of studies have linked
high dietary fat intake with a number of disease states. However, it is
difficult to strictly differentiate the effects of quantity of dietary fat vs.
quality of dietary fat. For readers who are unaware, dietary fats (more
technically: dietary triglycerides) come in several "flavors":
a. Saturated fats: Saturated fats are found
primarily in animal source foods, although coconut and palm kernel oil both
contain high amounts of saturated fats. They are solid at room temperature
(think butter, milk fat).
b. Unsaturated fats: Unsaturated fats are
found primarily in vegetable sources foods, although small amounts are found in
animal foods. Unsaturated fats are typically subdivided into mono- and
polyunsaturated fats but this is an unnecessary distinction for us here. They
are liquid at room temperature (think vegetable oil)
c. Trans-fatty acids: Also known as partially
hydrogenated vegetable oils, trans-fatty acids are formed when hydrogen is
bubbled through vegetable oils to make a semi-solid (think margarine) with a
longer shelf life. Some research suggests that trans-fatty acids are worse than
saturated fats in many health-related respects.
Studies have linked the majority of health problems
associated with a high dietary fat intake to saturated fats and trans-fatty
acids. In fact, cultures which consume most of their dietary fat as unsaturated
fats (such as the Italians) show none of the health problems found in America,
despite a high-percentage of dietary fat in their diet (note: there are other
differences than simply dietary fat intake, such as higher vegetable intake,
greater amounts of exercise, etc).
Despite the link between "high" fat diets and
a number of disease states, bodybuilders are arguably best-served by consuming
15-25% of their total calories as dietary fat as a rule of thumb. As well,
ideally most of this dietary fat should come from unsaturated fats, although
small amounts of saturated fats aren't going to kill you.
Ok, we've now discussed what I consider to be the 6
major aspects of the baseline diet. Once again, by baseline diet, this is the
diet I think lifters should follow (to establish their results) prior to trying
other diet interpretations (such as the Zone or CKD's or whatever). Arguably,
it's the general diet template that most bodybuilders have more or less followed
over the years. To sum up the 6 aspects:
- Meal frequency: 4 meals per day should be
considered the bare minimum, 6 per day is probably closer to ideal
- Total caloric intake: for mass gains, a rule
of thumb starting place is 16-18 cal/lb., for fat loss 12 cal/lb.
- Water intake: high, 6-8 8 oz. glasses per
- Protein intake: 0.8-1 gram/lb. from high
- Carbohydrate intake: 45-55% of total
calories from a mix of starchy and fibrous carbohydrate sources, high GI carbs
right after training
- Fat intake: 15-25% of total calories, with
most coming from unsaturated fats
The above approach would probably fulfill the dietary
needs of the majority of bodybuilders. Sure, you'll always find individual
exceptions (i.e. the person who truly does benefit from higher protein intakes,
or the one who is very sensitive to starchy carbs) but I would consider the
above a good starting point diet for most folks under most conditions.
by Lyle McDonald, CSCS
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