Eat to Maximize Muscle Development

muscular-man.jpgYou spend hours in the gym pumping iron and eat a healthy diet… yet you aren’t getting the results you want. Building muscle mass involves a lot more than downing a protein shake or loading up on protein at meals. Assuming you are on track with your workout regimen, your lack of progress likely has something to do with your diet. New research has shown that what you eat and when you eat plays a major role in the development of muscle mass.

A little info about our muscles
Our bodies tend to be in a state of “negative protein balance”. This means that we are breaking down more protein than what we are building. This occurs while we are at rest and even after weight training. In order to build muscle mass, we need to be in positive protein balance. Our bodies need nutrients in order to become in “positive balance”. So what nutrients do we need?

Nutrients needed to build muscle mass
Protein is the major nutrient that builds muscle mass. Strength training increases your protein needs. Check out my previous post on the amount of protein you need a day in order to build muscle mass. protein-foods.jpgThis post also contains a chart that lists the protein content of foods. The average active person can easily meet their protein needs, assuming they are taking in an adequate amount of calories. However, they may not be consuming their protein at the right times (more on this later!).

In addition to protein,  you’ll also need to consume an adequate amount of calories. If you aren’t consuming adequate calories, your body will use the protein for energy, instead of using it to build muscle mass.carbs.jpg

Last, but not least,  your body needs an adequate amount of carbohydrate. Not only is carbohydrate needed for energy, it also promotes the secretion of insulin. Elevated levels of insulin stimulate the growth of muscle as well as decrease the breakdown of muscle tissue following a workout.

Problems with the typical diet
Most of us have busy schedules and may not consume the optimal diet. Spending a good part of my day listening to what people eat, I have come across 4 common problem areas that can interfere with optimal developement of muscle mass:

1. Going too long without eating. Do you grab a bagel at 9 am,  a sandwich at noon, an apple at 5 pm, hit the gym at 6 pm and then grab dinner at 9 pm? Not good.  Your body is going too long without nutrients. The longer you go without eating, the greater the chances are that you’ll be in negative protein balance.
2. Not eating the right kind of foods before or after a workout. Do you eat just a piece of fruit or just a protein shake (without any carbs) or just a bag of nuts? Not the right kind of snack for muscle growth.

3. Following a really low carb diet. Again, not good! While I recommend limiting “bad” carbs, limiting all carbs can hinder your muscle growth as well as decrease your energy levels. Focus on eating moderate amounts of healthy carbs including fruit, whole grains, legumes and vegetables.

4. Not consuming adequate amounts of protein on a daily basis. I find this is more common in my female clients as compared to my male clients. Check out the chart in my previous protein post to see if you are meeting your protein needs.

Recommendations to maximize muscle growth
1. Eat more “mini-meals” containing carbs and protein versus 1-2 larger meals. Consumption of smaller meals containing protein seems to be superior over consuming the same amount of protein at one time. The ideal pattern would be breakfast, a small mid morning snack(if desired), lunch, a pre-workout snack, and a small post workout out snack if dinner will be more than 1-2 hours after your workout, then dinner. You can skip the post-workout out snack if you will be eating dinner soon after your workout. Of course, you may need to decrease the size of your meals if you are adding in more snacks. If you consume too many calories, you’ll gain weight!

2. Consuming a mixed snack containing carbs and protein immediately after exercise can facilitate the replenishment of energy stores as well as promote muscle development.

3. New research has shown that the pre workout meal/snack is even more protein-shake.jpgimportant than the post workout meal when it comes to building muscle mass. This was news to me as I always focused more on the post workout meal with my clients looking to build muscle mass.

While the exact size and protein and calorie content of these pre and post workout “feedings” will vary depending upon the individual, it has been suggested that 15 grams of protein would be adequate. I would also suggest approximately 150 calories of a carb. Again, this is an estimation as the exact amounts will depend upon the individual persons needs.

Examples of pre / post workout snacks and meals
Protein shake with a cup of berries or a banana
Cottage cheese and fruit
Yogurt (try the higher protein yogurts such as Greek Fage – also called Total) and fruit
2 eggs (or several egg whites) and 1-2 slices of whole grain toast
Glass of low fat chocolate milk
Energy bar containing at least 10 grams of protein and 20 grams of carbs (check out my post on energy bars)
Grilled chicken, fish or lean meat, about one cup of a whole grain and veggies
Turkey or grilled chicken sandwich on whole grain bread


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I especially love problem-solving, whether it’s helping women defeat issues plaguing them for years, helping a busy executive find practical ways to get heart healthy, or providing tips to help you reverse diabetes. That’s why I’m on a constant quest to expand my knowledge by staying on top of the latest research.

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