Bodybuilding Nutrition - FAQ
Top pros answer Frequently Asked Questions about eating to pack on lean mass.
How much protein? How many calories? Are supplements necessary? The bodybuilder has so many questions about proper nutrition, he or she often doesn't know where to start. If this describes you, this is the article you need to read and reread. We've posed the most frequent questions to a number of top pros, who respond with practical advice to get you started right.
Should I keep a food log?
A: 1997 Canada Pro Cup winner Milos Sarcev, who has competed in more pro competitions than any athlete in professional bodybuilding history relies heavily on his food log to make the necessary dietary adjustments to stay a step ahead of his competition. He suggests: "Beginners should keep daily totals for both protein and carbohydrate intake because too often, they mistakenly assume they're getting the right amounts of nutrients needed to grow. Keeping records will teach you a lot about nutrition and how your body responds to certain amounts of total calories, carbohydrates and protein. Keep track of fat, too, so you don't get too much. A food log also helps you stick to a proper eating schedule, which is the backbone to a beginner's success."
Why do bodybuilders eat several times a day?
A: Eddie Robinson, 1990 Niagara Falls Grand Prix winner, explains: "I divide my daily food intake into six medium-sized meals to keep my metabolism up and to improve my body's ability to digest and use the protein I eat. An athlete eating 200 grams of protein just can't jam it all into one or two meals. That would be a waste. But eating 5 -6 meals that include 35-40 grams of protein each will allow him or her to get more mileage out of that protein and grow without getting fat."
Many bodybuilding coaches and nutritionists follow Eddie's approach because frequent meals can provide the body with the continual influx of amino acids from protein required to build and repair muscle tissue. This strategy also forces the bodybuilder to partition his or her carbohydrate intake into smaller portions. Consuming a steady amount of carbs through the day can facilitate recovery by enhancing the formation of muscle glycogen - the stored form of carbohydrate that provides the fuel to weight train with maximum intensity.
For building muscle, is protein more important than carbohydrate?
A: Both carbohydrates and protein affect muscle growth. Specifically, only amino acids derived from protein foods can become part of new structural proteins (muscle). In a nutshell, building muscle is absolutely impossible without dietary protein.
In contrast, however, 1995 Night of Champions winner and two-time Arnold Classic runner-up Nasser El Sonbaty offers this personal observation: "When I started training in Europe, I didn't have a lot of money to buy protein powders, so I ate as many carbs as I could. My family ate lots of rice, potatoes and especially bread. I made very good progress without eating a lot of protein." With no formal training in the field of nutrition, Nasser discovered what sports nutritionists know: Carbohydrates spare amino acids. In other words, if you don't get enough carbohydrate to fuel your energy needs, your body will use aminos for energy - not your best use of this precious resource.
With adequate carbohydrate intake, however, sugar derived from carbohydrates is used as fuel in preference to amino acids from protein. This sparing effect leaves the amino acids to be used to build muscle. As Nasser says, "The more carbs you eat, the less protein you need." (For information on adequate proportions of protein and carbohydrate, see "Bodybuilders' Daily Requirements" in this issue.)
As a beginner, should I take supplements to obtain all the nutrients I need to build muscle?
A: For 1994 NPC USAs champ Dennis Newman, supplements including a multivitamin/mineral tablet along with a weight-gain drink are important. "Beginners usually have poor eating habits and have no concept regarding what or how much to eat to grow," he says.
Beginners who find it difficult, if not strange, to eat six times a day may find weight-gain powders valuable when trying to consume the large amounts of carbohydrates and protein required to add bodyweight.
- "Weight-gain shakes can help."
Dennis concludes: "I started with four meals and two shakes a day when I was a teenager. After I gained some knowledge of nutrition, I was able to fine-tune my diet with regard to protein and carbs. Had I not used a weight-gain powder, I probably wouldn't have had the commitment to prepare six meals a day nor would I have been able to get all the nutrition I needed to progress further." Lena Johannesen, who took fifth place at the '98 Fitness Olympia, echoes Dennis' thoughts: "Meal replacements like Metaform are an easy meal substitute that give the beginner a very good protein source along with carbohydrates. They also have a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals - it makes nutrition easy."
Should I avoid all sugars?
A: Drawing upon 11 years of daily food records, Milos confidently answers, "No!" Then he proceeds with a small lecture on the role of carbohydrates.
"At times, sugars are beneficial. First, the beginner must understand the difference between sugar or simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Complex carbs like potatoes, brown rice, yams and whole-grain bread eventually break down into blood glucose, the sugar found in your blood. The difference between complex carbs and the sugar and corn syrup used to make sweets, muffins, cookies and desserts is the vitamin content, fiber content and speed at which they're digested into blood sugar. The bulk of your carb intake should come from complex sources that are higher in fiber, vitamins and minerals. They keep blood sugar levels more stable so you don't feel so tired.
"But there are a couple of exceptions," he continues. "Your post-training meal should include sugar because it enters the blood faster than complex carbs so it can replenish muscle glycogen quickly. And even though it goes against common bodybuilding wisdom, I eat a sugary snack 15 minutes before training, which gives me a quick shot of energy I can use immediately."
'Clean eating all year long? Nah. That's for the pros, and even we cheat. We're only human, after all.'
Should I eat "clean" - low-fat and natural - foods all year?
A: Many beginners copy dietary strategies of their favorite bodybuilders featured in issues of MUSCLE & FITNESS and FLEX magazines. Yet some may be surprised to hear how 1997 Night of Champions winner Chris Cormier feels on this topic: "The beginner should make it easy for him or herself. It's tough to switch from three big meals a day to six medium ones, and it's even rougher to have to eat bland chicken breasts and plain rice all day long. That's why I always tell newcomers to mix it up. It's okay to include a little bit of 'junk' like pizza, hamburgers and some fast food.
"Just make sure you're learning to eat more frequently and learn about protein - how much you need and how much is in the foods you're eating. Clean eating all year long? Nah. That's for the pros, and even we cheat. We're only human, after all."
When it comes to shedding bodyfat, should I focus on total calories or types of calories consumed?
A: Beginners who carry more than 20% bodyfat for males, about 259o for females, should focus on fat loss. The goal in fat loss is twofold: to shed fat and preserve muscle tissue. If you lose muscle, your metabolism slows and fat loss becomes frustrating and difficult.
To promote fat loss, you must decrease your total caloric intake. All successful fat-loss diets are based on a reduction in calories. The caveat is this: When calories from dietary fat and carbohydrates are reduced too much, the body puts an increased demand on protein as fuel. If dietary protein is too low, the body may use muscle tissue (which is made of protein) as fuel, resulting in muscle loss and a slower metabolism!
Dr. Eric Serrano, clinical associate professor at Ohio State University in Columbus, states: "When carbs and dietary fat are restricted, protein has to be increased to maintain lean body mass. One gram of protein for each pound of lean body mass is the bare minimum to prevent muscle loss while dieting."
1995 Arnold Classic champ Mike Francois agrees: "When I cut back on carbs to decrease fat levels before a contest, I slowly increase my protein intake. If I don't, I lose muscle, too."
What are the best kinds of carbohydrates to eat?
A: "In my opinion, the more natural the carbohydrate source, the better," explains Dorian Yates, Mr. Olympia 1992-97. "I suggest the beginner's carbohydrate intake be mostly rice, oatmeal, potatoes and small amounts of fruit. Also include some but not too many vegetables; they take up a lot of room in the stomach and aren't a good source of energy."
How many grams of carbs does he recommend? Dorian replies: "Total carb intake will vary greatly from person to person. First eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body-weight. Then try 500 grams of carbohydrates a day If you gain weight without adding fat, stick with it. If you gain weight but add some bodyfat, you may have to cut back on your carb intake."
How many grams of protein can I digest in each meal?
A: "The bigger you are, the more protein you need and the more protein you'll be able to use at each meal," says 1996 Nationals heavyweight champ Jay Cutler. "I try to keep my diet pretty basic, so I simply divide my protein intake which is up to 400 grams a day- by the number of meals I eat each day This is an easy way to estimate how much protein my body can handle at each meal."
Jay's protein intake is on the high side. Many nutritionists recommend that bodybuilders eat about 1 gram of protein (or slightly less) per pound of bodyweight. Dividing that protein using Jay's approach, a 150-pound beginner who eats 5 - 6 meals a day can, in theory, use roughly 25-30 grains of protein at each meal.
Six-time Ms. Olympia and fitness superstar Cory Everson recommends a modest gain of just 2-3 pounds in a woman's first three months of training.'
What about red meat? Should I or shouldn't I?
A: "It's important to eat a variety of different protein foods, including red meat," says 300-pound 1995 Canada Pro Cup runner-up Gunter Schlierkamp. "Including many sources of protein foods like eggs, fish and white meat, like chicken and turkey breasts, is a way to get a variety of all the amino acids a young body needs to build more muscle." Two -time Mr. Olympia runner-up Shawn Ray agrees adding: "I grew up on red meat and learned to cook my first steak when I was 13. As a beginner, I copied the pros. I trained like them and ate like them, and that meant eating red meat two times a day in order to grow!"
Three-time Ms. International Laura Creavalle, 40, began eating red meat for its iron content and noticed another benefit. "I just feel better when I eat steak," she says. "At my age, that's a good enough reason to make it part of my diet!"
How long should I wait between meals before eating again?
A: In a nutshell, getting big is related to how much and how frequently you eat," says Shawn. "When I started, I ate whenever I was hungry, but soon began eating every 1-2 hours, which was just before the point of feeling hungry."
Like many pros, Shawn kept his nutritional strategy fairly simple as a beginner: "I knew protein was good for my muscles and carbs gave me the energy to train, so I loaded up on both, eating 5- 6 times a day I made nonstop progress and turned pro by the time I was 21!
How much muscle can I expect to gain in the first three months?
A: Although the athletes I spoke to were in general agreement on the preceding questions, this one produced very different answers. 1991 NPC USA champ Mike Matarazzo suggests a beginner can add up to 10 pounds of bodyweight in his or her first three months of training. 'A kid with good genetics who eats a lot and learns how to train for mass can easily gain 10 pounds of mass in 12 weeks and even up to 30 pounds of weight in the first year," he says. "If you're a slow gainer, you may gain less, like 5-6 pounds in the first three months and 10 pounds in the first year."
Mike's final piece of advice: "Don't be so impatient! I see too many beginners overtraining and eating more than me! Take it slow. Learn all you can about your body in the first year. Set your goals high, but don't expect to be a Mr. or Ms. Olympia overnight."
Six-time Ms. Olympia and fitness superstar Cory Everson recommends a modest gain of just 2-3 pounds in a woman's first three months of training. "We start with a higher amount of bodyfat than men and are naturally weaker, so it takes more time to see changes. For that reason, a woman should check her bodyfat to measure changes in muscle mass and bodyfat levels."
Tired of little or no results?
Join the thousands of people who have discovered how my Permanent Muscle program gives you every tool required including; workouts, meal plans, exercises and more to achieve stunning muscle building results over the next 6 months.
Keep learning more about diet & nutrition!
People in this conversation