How To Gain Lean Bodyweight - Part 2: Meal Ratios, Meal Frequency & Food Choices
Please ensure that you have read Part 1 of this article: How To Gain Lean Bodyweight - Part 1: Calories.
In the first installment of "How to Gain Lean Bodyweight" we discussed how to determine the optimal number of calories to consume in order to gain fat-free bodyweight. While knowing your ideal calorie requirement is important, there are other factors that must also be accounted for. All calories are not utilized in the same fashion by the body. 3200 calories of ice cream, pizza, doughnuts, potato chips and soda obviously won't have the same effect as 3200 calories from egg whites, lean meats, fruits, rice, potatoes, vegetables, fruits and whole grains. While calories are the chief element in the muscle-gaining formula, meal ratios, meal frequency and food choices also must be factored into the equation.
Once you have determined your optimal daily caloric intake for weight gain, the next step is to divide those calories into the right ratios of protein, carbohydrate and fat and eat foods in the proper combinations at every meal. The ideal macronutrient ratios for weight gain are 30% protein, 55% carbs, and 15% fat (give or take 5% either way).
While carbohydrates may need to be reduced on a maximum fat loss program, if you want to gain muscular bodyweight, then natural, unrefined complex carbs should make up the bulk, or approximately 2/3 of your calories at each meal. Complex carbohydrates are your body's preferred energy source. A moderately high carbohydrate intake is essential to maintain high energy levels for hard training. Carbs are also protein sparing; they prevent the breakdown of lean muscle mass for use as energy. Don't worry; carbohydrates are not fattening as long as you select natural, unrefined complex carbs over processed, simple sugars and you keep portion sizes under control.
One-third of your total daily calories or approximately 30% should come from protein. Forget about the "Recommended Daily Allowances" (RDA's) of 12-15% of daily calories from protein. The RDA's do not account for increased requirements for intense training and muscular weight gain. The RDA's are merely a minimal standard for maintaining health, not for achieving optimal performance, strength and growth. A 15% protein diet may be adequate for a couch potato, but it is completely inadequate for someone who is training hard and wants to pack on the pounds.
Fats should almost always be kept under 20% of total daily calories, with the ideal amount being about 15%. There is no reason to ever go on a high fat diet just for the sake of gaining weight - if you do you'll gain weight alright - pounds and pounds of ugly lard right around your midsection! Excess fat in the diet is stored easily as body fat and also increases risk of cardiovascular diseases. But not all fats are bad. It's not necessary to drop below 10-15% fat. Attempting to remove all the fat from your diet can actually slow down muscle growth, decrease strength and decrease energy levels. A low-fat diet is much better for growth than a non-fat diet. In fact, the inclusion of a small amount of "good fats" such as flaxseed oil can actually be a great aid to gaining lean bodyweight. Adding one or two tablespoons a day will add 130 - 260 additional calories and provide essential fatty acids necessary for energy production, muscle growth, joint health and strength development.
So how do you know if you're getting your calories in these ratios? The most accurate way to measure nutrient ratios is to follow a menu generated by a computer spreadsheet. However, you can easily tabulate your macronutrient ratios with a calculator and a simple formula. Take your total caloric intake for the day and multiply it by the desired percentage of each macronutrient. Then, divide the calories from each macronutrient by the calories content of each.
3200 calorie per day diet
55% (.55) X 3200=1760 calories from carbohydrate
1705 carb calories/4 calories per gram=440 grams of carbs
30% (.30) X 3200=960 calories from protein
960 protein calories/4 calories per gram=240 grams of protein
15% (.15) X 2000=480 calories from fat
480 fat calories/9 calories per gram=53.3 grams of fat
A very simple way to estimate your nutrient ratios is to follow the "rule of thirds." Divide your plate into portions of 2/3 carbohydrate and 1/3 protein. Don't worry about adding in the 15% for fat. There will be fat occurring naturally in the proteins and in small quantities in the carbohydrates you eat. Practicing the "rule of thirds" will put your ratios in the right ballpark even if you don't have a computer or even a calculator.
The most important thing to remember is that these are not just ratios for the entire day, but for every individual meal. This means you are combining protein and carbohydrates together at each meal. Eating carbohydrates by themselves, especially refined and simple ones, cause a rapid rise in blood sugar and insulin levels. High glucose and insulin concentrations in the bloodstream are not desirable because they promote fat storage and rebound hypoglycemia. By combining foods properly with each meal, you effectively control blood sugar and insulin. This in turn, will keep your energy levels steady and increase muscle gain while keeping fat storage at bay.
Continuing with our example:
55% of 3200 calories=440 grams of carbs
440 grams of carbs divided by 6 meals=73 grams of carbs per meal
30% of 3200 calories=240 grams of protein
240 grams of protein divided by 6 meals=40 grams of protein per meal
15% of 3200 calories=52 grams of fat
52 grams of fat divided by 6 meals=8.6 grams of fat per meal
The Importance of Frequent Meals
One of the biggest challenges you'll face on your quest to gain weight is how to gain muscular body weight without also gaining fat. There is only one way to do this; you must eat five or six meals a day each spaced two and a half to three hours apart. If you were to divide 3200 calories a day into the typical three meals that would be 1066 calories per meal; that's far too much for your body to process at one sitting. Even the biggest bodybuilders don't need more than 700-800 calories at a time. Eating smaller meals more frequently will prevent you from over-consuming calories in one sitting; it's simple portion control. More is not necessarily better; your body can only utilize so much at once. Excess calories in any one meal will always be converted into body fat.
Eating small, frequent meals promotes more efficient muscle growth because it helps to regulate insulin levels. While the large output of insulin that follows a high blood sugar level is undesirable, insulin must be present in the bloodstream constantly so that amino acids and glucose can be transported into the muscle tissue. Insulin is a powerful anabolic hormone. One of insulin's major roles is to shuttle the amino acids into the muscle cells where they can be used for recovery and muscle growth. Unlike carbohydrates, amino acids cannot be stored; they are only available for protein synthesis for about three hours after the ingestion of protein. By eating a moderately sized meal every three hours you maintain a steady release of insulin so it can fulfill its growth-producing role.
Eating small, frequent meals also promotes muscle growth because it helps to prevent the breakdown of muscle tissue associated with long periods without food. Your body does not posses the ability to store proteins and use them at a later time for muscle growth. Since amino acids remain in your bloodstream for only about three hours after a meal, it is crucial to eat a meal containing a complete protein every three hours. If you do not supply your body will sufficient protein at regular intervals, it will be forced to breakdown its own muscle tissue for its amino acid needs.
Eating more protein at one time doesn't help; your body can only utilize so much protein at one sitting:. If your ideal protein intake for weight gain is 240 grams per day, then it would be most efficient to split that amount into five or six smaller meals of 40 - 48 grams per meal. Consuming more than this at one time is pointless; although protein is the least likely of all the macronutrients to be converted to fat, too much of anything, even protein, will be stored in the form of subcutaneous body fat. At best, the extra protein is simply wasted.
In addition to the growth-enhancing benefits of five or six meals daily, frequent eating will also keep your energy levels high, and it will keep your metabolic rate higher so you keep fat storage to a minimum while on your bulking phase. When carbohydrates are consumed alone, there is a greater rise in insulin than when they are consumed in combination with protein. When simple, refined carbohydrates are consumed, there is also a greater rise in insulin.
It's not uncommon for many large, active bodybuilders to need upwards of 4000 calories a day or more to gain weight. Sometimes it's difficult to get this many calories from food. For many people, it is not practical to eat 5 or 6 times per day because of work, school, or other time commitments. If this describes you, it's OK to substitute one or two meals with a meal replacement drink. Be wary of commercial weight gain powders. Many of them are 80% sugar with very little protein. Find a weight gainer with a ratio of 1 part protein to two parts carbs (for example, 80 grams of carbs to 40 grams of protein) Alternately, you could use a low calorie meal replacement product like MET-RX or MYOPLEX. At 280 calories per packet, they are too low in calories by themselves to count as an entire meal for a weight gain program. If you mix them with skim milk or juice and maybe blend in a piece of fruit, you now you have a 500 to 700 calorie, high protein weight-gain shake! Just remember that meal replacements should be used for convenience only - they are not designed to take replace food and they are not better than food.
Quality vs. Quantity
Many people see going on a weight gaining program as a license to eat anything they want, including a lot of high fat and high sugar junk food. Don't let this happen to you! It is possible to gain lean body mass with no increase in body fat, but only by eating quality calories. Don't just be concerned with calorie density, you should also be concerned with calorie quality. Your muscle gaining diet should contain a wide variety of foods from every group including grains and starches, vegetables, fruits, low or non fat dairy products and lean proteins. You should choose foods that are as natural an unprocessed as possible. The less processed your food choices are, the better; eating foods in their natural state the way they came out of the ground is ideal. Your best choices for carbs are rice, potates, yams, beans, whole grains, pasta, oatmeal, fruits and vegetables, your best sources of carbs include 100% whole grain cereals and breads, potatoes, yams, brown rice, oatmeal, beans, pasta, legumes, vegetables and fruits. Great sources of protein for muscle development include egg whites, low fat dairy products, chicken, turkey, fish and lean cuts of red meat.
Let's recap what you've learned so far...
The formula for gaining lean body weight is:
- Determine your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE)
- Add a minimum of two calories per pound of body weight so you are in a positive calorie balance (This is known as your optimal calorie intake for weight gain).
- Divide your optimal calorie intake for weight gain into the proper macronutrient ratios of 55% carbs, 30% protein and 15% fat.
- Spread out your calories into five or six small meals per day.
- Divide your calorie and macronutrient totals by the number of meals daily to determine the calorie, carbs, protein and fat content of each individual meal.
- Make sure you consume your foods in the proper ratios not just for the day but at each individual meal as well.
- Choose natural, unrefined foods. Don't use trying to gain weight as an excuse to pig out.
In the third and final installment of "How to Gain Lean Bodyweight," we will discuss how to train in order to gain.