The Baseline Diet, Part 2: Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fat
This is Part 2, if you have not read part please do so before reading this article: The Baseline Diet, Part 1
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 topic).
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 gains.
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 insulin.
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 exceptions.
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, non-diabetic individuals.
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 mineral intake).
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 day
- Protein intake: 0.8-1 gram/lb. from high quality sources
- 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.