The best diet for building muscle, strength training Part 2

Ian Carroll
Photo Credit:
Photo Credit:

Before we get started, we need to address the elephant in the room. Diet is extremely controversial. However, it’s also the most important part of a healthy lifestyle and of building muscle. When it comes to proper diet everyone has an opinion, and that’s OK, we’re all entitled to our own.

However, the truth of the matter is that what scientists and the government have touted as the proper diet for decades is crumbling quickly in the new millennium.

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We’re finding out that studies were misrepresented, sponsored by corporations, poorly conducted, or never conducted at all. That food pyramid that they taught us all back in elementary school is definitely not how you achieve maximum strength or a healthy lifestyle.

healthy diet for building muscle
This pyramid was based on incomplete science and touted as fact.

Now, just like with exercise and rest, everyone’s body needs a slightly different diet. After all, we are all individuals with our own genetic predispositions and physiological sensitivities. Although avocados are extremely healthy, my best friend is allergic to them and just shouldn’t eat them. Likewise, although red meat is very high in protein and other readily available nutrients, some people don’t believe in the industry that put that meat on their plate. They should stay true to themselves and avoid eating that which isn’t in line with their principles.

That being said, there is some basic science to building strength that doesn’t change, no matter who you are, or how you choose to eat. The tips we will be talking about today are tied closely to the ketogenic diet. If you don’t know about the ketogenic diet or ketosis I highly recommend you look it up and the science behind it. It has been shown to reverse some cancers, completely stop drug-resistant seizure disorders, and also provide a perfectly healthy person with numerous benefits. Among those are increased energy, weight loss, and mental clarity.

Now, a full-on ketogenic diet is pretty hard for some people to maintain. I’m not recommending we all go into ketosis next week. But there are a number of invaluable lessons to be gleaned from the science behind the diet.

How proteins help build strength

The most important part of building strength is protein. That’s why you gym rats are always drinking protein shakes. However, it’s not as simple as just taking in as much protein as possible. A lot of studies are popularly touted as evidence that there is a maximum amount of protein your body can intake in one sitting. Most people site it at between 20 and 30 grams. All the rest, it’s proposed, is converted into glucose (sugar). While there is truth to these findings, they only offer part of the picture.

Coconut Shake
Coconut Shake

There are also studies that show that protein is actually processed by your intestines differently than other nutrients. Your gut intentionally slows the digestive process when high levels of protein are present in your stomach. That way, you have maximum time to convert that protein into amino acids. This makes sense too. For most of human history, protein didn’t come from a powder on your shelf, it came from meat or seafood you caught or nuts you found. In both cases, your body may not get another hit of protein for quite a while.

For me, a 25-year-old male at about 175 pounds of lean body mass, I shoot for between 160 and 200 grams per day. But let’s be honest, most days I’m not counting it out, I’m just eating it.

Protein is the primary ingredient our bodies use to build muscle tissue. If you don’t eat it, your muscles won’t grow. And there are a lot of different kinds of protein out there. Not all were created equal, and not all are equally accessible to our digestive systems. Beans are a great example. Vegetarians and vegans often tout beans as being just as high in protein as red meat. That’s true, and it’s also packed with other important nutrients. However, there’s a lot of good science that says it isn’t so simple.

Beans are a great vegetarian protein.
Beans are a great vegetarian protein.

Many foods like beans that are packed with protein are harder to digest and the proteins harder to access. In the example of beans, if you don’t soak them, cook them well, and then complete the protein with a grain like rice or whole wheat, your body isn’t going to process that protein the way it would red meat. When it comes down to it, our bodies are extremely good at accessing the proteins in meat, eggs, fish, nuts and most dairy products. Legumes, soy, and other plant proteins are also great, but require a little more finesse and research. Protein powders also work great, but they’re not the same as real food.

How to maximize protein synthesis

If you’re lactose intolerant, obviously the proteins in cheese aren’t going to be how you bulk up after exercise. If you’re like me and are allergic to white fish, definitely don’t eat it. But do try to fit a full serving of protein into every meal you eat. If you’re under forty, anything over 25g will do the trick. You’ll have to decide for yourself if you believe the research that suggests our bodies have a maximum protein synthesis or not.

Personally, I don’t see enough evidence to support it and tend to eat as much as 50g of protein in a sitting. Particularly before bed when my body will be processing that meal for longer.

Diet for building muscle
Steak is one of my favorite meals, and it’s packed with protein and fat.

DOMS, the feeling of soreness we mentioned in Strength Training Part 1 is essentially your muscles calling out for protein, so give it to them. And don’t just eat protein on your rest days. Have it with every meal. However, don’t worry about those people that say if you don’t eat protein every four hours or whatever, you’ll lose muscle mass. Many diets, like the ketogenic diet, involve fasting. There are numerous peer-reviewed studies of intermittent fasting. Subjects in those studies show no evidence of this type of muscle loss.

What I think is the most interesting study conducted recently on protein and muscle building came out of the University of Utah College of Health. It was conducted by Micah Drummond, Ph.D. It studied muscle loss in patients on bed rest, and his findings had multiple, far-reaching implications. The study showed that electrical stimulation of the muscles prior to protein intake halted muscle loss normally experienced by patients on bed rest. However, if you read into these results, you can draw some important hypotheses out of them.

Essentially, what the study showed was that using your muscles turns on protein synthesis; it literally primes your body to process protein. Even something as simple as electrically stimulating your muscles with electrodes is enough to get your gut ready for action. Patients that were completely sedentary throughout the study lost muscle mass, despite eating full servings of protein. That means that sitting on your couch and eating steak won’t build muscle.

Even something as simple as going for a walk before your meal prepares your body for protein synthesis.
Even something as simple as going for a walk before your meal prepares your body for protein synthesis.

Before every meal, you should prime your body for maximized protein intake by doing either a full workout, twenty push-ups, or even just some jumping jacks. Whatever you’ve got. Maybe go for a quick run around the room or do the hokey pokey. Anything but sitting on the couch.

I want to be clear that this is not what the study directly measured or ‘proved’. Studies don’t prove, they support hypotheses. But Dr. Drummond was clearly onto something that all athletes either already knew, or should be paying close attention to. Nowadays, before every meal, you’ll find me doing push-ups, yoga, running, or any number of other exercises to prime my body for protein.

The Big Fat Surprise

Now, this is where we’re going to get really controversial. And I have to start by saying again, I am not a doctor, I am not a nutritionist. I am merely an investigative journalist. I don’t do the studies. However, I do specialize in digging through the research that is out there. My job is to find truth within the worldwide web of fact and fiction we all have to grapple with these days.

The following comes from my personal experience as an athlete, a healthy eater, and someone deeply invested in finding the truth. It is also based on a solid body of research conducted by people far more qualified than myself. However, to keep things simple we’re going to focus on one piece of literature that sums it all up better than I ever could.

If you haven’t already heard about the work that Nina Teicholz has been doing over the last nine years, allow me to be the first to tell you. Everything you’ve been told about fat (or at least most of it) is not supported by science. In her new book, The Big Fat Surprise, Nina Teicholz takes a deep dive into the research that laid the groundwork for the modern low-fat frenzy. What she uncovers may surprise you.

Not only is modern, highly reputable research showing that fats aren’t the monster they’ve been made out to be, but they’re also actually essential to a healthy diet, to muscle growth, and to staying slim. That’s right, eating fat helps you lose weight if you do it right. The basic idea is that fat and protein are the ideal building blocks of energy, and cellular growth in the body. For thousands of years, those were our primary food sources. Meat, seafood, eggs, foraged plants. Those food sources contain almost no starches and carbs like our modern-day meals.

healthy diets for building muscle
Seafood is an excellent source of protein and healthy fats.

When you eat a lot of starches and carbohydrates from foods like cereals, grains, and bread, your body has access to a lot of glucose which is easy to digest and gives you fast energy. However, it can actually impair your ability to process proteins and other essential nutrients. Just like most of us, our bodies prefer the fast, easy fix to the slow, complex nutrients.

Furthermore, it’s really easy to gorge on foods high in starch, like french fries, chips, cake, etc. Your body just doesn’t have a shutoff switch when it comes to easy-to-access sugar. Yes, grains and starches are full of what will become sugar when it enters your body. Our bodies absolutely love them.

Conversely, it’s nearly impossible to overeat foods like meat, avocado, or beans. Eliminating most of the starch and grain (not necessarily all) is one of the first steps to increasing your energy levels, protein uptake, and overall well-being. Once your body stops relying on starch as its primary energy source, it can begin to burn fats as its main fuel again. That’s what the ketogenic diet and high-fat low-carb diets are all about. When you get your body used to a diet high in protein and fat and low in carbs, it will again start to burn fat rather than store it. If you actually get your body to go into ketosis (a state of burning ketones for energy) you’ll have even more health benefits. Best of all, on these diets your energy will last longer and you’ll feel fuller.

Other elements of a strong diet

Now, you shouldn’t just take my word on all of this. After all, I’m just another voice on the internet. You should do your own research. Look up the ketogenic diet. You should take a look at Nina Teicholz’s work, and you should decide for yourself. If you don’t want to buy the book, she did a great podcast with Joe Rogan about it where she covers the main points pretty thoroughly.

Healthy diets for building muscle
Lots of fresh, organic vegetables are essential to a healthy diet.

Whatever you decide about the fat and protein content of your diet, there’s still more to it than that. And this part isn’t as controversial. You’ve got to eat a lot of vegetables. They’re mostly all packed with vitamins, minerals, fibers, and other healthy components that your body needs in order to function. If you’re trying to go fully ketogenic, you actually will have to watch your vegetable intake. But if that’s your goal, you’re going to be doing a hell of a lot more research than just reading this article.

Now, just like protein and fat, entire books can and have been written on the topic, so we don’t need to go too deep into it. But a good rule of thumb if you don’t want to become a nutritionist is to get as many colors of veggies as you can in your daily diet. Seriously. It’s not the most scientific way to do it, but the color is a good indicator of various nutrients. Carrots will provide you with a different set then red bell peppers, or green spinach, or golden beets.

Healthy supplements for building strength

A lot of people who are focused on getting strong also get into taking supplements and other sorts of superfoods to maximize their diet. They’re not wrong. Some of my favorites are the following. Anything high in Omega-3 fatty acids, like fish, seafood, walnuts, eggs, flaxseed. The best though, is fish roe; not only are they one of the most concentrated sources of Omega-3, it’s also stored in a form that is far more readily available to our digestive systems. Any expecting mother should definitely look into this.

healthy diets for building muscle
Caviar is one of the best sources of Omega-3 on the planet.

Moringa powder is derived from the leaves of the moringa tree and is absolutely incredible. Not only is it packed with a wide variety of rare and important nutrients, it’s also loaded with protein. Unfortunately, it tastes like dirt, but hides well inside of smoothies. Probiotics are also an important part of a healthy diet but are often overlooked. Fermented foods are one of the best ways to promote digestive health. After all, your digestive tract is what’s responsible for dealing with all this nutrition in the first place. Taking care of your gut inevitably leads to a healthier body.  

And lastly, but really most importantly. You’ve got to drink a lot of water. This is true for everyone. But especially true for athletes. Every cell in your body is at least 70% water. If you don’t drink enough of it, there’s no amount of protein or other healthy food that can make up for that. Many people don’t give this statistic enough credit. You’ve got to remember that with very few exceptions, every single part of your body is composed of cells, and consequently water. So, drink more of it!

Water is life, drink more of it!
Water is life, drink more of it!

Now, like we already talked about, your diet is a very personal choice, I’m not here to tell you how to eat. But I do want to open your eyes to just how many misconceptions have been perpetuated over the last several decades of nutritional science.

Hopefully, this article has helped inspire a little curiosity, and you’ll do some of your own research to supplement what I have suggested. Do be careful though, the internet is absolutely overflowing with outdated dietary advice and pseudo-science.

If you haven’t already read it, check out part 1 of this article where we looked at the physical components of building strength. In that article we talked about a couple of simple ways you can achieve maximum muscle growth by simply diversifying your workout routines, listening to your body, and timing your days on and off effectively.

Hopefully, if you weren’t already, you’re now thinking about some changes you can make in your diet and lifestyle to maximize your health and your happiness. Because after all, on a personal level, that’s all that really matters.

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ian-carroll is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival