In this article, I’m going to cover how to eat to gain muscle mass. But let me begin with a distinction. Many beginners start out in the gym hearing that they have to eat lots to gain muscle mass. It’s rare that I see a beginner who doesn’t need to lose some fat first to get into a healthy or athletic range of body fat. It’s just the nature of North American society — most of us new to training are a little squishy. So, folks start working out, they assume they need to eat like giant pro bodybuilders, and guess what: they end up with a miniscule improvement in their muscle mass, and much more fat.
If this is you, lose fat first. Eat and train for general health and slow, gradual fat loss. Get yourself into fighting shape first and then worry about packing on the meat. If you’re a beginner who needs to lose some body fat, the advice below does not apply.
This advice is geared towards folks who are already skinny and lean, people who got called Skeletor in high school, and people who can play the xylophone on their ribs. This is for people who genuinely need some meat on their bones. It’s also for folks who are a bit more advanced, have lost the fat they want to lose, and are now looking to put on some muscle while maintaining their relatively lower body fat levels.
OK, disclaimer duly disclaimed. On to the advice!
building the house: energy balance and mass
If people want to change their body composition, the first place they should look is their diet. There is a notion that skinny people are somehow specially blessed with a metabolism that defies the laws of thermodynamics. What they are actually blessed with in most cases, barring some kind of external factor like an eating disorder or a coke habit, is some combination of skeletal structure and hormonal mechanisms that tightly control their appetite and satiety over the long term. Astounding as this concept is to people like me who are thinking about brunch halfway through breakfast, there are indeed folks out there who aren’t constantly interested in food, and in fact, can even forget to eat on occasion. Additionally, their body carefully regulates food intake over the long term; if they eat more on one day, their body will tell them to eat less the next day so that their overall intake is balanced out. One of the challenges, then, for people who want to get bigger is often overriding their natural appetite and satiety signals.
However, one of the things that people are most often deliberately or unwittingly inaccurate about, besides sexual frequency and age, is their caloric intake. I get email from skinny folks who say, “I can’t gain weight but I eat like a horse.” When I ask them to tell me in detail exactly what they do eat, it’s clear that said horse is more like Eohippus. People’s perceptions of what they are actually eating vary widly in their precision. The first thing to do if you want to change your body composition is get a clear, accurate idea of what your food intake really looks like. No “forgetting” snacks or “eyeballing” portion sizes. Go to Fitday and tell it your life story.
To add mass one has to eat more. To lose mass one has to eat less. It’s a very simple energy balance equation.
Energy balance is the relationship between energy in (calories) and energy out (from activity and general metabolic expenditure). A negative energy balance results in weight loss. A positive energy balance results in weight gain. I tell folks to think of a house being built. You can’t build a house without building materials, which is why it’s very difficult for most people to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. It’s like trying to build a house while someone keeps taking all the bricks away.
calculating calorie intake
People aiming to gain mass need to eat more than their body expends. For most folks, the amount of calories needed to gain mass is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 16 to 20 times their bodyweight in pounds daily. So, for a 100 lb. person trying to gain mass, this would mean that her intake should be between 1600 and 2000 calories daily. The exact amount will depend on the individual and her activity level.
- Women often need fewer calories than the same-sized male.
- Younger people need more than older people.
- More active people need more than less active people.
F’rinstance, let’s take 3 people of the same weight and height: 5’9″, 120 lbs. All of them want to gain mass.
- A 17-year old male
- A 45-year-old recreationally active woman
- A 20-year old female elite athlete
To gain mass without excessive body fat gain, each person might need:
- 21 x bodyweight in daily calories = 2520 calories
- 15 x bodyweight in daily calories = 1800
- 18 x bodyweight in daily calories = 2160
Some fat will be gained along with muscle. The trick is to eat enough to gain muscle without gaining too much body fat. Increase caloric intake slowly over a period of several weeks, and monitor weight gain to ensure that it’s mostly lean body mass without excessive body fat.
when to eat
If appetite is a problem and you’re not hungry, ignore it. Simply plan out your intake, schedule meals, and put some food in your eating orifice at regular intervals. Over time this intake pattern will become habitual. If you’re really not hungry, and the thought of a big meal makes you want to blow chunks, eat whatever you can stomach. There are some ideas below. Even a glass of milk or a handful of almonds is better than nothing.
In particular, make sure to eat plenty in the “training window”. Eat some protein and complex carbohydrate 1-2 hours before working out (whatever you can stomach). If you can tolerate it without upchucking, sip at a protein-carb drink during the workout (some protein in juice, or a bit of milk, is fine). You can try nibbling on a protein bar or a few handfuls of trail mix. Immediately after training, within the first half-hour, have some carbohydrate and protein, such as a banana and a glass of milk. And have another good, substantial meal within a couple of hours after that.
what to eat
How does one eat more and still maintain standards of good nutrition? Forget weight gainers and junk food. You don’t need sugary refined crap, saturated fat, or chemicals. You need real food and lots of it.
Protein, of course, should be the foundation of your nutritional plan. The recommended amount of protein for a weight training person trying to gain mass as well as to lose mass is the same: about 0.7 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight daily. For our hypothetical 120 lb person, that’s about 84 to 96 g daily as a baseline. You can also consume more.
Complex carbohydrates are the second source of quality calories. Read the other articles on this site about whole grains and incorporate them into your diet. If you’re avoiding grains, get your energy from fruit (fresh or dried) and maybe a little honey. Typically people who are naturally skinny tolerate carbohydrates well, so you can eat a bit more carbs than your chunky cousin, who may be more sensitive to the effects of glucose and insulin.
Fruit and veggies are a given. Eat lots, especially the colourful ones. Nuff said.
And now we come to the big kahuna (as it were) for weight gaining, fat. Fat is your best buddy when you are trying to gain mass. I don’t mean that you should go and eat a stick of butter. Saturated fat intake, primarily from animal products, should be kept moderate. What you want are good unsaturated fats from plant sources: nuts, nut butters, seeds, fresh oils, coconut, and avocados. Fats are extremely calorie dense. A couple of handfuls of nuts is a few hundred calories, and they contain valuable omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (walnuts and pumpkin seeds in particular have higher amounts of o-3). Here are some examples of ways to get calories from good fats.
- Use olive oil as a condiment. Drizzle olive oil on bread, grilled vegetables, or salads. Throw it in the food processor with garlic, chopped basil, and pine nuts, and fresh chopped spinach if you like, and you have a pesto sauce. 1 tablespoon of olive oil = about 120 calories.
- On the subject of olive oil, I know I said to avoid saturated fat, but I do recommend this delicious and basic recipe from the Naked Chef Jamie Oliver. Get a few slices of nice crusty bread, multigrain if you like, and toast it. Slice ripe tomatoes and put it on top. Sprinkle with fresh ground pepper and salt to taste, and some fresh basil if you have it, but dried is OK too. Slice brie cheese and put it on top of the tomatoes.
Drizzle the whole thing with olive oil. Melt it a wee bit in the microwave if you like. Depending on how much you make and eat, about 400-500 calories.
- Avocados can be served sliced or mashed (try some lime juice with it) and they taste great in omelets, with Mexican food, in salads, or just spread on a sandwich. You can even throw them into a protein shake. 1 avocado = about 275 calories.
- Peanut and sesame oil add flavour to Asian cuisine, basic stir fries, and salad dressings.
- Peanut butter is a staple in most North American homes, but go beyond old Mr. Peanut into other nut butters. Almond, hazelnut, and cashew butter are my favourites.
- Keep a jar of nuts handy and snack on them. Brazil nuts in particular are high in seleniium, an antioxidant nutrient. Half a cup of almonds = about 400 calories.
- Coconut is a valuable source of medium-chain triglycerides, and wonderful as a snack. Buy a whole one and whack it with a hammer (get a grownup to help you with this) to remove the hard outer shell, then nosh on the pieces. (If you want to have some laffs, fling the coconut off a balcony onto some concrete. Wash the pieces afterwards.) You can buy dried coconut but often it’s sweetened or tossed with trans fats or has had some other indignity perpetrated upon it. Coconut milk goes brilliantly into many recipes that call for cream or milk, as well as into protein shakes.
- If appetite is a problem it’s often easier to drink your calories than eat them. Fresh oils and nut butters go nicely into protein shakes. Here’s a recipe I fancy. 2 cups of milk, 1 to 2 scoops of whey, 1 banana, 2 tablespoons of peanut, almond, or cashew butter, and some optional chocolate flavouring. Put everything except the nut butter into the blender and blend till smooth. Dump the nut butter in while it’s blending (otherwise the stuff tends to stick to the blades). You can also put EFA oils such as hemp, flax, or even flavoured fish oil into shakes.