Preamble: I originally wrote this piece 10 years ago and have done rewrites to it over the years as the knowledge base and my own opinions have changed about things. I’d note that, the changes I’ve made over the years are fairly minor and I’m actually pleased with how well this has held up since I originally wrote it.The Baseline Diet 2009 Part 1
I find that lifters, especially new lifters often get so fixated on magic, complicated approaches to training and diet (including mine) that they forget to get the basics in place. The simple fact is that the basics and fundamentals are where every diet and every training program should start.Why? Because they always work. More advanced approaches should be brought in when they are needed, not just because the trainee is bored or wants to do them.The bottom line is this: Before you worry about advanced approaches, get your fundamentals straight. That’s what The Baseline Diet is all about.
I’m going to start this article with a few questions. How much mass have you gained in the last few months (or years as the case may be)? If you’re like the average lifter, the answer is assuredly ‘Not as much as I’d like’.
Ok, next question: how much money have you spent on exotic supplements hoping they’d be the secret to freaky mass? Again, if you’re the average lifter the answer is probably ‘Way more than I should have’.
Next is a series of questions: How many meals are you eating per day? How many calories? How many grams of protein? Carbs? Fat? When’s the last time you ate fruit or vegetables? Consistently? How much water are you consuming on a daily basis. If you’re an average lifter (and want to stay such), your answer is probably ‘Umm, I don’t know.’
This brings me in a roundabout way to the topic of this article (and it’s continuation which I’ll put up on Monday): while people are always interested in cutting edge new esoteric approaches to mass gain and nutritional strategies, the simple fact is that there isn’t much new under the sun when it comes to bodybuilding or athletic nutrition. There are only three major nutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat) and you can only arrange them in so many ways.
We may know a lot more about optimal nutrition than we did thirty years ago but human biology is still the same as it ever was. The same basic rules still apply and in this article and the next I want to talk about those basic rules.
A Quick Word on Supplements
I’ve written a lot of columns and Q&A’s for various magazines (print and online) over the years and, by far, the biggest question revolves around supplements. A majority deals with basic stuff of course: protein powders, thermogenics, creatine but a number also deal with the more esoteric stuff on the market.
Bodybuilding magazines are in the business of convincing lifters that taking a lot of expensive supplements it mandatory to reach their goals; because that’s how they make money. Telling a lifter to follow a basic progressive training program with a good nutrition doesn’t make money, getting them to buy a product for $45 per month month-in/month-out does.
The simple fact is this, your diet (and of course your training) will determine 90-95% of your success in bodybuilding (or any sport).
At most, supplements can add 5-10% to that level. Unless you’re planning on competing, and that 5-10% may mean the difference between winning and losing, spending a small-fortune on supplements is a waste. As well, until you get the 90-95% of your training and diet in order, the other 5-10% won’t make a damn bit of difference.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-supplements even if I get painted as such. Sure, I think 99% of what’s out there is crap (and history supports me in that). More importantly, I see too many lifters and athletes focusing on the wrong thing: they want the magic pill that will make them great, but they forget to worry about the stuff that actually matters.
Put differently, echoing my mentor: I’m anti-anything that detracts trainees from the stuff that really matters. And supplements all too often do exactly that. Lifters try to make up for failings in the important stuff with a magic pill, and the magazines and companies know and pander to this.
Ok, enough of that, let’s get to the article.
What is the Baseline Diet?
Most simply defined, the baseline diet is what every athlete needs to determine and put in place before they go mucking about with any supplements, or any goofy diet interpretations (including mine). That is, you should establish AND follow the baseline diet for at least a few months, to track your body’s response, before you try anything else.
Because until you determine what your baseline response is (and have the fundamentals of your diet in place), you can’t make any sort of objective conclusion about the complicated stuff in terms of results.
Now, much of what I’m going to discuss has been said many times before, as I said above there’s not much new here. But I still see enough lifters making the same basic mistakes in their overall daily nutrition that it’s worth repeating the basics again (and again and again).
I’m going to divide the baseline diet into six distinct categories which are meal frequency, caloric intake, water intake, and protein, carbohydrate and fat intake. I’ll discuss the first three in this article and the second three in Part 2.
Meal frequency may be one of the more hotly debated areas of nutrition these days. While it’s always been dogma (and in earlier versions of this article, I basically reiterated that dogma) that you must eat 6 times per day or more for optimal gains (or weight/fat loss), more recent research has called that severely into question.
Recent work into caloric restriction and intermittent fasting suggests that lower meal frequencies may have additional benefits. Some people are even fasting for many hours per day prior to food consumption with many claimed benefits (such as improved insulin sensitivity, calorie partitioning and fat loss). I can’t do intermittent fasting justice in this article, again I’d refer people to Martin Berkhan’s Leangains.com for more information.
As I’ve discussed at some point in most of my books, there are more factors which go into choosing meal frequency than any absolute statement (e.g. you MUST eat 6 small meals per day) can cover. How many calories per day someone is consuming, along with several other variables all interact here.
A small female consuming 1200-1500 calories per day may prefer to eat fewer smaller meals (so that each is larger and more satisfying) whereas a large male bodybuilder seeking mass gains (who may be consuming 3000-4000 calories/day or more) may need to eat 6 times per day to get in the required food.
As I discuss in detail in The Protein Book, any given meal will maintain the body in an anabolic state for somewhere between 4-6 hours depending on its composition and form (a solid meal takes 5-6 hours to digest for example) and the idea that you have to eat every 3 hours or your muscles will fall off, or you’ll go into starvation mode, is simply nonsense. I discuss this in some more detail in the article Meal Frequency and Energy Balance.
Now, as many like to point out, higher meal frequencies have been found to improve various aspects of health (notably glucose tolerance and blood cholesterol) but many of these studies use a very unrealistic feeding pattern (e.g. 17 meal/day compared to 3). Whether 6 meals per day has a true benefit over 3 meals per day in terms of health is massively debatable. As noted, emerging research is finding that intermittent fasting and lower meal frequencies may have major benefits.
But since this article is about a baseline diet for bodybuilders and athletes, who usually have a fairly high daily caloric intake, a higher meal frequency is probably still going to be preferred. This is just a practical consideration, an athlete with a large caloric requirement will probably find it easier to get them in eating more frequently.
Just realize that it isn’t absolutely mandatory. As long as you’re eating every 3-5 hours (assuming large-ish solid meals), you’ll remain in an an anabolic state. Obsessing that it’s been 2.5 hours since your last feeding is simply silly; stressing out over nothing will do you far more damage than going 4 hours between meals.
For more details, you can read the full discussion of meal frequency in The Protein Book.
Beyond the global issue of meal frequency, an area of major interest and debate is that of nutrient timing. The original version of this article repeated the basic idea that breakfast was a key aspect of halting overnight catabolism, but the research and practical experience of the intermittent fasting folks calls that into question. So I won’t repeat that particular bit of readily accepted dogma.
However, nutrient timing around training is currently a massive area of interest with some researchers going so far as to say that timing of nutrients (especially protein) around training is more important to overall results than total protein intake itself. Maybe. There are a lot of issues surrounding the studies (not the least of which is that most of them are done in the fasted state which means they have limited relevance to athletes who have eaten during the day) to date but the simple fact is that the research is fairly clear: nutrients consumed around training are critical to stimulating optimal gains in muscle mass.
Now, how soon after training is debatable, one study found that whether nutrients were taken an hour or three hours after training, the results were the same (in older folks, it’s critical that they be consumed soon after training). So the whole focus on ‘You MUST eat within 47 seconds of finishing your last set or your workout was waste.’ is basically a lot of internet nonsense.
But the general point still stands, lifters should be eating something around training. Whether it’s before, during, after or a combination of the three, nutrients (and that means carbohdyrates and protein) around training promote better gains in muscle mass.
I can’t possibly give sufficient details on amounts in this article. Again, The Protein Book has a 35 page chapter dedicated to the topic of around workout nutrition for those who want to know all the details.
Eating at Bedtime/During the Night
In the original version of this article, I made some comments about the practice of consuming nutrients right before bedtime and/or in the middle of the night. The idea was that the time between the last meal of the day and breakfast was one of catabolism and the theory is that eating at this time might help with growth. Maybe.
There is data that the gut needs ‘rest’ for optimal function (e.g. that around the clock feeding causes problems) but it’s all based on studies of folks in hospitals so it’s relevance to athletes is debatable.
Another consideration is that sleep should not be compromised to get more nutrients into the body. Sleep is critical for recovery and forcing yourself to wake up to eat something probably does more harm than good. I originally said simply this: If you wake up in the middle of the night (e.g. to pee), eating something might be worth considering. If not, don’t worry about it.
Basically, I’m torn on this one. Of course, as I mentioned above, the reality is that a solid meal takes at least 5-6 hours to fully digest. If you eat a particularly large dinner meal, that will actually be providing nutrients through a good portion of the night anyhow. I’m just not sure it’s worth worrying about, moreso if it means interrupting good sleep.
Total Caloric Intake
Although macronutrient composition affects success in bodybuilding and athletics, caloric intake is arguably as important. Invariably the lifters I’ve met who wanted to gain mass (but couldn’t) were either overtraining (or training stupidly) or simply not eating enough. Usually it’s both.
In the late 90’s, we saw the rise (and subsequent fall) of the lean mass gainer, a low calorie drink that magically caused you to gain mass. In all cases, these products contained creatine which causes rapid water weight gain. It was a neat trick but served only to confuse lifters who apparently thought that they could build muscle out of hopeful thinking and thin air.
On top of that, there is a pervading belief (perhaps we should call it a desire) to gain mass while losing fat at the same time. While fat beginners can pull this off, as can those returning from a layoff, anyone past the beginner stage will find this generally impossible without the use of repartitioning drugs or complicated diets which alternate distinct periods of over- and under-eating (such as the mass variant in my Ultimate Diet 2.0).
The strategy I regularly advocate is the alternation periods of specific mass gain (accepting fat gains) with specific fat loss (minimizing muscle loss). This avoids the buildup of excessive bodyfat levels, while allowing one to gain mass. I discuss this more in the article General Mass Gain Philosophies.
The bottom line is this: building muscle requires a surplus/excess of two things: the building blocks of muscle (protein/amino acids) and energy (calories). You can’t build muscle out of nothing and, without both in sufficient amounts, nothing happens. I’ll discuss protein intake in Part 2, here I only want to look at total caloric intake.
Bodybuilders always want to know ‘How many calories for mass gains?’ to which the simplest answer is ‘Enough.’ In principle, for mass gains calories should be high enough that a small fat gain is seen (as measured by calipers) every couple of weeks. This should be more than sufficient to support muscle mass gains.
As as starting point I usually suggest 10-20% over maintenance calories for mass gains. Of course, this assumes that you know what your maintenance calories actually are. If you do, just add 10-20% to that.
If not, a caloric level of 16-18 calories per pound is usually a good starting place for mass gains; this then has to be adjusted based on real world results in strength, mass and body fat. I’ve also known individuals who had to consume 25 cal/lb to gain weight/mass.
Why the variance?
The big variable here usually has to do with non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) which I discuss in some detail in Metabolic Rate Overview. In short, NEAT refers to activities that aren’t exercise that burn calories. Fidgeting, moving around, etc. And people vary drastically in how NEAT responds to overfeeding with some people (the stereotypical ‘hardgainer’) often shown massively increased NEAT when they try to eat a lot. So calories that would go to support muscle growth just get burnt off with excess activity. But I’m getting off topic.
In any case, I suggest trainees start at that calorie level and make adjustments depending on biweekly body composition measures. So start at say 18 cal/lb and see how your caliper measurements (men should probably use abdominal, women thigh as these tend to be most representative of body fat levels) change after 2 weeks.
If they went up a little (maybe a couple of millimeters over 2 weeks) and you’re gaining strength in the gym, you’re probably at a sufficient calorie level to maximize growth without excessive fat gain. More calories probably won’t increase muscle gain but may give disproportionate fat gain.
If neither weight nor body fat has increased, calories are too low. At that point, I’d suggest adding another couple of hundred calories per day to your diet. Eventually you’ll find that calorie level that starts putting weight on you. Obviously, as you get bigger, you’ll have to add more calories as well.
Of course, if body fat has gone up significantly more than that, calories are too high and should be scaled backwards slightly. I’d note that, if you start at the low end of my calorie recommendations, too many calories shouldn’t generally be a problem.
And as noted up above, my general experience with folks who can’t gain muscle mass is usually an issue of too few calories (or truly absurd training schemes) rather than too many.
While it should be a no-brainer, water intake is another place where trainees make basic mistakes (I am guilty of this myself). The effects of dehydration range from minimal (at 2% dehydration, strength and performance decrease) to painful (can anybody say kidney stones) to worse (at 10% dehydration, death can occur).
While there are many generalized water intake equations (such as 8 glasses per day), these may not be correct for everyone. To poach another guideline from my mentor, a good rule of thumb is 5 clear urinations per day, and 2 of those should come after your workout. Yes, that means looking in the toilet when you pee.
This gives trainees a way of individualizing water intake. Obviously someone who lives in a hot, humid environment (or trains in a non-air conditioned gym) will need more water than someone who lives in moderate temperatures and trains in a posh gym.
I’d note that, despite more dogmatic rhetoric to the contrary, all fluids contribute to hydration state (as do many high-water foods such as fruits and vegetables). Yes, even caffeinated ones; research clearly shows that the small amount of fluid lost from the caffeine is still much less than the amount gained by drinking the drink.
It’s worth nothing that recent research has found that plain water is actually the worst drink for rehydration following exercise. Milk was actually shown to be superior to either plain water or Powerade/Gatorade type drinks, most likely due to the potassium and sodium content. You can read more about this in the artilce Milk as an Effective Post-Exercise Rehydration Drink.
Finally, thirst is a poor indicator of hydration state. By the time you’re thirsty, you’re already a bit dehydrated.
The Baseline Diet 2009 Part 2
In The Baseline Diet: Part 1, I discussed three of the primary aspects of the baseline diet: meal frequency, caloric intake and water intake and I want to recap here briefly.
In terms of meal frequency, a daily intake pattern of 4-6 meals (depending on such factors as size and caloric intake) should be sufficient for the majority of bodybuilders and athletes. There are, of course, going to be exceptions.
In terms of caloric intake, the biggest problem I see among most lifters (especially those who classify themselves as ‘hardgainers’) is that they don’t eat enough in total (this is often coupled with exceedingly poor training approaches). And since you can’t build muscle out of thin air and wishful thinking, that will limit results. A good starting point for calories, is 16-18 cal/lb but this will have to be adjusted based on real world changes in body composition. Some need much more and some may need less to avoid excessive fat gain.
Finally, water is intimately involved in just about every reaction in the body, and water/fluid intake should be kept high to ensure adequate hydration. A good rule of thumb to individualize water intake is that you should have 5 clear urinations per day with two after training. Drink however much fluid (and note that many foods contain water, and all liquids count) is necessary to meet that goal.
Did you do the assignment I gave you, checking to see if your current diet matches up with the above. If not, you need to work on fixing it. As well, you need to see if the rest of your diet matches up with what I’m going to talk about in The Baseline Diet 2009: Part 2.
Today, I’m going to talk about the other three components of The Baseline Diet which are protein, carbohydrates and fats. For each I’m going to talk about a variety of issues including total intake recommendations along with looking at issues of quality, timing, etc. in the context of The Baseline Diet.
For bodybuilders and other strength/power athletes, arguably more has been written about protein than any other nutrient and there are reasons (both good and bad) for this. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of confusion surrounding dietary protein for athletes; since much of the supplement industry tends to be driven by commercial (rather than scientific) biases, the profit to be had from protein powder sales means that a lot of nonsense gets written about the topic.
Contrary to popular belief, protein is NOT the main component of muscle; rather water is. Frankly, I’m a little bit surprised that nobody has pushed anabolic water supplements for this reason (new Hydrobolic Dermal Water, now with an added Ester!) but I digress.
Protein requirements for bodybuilders has been a perennial topic of debate. Athletes have long-felt that high-protein diets were superior for muscle growth and results while classically trained dietitians maintain that only the RDA is necessary. Who’s right? Well, I am.
Varying lines of research strongly suggest that higher protein intakes than provided by the RDA (or DRI or whatever you want to call it) are necessary to optimize the results from training. How much is still debated endlessly in the literature among scientists but this isn’t the place to detail that debate.
As I discuss in some detail in The Protein Book, I recommend that bodybuilders consume 1.1-1.4 g/lb protein per day (bodybuilders have long used a range of 1-1.5 g/lb); for reasons I won’t discuss here, females can usually get by with less than that, about 1.1-1.2 g/lb.
I’d note that these values are for natural lifters; while there is far less research available, it’s generally felt that anabolics work better with more protein and intakes of 2 g/lb or higher are common.
I do want to point out that just jamming in more protein than needed won’t magically increase muscle growth; there is a limit to the rate at which muscle can be synthesized no matter how much protein you eat. I talk about the possible rate of muscle growth in General Philosophies of Muscle Gain.
I’d also note, and this is discussed in The Protein Book, that once protein requirements have been met, eating more dietary energy (from carbohydrates or fats) actually has a greater impact on growth than just eating more protein. I bring this up as lifters often get so far on the protein bandwagon that they eat little else; growth is usually disappointing.
Having talked about total protein requirements, I want to talk about a few related issues such as frequency, timing and type. Like the issue of meal frequency (discussed in The Baseline Diet 2009: Part 1), lifters often go a bit insane about protein frequency. Claims that your muscles will fall off if you don’t eat protein every 2.5 hours has people acting like obsessed maniacs but the truth is far different.
The fact is that whole protein sources take a pretty long time to digest, they may still be releasing amino acids into the bloodstream 5-6 hours later. As I discuss in both The Protein Book and What are Good Sources of Protein – Speed of Digestion Part 1, the now famous Boirie study showed that casein protein was still digesting 8 hours later. The idea that you have to eat protein every 2.5 hours just makes no sense.
As an additional factor, there is actually some evidence that consuming protein too frequently could be detrimental for growth. Again, this is a topic I discuss in some detail in The Protein Book and while the data is preliminary, the idea does seem to be supported. I know this goes against long held ideas in bodybuilding nutrition but the research says what it says.
With that said, I do feel that whenever a meal is consumed, it should contain some protein. Given the rather high protein intakes of bodybuilders and athletes (a 200 lb lifter at 1.5 g/lb is getting 300 grams of protein), spreading it fairly evenly throughout the day simply makes sense.
Of course, an additional issue is that of protein timing around training; as I noted in The Baseline Diet 2009: Part 1, some researchers feel that timing of protein around training is more important than total intake per se. Maybe. The point is this: having nutrients in the system around training certainly seems to be critical for optimal results. This is a topic I can’t do fair justice in this article, I spent 35 pages on it in The Protein Book and anything I’d write here would pale in comparison.
Another issue that athletes often get very obsessive about is protein quality, which protein is best. Well, as I eventually answered in the 12 part series on What Are Good Sources of Protein, there is no single optimal protein source, they all have pros and cons.
Frankly, 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, total intake will trump quality issues unless someone is doing something very strange with their diet (like eating a single low-quality protein as their only source).
Before I discuss dietary carbohydrates, I want to 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. And the primary source of glucose in the diet is going to be dietary carbohydrate (I’d note that protein can be converted to glucose in the liver as well).
Carbohydrates are surrounded by controversy in the world of sports nutrition for lifters (and in the general public). 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 ludicrous protein intakes to produce glucose.
As with so many topics, I tend to come in 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 (which is important for overall growth). How many carbs is needed depends on a lot of factors, which I discuss in the article How Many Carbohydrates Do You Need?
A lot of general equations have been thrown around for lifters in terms of carbohydrate intakes for optimal results. I’m no fan of percentage based diets but, assuming calories are adequate, an intake of 45-55% of total calories seems about right as a starting point for carbohydrate intake.
In practice, this might yield a carbohydrate intake of 2-3 g per pound body weight. So a 180 pound lifter might be consuming 360-480 grams of carbs per day or 1440-1920 calories per day. Assuming he was consuming 18 cal/lb (3240 calories), this would yield 45-60% of the total. Math is fun.
I’d note that this can be highly variable, individuals with poor genetic insulin sensitivity often do better with proportionally less carbs and more fats in their diets. So take the above as a starting point and nothing more. If you find yourself bloated and puffy with that many carbs, consider reducing carbs and increasing dietary fats.
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 and GI is problematic at best in the real world.
Lately, this concept has been further developed into discussions of the glycemic load of the diet. Glycemic load is found by multiplying the glycemic index by the total carb intake. Thus a huge amount of a low GI food can have a similar glycemic load to a small amount of a high GI foods.
There is much debate over the importance of GI for athletes and bodybuilders. Many are adamant that only low GI foods should be consumed and, certainly, from a nutrient density standpoint (low GI foods typically contain more fiber and nutrients than higher GI foods, but not always) there is some logic to that. There is also a school of thought that low GI foods should be consumed except around training (where more insulin release is required) and there is certainly much logic to that.
At the same time, GI becomes increasingly more irrelevant when mixed meals are being consumed. High GI foods become lower GI food when you start combining them with protein, fat and fiber. As well, there is evidence that regular (endurance) training decreases the GI of foods as discussed in The Influence of Subject’s Training Status on The Glycemic Index.
Stranger still, at least one study suggests that low GI foods are low GI because they cause a larger initial insulin spike as discussed in Different Glycemic Indexes of Breakfast Cereals Are Not Due to Glucose Entry into Blood but to Glucose Removal by Tissue.
My point being that the whole issue of the glycemic index and glycemic load is a lot more complicated than low GI is good and high GI is bad.
The best guideline I can give regarding this is that, of course, it will be better to choose more nutrient dense, high-fiber carbohydrates (which are usually lower in terms of GI) for the majority of your diet. Just don’t lose sight of the big picture, small differences in GI (or even moderated amounts of higher GI foods) aren’t going to kill you, especially not in the context of regular training, maintaining a reasonable body fat, etc.
For years (especially coming out of the fat-phobic 80’s), dietary fat was the forbidden nutrients in athletic and bodybuilding diets. Sometime around the 90’s, that perception started to change as it was recognized that not only were essential fats crucial for health, fat loss, etc. but that fats were not inherently evil.
Arguably one of the main benefits of increased dietary fat is that it makes foods taste better and adherence to your daily diet is a huge aspect of maintaining it 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. I’d note that 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.
Before I continue, just for background, I want to make sure everyone is familiar with the different ‘types’ of dietary fats which are:
* Saturated fats: Saturated fats are found primarily in animal source foods, although coconut and palm kernel oil both contain high amounts of saturated fats (although they are a special type of saturated fat called medium chain triglycerides). They are solid at room temperature (think butter, milk fat).
* Unsaturated fats: Unsaturated fats are found primarily in vegetable sources foods, although they are alos found in animal source foods in varying amounts. They are liquid at room temperature (think vegetable oil). Oleic acid (found in olive oil) is the most common mono-unsaturated fat.
* Polyunsaturated fats: Technically a sub-category of unsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats are also liquid at room temperature. The essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats and are found in varying amounts and ratios in various foods. Generally speaking, they are found in vegetable source foods but the omega-3 fatty acids (aka the fish oils) are found, as you might expect, in fatty fish.
* 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.
From a health perspective, massive amounts of research support the critical importance of the essential fatty acids (EFA’s), they improve calorie partitioning, decrease inflammation, and have so many health benefits that if you saw a list of them you’d probably think I was making them up.
And while bodybuilders may be less interested in health than in getting huge, the simple fact is that an unhealthy athlete of any sort isn’t one who can make optimal progress. Ensuring daily EFA intake is critical to optimal health and functioning.
And while it is held as proven true that the omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory (and that an excess of w-6:w-3 fatty acids causes health problems), recent research actually calls this into debate. At some point in the future, I’ll do a feature article on this topic to discuss it in more detail.
Of course, there is a great deal more controversy regarding the health effects of the different types of fats. The reality is that a great many studies link a high dietary fat intake with a number of disease states. However, it’s a lot more complicated than that sentence makes it out to be.
I’d suggest readers read Carbohydrate and Fat Controversies Part 1 and Carbohydrate and Fat Controversies Part 2 for a lot more detail on this debate. I’m not going to detail the whole argument here since this is already getting too long. Simply put, the global context that fats are being consumed in (e.g. sedentary, overweight, stressed out vs. lean, active athlete) plays an enormous role in how dietary fats affect human physiology.
Of course, there are other reasons for athletes and bodybuilders to worry about dietary fat beyond just heath effects.
One of the major issues that usually comes up with regards to dietary fat is an apparent link between dietary fat intake and testosterone levels. A number of studies have shown that low-fat, high-fiber diets can lower total testosterone and higher-fat, lower-fiber diets can raise it. Some work has suggested that it is saturated fat per se that has the effect on testosterone levels, others suggest that it is total fat intake.
But there are some problems. One is that when you do diet studies of this sort, many variables change. Is it the change in dietary fat, the fiber intake, the carbohydrate to fat ratio or some combination that is causing the changes.
As well, at least some work suggested that while diet could modulate total testosterone levels, it looks like the body will keep free testosterone levels pretty static by modulating levels of sex-hormone binding globulin (SHBG, the thing that binds testosterone). So it may all be moot anyhow.
At this point all that can be said is that sufficient dietary fat intake may be required for optimal hormone levels. But the data set is more unclear than many make it out to be.
I would also note that a handful of studies have noted improved nitrogen balance (a measure of how much protein is being stored in the body) with higher fat and lowered carb intakes; some work I cite in The Protein Book suggests that dietary fat may be better for protein retention than carbs.
Which brings us to the question of how much dietary fat.
As noted, I don’t particularly care for percentage based diets but, for dietary fats, I make an exception and feel that an average intake of 20-25% of total calories is probably as good a starting point as any. If we take our same 180 lb lifter above consuming 18 cal/lb (3240 calories), a 20-25% fat intake equates to 72-90 grams of fat per day (or about 0.4-0.5 g/lb). Across 4-6 meals per day that’s 12-15 grams of fat per meal which I think is about right. As I noted above in the section on carbohydrates, some lifters may find better results with less carbs and more fat depending on the specifics.
Of that total intake, the majority should probably come from monounsaturated fats, I entreat all athletes to get sufficient fish oils (an intake of 6-10 standard 1 gram capsules per day is sufficient IMO) and the rest can come from saturated fats.
Ok,so that’s the 6 factors of The Baseline Diet. Once again, by baseline diet, this is the diet I think lifters, athletes or even the general public should follow (to establish their results) prior to trying other diet interpretations.
Of course, it’s also arguably the dietary template that most bodybuilders have followed (more or less) over the years. There’s not much new under the sun here. To sum up the 6 aspects:
1. Meal frequency: 4-6 meals per day depending on the specific circumstances. There are exceptions.
2. Total caloric intake: for mass gains, a rule of thumb starting place is 16-18 cal/lb to be adjusted based on real-world body composition changes.
3. Fluid intake: Sufficient to generate 5 clear urinations per day, with 2 after training.
4. Protein intake: 1.1-1.4 g/lb for males, 1.1-1.2 g/lb for females.
5. Carbohydrate intake: ~45-55% of total calories (~2-3 g/lb) from a mix of starchy and fibrous carbohydrate sources, high GI carbs right after training
6. Fat intake: 20-25% of total calories (~0.4-0.5 g/lb).
And that’s The Baseline Diet. Spend some time with it to get your fundamentals right before you start worrying about fancy implementations or magic programs. Until you know how your body responds in general, you can’t ever know if the fancier stuff is working better, worse or the same.
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