by Mike Arnold
As a bodybuilder, you don’t need to be told that diet plays a direct and critical role in the achievement of your goals. Even beginners understand this, yet knowledge of this fact is no guarantee of success, as evidenced by the many who continue to struggle with this part of their program. When it comes to bodybuilding nutrition, simply knowing something and being able to implement it effectively are two different things entirely, making book smarts only one aspect of personal success. As for why so many seem to struggle in this area, it is impossible to lay the blame on any single thing, but there is one factor (outside of consistency) that accounts for the vast majority of difficulty in most cases—our individuality.
Bodybuilder or not, each person’s dietary needs, tolerances, and preferences are unique to the individual, making any one diet inappropriate for all but the person it was tailored to. Although there are certain guidelines universal to those desirous of muscle gain, the way in which those guidelines should be implemented can vary greatly from one person to the next, making self-discovery an ongoing process for all of us.
Unfortunately, maintaining a bodybuilding diet never becomes easy. Even those who embarked on this quest long ago will attest to this fact, as many find that it remains the single most challenging part of the bodybuilding journey regardless of time commitment. This is because, in large part, engaging in the bodybuilding lifestyle is a rather unnatural endeavor, requiring the digestive system to process large quantities of food at a frequency that strains its natural capabilities. By placing these demands on the body day in and day out, month after month and year after year, can we really expect it to continue performing without issue? I think not, which is why so many of us experience digestive problems of one sort or another.
Add to this other potential digestive issues which have nothing to do with bodybuilding and we have an almost guaranteed recipe for dysfunction. Gas, bloating, distension, waste build-up, acid reflux, autotoxicity, appetite suppression, lethargy and many other ailments combine to send a clear signal that something is wrong. Yet, many bodybuilders disregard these symptoms, viewing them as nothing more than an unpleasant but necessary sacrifice on the road to physical perfection. In many cases these problems are addressed only when they get so bad that they begin to adversely affect the individual’s ability to follow his diet, even though common sense dictates a preemptive approach.
There’s an old adage in bodybuilding that says “it’s not what you eat that matters, but what you absorb that counts”. I would like to add to this by stating “it is not only what you absorb that matters, but the efficiency with which you absorb your food that counts”. Inefficient digestion impairs your food’s absorption rate, decreases overall nutrient retention, has injurious effects on long-term health, and from a cosmetic standpoint, can damage the appearance of your midsection through distension, bloating, etc. Even with digestive difficulties you may still be able to absorb all the nutrients you need to grow, but if you have to beat the shit out of your digestive system in order to do it, you are ultimately going to experience problems; problems that will affect not only your health, but your ability to recover and grow as well.
Make no mistake about it, there is a direct relationship between appetite and digestive health-efficiency. In short, the more effectively your digestive system is able to process the food you eat (which includes breakdown, absorption, and elimination), the better your appetite will be. However, many bodybuilders reach a point where the sheer quantity of food consumed makes it difficult, if not impossible to sustain an appetite suitable for meeting their dietary needs. This leads to force-feeding, which leads to further appetite suppression and additional digestive system stress/complications.
For all you guys out there who think that their slow metabolism is a curse, this is one of those times that you can be thankful you fall into this category…because you will never have to contend with the volume of food required by those with more rapid metabolisms. On the other hand, if you happen to fall into the fast metabolism group, or you struggle with meeting your daily caloric intake for some other reason, you would do well to take the following advice to heart. In fact, many of the recommendations made in this article are not just for those who struggle to eat, but for anyone who wants to maximize their digestive health-efficiency. Remember, regardless of your genetic predisposition, bodybuilding, especially at the advanced level, will take a toll on your digestive (and therefore overall) health. So, while adhering to a bodybuilding diet will be easier for some than others, all of us should take steps to not only maximize digestive efficiency, but to minimize potential harm as well.
There are many molecules within the body which play a role in appetite regulation, including hormones, neurotransmitters, and even food related nutrients. The most well known of these are ghrelin (increases hunger) and leptin (reduces hunger), but the body’s hunger-satiation response is affected by much more than just these two hormones, including: neuropeptide Y, cholecystokinin, dynorphin, dopamine, epinephrine, cortisol, orexin, T3/T4, GLP-1, amylin, endocannabinoids, insulin, blood glucose levels, blood amino acid concentrations, and many, many others. In the absence of disease, illness, or some other type of dysfunction (self-inflicted or otherwise), these chemicals and the systems that regulate them work in harmony, ensuring the proper management of our hunger-satiety response.
Unfortunately, as bodybuilders, even when things are functioning properly (which often isn’t the case) it doesn’t necessarily mean our appetite is going to match our caloric needs. This is where we step in and attempt to ameliorate the issue through correction and/or manipulation of these chemicals/systems. As bodybuilders, it is important to remember that we are continuously placing an unnatural burden on our digestive system; one which it was not designed to accommodate on a long-term basis. As a result, our appetite can be adversely affected by both mechanical stress and chemical responses. In most cases, these chemical responses are the body’s reaction to mechanical stress.
For instance, when our stomach is filled with food cells within the stomach wall begins to stretch, which results in a chemical signal being sent to the brain that tells the body to release satiety promoting chemicals. This is just one of many ways in which the body’s chemical profile can be altered through mechanical stimulation/stress. Therefore, before trying to alter the body’s natural hunger-satiety response via direct chemical manipulation, we should first attempt to correct any underlying issues which may be present. In many cases this is all it takes to bring a partial or even full resolution of the matter. However, if further assistance is required we are left with an abundance of options, including direct chemical manipulation.
But before discussing those options, let’s first talk about what we can do to ensure that our digestive system is operating at peak efficiency. In a nutshell, mechanical issues are usually attributable to a problem in one or more of the following areas: digestion, absorption, or elimination. For this reason, anything we can do to improve the efficiency of these three processes will help reduce or eliminate the vast majority of digestive problems. Let’s start with elimination first, as this is an area which many bodybuilders (either knowing or unknowingly) tend to struggle with.
As the last stop in the digestion process, the colon helps process digestive waste and also absorbs any remaining fluids. However, in the event of dietary deficiency (primarily fiber), the colon fails to self-clean as waste passes through. Over time, fecal matter begins to accumulate and harden along the walls of the digestive tract, resulting in significant waste build-up. Not surprisingly, this creates a toxic environment in which the body becomes susceptible to a form of self-poisoning known as auto-toxicity. Unfortunately, due to the colon’s highly permeable nature these toxins do not remain within the colon itself, but are readily absorbed through the colon walls and into the bloodstream, causing all sorts of potential health problems (i.e. appetite suppression) and generally making you feel like shit (no pun intended).
While bodybuilding diets are typically viewed as healthy, the truth is that the vast majority are anything but. Loaded with animal proteins and refined grains, most bodybuilding diets contain only trace amounts of fruits and vegetables, as well as minimal amounts whole grains, tubers, and legumes. In fact, it is not uncommon to see a bodybuilding diet contain nothing but meat and refined carbs at nearly every single meal…with perhaps a smattering of vegetables every now and then. With meat-based proteins being notoriously difficult to digest and with refined carbs possessing little to no fiber, elimination is almost always compromised.
At first glance the solution might seem simple—just start including more high fiber foods (i.e. fruits, vegetables, un-refined carbs, etc) in the diet, right? Well, not really. While this is certainly a healthier way to do things and I would definitely recommend it if the bodybuilder was able to continue consuming his required amount of calories, it is unlikely to improve one’s appetite and may even make it worse. You see, high fiber foods tends to be less calorically dense that their low-fiber counterparts, so while they may directly improve elimination, they also cause overall food volume to rise, which in turn makes it more difficult to meet one’s daily caloric needs. Therefore, any increase in appetite that may occur as a result of improved elimination usually ends up being a wash.
So, when it comes to diet what are we left with? There is no hard and fast answer here—no single dietary approach that works for everyone. Each person needs to figure out what foods, meal frequencies, and macro ratios works for them and what doesn’t, and this only comes by way of experience. While this may require you to do some homework, the potential returns are well worth the investment. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because a food is normally considered “healthy” that it is necessarily the right choice for you…or because something is traditionally consumed by bodybuilders (red meat, for example) that you should be eating it. There are untold examples of bodybuilders out there who continue consuming certain foods, despite the fact that they cause digestive upset or other ailments, for no other reason than they have been brainwashed into believing that it is essential for maximizing their progress.
This brings me to my second point, which is that there are no magical foods in bodybuilding. So, if something in your diet isn’t compatible with your digestive system, or causes problems of any sort, toss it out and find a replacement, regardless of what it is. I don’t care of it is red meat, chicken, oats, rice, or whatever. If it doesn’t work for you, get rid of it. There is not a single food in this world which supplies some all-important muscle building nutrient that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Diet is highly individual, so only through trial and error will you be able to learn which foods are ideally suited to your own unique physiology and which one’s aren’t. When you finally do learn what works best for you, you may find that issues which once plagued have disappeared, and that in addition to an improved appetite, you begin to feel, function, and look better.
Despite our dietary individuality, there are a few rules which tend to be helpful for stimulating appetite in the majority. One of these is the moderation of dietary fat. While fat is certainly an essential component of any muscle building diet, excessive consumption of this macro-nutrient will slow the digestion process, ultimately making it take longer for food to exit the stomach and pass through the digestive tract. As mentioned above, appetite is partially regulated through the stretching of cell walls in the stomach and bowels. When these cells are stretched, such as when the stomach-intestines are full, the body’s hormonal balance favors appetite suppression. Conversely, when these cells are relaxed, it favors appetite stimulation. So, by increasing the rate at which food passes through the digestive system, the more quickly our appetite will return in between feedings.
Another tip many find helpful is not going overboard in terms of meat consumption. As bodybuilders, we have been taught from day one that animal proteins are the foundation of a successful bodybuilding diet and therefore, it is not uncommon for them to comprise the majority of our daily protein intake. While meat products are certainly a quality protein source, excess consumption is not in our best interest. This is particularly true when it comes to the more difficult to digest sources, such as red meat. Consuming large quantities of these animal proteins not only fails to supply additional muscle building benefit, but it places unnecessary stress on the digestive system while simultaneously increasing the risk of experiencing diet-related health problems.
Fortunately, more and more bodybuilders are getting away from the extreme meat-based diets and exhibiting greater moderation in their consumption. In my opinion, anything above 1-1.5 pounds of total meat protein per day (during the off-season) is excessive and unnecessary…and this recommendation is not limited to the sub-200 pound guys either, but the larger, more advanced bodybuilders. So, for those of you who have been consuming multiple pounds of meat protein per day, cutting back to a more reasonable amount, while including a larger quantity of alternate protein sources, is not only likely to help improve appetite, but will pay dividends in terms of health (and stomach distension) as well.