As every bodybuilder knows, in order to build muscle, it’s not sufficient to lift a lot of heavy things, one also has to eat a lot of food. One might say that eating is half the job. But what types of foods should one ideally consume…?
This is a question that many a gym-goer has wrestled with. Whereas some have landed on the option of not caring about much beyond their total caloric intake and the macronutrient distribution of their diet, others have made it a priority to eat healthy. Recently, I was contacted by one such health-conscious lifter who wanted my input on his nutritional situation, which he feels is in need of refinement.
Seeing as I think the predicament he’s faced with is a fairly common one and one that many fitness devotees may relate to, I decided to put his question, together with my answer, up here on the site…
I am 6’5″ and require significantly more food than the average person to gain muscle. However, I find it extremely difficult to eat enough on the ancestral diet. How do you suggest I tackle this problem? Are potatoes okay?
I’m very tall myself (~ 6’6″), and used to be really into strength training, so I can definitely relate to your situation. Actually, I’ve been in exactly the same predicament as you’re in now. I know well that it can be difficult to get enough food into one’s system to properly fuel a muscle-building endavour if one adheres to a healthy diet, particularly for us tall guys.
My simple advice is this: Relax the stringency of your diet.
Keep in mind that our primal ancestors didn’t lift weights or strive to become muscular. In other words, the diet that they ate isn’t necessarily ideal for someone who’s in the gym 4 times a week, working his or her ass of under the squat bar. One of the properties of diets designed in accordance with the Paleolithic nutrition model that is desirable for the average Joe and Jen, and in particular people who are overweight or obese, namely their low-moderate calorie density, may be less than desirable for hard-training athletes and gym-goers who are striving to get enough calories into their system.
This comes back to something I’ve stated many times here on the site, which is that sick, inflamed individuals and people who are very physically active, in particular individuals who regularly partake in activities that we as a species have little evolutionary experience with, such as weightlifting, CrossFit, and triathlon, have special nutritional requirements. They’re not necessarily best of eating exactly like a hunter-gatherer.
This is not the same as to say that you should eat whatever you want or that you shouldn’t concern yourself with what your ancestors ate when you plan your diet; however, you need to make room for some nutritional leeway.
What I thought I’d do is to do a quick rundown of some foods that I suggest you eat. Most of them are probably already a part of your dietary repertoire, but hopefully there’s something new for you there as well to consider.
In addition to eating meat, eggs, vegetables, and fresh fruit, I suggest you regularly consume the following…
Eat a variety of nuts. Don’t go overboard though. 100 grams or so a day is probably a good fit for you.
- Fatty seafood
Mackerel, wild salmon, sardines, and the like can provide some much-needed energy to your system.
Buy in bulk.
- Extra virgin olive oil
Add it to your meals to up the caloric content.
- Dried fruit
When you feel in need of something sweet.
- Sweet potatoes or yams
Make them your primary source of carbohydrate. I personally favor sweet over white potatoes, in large part because they score somewhat lower on the glycemic index chart and also because they are so rich in beta-carotene, but if the opposite is the case for you, then feel free to include some of the white variety in your diet as well.
- If necessary: Include some whole grains or fatty, fermented dairy products in your diet
If you feel that you need more energy and/or carbohydrate than what the above foods provide, then don’t hesitate to add small-moderate quantities of some gluten-free whole grains (for example brown rice (I prefer and recommend brown over white rice) or oats) and/or fatty dairy foods (for example grass-fed butter or cream) to your diet, so as to increase its caloric density.
Additionally, I’d suggest that you regularly meal-prep and eat at 3 or 4 balanced meals a day, with snacks (e.g., nuts, fruit, eggs) in-between.
Before wrapping up, I’d like to point out two very important things.
- Robust health is a prerequisite to optimal athletic performance
This is true irrespective of the athletic arena in question, whether it be a hardcore gym, the running tracks, a tennis court, or an Olympic-size swimming pool. One thing that is particularly important for you to take note of is that healthy, non-inflamed bodies not only score better than sick, inflamed ones in the context of exercise tolerance and adaptation, but they also tend to require less energy, in part because their immune apparatus aren’t as gluttonous. In the context of muscle-building, their hormonal and nutritional milieu is more conducive to growth, with more of the available resources being put into what counts, namely sustaining and building lean muscle.
- Intense bodybuilding isn’t healthy!
Strength training isn’t bad per se. When correctly applied and executed, it’s beneficial. That said, I’d strongly caution against taking the whole bodybuilding thing to the extreme. From a health standpoint, it’s much better to conform to the organic fitness pyramid and thereby engaging in a variety of different types of physical activities, including some resistance training, a bit of sprinting, a lot of low-level aerobic activity, and plenty of games and fun, than to base one’s life around bodybuilding. The fact that intense bodybuilding is an evolutionarily novel endeavor that calls for the consumption of massive amounts of food, including many high-calorie items, speaks to this notion.
I hope this is of some use to you. Don’t hesitate to shoot me another e-mail if you have any additional questions.
P.S. For more suggestions, check out the recent article in which I share some of the most important lessons I’ve learned throughout my fitness career.