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There's no such thing as a dumb question, so if you want to know more about how to eat right for maximum muscle and minimal body fat, we've got the answers to your top 10 essential nutrition questions.
1) How many meals per day should I eat?
Eating six smaller, bodybuilder-friendly meals a day rather than 3-4 larger meals is an absolute must for those who are serious about adding muscle. Frequent eating spread throughout your waking hours encourages the body to store greater amounts of carbohydrates within muscles. This fuel reserve, called muscle glycogen, promotes mass gain by energizing muscles, giving them the fuel they need to recover. By topping off six or so times daily, you provide your muscles with a constant supply of glycogen; eating only 3-4 meals a day deprives you of this fuel source. In addition, greater glycogen stores increase water retention inside muscles, encouraging growth and tissue repair.
Eating more often also provides a nearly nonstop influx of nutrients and protein. Muscles use amino acids, the building blocks of protein, to repair damage caused by hard training. The result: Muscles grow larger. Amino acids also help manufacture important hormones that regulate growth and support the immune system. A strong immune system plays a vital role in recovery from a hard workout.
2) What does "eating clean" mean?
Eating clean means avoiding foods that are not conducive to adding muscle mass, such as fried foods, butter and refined foods, including snack foods and fast foods. By "clean", bodybuilders often mean "natural/unprocessed" and "low-fat." Clean foods include fish, fowl, lean red meat, eggs, low-fat dairy products, potatoes, yams, brown rice, whole-wheat bread, oatmeal and fruit. Clean foods are generally more nutrient-dense. They have lots of vitamins, minerals and/or fiber and they're prepared with little or no added fat.
3) Can I eat fast food and still put on muscle?
Fast food doesn't usually fit the bill as "clean" food, but you don't have to completely rule it out if you're careful. If you have a fast metabolism, you could eat there daily as long as it's just one of your six meals and you make decent choices. Stick with burgers without the mayonnaise or choose chicken sandwiches that are neither breaded nor fried. Skip the fries. Hell, even two hamburgers from McDonald's provide 25 grams of protein and 66 grams of carbs, which is not a bad combo for a quick fix.
4) What's so special about protein, and how much of it should I eat?
Protein is the foundation for muscle growth. It directly builds mass by providing amino acids, the essential material muscles use to get bigger. In fact, protein or amino acids are often referred to as the body's "bricks and mortar." No surprise, then, that if you want to get big, you need more protein than the average person. Start at 1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day and go up to as much as 1.5 grams. So if you weigh 180 pounds, that's 180-270 grams of protein daily. Be sure to spread that intake evenly over your six meals to maximize absorption and provide a continual flow of building material.
5) What's the best kind of protein drink for beginners?
Whey protein powder tops the list. Whey is extremely easy to digest and provides a concentrated amount of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which increase protein synthesis, the muscle's ability to take in and use protein for growth. Whey protein is especially beneficial when taken within 30 minutes before and immediately after training. It's easy to absorb, allowing the amino acids to quickly reach the muscles and kick-start the growth and recovery process.
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6) What is "good" fat?
Olive oil, avocados and walnuts are examples of "good" fat. They contain monounsaturated fatty acids, which not only promote good heart health but also support the immune system – and a strong immune system helps muscle grow. The good fat in salmon and sardines, known as omega-3 fatty acids, offers major health benefits such as heart and immune-system benefits, improves muscle growth and helps offset muscle breakdown associated with training.
While saturated fat (found in whole-milk dairy products, beef and tropical oils) is sometimes deemed not so beneficial, it plays its own unique role. Saturated fats help the body manufacture testosterone, the muscle-building hormone, but it's still a good idea to keep your saturated fat consumption fairly low.
7) How long should I wait after eating to work out? What's the best thing to eat beforehand?
Eating before you work out used to be considered a no-no, but today, we know that it's a must for muscle growth. It helps prevent muscles from being torn down for fuel during training and kick-starts the muscle-growth processes sooner. You should consume both a whole-food meal and a liquid meal before your workout. The whole-food meal (which should be eaten about two hours beforehand) should provide a 1:2 ratio of protein to carbohydrate, with about 40 grams of protein coming from beef, chicken or fish and 80 grams of slow-digesting carbs like sweet potatoes, brown rice or oatmeal. About 15-30 minutes before your workout, have a shake containing 20 grams of whey protein and 40 grams of carbs from fruit juice or carb powder.
8) How soon after my workout should I eat? What's the best thing to eat after I train?
You might not consider it "eating", but for immediate muscle repair, drink 20-40 grams of whey protein along with 40-100 grams of carbohydrates as soon as you finish training. The carbs can be fast-digesting foods like white bread or a baked potato or derived from a powdered drink mix such as Vitargo or a maltodextrin powder. Fast-digesting proteins and carbs like these can bring muscle breakdown (the result of training) to a dead stop. In turn, the body quickly reverses gears and begins to grow. Because it halts muscle breakdown, this may be your most important meal of the day. An hour after your mini-shake, eat a regular meal comprised of carbohydrates and protein.
9) How much water should I drink? Can I still have my coffee?
Proper hydration is fundamental to facilitating the muscle-repair/growth process. To take full advantage, drink 8 pints of water a day. However, let your thirst guide you as well. If you're thirsty, drink …and drink a little more than necessary to quench your thirst. For example, if you're thirsty at 10 a.m. and would normally drink a cup of water or diet soda, have 2 cups. You can also measure your needs by monitoring how water flows through your body. Try drinking 3 cups of water at a single sitting. If you don't have to use the bathroom within a couple of hours, you're probably a little under-hydrated and need to drink more. Yes, you can have your coffee. While coffee is considered a mild diuretic, the amount of fluid retained by drinking a tall cup of java outweighs that lost in urine. In addition, coffee's a source of antioxidants, compounds that help support the immune system and enhance muscle recovery.
10) Can I have a cheat day and still see results?
Your ability to go off your diet and still see results depends on your body type. You can get away with a cheat day once a week if you have a fast metabolism, but if it's slower, cheating one whole day a weak will set you back and you'll gain body fat. If you gain fat rather easily, limit yourself to one cheat meal per week. Or you can schedule a cheat day once every 2-3 weeks. If you have a cheat meal, be sure to have it replace one "clean" meal. That is, eat whatever you want, but not so much that you're so stuffed you can't get in your other five healthy meals for the day.