We know that building and maintaining muscle mass takes energy, but does it matter where this energy comes from? And what time we have it?
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A review of multiple studies concluded that meeting total protein intake is by far the most important factor for gaining muscle strength and size (outside of resistance training) (1). Whilst the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 g/kg/day, multiple scientific bodies estimate protein requirements to be double that and recommend an intake of 1.6-2.4 g/kg protein/bodyweight/day to maximise muscle mass gains (2,3).
If you train a lot and/or are lean, a higher protein intake may be better and you could actually shoot for between 2.4-3g/kg protein/bodyweight/day. However, if you are overweight, stick with the lower intake of 1.6 g/kg.
Quality of protein is measured by proportion of essential amino acids (EAAs) and how easily the protein is utilised and digested by the body. High quality protein sources such as eggs, fish, chicken and beef and whey protein powder, are recommended for optimising the process that builds the muscle (4).
However, if you are do not include animal sources of protein, ensure that your protein intake includes an optimal EAA profile and added leucine – you can do this by including an EAA supplement. Studies show that this, along with ingesting a higher quantity of protein overall, can result in a similar muscle growth response as whey/animal protein (5). However, a recent study showed that whey protein was still superior to a plant based protein for increasing circulating levels of amino acids (6).
In general, whole food protein sources may have a greater anabolic effect – for example, a beef steak/fillet rather than minced beef, a whole egg rather than egg white and whole milk rather skimmed milk (7). It may be that whole nutrient dense foods offer additional benefits that contribute to an anabolic environment that benefit muscle mass gains.
Research shows that hitting sufficient dietary protein intake is what matters for muscle mass gains and that carbohydrate ingestion has no additive effects on this process (5). However, that doesn’t mean that carbs don’t play a role! Carbohydrate intake can contribute to a daily positive energy balance to support muscle growth, as well as enhancing training so that greater acute and chronic training adaptations can take place (2).
For peeps who are following a general fitness programme and do not have a performance related goal, then a standard intake of 3-5 g/kg/day is recommended. However, there isn’t an issue with having more or less if you are meeting your energy intake and it suits your preferences. For most people I recommend including some carbs, because as well as being the best fuel for performance, there are lots of delicious and nutrient dense foods that have carbs in them. They are also indicated to be associated with certain hormones and play a role in mood.
Anyway, back to you – you do have a goal as you’re trying to gain muscle! Your carbohydrate intake can really vary depending upon you and your needs – lifestyle, training, preference. No significant difference in body composition are seen in those who are sedentary, when the remaining energy surplus comes from either carbs of fat (8).
Type and volume of training influence the proportion of carbs that are going to therefore benefit you for your own training, performance, recovery and muscle gain. If you mainly strength train, 4-8 g/kg/day is recommended (9). For athletes in general, an intake of 5-12 g/kg/day is recommended, aiming for the upper end, 8-10 g/kg/day for anyone who trains at a moderate to high intensity upwards of 12 hours per week (2).
To assist with glycogen restoration, for either endurance athletes and/or for glycogen depleting sports/training, periodising carb intake can be an effective way to restore glycogen levels – so having 3-4 days of a higher intake at 8-10 g/kg/day. Additionally, regardless of your training, consuming higher carb snacks pre event/competition (1-4 g/kg/day) is likely to benefit your performance and subsequent muscle gain outcomes (2).
Some research indicates the ketogenic diet to impair muscle mass gain in comparison to moderate intakes of carbs (10,11). However, there are also many anecdotal claims gaining muscle mass whilst being keto. Some carbohydrate intake, at certain times, for most people, theoretically seems likely to optimise the process of muscle mass gains.
The carbohydrate source may be more relevant when it comes to eating around training. To maximise carbohydrate uptake, consuming a mixture of carbs may be optimal for uptake. Carbohydrates are made of simple sugars, known as glucose and fructose and they utilise different transporters in order to be absorbed – glucose uses the SGLT1 transporter and fructose utilises the GLUT5 transporter. When glucose and fructose are taken in a ratio of 2:1, this optimises the rate of carb absorption (18).
Therefore when you choose your carbs pre training, going for a mixture of something starchy/low glycemic, with something higher glycemic may be best – examples include, sweet potato and melon, brown rice and kiwi fruit. Or if you’re eating something close to training (>1 hour) then a banana works well!
Other considerations for carb intake include body fat levels and your primary goal. For example if you are leaner and are prioritising muscle gain, including carbs that are less filling and less fibrous, such as oatmeal, white potatoes, white rice may be beneficial for meeting energy intake requirements.
If you are trying to recomp, body fat levels are higher and your primary goal is to lose fat, then you will likely have a smaller calorie intake to play with and managing hunger will be more of a priority. Including more carbs that are fibrous, such as non starchy vegetables, may help you to reach your goals.
Whilst I recommend consuming >80% of food intake from whole food sources, including snacks such as rice and oat cakes are a useful part of a muscle gaining diet – they’re not going to make you feel full, and paired with some peanut butter and banana, are a tasty, nutritious and higher calorie snack!
Shoot for an intake >25% of total energy intake from dietary fat since <25% can be detrimental to levels of hormones. Since the energy density of fat is double that of protein and carbs, it is logical to increase fat intake during an energy surplus – therefore determine your fat intake dependent upon your dietary preference and what will best help you reach your caloric intake for your goals.
Some research indicates polyunsaturated sources of fats may be associated with better lean mass gains than saturated fats and in general, saturated fats are recommended to be no more than 10% of dietary energy intake (12). Including saturated fats from whole foods sources such as dairy may confer health benefits.
Including fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel, rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, may enhance the anabolic response to nutritional stimuli and increase muscle mass and function – independent of resistance training stimuli (13,14). Also monounsaturated sources of fat like olive oil and avocado, have overall health benefits, that may be favourable for body composition (15).
Does it matter when I have my energy intake?
Sufficient energy availability is necessary to fuel training, performance and recovery. Even within the day energy deficiencies may have a catabolic impact (16,17), counterproductive to muscle mass gains. Since the building of muscle occurs over a 48 period post resistance training, sufficient energy availability throughout this time period is necessary to support this process.
A maximum amount of protein may be utilised for the purpose of building muscle at one time, indicated to be approx 0.3-0.5 g/kg of protein/bodyweight – this is known as the muscle full effect. Therefore distributing protein intake between 4 meal opportunities and likely more for someone who trains more/is an athlete is ideal.
Check out Does protein distribution matter for maximising your muscle gains and Nutrient timing – what’s the deal and does it matter when you eat? for more detail on these topics.
Since the consumption of carbohydrates and sufficient energy availability also supports training and performance, consuming carbs and/or a balanced meal in a reasonable time close to training may benefit maximising muscle mass gains.
If you are at the beginning of your muscle mass journey, then simply ensuring that you have 4 meals, spaced 3-4 hours apart and that these meals sandwich your training sessions, is fine. However, if you are at a more serious point in your training and muscle mass journey, like an elite athlete and are focusing on the finer detail, or if your training sessions are lasting >60mins, then you may want to additionally consider intra workout e.g. a drink with some sugars and electrolytes, such as squash and/or with 5-10gs of EAAs would be ideal.
Your 5 must haves for your muscle mass meal plan:
Prioritise meeting total protein intake: 1.6-2.4g/kg protein/bodyweight. If you are overweight or obese, go for the lower end. If you are leaner and train more consider 2.4-3 g/kg protein/bodyweight.
Distribute daily protein intake within 4 meals: and consume every 3-4 hours, to support your resistance training. Include 0.3-0.5g/kg protein/bodyweight per meal. If you have greater energy requirements, train a lot, are an athlete, consider an additional 1-2 snacks.
Consider protein quality: and choose whole food sources where possible and protein powder/supplements to support requirements. Protein powders and shakes can be especially helpful for higher energy intakes and a busier schedule. If you are plant based, consider an EAA supplement or a protein powder with the optimal ratio of EAAs / added leucine.
Use carbs to optimise your gains from training : if you mainly strength train, then a carb intake between 4-7 g/kg is recommended and if you are mainly endurance, then between 5-12 g/kg. To optimise carb uptake pre workout, a mixture of a slow releasing carb (sweet potato, rice) and a faster releasing carb (mango, kiwi) is ideal.
For fats >25% of energy intake: to support hormones. Prioritise including fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel a few times a week, that may help with creating that anabolic environment for muscle gains.
Go for whole foods > 80% of the time: since whole foods may be beneficial for an anabolic response and are more nutrient dense.
What are your thoughts on the ideal muscle gain diet for you? What’s worked for you? Let me know in the comments below!