Nutrition Basics for Fitness and Health Success

Beginners or those heading back into the gym after a layoff can expect to make some serious gains in strength and mass from a regular training program, but not without a solid nutrition program. Bottom line, the more serious you are about your nutrition, the more serious your gains will be. Research shows that paying attention to macronutrients (carbs, proteins, and fats), calories, meal timing and certain supplements will have a huge impact on your results.

Whether you are just a beginner or an advanced lifter, there are 9 basic nutrition and supplement rules that everyone seeking to achieve fitness and health success should learn now and maintain indefinitely. Follow these rules and stick to your lifting program, and soon that “beginner” label will no longer apply to you. So let’s get to them.

#1 FOCUS ON PROTEIN: Consume at least 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight on a daily basis. Protein provides the amino acids that are used as the building blocks of muscle protein. Although the recommended daily allowance for protein is set at less than half a gram per pound of bodyweight for the typical person, research shows that athletes, especially those concerned with muscle mass and strength, need roughly double that amount. Beginners should actually try to get in about 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day for the first six months of working out, since this is when your muscles will respond the most rapidly to training. Example of Good Proteins include: lean animal proteins such as chicken, turkey, beef, fish, eggs and dairy.

#2 CARB IT UP: Eat about 2–3 grams of carbohydrates per pound of bodyweight each day. Protein is the most critical macronutrient for muscle growth, with carbohydrates a close second. Carbs are stored in your muscles as glycogen and both keep your muscles full and large and fuel them during workouts. Examples of Good Carbs: For most meals, stick with slow-digesting carb sources such as whole grains, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, beans, fruit and vegetables.

#3 DO NOT AVOID FAT:About 20%-30% of your total daily calories should come from fat. And unlike the sedentary general population who are advised to eliminate their saturated fat intake, 5%-10% of your fat calories should be saturated because higher-fat diets (particularly those higher in monounsaturated and saturated fats) appear to maintain testosterone levels better than low-fat diets. Maintaining optimal levels of testosterone, don’t forget, is paramount for building muscle mass and strength and for avoiding fat gain. Examples of Good Fats: red meats such as steak and ground beef for your saturated fats (these also provide quality protein); avocados, mixed nuts, olive oil, olives and peanut butter for monounsaturated fats; and fatty fish (salmon, trout, catfish), flaxseed oil and walnuts as good sources of essential, omega-3 polyunsaturated fats.

#4 CALORIES DO COUNT: To build muscle, consume 16–20 calories per pound of bodyweight per day. You must stay in a positive calorie balance (taking in more calories than you burn) to gain quality mass. If you burn more calories than you consume (a negative balance), your body will go into conservation mode and won’t support new muscle growth. That’s why a 180-pounder should get roughly 3,600 calories daily. Keeping Rules 1, 2, and 3 in mind, 20%-30% of these calories should come from protein, 40%-60% from carbs and 20%-30% from fat.

#5 EAT SMALL MEALS FREQUENTLY: Eat a meal that contains quality protein and carbs every 2–3 hours to ensure a steady supply of energy and amino acids for muscle growth all day long, helping you gain mass and stay lean. The key is to keep every meal approximately the same size. If you pig out with a 1,200-calorie lunch, you’ll be less likely to eat 2–3 hours later and liable to gain the wrong kind of weight, since calories in excess of what the body can process at a given time are often stored as bodyfat. Aim for at least five to six meals per day and shoot for eight.

#6 PROTEIN SHAKE IT UP: Pre- and post-workout, get in at least 20 grams of protein in convenient shake form. Protein shakes are considered supplements, but we like to think of them as important meals to be consumed at critical times during the day. While your diet should consist mostly of unprocessed whole foods, at times a protein shake is a much better option. An example is 30 minutes immediately before your workout. To prepare your muscles for the ensuing training session, as well as to get a head start on the muscle recovery process, drink a shake with 20 grams of either whey protein or a mix of whey and casein along with 40 grams or so of a slower-digesting carbohydrate. Then, in the 60-minute window immediately post-workout, down another 20–40 grams of liquid protein(mix in water for convenience) and 60–100 grams of faster-digesting carbs.

#7 EAT THE RIGHT CARBS AT THE RIGHT TIME: Not all carbs are created equal! Eat a slow carb 30 minutes preworkout and mainly fast carbs postworkout. As stated in Rule No. 2, you should select slower-burning carbs for most meals, including before you train. Research shows that when athletes eat slower-digesting carbs, they not only have more energy and less fatigue during exercise but they burn more fat while training and experience less hunger throughout the day. Good slow-carb choices include fruit, whole-grain bread and oatmeal. Post-workout, choose fast-digesting carbs such as white bread, a plain bagel or baked potato or a sports drink (Gatorade, Powerade, etc.). This will spike levels of the anabolic hormone insulin, which drives the carbs you eat into muscle cells, where they’ll be stored as glycogen to be used for your next workout. Insulin also helps amino acids get into the muscle cells to build muscle protein. It’s critical to delivering creatine to the muscles and increases muscle protein synthesis, one of the major processes by which muscle fibers grow. Normally, you want to keep insulin levels in check for a variety of health reasons, but immediately following a hard training session is one time when an insulin spike is desirable.

#8 EAT BEFORE BEDTIME: Before going to bed every night, consume 30–40 grams of a micellar casein protein shake or 1 cup of low-fat cottage cheese/greek yogurt/or a glass of non-fat milk, 2 ounces of mixed nuts or 2–3 tablespoons of peanut butter. When you sleep, you essentially fast for 7–9 hours (or for however long you sleep). With no food available, the body goes to your muscle fibers for amino acids to fuel your brain. For the individual looking to get bigger and leaner, this is not a good thing. The answer isn’t to get less sleep but rather to eat the proper foods immediately before bedtime. Slow-digesting proteins and healthy fats are your best bet. These foods help slow digestion and provide a steady supply of amino acids for fuel, thereby minimizing the body’s tendency to use muscle. Casein, the major protein in milk, is a good option — either from a protein shake or 1 cup of low-fat cottage cheese/greek yogurt.

#9 SLEEP LIKE A BABY! When you are resting (sleeping) your body is taking all of the nutrition and healthy foods you have consumed throughout the day and helping rebuild and repair your damaged muscle fibers from your workout. A lot people focus solely on Lifting Weights and working out, when they actually should be focusing more on Proper nutrition and Rest. In the Gym you are breaking down your muscles, and at home, while you Eat and Sleep you are rebuilding those muscles to come back stronger and bigger. Aim for at least 7–8 hours of sleep per night, and if you can get more, more power to you!