Written by Dr. Mike Israetel
Strength athletes know the importance of having more muscle, and the leaner you are, the more muscle you can carry while staying at the top of your weight class. Luckily, the study of sports nutrition has revealed what are likely the three most powerful changes that you can make to your diet to drop body fat and add muscle mass. Make these changes your top three priorities when changing your diet, and the results should be quite impressive.
It is worth mentioning that adding muscle and dropping body fat are probably done best separately, in distinct phases each lasting two to three months apiece. If you really need to add muscle, try two or three months of the muscle-building priorities, and one or two month of the fat loss priorities afterwards to shed some of the added fat that comes with muscle gain. If being leaner is more your goal, then just one month of eating to gain mass, followed by two months of fat loss is probably a good start. So then, to the priorities!
Priority #1: Calories
The single most important change you can make to your diet to gain more muscle is to eat more food. It’s that simple. All else being equal, eating more is the most powerful tool for muscle gain, as long as you’re training hard. Conversely, given hard training, the best tool for fat loss is to eat less!
In reality, it’s all about calorie balance. To gain muscle, eating more calories than you burn is the best strategy. This is best accomplished by eating more food rather than restricting activity. In fat loss, however, a combined approach seems to work best: eat a bit less and do more activity, whether it be lifting, cardio, or just leading a more active lifestyle.
As far as the numbers go, shoot for an extra 500 to 1000 calories per day more than you usually need to stay the same weight, and try to add between one and two pounds per week (on the bathroom scale) to gain muscle. For fat loss, the opposite applies – eating less and doing more activity should put you in a 500-1000 calorie daily deficit, with weight loss of about 1-2lbs per week.
Priority #2: Macronutrients
Calories are THE most important variable for improving body composition, but macronutrients are also very important. For either muscle gain or fat loss, getting the right daily amounts of the three macros (carbs, protein, fats) can play a major role.
Protein is the most important of the macros because it is literally the building block of muscle. Shoot for 1g of protein per pound of body weight per day; more is probably not any better.
Carbs fuel and replenish hard workouts and help to signal your cells to use your protein intake to grow muscle. Very active and high-volume trainers (Crossfitters, competition bodybuilders, team sport and endurance athletes) may need up to 3g of carbs per pound of bodyweight per day. More normal training and activity levels (powerlifting, recreational bodybuilding, general fitness) usually require about 2g of carbs per pound of bodyweight per day to start with. Those involved in lower levels of activity (powerlifters training for sets of 3 reps before a meet, active people during their rest days or deload days) generally do best with around 1g of carbs per pound of bodyweight per day.
Fats are important for health and proper hormonal function, as well as multiple essential body functions. Because healthy fats are so easy, tasty, and beneficial to eat, they can round off the calories of most daily diets. Thus, the recommendation for fat intake is simple: find out your daily calorie needs (approximating is just fine), subtract your protein intake and carb intake using the above recommendations, and consume the remainder of your calories from fats! This means that if you want to add muscle, feel free to consume more fat (in the form of mostly healthy sources like nuts, nut butters and healthy oils like olive oil). If fat loss is your goal, slowly cut down on fat intake before you reduce protein and carb consumption.
Dr. Israetel is also the author of the best-selling JTS ebook “The Renaissance Diet” in which he drills down into these principles in much more depth, helping you set up a diet to reach your goals. Click the picture below to get your copy of this valuable resource, if you’re really serious about dispensing with the fads and gimmicks to take your strength and physique to the next level
Priority #3: Nutrient Timing
While the least important of the three diet priorities, nutrient timing is important enough to be considered. It’s certainly not going to revolutionize your physique, but if you want the best improvements possible, timing should likely be considered.
There are two distinct elements in timing: meal frequency and timing to activity.
– Meal Frequency
There is a considerable amount of evidence that many meal frequencies can be accommodated for good results. However, eating too infrequently probably risks muscle loss a bit much, especially during fat loss phases when high calorie and fat amounts are not as readily found in meals, meaning digestion is faster so you can more easily go into a state where amino acids (from protein) are broken down in your muscle to meet your body’s needs instead of coming from the food you eat. Taking the big picture view, between four and seven meals per day is probably a good start with most strength athletes. Any fewer than four seems to risk muscle loss, and any more than seven is probably of no additional advantage.
– Timing to Activity
Carbohydrates fuel and replenish tough workouts, while fats slow food digestion and interfere with rapid nutrient uptake. Thus, a prudent recommendation is to consume more carbs and less fat in the meal before training (1-3 hours before, usually), consume carbs (but no fat) along with your protein shake during longer hard workouts (1 hour +), and consume plenty of carbs and protein with limited fat in the several meals after hard training. For times of the day far before or after your training session, eating less carbs but more fat probably results in some advantages, keeping protein intake stable from meal to meal.
Hard training is a must, effective supplements can help, but making changes to your body is related to your diet in a big way. Make these three diet changes your priorities, and watch the magic happen. Just remember, in fat loss and especially muscle gain, magic works slowly so be ready to train hard and eat right over the long term. If you can do that, real and impressive changes to your body will begin to show!
Born in Moscow, Russia, Mike Israetel is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”