It’s the holy grail of strength athletes: How to eat enough to gain muscle mass without putting on fat at the same time. Growing new muscle takes a lot of energy. So if you want to increase muscle mass, you need to eat more. The catch is you cannot tell your body to use that extra energy to build new muscle. It may very well decide to store some of those extra calories as fat. How much ends up as fat is largely genetic but happens to everyone to some extent. In fact, most bodybuilders go through a “bulking” phase in training, where the focus is on putting on muscle mass, followed by a “cutting” phase where they work on losing any fat that they gained at the same time.
However, there are a few things you can do to encourage muscle growth without piling on the fat.
Use energy dense natural foods (like nuts and whole milk) to increase your calories rather than chocolate or chips. Somewhat unsurprisingly, eating more junk food results in more fat around your middle. Yes, you can gain muscle mass on pizza and burgers. However, you will gain more muscle and less fat if your diet is mainly lean meats, fish, whole grains, pulses, nuts, dairy, fruits and vegetables. These foods are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre, all of which can help with muscle building and keep the fat off.
On the other hand, junk foods are loaded with sugar, saturated fats, and chemicals (such as flavourings, colourings and preservatives) which stimulate fat gain. Most have very little protein, vitamins or fibre, which means they do little to help with muscle building and leave you feeling hungry again an hour later. Stick to real food.
Get your five a day
Muscle is not built on protein alone. You need to make sure you are getting plenty of vitamins and minerals as well. And the best sources are fruits and vegetables. Plus they feed to good bacteria in your gut, which helps regulate your mood, energy levels and immune system. One serving of fruit or vegetables is 80g, so you need at least 400g of produce a day. If you want to build lean muscle faster, go for more!
As well, try to eat five or six different coloured fruits or vegetables every day. This ensures you are getting the full range of nutrients they offer. For example, have an omelette with green spinach and white mushrooms for breakfast, a chicken fajita with red and green peppers for lunch, some purple cherries as a snack, and mashed orange sweet potato and green peas with your steak at dinner, followed by yellow pineapple for dessert.
Get enough rest
New muscle is made after your workout, not during. It is while the body is repairing the damage caused by a tough workout that it adds new muscle. If you repeatedly damage the same muscle day after day, there’s no time for this repair and rebuilding to take place. So be sure to include rest days in your program and be wary of training the same muscle group two (or more) days in a row.
Likewise, skimping on sleep can really hamper your recovery and increase fat gain. People who are sleep deprived are more likely to crave sweet treats and eat more than those who are well rested. Plus the stress of being sleep deprived increases the production of cortisol. This hormone encourages fat storage, especially around the middle. You may find you need an extra hour, or more, of sleep a night during heavy training.
Fundamentally, when most people start eating more to gain muscle they will put on some fat. However, eating a healthy diet and and getting enough rest will help minimise the fat gain.