Knowing when and how often to feed your face will keep your muscles growing, day and night.
By Todd Huffman and Brian Rowley
Your body is a temple, it is said. So it knows when some of its precious muscle is on the altar; it alerts you with hunger pangs and a mutinous stomach. If you don’t feed me soon, I’m going to chow down on your muscle, bellows the hollow voice from below. This grumble dies off in an hour or so, but if you didn’t act on the warning, a certain amount of your lean mass will have died with it. The silence that ensues is your body’s way of saying, “Delicious. Bill, please!”
The outlook doesn’t get any better. At about the same time muscle protein and glycogen are becoming the main course, the stress hormone cortisol rises from its crypt. With high levels of cortisol traversing the body, muscle is further broken down, turned into sugar, and fed to the brain in a barbaric ritual called “gluconeogenesis” (read: cannibalism). Going all night without food taps your body’s carbohydrate stores, and a climate of muscle breakdown rolls in. Combine that with a naturally occurring morning surge of cortisol and a tendency to skip breakfast after going without a bedtime snack the previous night, and you could be looking at a disastrous 17-hour fast – a veritable iceberg in the way of your titanic muscle-gaining efforts.
The best strategy to avoid this senseless carnage is to eat small meals several times a day. Frequent mini-meals supply a steady stream of insulin to preserve muscle, but less of an insulin release (and thus less fat gain) over 24 hours than if you ate three massive squares.
In research conducted at Nagoya University in Japan, boxers eating a low-calorie diet lost less muscle mass when researchers spread their rations out over six mini-meals a day instead of two bigger ones. The conclusion: same food, different eating pattern and different results. Take a look at our timetable to make sure you’re eating the right foods at the right time.
Bedtime is a watershed period for your muscles. From now until breakfast, it’s an eight- to 10-hour fast, making your last meal of the day a critical one, especially since growth-hormone levels peak around midnight. This important anabolic hormone creates a surge in muscle-building activity by increasing protein synthesis and glucose uptake into your muscles, and strengthening the connective tissue in your joints.
A small snack before bed ensures that the right building blocks are available when the GH surges.
The most GH-friendly foods are proteins, especially those found in dairy products.
- Try eating non-fat mozzarella or cottage cheese, as each curd is rich in a long-acting protein called casein, giving you a steady trickle of amino acids that lasts into the night.
- Yoghurt is also a good casein source, but be sure to choose fat-free products or those with no more than 2 percent fat.
- You can also use protein powders that have “casein” or “calcium caseinate” printed on the label. (Whey protein is best saved for after your workout, as most of its aminos are discharged in one big rush.)
Whether you choose to eat before or after an a.m. workout, one thing is inarguable: you must eat something in the morning. The decision to emphasise carbs or protein for breakfast may depend on your individual sensitivities.
- Dr Sidney MacDonald, author of The Circadian Prescription, suggests giving your engine a boost in the morning with some lean protein, such as egg whites or chicken. The amino acids in these foods are building blocks for energising brain chemicals such as norepinephrine and dopamine.
- Too many carbs, on the other hand, can make you groggy, which is why MacDonald preaches moderation with your morning meals.
If you like early workouts, some post-training carbs are essential. “Carbs eaten within 40 minutes after a workout are converted to glycogen at a faster rate than those eaten later,” says John Ivy, chairman of the kinesiology and health education department at the University of Texas at Austin.
“For example, if you wait as long as two hours after your workout to eat, the rate at which your muscles make glycogen has already slowed to half-speed, so for a fast restock of muscle glycogen after a workout it’s best to eat carbs as soon as possible.”
One practical approach is to have a sports drink, oatmeal or a banana along with a whey-protein shake and plenty of water.
The key to eating smartly at lunch is to start mid-morning. If you have some yoghurt and fruit, an energy bar, or half a bagel with peanut butter, lunchtime restraint is easy. You’ll also keep a steady stream of muscle-building nutrients feeding your growth process. To make that midmorning snack last, choose your carbs carefully.
- “Highly refined carbohydrates are digested quickly and the body is soon in need of fuel,” says Harvard University’s Dr David Samuel Ludwig. Avoid these.
- “Non-starchy fruits and vegetables, with their lower glycemic index, provide energy over a longer period of time,” says Ludwig.
- Don’t be afraid to abandon snack foods for a small meal, such as half a turkey sandwich on wholegrain bread, a cup of chicken and vegetable soup, or pita bread with tuna and mustard.
After lunch, most people enter a spell where they do their best impression of a moss-covered boulder. According to sleep experts, this “post-lunch dip” is due partly to your natural rhythms and partly to the carbs you ate for lunch, especially that baguette or mountain of white rice. The best way to circumvent an unwanted siesta is to avoid starchy carbs and instead focus on chicken breast or fish along with steamed vegetables and copious amounts of mixed greens. Salad items such as lettuce, asparagus or tomatoes won’t do any damage, as most vegetables are 95 percent water, fibre and protein, with very little carbs. As long as you vary the rest of your diet, steering away from carbs at lunchtime won’t cause you any problems.
If you hit the gym after work, consider a snack before training, such as apples with all-natural peanut butter, especially if you’re a hardgainer trying to put on muscle, which probably includes most of us. Giving your system a nutritional boost will prevent muscle breakdown during the workout. Immediately after your workout, you can get those high-GI carbs you skipped at lunch, such as bread, pasta, potatoes, fruit or tortillas. Just make sure you partner them with prodigious amounts of chicken, beans, lean beef, or fish in order to meet your protein requirements. As long as the body parts you trained were nailed with sufficient intensity, a big meal will help you maximise improvements in muscle gain with little or no fat gain.
While dinner is traditionally a big meal, such lopsided eating isn’t optimal for fat loss. Keep the calories in check by avoiding both dessert and seconds. This affords better appetite control and stems the release of the fat-storing hormone insulin.
Good choices at this hour include:
- Fish with wild rice and vegetables
- Turkey-vegetable chilli or soup
- A cut of tuna and a garden salad.
A variety of healthy meal choices are open to you, as long as you keep portion sizes fairly tight. And don’t worry if you don’t get too full; you still have a bedtime snack waiting for you.
CHEW ON THESE
The proverbial concrete and mortar of strong muscles, this macronutrient helps keep your energy levels stable. It doesn’t bounce your insulin levels the way some carbs do, and thanks to an amino acid called tyrosine, it even has a mild stimulatory effect, keeping you alert and focused. Because protein has such a low glycaemic index, you can use it to balance out the effects of high-GI carbs.
Fat is like the Force: there’s the tempting Dark Side of ice-cream, butter and fried foods squaring off against the benevolent Good Side, with its omega-3-rich fish, avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds. Nearly everyone is low in omega-3 fatty acids. Those on low-fat diets can even suffer from depression due to getting too few omega-3s (although it’s curable and preventable by supplementing). Omega-3 fatty acids also appear to protect against heart disease and have very little effect on insulin. Like protein, fats can slow down the speed at which high-GI foods are digested. Peanut butter and olive oil are healthy fats, but are loaded with calories, so don’t overdo them.
Low-GI carbs cause less overall insulin release per gram than high-GI foods, and less insulin means less fat synthesis over the course of the day. In general, low-GI choices (see box below) tend to be whole foods with fibre, water and nutrients, so it’s good idea to centre your diet around them.
While the majority of high-GI foods are processed and loaded with sugar – which can cause your energy levels to drop faster than the temperature in the Sahara Desert at sunset – they can still be useful when applied correctly. Since insulin is anabolic, and thus desirable immediately after a workout, it’s a good idea to combine some high-GI carbs along with protein immediately after you put down those dumbbells.
If you must have some high-GI foods (white bread, instant rice, soft drinks, sweets) outside of a workout environment, make sure to eat them with some fat, fibre and protein in order to slow the absorptive process and blunt insulin release.