Eating to Build Muscle

Building muscle, whether young or old, keeps us able to do the things we want in life. That may be playing sports or carrying groceries. It also, being a more metabolically active tissue than fat, helps us keep fat off. The more muscle we have, the higher our resting metabolism, which means we burn more calories at rest than someone with less muscle. Now, to build muscle, we need to challenge them so they need to adapt and grow. This is most effectively done through resistance training (i.e. weight lifting). Most of us understand that. What a lot of people don’t know is that eating the right foods in the right portions is equally important.

Let’s start where everyone’s mind goes first, protein. Protein, by itself, does not build muscle! Resistance training stimulates muscle growth. However, if you don’t have adequate protein to help with tissue synthesis and repair you will not gain muscle and will likely even lose it.

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So, how much protein do we need? Often, the RDA (recommended daily allowance) is looked at for guidance. You would think that would make sense, right. But, the RDA is about surviving, not thriving. They are minimal allowances. To build muscle, we need more. Alan Aragon, nutrition researcher and educator, in his book with co-author Lou Schuler, The Lean Muscle Diet, recommends 1 gram of protein per pound of Target Body Weight (TBW). So, say you weigh 240 pounds and wish to weigh 200, 200 lbs is your TBW. That means that you should eat 200 grams of protein per day. This is equivalent to 2.2 grams per kilogram, almost 3x the RDA which only recommends 0.8 grams per kilogram. Now, Aragon is not being age specific with his proposal. Yet, several studies that looked specifically at older adults, recommend increased protein intake from 0.8 to between 1.2-1.5 grams per kilogram, still less than Aragon’s. I believe (yes, this is me giving you a judgement call) that, from all of the research I have read and presentations that I have been to, the amount of protein for muscle gain (thriving, not surviving) lies on the higher end of the spectrum, probably between 1.8 and 2.2 grams per kilogram.

Now, muscle-building nutrition is also more than just about protein. We need adequate carbohydrates and healthy fats AND … enough total calories. If we are eating too few calories our bodies may turn to our muscle to break down into fuel. Obviously this is counter productive if we are trying to gain muscle. I’ve worked with many, so-called, hard gainers (those that can’t seem to gain muscle). More often their difficulty stems from one of two things or a combination of both. Either they are not challenging themselves appropriately with their weight lifting program or they are not eating enough to support muscle growth.

Quick approximation of Daily Caloric Needs (DCN): there are many formulas to determine DCN and all are ballpark guesses. I tend to start with the Harris-Benedict equation to determine the resting or basal metabolic rate (BMR) add in activity level and thermogenic effect of  food. Then I will tweak it up or down as we monitor results. You can use this link to get you started – Harris-Benedict calculator. Take your BMR number and multiply it by your activity level (1.2 for couch potato – 1.75 for high-end athlete). Now add in 10% of your BMR for the thermogenic effect of  food. This will give you an approximation of your DCN.

If you want to gain muscle at any age you need the growth stimulus (resistance training) and the support for growth by getting enough protein and total calories. Now go put on some muscle!

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