When it comes to nutrition for muscle building and weight gain there are only three rules to remember: eat more, eat often, eat quality food.
Quantity + Quality
There is no other way around it. In order to gain weight you need to eat more, a lot more, but you need to eat quality muscle building food rather than junk food like doughnuts and chips. Because you’re aiming to build muscle rather than just get fat, eating a lot of the wrong things will not give you the results you want.
To gain weight and gain quality muscle mass you need to base your diet around an intake of quality protein and complex carbohydrates. Make sure you eat more poultry (chicken and turkey), fish and lean meat (pork and beef), eggs and low fat dairy (Greek yogurts and low fat cheese are the best), beans, quinoa, oatmeal, nuts, nut butters and oils. If you are vegetarian or vegan, check out tempeh and seitan meat substitutes. Milk, cow or any other type, is also a good source of protein. Vegans need to incorporate foods that contain the amino acids that are key to the body’s synthesizing of muscle-building protein.
The tricky bit and the main reason most people struggle to gain weight is the lack of preparation and / or finances. It takes time and money to make six quality meals with meat, healthy fats and fiber on a regular basis and keep on doing it every single day. And that’s exactly what professional bodybuilders do – they pre-make their meals and time each one religiously and, on top of everything else, they also drink protein shakes.
Protein powders are not magic and they’re not a fix-it-all solution, they are more of a convenience and are definitely not an absolute must.
Why do some people use them:
a) It’s easier to make a shake on the go than sit down for yet another meal before and after your training session.
b) One shake will give you the alternative of eating two chicken breasts protein-wise and it’s a lot cheaper than buying chicken breasts, too, so you can see why it’s a popular choice.
c) Most powders are also metabolised faster so they do give you faster visible results.
Protein powders are basically a bodybuilding shortcut. They’re concentrated protein in powdered form from food you would have to eat otherwise like milk (whey and casein protein), rice, soy, pea and hemp. Powders like that don’t provide you with the nutrients whole-foods do but they can be a convenient way to get the extra protein you need for muscle building and weight gain.
Since we still don’t know the long-term effects of powders it’s always a good idea to find a middle ground and avoid relying solely on “byproducts” that protein powders essentially are and use them in addition to a balanced quality food diet rather than meal substitutes
You can get the same results by eating whole foods, a lot of them and often - it’ll just take a little longer to see the gains and it’ll take some creative cooking and packaging.
Another convenient and cheap way to get extra, high quality calories in your food intake is to make protein bars yourself. They are easy to make and the basic recipe doesn’t require any cooking skills. You can make your own protein bar mix by combining nut butter, oatmeal, milk, honey or protein powder (sweetener and extra protein). Make the mix, transfer it to a wide dish, flatten and refrigerate overnight then cut into bars in the morning. Step-by-step recipes: protein bars with protein powder and protein bars without protein powder.
One of the large bars, the size will depend on how thick they are and how you cut them, can give you up to 400-500 extra quality calories and you can easily have two-three daily. Since they are no-bake bars they do need to be kept cool at all times but it’s a convenient, compact and easy snack if you struggle to eat more quality food on a regular basis.
Most of the time it doesn’t matter precisely when you have your meals, as long as you have regular intervals to eat in. If you also work out, though, and if your workouts are especially demanding then it’s crucial that you have pre and post workout meals. For muscle building you should never train on empty, early in the morning before breakfast or 4-5 hours since your last meal and you should also eat within 30 minutes after your training sessions. If you don’t have anything before or right after training your body will soon start burning muscle mass and that’s exactly what you want to avoid if your goal is to gain muscle weight.
You want to give your body enough fuel to have a productive session (have a pre-workout snack) and you want to have a recovery meal as soon as possible (post workout meal or snack) to aid muscle growth and replenish your glycogen stores so your body doesn’t burn any gains you made. It should also be a quality protein + complex carbohydrates snack not a bag of chips. Have a peanut butter toast or sardine bruschetta, Greek yogurt with banana and nuts or two hardboiled eggs.
None of it is rocket science. All of it is common sense and planning, but it does require discipline. The results however will speak for themselves.