Muscle Chow

I get asked a lot of questions about meal composition—how much protein someone should eat for this, or how many carbohydrates for that. My honest answer is, I don't know. I can guess, but that's about it.

I can, however, tell you this without equivocation: Food builds muscle. Food, in and of itself, is anabolic. Eat enough food to add weight, and you will add muscle. That's regardless of exercise, and aside from all the finer points I'll discuss in this section.

When lean people gain weight, about 60 to 70 percent of it is usually "lean tissue," a category that includes muscle but also bone and everything else that isn't fat. (Anorexics are an exception. They're so screwed up metabolically that their weight gain is mostly fat, even though they're very lean at the start of their weight-regain program.) When obese people gain weight, about 30 to 40 percent of it will be muscle. Either way, there's a mix of muscle and fat, according to a paper by Gilbert Forbes, **, in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

That lean guy trying to gain weight has his work cut out for him. My friend Susan Kleiner, **, came up with these numbers for an article in The Physician and Sportsmedicine: A strength-trained athlete needs 20 calories per pound of body weight just to maintain his muscle mass. If you weigh 160 pounds, you need 3,200 calories a day just to break even—to work out hard and not lose muscle. Gaining muscle requires 25 to 30 calories per pound of body weight per day. You're now looking at 4,000 to 4,800 calories a day to add some muscle to your 160-pound frame.

And, as shown in Dr. Forbes's study, some of that is surely going to be in the form of fat.

Is there a way to guarantee that a higher percentage of that weight gain comes in the form of muscle? Probably, although the successful cases tend to be anecdotal. That is, if you tell me your friend's second cousin's training partner built fifteen pounds of solid muscle without gaining any fat. . . okay, I'll believe you. But that doesn't mean I can do it, or you can do it, or anyone not using steroids can do it with any certainty.

One way to ensure the weight gain favors muscle is to exercise, which is so bleepin' obvious that I'm almost embarrassed to mention it. Almost. A 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that, among men, body-fat percentage is lowest among those with the highest daily energy expenditure. (The same wasn't true of women, which should give you newfound sympathy for your wife or girlfriend when she works her rear off in the gym and never actually loses any weight off her rear.)

But, again, none of that makes the case for or against muscle-specific weight gain for the reader of this book, the guy who's lifting weights and willing to tweak his diet any which way to build that muscle.

So now let's look at protein, the stuff of which muscles are actually made. Just a few years ago, the accepted wisdom held that the most protein a body could use was about 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, or about three-quarters of a gram per pound. Most of us just rounded that up to an even one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. That means 200 daily grams of protein for a 200-pound lifter.

Your body uses the protein for two purposes: to keep your body from breaking down muscle protein during and after exercise and to help it add new protein to your muscle fibers. I can't count how many factors aside from protein intake go into the muscle-building equation (meal frequency, meal timing in relation to exercise, sleep quality, stress levels .. . ), but I can tell you that the ultimate goal is "positive nitrogen balance." Since protein is mostly nitrogen, positive balance means your body is adding more protein to your muscles than it's breaking down.

One study, published in 2001, made the case for increased protein leading to bigger muscles: When experienced lifters were given about a gram of protein per pound of body weight per day, they gained about six pounds of muscle in six weeks. Another group of lifters, eating about half that amount of protein, gained just two pounds of muscle in the same six-week period.

Case closed? No, not because of one study . . . although it is nice to see research confirming the effectiveness of what so many of us do anyway.

Probably the best current information about the interaction between dietary protein and muscle mass comes from researchers Kevin Tipton, **, and Robert Wolfe, **, at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Tipton and Wolfe believe that the amount of protein you need to put your body into a muscle-building mood is surprisingly small; they've shown it takes just six grams of essential amino acids right after a workout.

But every answer we get brings up new questions. In this case, what the hell is an essential amino acid, and how do I know how many I'm getting in a pork chop, or an egg, or even a whey-protein shake?

Protein consists of twenty-two amino acids, of which eight or nine are essential (depending on who's counting), meaning your body can't create them from other materials. You have to get the essential aminos from food or food-based supplements.

At a conference I attended recently, a researcher mentioned milk as a perfect food for stimulating muscle growth, and it's easy to discover that a cup of milk has eight grams of protein—that information is printed right on the milk carton. But how do you figure out how many of those grams are essential aminos? The answer is three. (Jose Antonio, **, a friend who happens to be a nutrition researcher, found it for me.) That means you'd have to drink two cups of milk to get your six grams of essential aminos.

If you don't have friends like Dr. Antonio, you have to look these things up yourself, generally by scanning nutrition databases online and then adding up the amounts of each essential amino acid. If you decide to do this, here are the eight essential aminos: tryptophan, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, valine, leucine, isoleucine. A ninth, glutamine, is said to be "conditionally essential," because our bodies can't make it from other aminos in certain highly stressful situations, including major surgery, starvation, and even long-distance exercise. Personally, I don't have that kind of time, so I settle for simply rounding up. A shake mix with forty grams of protein per serving is certain to have at least six grams of essential aminos, and that's close enough for me.

Regardless of whether the amount of protein you eat throughout the day matters as much as we think it does, plenty of research has suggested a benefit to timing your protein intake to coincide with your workouts—either before, during, after, or some combination. (See "Is It All in the Timing?" below.)

If I'm going to err, it's on the side of making sure I have plenty of protein available when my muscles are most ready to use it.

Meanwhile, remember the most important lesson for anyone trying to pack on muscular weight: Food is your friend. Calories matter. Without enough of them, it's unlikely you'll get the results you want, no matter how much protein you eat or how cleverly you time it.

Is It All in the Timing?

The idea that the timing of your meals matters almost as much as their content has taken hold the past few years. And the meals surrounding your workouts are perhaps the most important of all.

Here's the rationale: The purpose of a workout is to shake up your muscle cells, to increase both the breakdown of old muscle protein and the synthesis of new protein. Your goal is a net gain—more protein in your muscles. A meal containing protein and carbohydrates taken right before or right after a workout has been shown to limit protein breakdown and increase protein synthesis. It's the ultimate win-win.

If, however, you wait several hours after a workout to have a meal, you don't win on either end. Protein breakdown continues unabated, and protein synthesis can't happen fast enough to make up for the deficit. So you end up in negative territory, with less protein in your muscles than you started with.

I think it's too soon to tell if it's best to have your protein and carbohydrates shortly before or immediately after your workout. But I do think one thing is abundantly clear: If this is your best opportunity to maximize muscle growth and to minimize muscle breakdown, you'd be nuts not to take advantage of it.

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