By Matthew Kadey, MS, RD
All sports have their tenets, some of which are so ingrained that they seem more like commandments.
Thou shalt swing thy golf club in an easy rhythm …
Thou shalt not swing at the baseball in the dirt …
Thou shalt use thy left jab to set up the overhand right …
Thou shalt not hit the quarterback after the whistle has blown …
Bodybuilding has its own commandments, especially in terms of nutrition. Some, like “Thou shall flood thy muscles with protein after a supercharged workout,” are indeed true, while others are less so. Unfortunately, it takes only a few well-intentioned strongmen spreading the word, and soon every Tom, Dick and Harriett are swallowing mistruths as facts.
The problem with myths is that not only can they waste your time and money, but they can also bring about lackluster results at the gym. Here, MuscleMag takes 10 commonly held beliefs and enlightens you on their merits when it comes to packing on mass and keeping healthy.
Commandment #1:“Thou shalt not eat egg yolks”
Though once considered a serious hazard to your ticker, there’s no reason to be chicken about eating yolks. Since they’re a rich source of cholesterol, it was long thought that eating too many would gunk up your arteries. But it’s now clear that dietary cholesterol has much less of an impact on heart health than once thought, particularly for those without pre-existing heart disease or who are at high risk. In fact, evidence suggests that whole egg consumption raises blood levels of HDL cholesterol, which is deemed “good” cholesterol because it helps haul LDL cholesterol out of the bloodstream and, ultimately, out of the body. 
Besides, the benefits of the nutrients in the yolk far outweigh any drawbacks. Egg yolks deliver choline, a brain-boosting substance your body requires to break down fat for energy, as well as vitamin D, which has been shown to bolster testosterone production. Canadian scientists recently found that eggs contain high levels of antioxidants that may help your muscles mend. But don’t buy the hype that brown eggs are superior to white ones — the color difference comes from the breed of the chickens producing the eggs, not from any differences in nutritional content.
As long as you don’t have existing heart problems or high cholesterol numbers, feel free to eat up to three egg yolks daily as part of your diet.
Commandment #2: “Thou shalt not overindulge in protein, as thy stomach can digest only so much protein at once”
Yes, we know that bodybuilders require more protein than a pencil-thin Kenyan marathoner, but what needs to be understood is that your body can assimilate only so much protein in one sitting. After that, the leftovers are likely to be burnt off as energy or — gasp! — stored as fat mass. Case in point: A Journal of the American Dietetic Association study found that muscle protein synthesis isn’t significantly greater when more than 30 grams of protein is consumed at a meal. But alas, these subjects weren’t mass hounds, meaning that bodybuilders may potentially tolerate more than 30 grams. Protein assimilation varies from person to person depending on stuff like genetics, bodyweight and training volume. So if mass is your goal, you need to make sure that you’re eating enough protein to properly recover from training and instigate growth, but not so much that with the additional muscle mass, you get a great deal of flab, too. A good way to judge this is by watching your physique. If you find two hefty steaks for dinner is helping you pack on muscle and fat, you may want to cut back on the amount of protein calories consumed at once.
Shoot for 1.2–1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight daily as part of a diet designed to spur growth. So for a 180-pound person, this would equal 216–270 grams of protein daily. Be sure to spread out this intake throughout the day to give your body a better opportunity to covert all those amino acids into granite dense muscle.
Commandment #3: “Thou shalt drink water to shed fat”
It’s standard fat-loss advice, and a report in the journal Obesity confirms it’s truth: Taking in more water can help max out your six-pack. In the study, researchers credited 5 pounds of weight loss to consuming extra water in subjects who upped their aqua consumption to at least a liter a day for a year. The investigators surmise that well-hydrated cells may rev up your fat-burning metabolism. Ideal hydration also helps your muscles look fuller and allows your body to properly use the calories from food.
You’d be wise to follow the National Academy of Sciences recommendation and guzzle at least 16 cups of water per day. And make sure to pack your meals and snacks with water-rich produce like tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, watermelon and berries. Don’t forget that milk and fat-burning green tea also count toward your daily quota.
Commandment #4: “Thou shalt use fruit juice in thy post-workout protein concoctions”
It seems like sound advice: Guzzle fruit juices after a hard-as-nails workout to spike insulin levels and drive recovery nutrients into muscle cells, instigating musle glycogen replenishment and protein synthesis. Yet fruit juices like orange and apple are rich in fructose, a form of sugar that’s predominantly processed in the liver and not the muscle, which may potentially delay your recovery.
Instead of fruit juice, reach for sports drinks such as Gatorade, which is designed to have higher levels of fast-acting sugars. Dextrose powder is another good addition to a post-training shake for a heavy insulin spike. Glucose, maltodextrin and waxy maize are also your best post-workout options for spiking insulin. After your workout, look for fruits such as cantaloupe, peaches, berries and cherries, that have more glucose than fructose.
Commandment #5: “Thou shalt not ingest soy products, lest thy earn a ripe set of man-cans”
Don’t fret: Eating some tofu for dinner or snacking on edamame won’t give you a bouncy set like Kim Kardashian. Soy gets a bad rap because it possesses compounds that act like weak estrogens; thus, many bodybuilders worry that it’ll send their testosterone levels spiraling downward. Yet there’s no evidence that nibbling on reasonable amounts of soy has any negative effect on the male physique. In fact, soy protein is considered a complete protein — meaning it contains a full arsenal of essential amino acids and can help you get ripped to the bone. According to findings published in Clinical Nutrition, there were no differences between soy protein and casein protein in terms of muscle protein synthesis among healthy volunteers. What’s more is those estrogenic compounds may have some serious disease-fighting abilities.
While you shouldn’t go about gorging on highly processed forms of soy such as soy milk and the soy infused into some cereals and energy bars, there’s nothing to worry about if you eat whole-food forms of this legume such as tempeh, edamame and tofu a few times a week. It’s always a good idea to vary your protein sources, and including some soy protein can help you achieve this.
Commandment #6: “Thou shalt not eat breakfast in the morning before performing cardio to torch the most bodyfat”
Verdict: False (sort of)
The theory goes that by doing your aerobic exercise at the crack of dawn before a spoonful of oatmeal passes over your lips, you’ll burn more of your fat stores as your body desperately tries to hold on to its diminished carbohydrate stores. Indeed, it’s true that at low intensities the body will primarily seek out fat to burn for energy production. But here’s the thing: Your body prefers to use fat calories during low-intensity exercise regardless if you’re carb depleted or not. This is an evolutionary adaptation to help make sure that carbohydrates are available for bursts of intense effort such as, say, outrunning a saber-toothed tiger. And if you intend to kick it up a notch in the morning such as performing interval training, the rate of fat breakdown will not keep up with your body’s demand for energy; your system will desperately seek out carbohydrates and even cannibalize hard-earned muscle protein tissue in a pinch. Plus, hopping on the treadmill like a hungry zombie may mean you’ll be more prone to hitting the shower earlier, which ultimately leads to fewer overall fat calories torched. It may also lead to ravenous overeating of unhealthy junk afterward.
If exercising on an empty stomach works for you and you’re not pushing a heavy pace, by all means keep it up. But if you’re attempting to torch more calories, which ultimately leads to more total fat calories burned, or find that performing exercise in the fasted state leads to brain fog and earlier fatigue, its best to have a small snack before working up a sweat. Some whey protein mixed with fruit juice or instant oatmeal mixed with nuts can work.
Commandment #7: “Thou shalt consume a greater percentage of calories from protein when dieting”
When considering nutrition as a bodybuilder, the first thing that probably goes through your mind is: protein. Gnawing on protein sources helps lay the foundation for building strength. But there are few times where eating copious amounts of protein is more important than when trying to get cut after a period of bulking up.
First, when trimming calories and carbohydrates from your diet you’ll need to bump up protein intake to prevent negative nitrogen balance, which will lead to the catabolism of all that hard-earned muscle. Also, excess protein isn’t as easily converted to fat and its thermic effect is greater than carbohydrates or fat. That means protein causes more calories to be expended during digestion and absorption. Protein also increases satiety, which can help prevent late-night ice cream binges.
The optimal macronutrient ratios for cutting can vary from person-to-person, but generally you should aim for 35-40-20 (carbs-protein-fat) and at least 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Commandment #8: “Thy shalt follow the glycemic index as an immutable law”
Many bodybuilders follow the glycemic index (GI) religiously, but they shouldn’t! The GI ranks foods and drinks based on the impact they have on blood sugar compared to pure glucose (glucose is assigned a top GI value of 100). A white baguette produces a rise in blood sugar that is 95% as high as the increase glucose causes — hence, white baguettes have a GI value of 95.
So it seems logical to steer clear of such “fast-acting” items to fend off belly fat. But the GI has several shortcomings. First, baked potatoes, watermelon, pineapple and parsnips are among the nutritious, low-calorie fare that ranks fairly high on the glycemic index. On the flipside, supreme pizza, chocolate cake and fried potato chips are examples of lower GI foods that contain plenty of carbs but are far from nutritional bell-ringers.
The truth is, a low GI score is no guarantee of healthfullness. Also, the villified baked potato may have a high GI, but few people eat a spud on its lonesome. Fat, protein and fiber slow the release of blood glucose into the bloodstream. This is why a slice of doughy pizza loaded down with fat can have a low GI. What’s more, the GI of a food is determined by ingesting an amount that provides 50 grams of digestible carbohydrates, which includes starch and sugar minus fiber. For a number of items this is not a real-world portion. For instance, you’d have to consume 5 cups of watermelon to reach 50 grams of non-fiber carbs.
The GI is beneficial in that it brings awareness to the importance of making more wholesome carbohydrate choices. But don’t be a slave to a table of numbers! Nutrient density should be the driving force in one’s nutrition plan, not the GI. And there are times when it defiantly pays to seek out high GI foods. Post-workout and breakfast are two of the best examples as a quick rise in blood sugar is beneficial to help replace spent energy stores and put a halt to muscle catabolism.
Commandment #9: “Thou shalt honor breakfast as the most important meal of thy day”
Sure, a proper breakfast is vital for building up your energy stores and halting the muscle breakdown that occurs after an overnight fast. But that doesn’t mean you can slack off when it comes to your other meals. To build an awe-inspiring physique, each meal and snack should be considered equally important. What you fill your gut with at lunch, dinner and post-workout meals are just as crucial. Take in the wrong foods after a balls-out workout session and you risk deflating your physique just as much as a lackluster breakfast will.
Plan each meal and snack like it’s a make or break feast for reaching your fitness goals. This means plenty of whole foods and quality protein.
Commandment #10: “Thou shalt feast on meat at every meal”
Many bodybuilders believe that in order to hulk up they must dig into animal proteins like beef and chicken at each meal. These protein sources do have a high biological value, meaning they possess all the necessary amino acids to stimulate muscle recovery and growth. Yet, it’s much more important to look at the big picture and consider your meat intake over a 24-hour period instead of meal-by-meal. If you like to load up your plate at lunch with a few chicken breasts, by all means you can scale back elsewhere during the day as long as you’re meeting your overall protein requirements as outlined in commandment 9.
If you’re getting plenty of top-notch animal-derived protein a couple of times a day, there’s nothing terribly wrong about eschewing meat at 1–2 other meals or snacks in favor of alternative (and less expensive!) protein sources like beans and lentils. Again, the more variety you have with respect to your protein intake the better. Bean chili, anyone?
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