I strength-train four days a week and eat a high-protein diet, but I'm not gaining muscle. What I am doing wrong with my diet?
It can be frustrating to work hard at the gym and pay attention to your diet but still not realize muscle gains. In my private practice, this is a common complaint from male clients who are trying to lose body fat and build muscle.
It's a tricky combo to achieve – one goal requires eating a surplus of calories and the other is achieved by trimming excess calories. If you don't eat enough calories (usually the result of cutting too many carbohydrates), the extra protein you consume will be used for energy purposes rather than muscle growth.
To answer this question, I am going to assume you are following a structured training program designed to increase muscle mass. With the exercise component checked off, let's focus on diet.
It's true you need more protein than a sedentary person – or a marathoner, for that matter – if your goal is to build muscle by strength training. Dietary protein supplies muscles with amino acids (the building blocks of protein), which are used to repair and build muscle tissue. This is especially true in the early stages of resistance training when bigger gains in muscle size occur.
Providing you're eating enough calories, a diet that contains 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight will provide enough protein to build muscle. A 175-pound (79.5 kg) male, for example, should aim for 95 to 160 g of protein each day. One cup Greek yogurt, 2 cups skim milk, 12 ounces of chicken breast, 1/4 cup almonds plus one scoop (30 g) of whey protein provide a total of 160 g protein.
Consuming more protein won't enhance muscle building since there's a limit to the rate at which protein can be synthesized into muscle. The extra protein will be burned for energy or, if your diet is calorie-sufficient, stored as body fat.
Protein-rich foods – e.g. lean meat, poultry, fish, egg whites, yogurt, milk, tofu, legumes, nuts, protein powder – should be a part of every meal and snack to help promote muscle building. Doing so optimizes amino acids in the bloodstream.
Here's a key ingredient that may be lacking in your diet: carbohydrate calories. Carbs should be the first nutrient you focus on since your muscles need to be fuelled to do the work that stimulates them to get bigger. Add a source of carbohydrate, such as whole-grain bread, cereal, rice, quinoa, pasta and sweet potato, fruit to all meals and snacks.
Post-workout snacks should include protein (10 to 20 g) and carbohydrate; protein powder mixed with water is not enough. That's because carbohydrate triggers an increase in insulin, a hormone that stimulates the uptake of amino acids by muscle cells. Options include a protein shake made with whey protein, almond milk and a banana, two cups of fruit salad and 3/4 cup Greek yogurt or a turkey (3 ounces) sandwich.
Before a strength workout, eat a carbohydrate-rich snack that includes at least 6 g of protein to enhance post-exercise muscle repair. You'll find 6 g of protein in a hard-boiled egg, 2 egg whites, 1/4 cup nuts or 3/4 cup regular yogurt. And don't skimp on the carbohydrates; remember you need extra calories to gain muscle.
Be patient. Everyone has a different genetic potential for building muscle mass. If you think you're doing everything right, yet you're still stuck, consider consulting a dietitian.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct; lesliebeck.com