How Do I Eat To Gain Muscle and Avoid Getting Fat?

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question-icon-newI recently started working out with the goal of increasing muscle size and losing some fat. It seems that gaining and cutting cycles might be the best way to go instead of trying to do both at the same time. I’ve been eating a bunch of protein and trying to eat about 5-6 times a day with a calorie intake of around 2,800 calories per day. I’m 30 years old, 6 feet tall and weigh 195 pounds. I’m definitely noticing muscle growth but I feel like I might be packing on fat also. How do I know how much to eat to build muscle mass but avoid getting fat?

answer-icon-newIt completely depends on your metabolism. Some people can eat 6,000 to 7,000 calories a day and not put on an ounce of fat. For a healthy male, given your current age, height, weight and moderate exercise level (3 times per week), the daily caloric intake typically needed is roughly 2,500 to 3,000 calories a day. So given this baseline number, your intake of 2,800 calories a day is right on par. But as stated above this can vary greatly depending on a person’s metabolism. The best thing to do is gradually increase your calories over your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) and use the mirror to visually monitor yourself. Look at your lower abs and love handles to see if excess fat is starting to accumulate. If so, then lower your calories by 200 to 300 per day and keep your training and cardio the same. Then, take another visual check a week later. A great way to do this is to take a photo of yourself each week (front and rear shots). You will be able to document and track your photos which is a great way to look back and see what is working and what needs to be changed.

One very important thing to distinguish in your case is whether this appearance of excess weight is actually fat or what is called “false fat”. False fat refers to the collection of fluids from bloating and inflammation that gives the appearance of real fat. This is an incredibly common phenomenon and can be due to a variety of reasons which include:

  • Resistance Training and DOMS: DOMS is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. This simply means after you finish a resistance exercise session that stresses the muscles beyond what they are accustomed to, you will most likely experience soreness. Typically this soreness begins 12-24 hours after the workout and peaks at 36-48 hours. During this time the body is in a very active recovery period. Because of the stress applied to the muscles they become inflamed and the body goes into overdrive to not only repair the area but to build it bigger and stronger so that it can withstand the same amount of stress should it be applied again. This process requires water, blood, and other fluids to transport the needed building supplies and remove the byproducts of this building process. This sends a signal to the liver to retain fluids in the body until balance is restored.
  • salt-sodium-foodDiet: This is without question the biggest culprit when it comes to false fat. Specifically, it is the combination of starchy carbohydrates, salt and water that must be examined. The process by which these elements interact can be very complicated and scientific but the reality of it is quite simple. Salt and starch bind to water and hold it in the body. With an excessive amount of salt and starch in the system we can easily retain 10-12 pounds of excess water. That’s a gallon and a half of excess water! It’s easy to see how this much water retention can give the appearance of body fat. A very common statement I hear from people is, “I’ve been working out a lot but I still feel puffy and I haven’t lost any weight”. The mistake they make is that they equate weight loss with fat loss. In reality, much of what they are feeling is water retention. The solution requires a bit of experimentation as everyone’s body responds differently but there is a general principle that applies to most everyone. The #1 rule of thumb is that the more naturally you eat, the less you have to worry about your salt and starch intake. This is because foods that naturally grow on this planet do not contain excessive amounts of sodium or starch. If you have to eat out of a package or a can, it’s important to get in the habit of reading labels. You’ll be incredibly surprised how much salt (sodium) is in packaged products.
  • Hydration: Or should I say dehydration. Few things will stress the body more than dehydration. To combat this stress and try to maintain balance, the body will again hold water in the body. Drinking minimum of 2-3 liters of water a day is a good starting point. This does not include sports drinks, sodas, and fruits juices since they can add empty calories and way too much sugar. Simply put, the body needs water and it needs a lot of it.
  • Food Allergies: The research in this area is very interesting and is beginning to shed light on a significant number of maladies people are suffering from simply because of allergies to certain foods. When we typically think of food allergies we tend to think of extreme cases where people with say, a peanut allergy, will break out in hives and go into anaphylactic shock. But there are a whole host of food allergies that are less severe and act as more of an irritant in the body. As with most irritants, it causes inflammation and as stated above, the body will react to inflammation with bloating and water retention until balance is restored.

Your experience of having some extra “other weight” is very common, but before we call it fat let’s make sure that’s what it is. Start by reducing sodium in your diet and staying well hydrated throughout the day. Next make sure that your starchy carbohydrates are coming from a natural source such as sweet potatoes or yams. And finally, check for food allergies. You may discover that something you eat on a daily basis is upsetting your body’s need for balance.

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