Remember the USDA Food Pyramid? The one that was posted by the lunch line in your grade school cafeteria and taught in health class? The government’s official position on how you should eat to be fit and healthy included recommendations to consume up to 11 servings of pasta, bread, and crackers per day; limit meat and eggs to three servings; and count potatoes as a vegetable. Yeah, don’t eat like that. The Food Pyramid was so misleading and inaccurate that in 2011 it was replaced with the USDA’s MyPlate, an improved but still flawed approach to fighting obesity. To be fair, the government’s nutrition advice is aimed at the average American who desires to be in only average shape (read: not obese). To that end, we’ve created the Men’s Fitness Food Pyramid—an easy visual guide to eating for physique enhancement, performance, and optimal health. See how the pyramid works below and then use it to build a better body.
HIT YOUR NUMBERS
As a physique-conscious eater, you need to think in terms of macronutrients as well as calories. Every food you eat gets counted toward a total target amount (in grams) of protein, carbs, and fat, which you can determine by multiplying the numbers in the Men’s Fitness Food Pyramid by your body weight in pounds. Hit these numbers and you’ll hit your goals. With that said, your nutrition doesn’t need to be as precise as target coordinates for a missile attack. You’ll do just fine eyeballing portions of protein, carbs, and fat (which we’ll show you how to do) and keeping a general tally.
MAKE ADJUSTMENTS AS NECESSARY
The calorie and macronutrient recommendations here are just a starting point. Every trainee needs to find the proper amounts for his own body. If you’re not losing weight, reduce your carbs gradually, and try experimenting with bumping up your protein and fat intake a bit. If you feel as if you can’t gain weight, you can add more carbs and even more fat, which will increase your calories sharply. For any formulation you make, give it at least a week to take effect before you make any changes.
THE MACRONUTRIENT BREAKDOWN >>> [PAGE 2]
THE MACRONUTRIENT BREAKDOWN
With protein being the main component of muscle tissue, your intake of it must remain high no matter your goal. To make size gains, you need at least one gram of protein per pound of your body weight to support optimal growth. When dieting, you must create a caloric deficit—but that can cause muscle loss if you end up cutting protein to do it. That’s why we increase protein intake and decrease starchy carbs. To get lean, you may increase your protein to as many as 1.5 grams per pound of body weight; but start lower and increase gradually as you reduce your calories slowly.
If you feel like you’re not recovering from training or you’re losing muscle, up the protein fast. The best protein sources are eggs, chicken, fish, lean beef, turkey, quinoa (for vegetarians), and protein powder. A three-ounce portion of lean meat or fish is about the size and thickness of the palm of your hand and contains 20–25 grams of protein, five grams of fat or fewer, and zero carbs.
All carbohydrates break down into glucose, raising your blood sugar levels faster than any other nutrient. As a result, the pancreas releases insulin to remove surplus sugar from the bloodstream and maintain normal levels. Research, including a study at the University of Washington School of Medicine, has found that exercise—particularly strength training—increases insulin sensitivity in the muscles. So if you’ve just worked out, more of the carbs yo eat afterward will be carried by insulin directly to your muscles for replenishment. (Incidentally, this goes for protein too, which is why it’s helpful to consume a mixture of protein and carbs after training—we’ll discuss this more later.) On the other hand, if you’ve been sitting on the couch watching football, those carbs will just get stored around your waist.
For this reason, we recommend that most of your carbs come before, during, and shortly after training. It also means that you need to eat fewer carbs when you want to get lean— you need to keep insulin levels low. “If someone is in fat-loss mode,” says John Meadows, C.S.S.N., a nutrition coach and national-level bodybuilder, “I like to limit carbs to pre-, intra-, and post-workout meals, when they’ll go where you want them”—that is, to muscle tissue.
For muscle gain, Meadows prefers to add carbs (shakes included) to meals around training time first, before adding them to other meals. Carb foods include potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, oats, fruits, and vegetables. Fruits should be consumed in their whole-food form and limited to two or three pieces daily (excess fructose, the sugar in fruit, is stored as fat). Green vegetables can be eaten steadily regardless of the goal. Eat one gram of carbohydrate per pound of your body weight when dieting and two grams per pound when you want to put on muscle. A fist-size portion of cooked rice or potatoes is about one cup and gives you 40–45 grams of carbs and negligible protein and fat.
“We need to provide a baseline level of good fats for hormone production,” says Nate Miyaki, C.S.S.N., a nutrition consultant and bodybuilder in San Francisco, CA. Fat, particularly the much-maligned saturated kind, helps in the creation of testosterone, which does everything from getting you big and lean to keeping your “little friend” ready to say hello. Contrary to popular opinion, when dieting, you don’t need to drop your fat intake much, if at all; fat loss comes fastest when carbohydrate intake is reduced. Plus, fat is satiating as well as a good source of energy. Most of your fats should come by way of your protein foods, but avocados, nuts, seeds, and a small amount of oil like coconut and olive oil can be included as well.
Aim for 0.4 grams per pound of your body weight daily to start. One tablespoon of any oil is about 15 grams of fat, and one cup of almonds or peanuts has 70 grams of fat. Two tablespoons of nut butter is about the length of your thumb and contains 15–20 grams of fat.
PRE-WORKOUT AND POST-WORKOUT NUTRITION >>> [PAGE 3]
Research hasn’t yet clarified the optimal amount of protein or carbs you should eat around workouts for the maximum benefit. But it is clear that some is better than none, and the presence of both is crucial. A 2006 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology gave male subjects one of the following to consume after weight training: a 6 percent carbohydrate solution, six grams of amino acids (components of protein), a combination of both, or a placebo. Those drinking the carb-and-aminos shake experienced greater muscle gains than any of the other groups, which the researchers presumed was because the concoction did the most to reduce muscle protein breakdown after training.
Meadows recommends taking in 25–50 grams of protein, 25–35 grams of carbs, and 10 grams of fat before training. Afterward, consume another 20–40 grams of protein and 40–80 grams of carbs—you can begin chugging this shake during the workout as well to limit muscle breakdown even further, though this may not be necessary and could upset your stomach. We like to make shakes with whey isolate or hydrolysate as the protein source, and Vitargo or highly branched cyclic dextrin for carbs. If powders and shakes aren’t in your budget, Miyaki says you can go old-school and eat fruit pre- and post-workout. One or two pieces should provide enough carbs to halt muscle breakdown. And a lean three-ounce slice of protein to accompany it is fine.