A Beginner’s Guide to Eating for Strength and Muscle
At the risk of breaking your heart, exercise alone won’t help you get strong or get the body you want. If you want to be strong and own a great physique you’ll need to work on your nutrition.
Unfortunately, nutrition is confusing.
Government guidelines won’t help us here as they’re generally aimed at the average population who don’t commit to any regular training. The food industry will also try to trick you into thinking you're eating healthy by adding labels to foods like “High Protein”, “Natural”, and other deceptive examples in order to make more profit.
To help you maximise your strength, build lean muscle and to generally live your best life, I’ve created this guide that covers all the major nutrition habits you’ll need to integrate into your day.
Here’s the master list:
Eat Slowly to 80% Full
Eat Lean Protein with Every Meal
Eat 5 Different Fruit and Vegetables
Eat Smart Carbs
Eat Healthy Fats
Eat Whole (Unprocessed) Foods
Focus on Progress, Not Perfection
Eating slowly serves a few purposes. First, by eating slowly you are giving yourself the chance to smell your food and enjoy the experience of eating. You’ll be more in tune with the signals your body is giving you as you eat. You’ll find your digestion will improve as digestion starts with the anticipation of food which triggers the gut to secrete more stomach acids and enzymes, and you’ll also give yourself time to crush food in to tiny particles with your teeth so stomach acids can do their thing.
It might sound too good to be true but studies like this one have shown that the slower you eat, the more likely you are to be leaner and the quicker you eat, the more likely you are to have excess body fat.
Why is eating slowly important when you want to build strength?
As a beginner, you don’t need to eat huge amounts of extra food to build strength and gain muscle. Eating extra food will likely lead to a bigger gut than a bigger arms.
Simply eating loads of protein and calories will make you stronger in the short term but in the long-term, you simply won’t be as strong or look as good as you could.
Here are a few tips to help you master eating slowly:
Dedicate 20-30 minutes to eat your food in an environment that allows you to focus on your food.
Be curious about the tastes and textures of the food you’re eating… you might find you don’t actually like some of the foods you eat.
Put down your utensils between bites. Take a moment. Breathe. If you’re eating with other people try making conversation for a few minutes.
Try setting a minimum number of chews per bite. This will feel strange at first, but give it a try and see what you discover.
Set a timer and try to make each meal last longer and longer.
If you find yourself rushing your food, that’s great! Recognising that you are rushing your food is a key part of the process to master eating slowly!
Eat Slowly to 80% Full
Eating slowly to 80% full is a progression on eating slowly. Once you get the hang of this habit you’ll be in a better position to control how much you’re eating to manipulate body fat and lean muscle. Unfortunately, you can’t skip straight to this because until you master eating slowly it will be very difficult to feel what’s happening with your own body as you eat.
You can think of eating to 80% full as a conscious effort to avoid getting too full by tapping into your own internal hunger and fullness cues. The fancy technical term for this is interoception, which is your ability to sense what’s happening inside your own body. Developing and refining your interoception will also help you to avoid injury later on as you’ll be more in tune with your whole body, not just your gut.
Here are some tips to learn your own fullness cues:
Hunger is experienced a little differently by everyone so wait until you feel hungry before eating and make a note of any of the feelings of hunger that you experience.
Hunger cues can be experienced as the classic growling or empty-feeling in your stomach, but hanger, headaches or feeling lightheaded can also be associated with hunger.
Being full is often experienced as being stuffed to the point of being uncomfortable. Instead, we want to learn what the Japanese call Hari Hachi Bu, the feeling of being just barely satisfied.
Eat Lean Protein With Every Meal
Dietary protein is one of the most important factors when it comes to developing strength, building muscle and staying lean as proteins are the building blocks for your all your bodily tissues. You need enough protein for your body to perform all its daily functions and enough left over for the body to utilise to create new muscle.
To master this habit you need to eat lean protein with every single meal. The exact amounts of protein can be adjusted for optimal performance but you’ll still need to split your daily intake across all your meals as the body can only store so much protein at once so eating huge quantities of protein in one go won’t be optimal.
Lean Meat, Poultry and Fish
Dairy Products: Milk, Authentic Greek Yoghurt and Cheese
Eat At Least 5 Different Coloured Veg and Fruit
Vegetables are an important part of any athletes diet as they contain essential vitamins and minerals that your body needs to do things like contract muscles as well phytonutrients which aren’t necessarily essential but will improve your health and performance regardless.
For example, this article by Layne Norton shows beetroot contains high levels of antioxidants and nitric oxide which will improve blood flow, lung function and muscle contractions.
You don’t necessarily need to eat a portion with every meal but it does help to include a serving with breakfast and lunch so you’re not having to eat all five for dinner.
Kale (Fuck Kale.)
Peaches and Apricots
Eat Smart Carbs
Carbohydrates get a bad rap, but very few people look, feel and perform well on low carb diets. Some people claim carbs aren’t essential for humans in the same way protein and fat is, which is true, but for optimal health and performance you’ll want to eat some carbs.
So, you don’t want to cut carbs out of your life but you do want carbs that will keep you fuller for longer, contain more nutrients to help you feel better and help you perform better in training.
Here are a few examples of smarter carbs:
Eat whole grains (such as brown or wild rice, quinoa, oats, buckwheat groats, sprouted grains, etc.)
Eat whole grain alternatives to white bread and pasta.
Beans and legumes.
Sweet potatoes or regular potatoes, just boil or bake them instead of frying them!
Snack on fruit instead of sugary treats when you want something sweet.
Have some steel-cut or rolled oats for breakfast instead of sugary cereal.
Eat Healthy Fats
Fats don’t make you fat. Fats contribute to keeping your hormones healthy, your brain functioning properly, your skin, eyes and hair health and your body chemistry working as it should. You’ll also recover faster from your training too.
Healthy fats include:
Nuts and nut butters.
We especially want to get a healthy dose of Omega-3 fats which are found in fish, nuts and seeds. These types of fats have unique benefits and we don’t often get enough of them. The benefits include:
Keeping our hearts and brains healthy.
Improving our cells' communication.
Keeping joints mobile.
Helping us to stay lean.
Helping us build muscle.
A whole bunch of other health related benefits.
Being dehydrated will make you weaker. Fortunately, our body actually has extremely fine tuned mechanisms for making sure we stay hydrated located in the deepest most primitive parts of our brain. If you are dehydrated, you will be thirsty.
That being said, being dehydrated by even a few percentage points can affect your physical and cognitive performance. When it comes to training, you’ll want to be proactive and make sure you’re well hydrated. Fortunately, 50% of what you drink is in your system within 15 minutes so I recommend drinking 500ml of water at two specific points in the day:
When you wake up to make sure you’re starting the day at 100%, and…
30 minutes before you train .
You should sip some water while you train to stay topped up.
Outside of that, your body will tell you when to drink.
Eat Whole ( Minimally Processed) Foods
Most food is processed to some degree and some food processing is good for us. For example, meat is processed by butchers, oats are processed, canned fruit and veg are processed, even frozen veg is processed. Without this processing, our choices of healthy food would be extremely limited.
Where things go wrong is when the food industry starts making food for us. In general, you want to avoid any multi-ingredient industrialised food… even the ones that claim they are healthy (spoiler: they usually aren’t).
As a rule of thumb you want to buy ingredients, not food, and turn it into some kind of delicious meal yourself because food that comes pre-processed for you usually contains less nutrients and more low-quality fats, salts, sugars.
It’s okay to have the occasional treat as deprivation won’t make you eat healthier but you should aim to eventually have 90%+ of the food you eat cooked with minimally processed ingredients.
Focus on Progress Not Perfection
You shouldn’t try to incorporate all of these previous habits straight away. Instead, pick one and master it. Ideally, start from the top of the list and work your way down as the habits have been presented sequentially. Changing just one thing at a time may seem pretty easy but we want to set ourselves up to win.
The Greek Goddess of War, Athena, certainly didn’t charge headfirst into battles she didn’t have a good chance of winning and neither should you.
If you fail, remember that failure is a part of the process, not the end of it.
And, remember you don’t have to go through the process alone. You can apply for coaching here.