Paleo Diet for Bodybuilding

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If you’re intrigued by the paleo diet, and wondered if it’s good for bodybuilding, congratulations, you’ve arrived at your destination. While other trendy diets such as intermittent fasting (IF) and ketogenic diets have been all the rage these days, before either of those caught on with the masses, the paleo diet was they way to eat for superior health and body composition.

 

No matter if your goal is to burn fat, build muscle, or do a bit of recomping, the paleo diet can be used to achieve your fitness and physique goals. Remember, nutrition is responsible for 80% of your success, and when you’re eating the paleo way, you’re giving your body the best quality foods it needs to perform at a high level.

 

What is the Paleo Diet?

 

The paleo diet can be essentially summed as as this:

 

Eat like a caveman.

 

When you’re following a strict paleo diet, you’re eating the way our paleolithic (paleo is short for paleolithic) ancestors did. In other words, you eat only foods that were gathered or hunted thousands and thousands of years ago -- things such as meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. Furthermore, you should be avoiding all manner of processed foods. There were no bakeries, drive-thrus, or takeout restaurants thousands of years ago, so you can forget about things like cookies, candy, chicken nuggets, cakes, and even the “wholesome” foods including breads, pastas, and cereals.

 

Here’s a simple table organizing foods that are paleo approved and ones that aren’t:



Approved

Not Approved

Fruits

Dairy

Vegetables

Grains

Lean Meats

Processed Food & Sugars

Seafood

Legumes

Nuts & Seeds

Starches

Healthy Fats

Alcohol

 

Essentially, you’re avoiding all the mass-produced, hyper-processed Frankenfoods that have been flooding the nutritional landscape for the past 100 years, as these are thought to be the real cause for the present obesity epidemic sweeping the globe.

 

On the outset, that sounds good -- eat more whole, unprocessed foods, and eliminate the manufactured garbage, but can a hard-training athlete really build muscle by doing this?

 

Paleo Diet and Building Muscle Mass

 

Ultimately, building mass or burning fat comes down to your net calorie balance. To gain weight, you need to consume more calories than you’re burning, and to lose weight, you need to consume fewer calories than you require on a daily basis. Over time this leads to muscle gain or fat loss, depending on which avenue you take.

 

Now, for quite a while, typical advice has been that athletes need hundreds upon hundreds of grams of carbohydrates in order to build muscle, that’s simply not true. Refer back to what we just said at the beginning of this section. To gain weight, you need to consume more calories than you’re burning on a daily basis, it doesn’t say those calories must be from carbohydrates.

 

So why do so many people recommended carbs during bulking?

 

Because the vast majority of carbohydrates these days are cheap, supply a lot of calories, and aren’t that filling (e.g. donuts, chips, sodas, etc.) These simple carbs allow you to achieve a caloric surplus very easily and for not a lot of money, but there’s a bit of a problem with pounding bagfuls of sugar to meet your caloric needs -- it wreaks havoc on your insulin and blood sugar levels, sending you on a roller coaster full of energy highs and lows. It can also lead to unwanted fat gain and potential diabetes-related issues if you ever get out of control with your sugar intake.

 

Strict Paleo vs Bodybuilding Paleo

 

Following a strict paleo diet means you’re only consuming between 50-150 grams of carbohydrates per day. If you’re a couch potato or only hopping on a treadmill a couple times per week, that’s more than enough to sustain your energy and performance, especially if you’re trying to shed some unwanted body fat. But, that piddly amount of carbohydrates aren’t enough for a hard-training athlete that’s lifting heavy weight at the gym 4, 5, or 6 days per week.

 

Simply put, it’s preposterous to think the carbohydrate needs of a 180 pound lean, muscular athlete training multiple times per week is anywhere near the same as that of the 300 pound obese couch potato. So, we’re going to need to make a few slight “modifications” to the strict paleo diet in order for it to meet the needs of a mass-building focused athlete.

 

The ultimate paleo diet for building mass and bulking up is a caveman-based diet with a moderate increase in the number of starchy carbs you’re consuming on training days, as well as employing a trick that will help you burn fat and build muscle at the same time -- carb backloading.

 

What’s Carb Backloading?

 

Carbohydrate (carb) backloading is an advanced form of nutrient timing where you consume the majority of your carbohydrate intake in the hours following your workout and evening time when your body is more apt to use those carbs for building and repairing muscle tissue than storing fat.[1]

 

In the hours leading up to your workout, consume only protein, fat, and non-starchy vegetables such as leafy greens or cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, etc). Then, after your workout and for the rest of the evening, you can “feast” on the starchier, more sugary carbs like white potatoes, sweet potatoes, and fruit.

 

Following your workout, your muscles’ glycogen stores have been depleted, and the post workout refeed allows you to replenish your glycogen stores and have them topped off for the next day’s bout of intense training.

 

Paleo Tips for Building Mass

 

  • Eat ample protein

    Consume at least 1 gram per pound of bodyweight of protein per day. Protein is crucial to building muscle, and preserving muscle when dieting. Aim to get your protein from sources such as beef, chicken, eggs, and fish

  • Don’t avoid fat

    Intake of dietary fat has been blamed for obesity, cardiovascular disease, and a host of other things for a long time, and it simply isn’t true. Eating fat does NOT make you fat. An excess of calories and lack of physical activity does.

    Fat, especially saturated fat, is required for hormone production (such as testosterone and growth hormone, two muscle-building hormones). It’s also required for maintaining healthy joints, and helping blunt spikes in insulin.[2]

  • Eat often

    Since you’re not going to be consuming a lot of simple sugars, breads, or cereals, it can be tough to get in all of the calories you need on a daily basis. The paleo diet is about whole foods, and those whole foods are packed with water and fiber, which are very beneficial for you, but can lead to some stomach discomfort if you eat too much of them in a short amount of time.

    If you’re focused on gaining mass with the paleo diet, it may be easier for you to eat more frequently in order to get all of those muscle-building calories in, while avoiding the uncomfortable, bloated feeling.

  • Increase calorie intake

    This may seem obvious, but in order to build muscle and grow, you have to be in a caloric surplus. Remember, weight training isn’t when you’re growing, it’s when you’re tearing down muscle tissue. The food you eat following your workout is what does the muscle repairing and building.

    To grow, you have to eat more than you need on a daily basis!

  • Avoid excess cardio and unnecessarily long workouts

    You’re trying to build muscle here, not train for an ultra-marathon. On top of that, you’re not consuming truckloads of carbohydrates, so doing excessive amounts of cardio will do nothing but hinder recovery and stunt muscle growth. Workouts should be intense, heavy, and brief. There’s no need to be in the gym for 3 hours.

    Get in the gym, get work, get out, and get on to recovering in order to grow!

  • Cycle Carbs

    We touched on carb backloading a little while ago, and another useful strategy is to cycle your carb intake as well. On heavy lifting days, consume higher carbs and a little lower fat. On rest days, lower your carb intake and up your fat intake. Protein remains constant. This way, you’re not constantly choking down carbs day in-day out, but using them strategically when your body needs them most and will get the most benefit from them.

 

“Gray” Areas for Paleo and Bodybuilding

 

Paleo purists will say that you should avoid all manner of dairy, and you can completely forget about supplements. But here’s where things get a bit “gray”, especially concerning athletes and bodybuilders. While it’s true that whey protein was not around during the days of Grok and the other cavemen (and cavewomen), the benefits of whey protein, especially in regards to resistance-training, can’t be denied.[3,4,5,6]

 

Can you still build muscle without consuming whey protein?

 

Absolutely yet, but, whey protein provides an incredibly bioavailable source of protein for the body that’s particularly high in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). If you’re following strict paleo protocols, then you can avoid all forms of dairy, including whey. But, if you know your body tolerates dairy well, then feel free to have a post workout shake on those heavy resistance-training days and see how things go.

 

Paleo Meals for Bodybuilding

 

So, you’re ready to give the paleo diet a shot and see whether or not you can truly build mass, but what exactly should you eat?

 

Here’s some examples:

 

Breakfast

 

Option #1: Chicken sausage + sauteed kale + blueberries + almonds

 

Option #2: 1 over easy egg, diced butternut squash, bison, and spinach breakfast hash

 

Option #3: 2-3 over easy eggs + spinach + mushrooms + ½ an avocado

 

Lunch

 

Option #1: Spinach salad + grilled chicken breast + mushrooms + avocado + olive oil

 

Option #2: Grass-fed beef burger + lettuce (for bun) + roasted veggies + ½ avocado

 

Option #3: Grilled salmon + asparagus + olive oil

 

Dinner

 

Option #1: 8 oz ribeye + baked sweet potato + sauteed spinach + strawberries (for dessert)

 

Option #2: “Breakfast for dinner” 3-egg omelette with ½ avocado + mushrooms + onions + peppers + hash browns (fried in olive oil)

 

Option #3: Paleo spaghetti = meat sauce + spaghetti squash + parmesan cheese (if consuming dairy)

 

By no means are these the only options you can eat on a daily basis. They’re just a few suggestions to get you started, but feel free to mix and match your favorite foods during meal time or have breakfast for dinner and dinner for breakfast.

 

Takeaway

 

The paleo diet isn’t just for suppressing hunger and losing weight. The paleo diet can work for bodybuilding and gaining muscle. All it takes is some careful planning on your part and some hard work.

 

Eliminate the cheap, filler junk foods from your diet and start focusing on more whole foods. In addition to the gains you’ll make, you’ll also feel a whole lot better too!

 

References

 

  1. Borghouts LB, Keizer HA. Exercise and insulin sensitivity: a review. Int J Sports Med. 2000;21(1):1-12. doi:10.1055/s-2000-8847.

  2. Wang C, Catlin DH, Starcevic B, et al. Low-fat high-fiber diet decreased serum and urine androgens in men. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2005;90(6):3550-3559. doi:10.1210/jc.2004-1530.

  3. Nicholas A. Burd, Daniel W. D. West, Daniel R. Moore, Philip J. Atherton, Aaron W. Staples, Todd Prior, Jason E. Tang, Michael J. Rennie, Steven K. Baker, Stuart M. Phillips; Enhanced Amino Acid Sensitivity of Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis Persists for up to 24 h after Resistance Exercise in Young Men, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 141, Issue 4, 1 April 2011, Pages 568–573, https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.110.135038

  4. Miller PE, Alexander DD, Perez V. Effects of whey protein and resistance exercise on body composition: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Am Coll Nutr. 2014;33(2):163-175. doi:10.1080/07315724.2013.875365.

  5. Bell KE, Snijders T, Zulyniak M, et al. A whey protein-based multi-ingredient nutritional supplement stimulates gains in lean body mass and strength in healthy older men: A randomized controlled trial. Fisher G, ed. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(7):e0181387. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0181387.

  6. Cribb PJ, Williams AD, Carey MF, Hayes A. The effect of whey isolate and resistance training on strength, body composition, and plasma glutamine. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2006;16(5):494-509.