Tag Archives: Nutrient Density

How To Put on Muscle (In a Healthy Way)

With the year coming to a close and most Americans making resolutions to become fitter and leaner in the new year, gaining weight is most likely at the top of people’s what-not-to-do lists. But putting on muscle can be a real challenge — and it’s just as big of a nutrition concern as losing weight can be. And unfortunately for those trying to gain weight, it’s not as simple as eating double cheeseburgers for dinner and scarfing down pints of ice cream. Quality and nutrient-dense calories are just as important as they are for those trying to lose weight — especially when it comes to building muscle, optimizing health, and reducing the risk of diseases like cardiovascular disease. To gain lean muscle mass and improve health at the same time, try following these general rules:

1. Load up on healthy but calorie-dense foods
Not all calorie-dense foods are unhealthy: nuts (and nut butters), seeds, and avocados are high in monounsaturated fats, which reduce cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer and help your body absorb nutrients from other foods. But because fats contribute 9 calories per gram (as opposed to protein and carbohydrate’s 4 calories), they’re an extremely efficient and timely way to consume large amounts of calories. One tablespoon of peanut butter contains 94 calories, and just 14 walnuts have 185 calories. Flaxseed oil, which boasts heart-healthy omega-3s, offers up 119 calories per tablespoon. Dried fruit is another healthy option, as long as it doesn’t contained added sweeteners or preservatives. Since fruits are largely water by volume and weight, and dried fruits are devoid of water, their serving sizes are drastically reduced — but they still contain the same amount of calories as well as fiber, vitamins and minerals. At mealtime, try quinoa and salmon, which are surprisingly high in calories. Quinoa contains 220 calories per cup, which is the same as one cup of white pasta — but with far more nutrients like fiber, protein and iron. Salmon packs almost twice as many calories as chicken — but with more protein and far more omega-3 fatty acids.

Calorie- and nutrient-dense foods
2. Drink your calories
Nutritionists often advise against drinking your calories because liquids aren’t as satiating as solid foods and because we tend to disregard the calories they do contain. Plus, sodas, smoothies and coffee beverages are often far too high in refined sugars. But it’s a different game for those trying to gain weight: because they don’t fill us up, it’s easy to down a 300-calorie drink next to a 500-calorie lunch. Just make sure your drink of choice is filled with nutrient-dense ingredients and is low in sugar. Milk or chocolate milk are good choices, as they contain an ideal ratio of protein to carbs. Fruit juices contain about 100 calories per glass; just balance the sugars with protein or healthy fats to avoid shaky blood sugar levels. Smoothies are even better, because you can add more calorie-dense ingredients like yogurt, milk, peanut butter, wheat germ, chia seeds and protein powder.

3. Eat at least every three hours
Feeding your body with a consistent stream of calories is key if you want to gain weight, especially if you’re already having trouble with weight gain. Skipping meals, or even waiting the five or six hours between breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner, means that your body will begin to draw energy from your energy stores. Without eating, your body is in a catabolic state, which means that after glycogen (the unused form of carbohydrates that we store) is used up, muscle is the next form of fuel. This is why eating a healthy breakfast shortly after you wake up is just as key, since you’ve been fasting all night. And don’t forget to time your meals and snacks with your workout: experts believe that there’s a window of opportunity after working out during which your muscles are most receptive to protein and calories, resulting in the most efficient muscle mass gain.

Calorie- and Nutrient-Dense Foods
4. Speaking of strength training…do it!
Even though strength training is touted as a method for weight loss, it’s still important for weight gain. To gain muscle mass, your body requires protein. But your body already uses up the majority of the protein you eat for regular physiological processes like hormone synthesis and metabolic processes. This means that you need to take in and store more protein than your body uses. If you’re strength training and not taking in more protein, your muscles will lack the amino acids they need to repair and rebuild more muscle — which means you’re actually burning muscle. Supplement your post-workout protein consumption with carbohydrates, which slow the rate of protein breakdown.

5. Eat before bed
According to a study from Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands, muscle protein synthesis is relatively low during sleep; this is most likely attributable to the fact that there aren’t as many amino acids available for building muscle, says lead researcher Luc J.C. van Loon, Ph.D. But eating a snack high in protein along with some carbs may lead to gains in muscle mass: in another study, men who downed a protein shake before sleep increased muscle protein synthesis by 22%. Men’s Health advises eating a snack with about 25 grams of high-quality protein like cottage cheese and fruit, Greek yogurt, or three ounces of turkey.

6. Indulge with healthy desserts
Gaining weight doesn’t give you free reign to eat cookies, cakes, donuts and candy, but it does give you a little extra wiggle room when it comes to dessert. Truly healthy desserts take some creativity: energy bites, which are similar in taste and texture to cookie dough balls, are made with nutrient-rich ingredients like peanut or almond butter, dates, coconut flakes, flaxseed, dark chocolate and oatmeal. Or finish a meal with cookie dough dip, a stealthy concoction of chickpeas or white beans, nut butter, oats, and chocolate chips. For the purists, ice cream is also a good choice: according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, ice cream triggers an increase in insulin, which hinders protein breakdown.

Healthier Desserts


30 Days to Better Health: Part IV

23. Add yogurt to your diet. If you’re not already eating yogurt regularly, start today: research shows that it improves digestion, strengthens the immune system, lowers cholesterol, protects against osteoporosis, promotes fat loss, and may reduce the risk of ulcers, arthritis, and colorectal cancers. Yogurt’s health-boosting properties come mainly from its probiotics (the live and active cultures like Lactobacillus acidophilus) and calcium content. In numerous studies, high calcium intake is correlated with lower body fat accumulation; it does so by limiting the ability of fat cells to store fat. Look for yogurt with “live and active cultures” on the label to get the most benefit, and avoid fruit-on-the-bottom flavors or brands with added sugars.

24. Think of food in terms of its nutrient density. If you think of food as fuel your body can use – to repair damaged skin cells, to power you through a workout – instead of simply in terms of taste, you’ll naturally begin to choose healthy, functional foods. Compare 100 calories of an avocado and 100 calories of candy: in terms of just numbers, avocado might lose out because it has much more fat. Even so, the avocado will give you lasting power until lunch, while the candy will immediately spike your blood sugar and then send you into a crash, leaving you more hungry and more irritable than before. But food can do more than keep you satiated. The lycopene found in tomatoes, watermelon, and papaya, for example, literally adds SPF to your skin by preventing DNA damage from the sun. And research shows that a balanced diet of healthy fats, fruits and vegetables, fiber and lean protein can reduce the risk of heart disease by up to 80% – a number that is certainly tangible.

25. Embrace carbs (of the whole grain variety). Ever since the Atkin’s Diet, an eating plan that emphasizes protein and fat and places the weight gain blame on carbohydrates, Americans have come to fear carbs. In a refined flour and stripped-of-their-nutrients state and in vast quantities, carbs can lead to blood sugar spikes and dips that leave you fatigued, moody, and hungry for more. But whole grains are as much a part of a healthy diet as vegetables, fruits, omega-3s, and proteins. Whole grains contain filling fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, iron, and selenium. Whole grains may also be the key to happiness: whole grains trigger the release of serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood. Look for breads and cereals that contain 100% whole grains; lables like multigrain, 10-grain, and wheat only signify the presence of some whole grains. Breads that are brown in appearance may also be deceitful: food manufacturers use caramel coloring and molasses to tint their loaves, making them appear whole grain.

26. Give in to your cravings…every once in a while. Cravings range from mild to all-encompassing. When a craving strikes, give yourself 15 minutes to try and forget about it (go for a walk, call a friend, read a book). If it passes, your craving was likely a consequence of boredom. If it doesn’t, give yourself permission to have a reasonable portion of the good stuff. By allowing yourself an indulgent treat every so often, you maintain power over your diet by making the conscious decision to eat your treat without guilt. A study from Tufts University found that those who gave in to their cravings were better able to manage their weight than those who always deny their cravings, most likely because abstainers go overboard when they do lose control. When you really crave something, give yourself the green light to enjoy the real thing. If you crave ice cream, don’t settle for no-sugar-added fro-yo; get a cup of real, full-fat ice cream.

27. Experiment with grains. Wheat toast for breakfast; cornbread with your chili at lunch; fish served over rice for dinner. If you’re like most Americans, you’re most likely restricting your grain intake to wheat, rice, and corn. But these grains are often highly refined, removing most of the fiber, B vitamins, and up to 90% of its vitamin E. Next time you’re in the bulk foods section, look for other grains like amaranth, quinoa, teff, kamut, farro, and buckwheat. Each supergrain (or seed) has a unique nutritional profile that contributes to the health benefits of eating whole grains: decreased risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some type of cancers, as well as increased satiety and energy. Quinoa, for example, has two times the protein and eight times the fiber as white rice, and teff, a tiny grain native to Ethiopia, is high in calcium and iron.

28. Sub out sour cream for Greek yogurt and coconut milk. Greek yogurt and sour cream offer the same creamy tang, but with far different nutritional profiles: a ¼ cup dollop of sour cream adds 120 calories, 10 grams of fat (7 saturated), and 2 grams of protein; the same amount of Greek yogurt adds 37 calories, 1 gram of fat, and 5 grams of protein. By cutting out sour cream and using Greek yogurt instead, you can cut out unnecessary calories and fat and add muscle-building protein in dips, soups, burritos, pasta salads, and on baked potatoes. You can also use Greek yogurt as well as coconut milk – which helps maintain stable blood sugar levels and increases satiety – in baked goods like muffins, breads, and cakes to strip calories and add moisture.

29. Go meatless once a week. Even if it’s not a Monday, you’ll still benefit by cutting out meat every now and then. Numerous studies document the health benefits: a Harvard University study found that cutting out foods high in saturated fats, like red meat and full fat dairy, and replacing them with foods high in polyunsaturated fats (like nuts and seeds) can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 19%. Another study from Imperial College in London found that vegetarians and those on limited-meat diets had significantly lower body weights and BMIs; and numerous research points out that the consumption of red and processed meats is correlated with increased cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality. Cutting out meat also allows you to add otherwise forgotten beans, legumes, and other alternative sources of protein to your diet, which are nutritional powerhouses loaded with fiber, folate, zinc, potassium, iron, magnesium, and antioxidants.

30. Discover what other cultures are eating. Experimenting with different ethnic cuisines gives you the chance to cook with ingredients you wouldn’t otherwise use. Indian cuisine, for example, uses turmeric (one of the ingredients in curry) in many of its dishes. Turmeric acts as an anti-inflammatory to help control rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic illnesses; its active compound, curcumin, decreases the risk of cancer, improves liver function, and protects against cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases. The Mapuche, the indigenous people of Chile and Argentina, regularly eat piñones, large, protein-rich pine nuts with a host of nutrients (iodine, manganese, copper, zinc, vitamin A, B complex vitamins, and alpha-linolenic acid) and maqui, berries that have more than three times the antioxidant capacity of açai berries. You can also benefit from the eating habits of different cultures as well. Instead of stuffing yourself every night, practice hara hachi bu, a Japanese phrase that means “eat until you’re 80% full.” Experiment with international recipes to discover tasty and healthy new ingredients and to develop healthier eating habits.