Quality of Food
Quality of food is of great importance in a diet. There is the contrarian argument that as long as the food fits your macros then you will achieve your goal. Although this is true, it is not necessarily a good idea to fill your diet with high sugar food. A diet filled with nutrients, vitamins and fiber are better for both longevity and day-to-day energy, whereas a diet filled with junk food increases the chance of cardiovascular disease and also results in suboptimal regulation of insulin, affecting daily energy.
In light of the above it is important to mention that we live in an era where there is an abundance of tasty foods. (e.g. Donuts J) I’m generally allowed to eat my favorite foods every day when trying to gain muscle or lose fat (so long as I do not exceed my macro-nutrient requirements), but I apply an 80/20 rule that ensures that my body is filled with nutrients and minimally processed foods. 80% of my daily/weekly calories come from unprocessed foods such as meat, milk, eggs, fruits, vegetables and legumes. The other 20% consists of whatever I want to eat as long as it fits my caloric requirements. Some will argue that 20% is too high a figure to allocate to processed or junk foods. However, I disagree - it makes the the diet enjoyable, easy to stick with and still healthier than 98% of the population. Remember, a good diet you can stick with is better than a perfect one that you can’t stick with.
The quality of protein is particular importance. Essential amino acids are needed for protein synthesis. If you eat animal flesh, eggs, and milk you need not worry about protein quality as these foods are packed with the necessary amino acids. If you receive most of your protein through vegetables or a vegan diet, it is necessary to be more cognizant because vegetable proteins are largely incomplete as they contain low amounts of essential amino acids.
In the 80’s it was believed that in order to maximize recovery, the body needed simple carbohydrates within an hour of completing a workout. It was later learned that this was not true if you had 24 hours to replenish energy. Then in 2004, in a much cited book on nutrient timing, the authors claimed that protein would need to be taken before the anabolic window in order to avoid hitting a plateau. However, these studies were completed on subjects who were fasting. More recent studies have found that while acknowledging that timing matters, they argue that the “anabolic window” is quite a bit larger than most of us believed: 4 to 6 hours, counting the food you eat before training. That pre-workout food takes several hours to work its way through your system, which means it’s still there immediately post workout. Another meal within the next several hours should cover your needs. Ultimately, adequate protein intake matters most.
The above is sound advice for 99% of people trying to gain muscle. However, If you are an advanced lifter and you are willing to put more effort into your diet, it would be wise to take leucine (an essential amino acid) post workout as it has a significant role in muscle mass. Note, leucine may already be present in your post-workout protein source. In addition, I would recommend casein later in the day/night as it will lead to prolonged muscle protein synthetic response.
Due to the 9-5 working day, it is common for many to exercise first thing in the morning. This raises the question as to whether muscle gain is inhibited due to being in a fasted state. Research suggests consuming rich protein and carbohydrate sources within an hour will be adequate for regular rates of muscle gain.
Intuitive eating will only work if you know what exactly what you are eating. You will only know what you are eating if you know the macronutrient composition in a food. Therefore, in order to intuitively eat you will need to have months of calorie counting experience. From personal experience, and years of tracking food, it is very difficult to tell if you 200 calories above or below maintenance after a day of intuitive eating. In essence, tracking food intake is essential and intuitive eating is not advised when you are trying to achieve weight loss / muscle gain.
If you spent months weighing and tracking your food and bodyweight, looking at nutritional labels, learning where calories come from, and changing your eating habits to reach nutritional targets, you are better equipped than you once were. But, at the same time you’ve gotten so used to following a relatively rigid plan that doing so can become second nature and can even replace what normal humans use to regulate their energy intake: hunger and satiety.
Ironically, after you spend time “going by the numbers” and modifying your body composition using the quantitative approaches, I believe it is actually very important to then learn how to once again listen to your body. Do this once you have reached your goal, at least for a week or two.