The 8 biggest dieting offenses and how to fix them

These cardinal rules of bodybuilding nutrition are broken every day. By Joe Wuebben
If only we could hire referees to sit with you at your breakfast nook, your dinner table and your favorite lunch spot. If only someone with a discerning nutritional eye could look over your shoulder as you fix your pre- and postworkout shakes and cry “foul” when your protein-to-carb ratios didn’t add up or you used only one scoop of protein rather than two. Because here’s the deal: too many bodybuilders make too many dieting mistakes. Whether it’s a lack of protein, an overabundance of simple carbs, or a faulty bedtime snack, such shortcomings are holding back loads of people from achieving their bodybuilding goals. So here, we break down a handful of the most egregious diet fouls we come across. If you can just fix these, you’ll be in good shape — literally.

THE FACTS You may think that if you’re trying to lean out, eating less at each meal is a good idea. But when it comes to breakfast, regardless of your goal, eating too little can put your body in a catabolic (muscle wasting) state, which breaks down muscle tissue, slows metabolism and prevents fat burning. “When blood sugar (the amount of digested carbohydrates floating around in the bloodstream) is lower, coupled with a lack of recently consumed protein, the body is more likely to fall into a catabolic state, where muscle is burned rather than built,” says Chris Aceto, author of Championship Bodybuilding and Everything You Need to Know about Fat Loss.

THE FIX Eat a disproportionate amount of carbohydrates at breakfast, says Aceto, to cushion blood sugar levels, which alleviates the burden to use up protein and muscle mass. Remember, when you sleep, you are essentially fasting and your body turns to your muscles for fuel. Begin your day with 80-100 grams of carbs (a mix of both fast- and slow-digesting carbs, such as oatmeal with sugar, is ideal, as the fast carbs will quickly get to your liver and stop muscle breakdown, while the slow carbs will give you ample energy for the day) and 30-50 g of protein.

THE FACTS The real offense here is following the recommendations of your local dietitian, who would have you believe that consuming 200 g of protein (or more) every day is, to say the least, excessive. But is he taking into account the volume of training you undergo week after week, month after month, year after year? “Protein equals damage control,” Aceto says. “When you hit the gym, even if you’re a rank beginner, you create muscle fiber damage in those muscles, and the primary ingredient that repairs that is protein. ‘Clinical’ recommendations are good, but look no further than your local contest winner and his protein intake will be higher than what most recommend.”

THE FIX We harp on it over and over, but it bears repeating: your protein intake needs to be at a minimum of one gram per pound of bodyweight every day. For hardgainers, this may need to be as high as 1.5 g per pound. Getting all that protein through whole foods is tough, which is why most (if not all) competitive bodybuilders ingest a couple of protein shakes daily, if not more.

THE FACTS If your typical massbuilding phase results in you gaining every kind of mass (a lot of muscle, but a lot of bodyfat, too), your choice of carbs might be the problem. (If your leaning out phase isn’t working, carbs could be the issue here, too.) More specifically, you might be eating too many simple carbs. Your best bet then is to stick with slower digesting carbs like yams, sweet potatoes, oatmeal and whole-wheat bread. “Slower-burning carbs tend to have a smaller impact on the fat-storing machinery in the body than refined or other carbs,” Aceto says. Remember, just because you’re in a get-big phase doesn’t mean you can let your diet go.

THE FIX at all the oatmeal and yams and whole grains you can stomach (provided your goal is to pack on lots of mass), but keep simple carbs (white bread, sweets, other types of sugars) at a minimum — except, of course, immediately after workouts, when you’ll want anywhere from 40-100 g of fast-absorbing carbs to begin the muscle recovery process ASAP.

THE FACTS We’ve all been there, where a meal consists of nothing but protein or, worse yet, almost entirely carbs. In most situations — the only exception being a very low-carb diet for fat burning — you should shoot for a balance of protein and carbs at every meal. Because, according to Aceto, having a meal too high in carbs compared to protein will result in a blood sugar spike. That may be followed by a blood sugar crash, which not only decreases energy, but also blunts fat burning. On the other hand, when protein is present in huge amounts but carbs are AWOL — for example, when drinking a whey protein shake and nothing else postworkout — the amino acids from the protein aren’t being absorbed as effectively into the muscles because of a lack of insulin in the blood.

THE FIX Generally speaking, Aceto recommends keeping meals balanced at a ratio of 1:1 protein to carbs, with a moderate amount of healthy fat mixed in as well (more on dietary fats in foul #5). “If you have a fast metabolism,” he says, “feel free to boost the carbs up from there.”

THE FACTS Sure, eating fat can make you fat. But so can carbs and protein, if eaten in excessive amounts. If the goal is to get lean, or even to build mass, fried foods are out, no doubt. Healthy (“good”) fats shouldn’t be outlawed, though — they should be embraced. “Dietary fat found in whole eggs, salmon, lean red meat and olive oil provide the building blocks for hormones that regulate both growth and fat burning,” says Aceto. “If you eat a fat-free diet, you restrict real change, because the body is constantly in an inner turmoil searching for these healthy fats that are a necessity to facilitate positive change.”

THE FIX So does this mean you should eat red meat at every meal? Um, no. But here’s what it does mean: eat one to three egg yolks a day; eat lean beef regularly (as often as once a day), as even the saturated fat found in beef will raise testosterone levels; put olive oil on your salad or cook your eggs in it; and don’t be afraid to snack on plain nuts like almonds, or on peanuts or natural peanut butter. All in all, 15%-30% of your daily nutrient intake should come from healthy fats.

THE FACTS There’s the guy who wins the lottery, suddenly becoming rich, and then there’s the millionaire who makes a fortune by saving a little bit every day and watching what he spends. Let’s face it, in bodybuilding there is no lottery. Even the most genetically gifted individuals (think Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler, Arnold Schwarzenegger) didn’t build their bodies overnight. It takes time. More than anything, it takes consistency. “You have to be consistent and eat the right way every day if you hope to reach your goals,” says Aceto. “In time, you’ll be successful. You’ll slowly but surely add quality mass and gradually burn away unwanted bodyfat if you can just stay on track and remain focused.”

THE FIX It’s difficult to put a hard and fast, quantifiable recommendation on this one. The key is to not follow a good day of eating with a bad one, to not follow a good breakfast, a good lunch and two good snacks with a gluttonous dinner. If you absolutely need to plan a cheat day every week in order to maintain sanity, stay focused up until that day, keeping your diet clean until you’ve earned the right to pig out.

THE FACTS Unless you’re training hard late in the evening, it’s a fact of life that the metabolism does slow down at night compared to earlier in the day when you’re more active. Because of this, calories consumed late in the day are more likely to be stored as bodyfat. This holds especially true for carbohydrates. Says Aceto: “Your body requires more carbs during the day when you’re training and working, not at night when you’re resting and doing very little physical activity.”

THE FIX This doesn’t mean you should skip eating altogether before going to bed — just steer clear of carbs. Before bedtime, consume 20-40 g of slow-digesting casein protein (in powder form, mixed with water). This will provide your muscles a steady influx of amino acids while you sleep to help keep you anabolic, not catabolic.

THE FACTS In whatever it is that you’re doing, you need to set a goal — and not a vague one. The goal needs to be tangible, specific, clear. Dieting is no different. Simply saying you want to get bigger and leaner isn’t enough. Because, in reality, even though it’s definitely possible to gain muscle mass while also getting leaner, maximizing either requires a different nutritional approach. Why else would bodybuilders follow different diets offseason and pre-contest?

THE FIX When we say specific, we mean it. Just saying, I want to focus on adding mass, isn’t quite enough (although it’s a good start). Set a goal to gain, say, 10 pounds. Or 20 pounds. Don’t think the goal’s lofty enough? Well then, when you’ve reached that goal, set another. If gaining 10 pounds was relatively easy, set a goal on the heels of that to gain 10 more pounds, or 20 more pounds. And, of course, where there’s a goal there needs to be an appropriate plan of action. Don’t set a goal to gain 20 pounds and then eat like a bird; make sure you’re eating sufficient protein (see foul #2) and doing the other things necessary to gain mass, including taking in the right amounts of carbs and fats, as well as muscle-building supplements.