The (Not So) Dirty Half Dozen – the 6 Best Foods for Bulking this Winter

IndomitableA new co-worker recently made his home out on the quad in front of my building. His name is Indomitable, and he’s a 10-foot tall Kodiak bear cast in bronze. Besides looking like an absolute boss, Indomitable reminds me of a few important lessons each time I walk by him:

1. Don’t go camping in Alaska

2. Winter is the best time to get huge

I’m not a big fan of the traditional cut-and-bulk cycle that so many wannabe bodybuilders fall into each year. By the time they’ve swelled their way to some extra muscle mass, they’ve also added plenty of pudge. Then, when they get “shredded” for the summer or the stage, they end up basically where they started but with a few extra pounds of muscle. And that’s if they’re lucky.

That’s one reason that intermittent fasting, and namely the Renegade Diet, appealed so much to me. It’s designed for steadier gains in mass without ever letting bodyfat levels creep too high if you do it right. You also get to eat huge quantities at night instead of that 8-tiny-meals-a-day nonsense preached by bulkers and cutters alike.

Whether you’re in the camp of slow-and-steady or quick-and-dirty, there’s no denying that winter is a great time to put on weight. You’ve got at least five months before you can go to the beach (more like seven or eight where I live). The days are colder and shorter, meaning less time to get outside and push the prowler, do hill sprints or play pickup sports. This means more time dedicated to lifting, eating and recovering your way to grizzly proportions.

The first question out of every potential bulker’s mouth is, “What should I be eating?” It’s not as simple as “everything in sight” or “whatever you want”, especially if you want to put on quality weight and keep fat gain to a minimum. There’s tons of misinformation out there about the best foods for gaining muscle, so let’s start with what needs to be on a bulking menu:

  • Enough calories to put you in a surplus (calories in > calories out = weight gain)
  • Extra carbs to fuel intense workouts and create an anabolic environment
  • Enough protein to stimulate protein synthesis and add new muscle
  • Enough fat to support proper hormone function and meet total caloric needs

Here’s a list of the six best foods to meet these needs and help you pack on pounds of muscle this winter.

white rice1. WHITE RICE

Nutrition at a Glance
Serving Size: 1 cup (158 g)
Calories: 206
Fat: 0 g
Carbs: 45 g
Protein: 4.2 g

If you wanna gain muscle, you gotta eat carbs. It’s that simple.

I’ve been outspoken about the general overconsumption of carbs by most people. Most people would be best served from a health and body composition standpoint to eat almost nothing but meat and vegetables and keep starchy carbs to a minimum. But we’re not most people.

Carbs are the preferential fuel for intense exercise like lifting weights, which we use to tell the body it needs to add muscle. Eating carbs also triggers the release of insulin, the body’s most anabolic hormone. Insulin is a storage hormone, acting like an anabolic bus that shuttles things like glucose (building blocks of sugar) and amino acids (building blocks of protein) into the cells of the body. Insulin is one piece of the mass gaining puzzle, and studies show a positive correlation between testosterone levels and insulin sensitivity (the amount of insulin needed to regulate blood sugar levels). Simply, if you exercise frequently and rest properly, testosterone levels rise and  insulin sensitivity increases. This ensures that insulin pushes these nutrients into the muscles instead of fat cells.

White rice is arguably the best food for adding muscle. It crushes brown rice in nearly every way. First, white rice is easy to consume in huge quantities, making it a cinch to get in enough carbs and calories. Next, white rice is digested more quickly than its brown brethren, leading to a larger spike in insulin and a potentially greater anabolic stimulus. Brown rice has four times as much fiber as white rice, which can reduce the insulin response and slow down digestion – not what we want when we’re trying to slam tons of carbs after a tough workout. Finally, white rice has the bran and germ removed, which are two parts of “whole grain” foods like brown rice that tend to cause digestion problems.

red potatoes2. RED POTATOES

Nutrition at a Glance
Serving Size: 1 medium potato (2.5-3.0 inches in diameter)
Calories: 154
Fat: 0 g
Carbs: 34 g
Protein: 4 g

Let me preface this by saying that I could write a book about my steamy love affair with sweet potatoes. I love those delicious, orange bulbs of magic. And while their nutritional supremacy over white potatoes is well known, red potatoes get the edge on this list.

But why? Sweet potatoes have more vitamins and minerals than white potatoes. Wouldn’t that make them the obvious choice?

Not so fast. Keep in mind, we’re looking for the biggest anabolic punch, not the prettiest nutrition label. Jason Ferruggia put it best when he said that carbs are for performance, not nutrition. Get your vitamins and minerals from fruits and veggies, not grains and starches.

Much like brown vs. white rice, red potatoes beat sweet potatoes for gaining muscle because of their simpler carbohydrate structure. This gives you a bigger insulin spike and easier digestion. Plus, they’re generally smaller than sweet potatoes, making them easier to prepare, cook and eat.

coconut milk3. COCONUT MILK

Nutrition at a Glance
Serving Size: 1/4 cup
Calories: 100
Fat: 10 g (9 g saturated fat from medium chain triglycerides)
Carbs: 3 g
Protein: less than 1 g

A tablespoon or two of olive oil has long been the secret weapon for helping skinny dudes add extra calories to food. But have you ever actually tried to choke down a spoonful of olive oil? It is NASTY. Great in salad dressing, not so great on its own.

Olive oil packs a ton of calories because it’s pure fat, and fat is calorically dense – 9 calories per gram compared to 4 for protein and carbs. But there’s a new fat in town, one that’s delicious, nutritious and ready to dethrone olive oil as the bulker’s ace in the hole.

Full-fat coconut milk – the stuff that comes in a can, not the watered-down glorified water in a carton – weighs in at a whopping 100 calories per quarter cup. That’s about two ounces or a seventh of a can. This stuff adds up fast, plus it’s got amazing taste and texture to boot.

Coconut milk also boasts a much healthier fat composition than olive oil, which has an unfavorable ratio of Omega 3:Omega 6 fatty acids. Overconsumption of Omega 6’s from refined vegetable oils is linked to chronic inflammation, the precursor for many diseases. Coconut milk is full of medium chain triglycerides, a type of fat that is rapidly absorbed and utilized for energy, which promotes fat loss, protects against heart disease and lowers cholesterol.

Coconut milk is the perfect addition to a shake. An entire can has about 700 calories and tastes amazing with a scoop of your favorite protein powder, a carb source like a banana and some frozen berries.  It’s also my go-to for homemade coconut milk ice cream.

ground beef4. GROUND BEEF (85% Lean)

Nutrition at a Glance
Serving Size: 4 oz
Calories: 270
Fat: 16 g (8 g saturated fat)
Carbs: 0 g
Protein: 29 g

Four food items into the list and this the first mention of a protein? Surely this is heresy in the world of muscle building.

Well, it’s not, and that’s because the super-high protein diet is one of the biggest myths out there. It’s a clever ruse devised by supplement companies to sell you protein powder. Truthfully, most people don’t need more than a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day (that’s 180 grams for a 180-pound person, or about three chicken breasts).

It is true, though, that you need to eat protein to stimulate protein synthesis, which is the process by which new proteins are made and new muscle is built. Ground beef is a solid choice for bulking because it’s tastier than chicken (due to the higher fat content), easy to cook (cooks faster and doesn’t dry out like chicken) and easy to eat in mass quantities.

The saturated fat and cholesterol in red meat is also essential for testosterone production and the structural integrity of cell walls. Skimp on the saturated fat and it won’t just be your cell walls that get limp and flimsy.

But be careful – ground beef from factory farmed animals can contain meat from literally thousands of different animals in a single package. Add in the piss-poor conditions these animals live in and the terrible food they eat, and you’re at increased risk of food-borne illness. Go for ground beef from grassfed cows, which guarantees improved nutrition and a cow that lived a happier life on it’s way to your dinner plate. It’s still less expensive than humanely-raised chicken or steak and easier to wolf down.

farm eggs5. EGGS

Nutrition at a Glance
Serving Size: 1 egg
Calories: 70
Fat: 5 g (1 g saturated fat)
Carbs: 0 g
Protein: 6 g

Once thought to be a one-way ticket to a heart attack, science has finally shed a deservedly-positive spotlight on eggs. While some people still fall for the nonsense that eggs are dangerous (like this head-shaker of an article that somehow concluded that eating eggs is as dangerous as smoking cigarettes), the rest of us have learned that eggs are an awesome source of protein, healthy fats and cholesterol that not only don’t harm the heart, but actually protect it by increasing HDL (“good” cholesterol). Some studies show an increase in overall cholesterol, including LDL (“bad” cholesterol), but it is almost always accompanied by an increase in HDL to negate any adverse effects. There is no evidence to suggest that healthy people should limit their egg intake.

Eggs, especially those from happy, free-roaming chickens, have tons of Omega 3 fatty acids and a solid amount of protein. And with 70 calories in a conveniet-to-eat package, it’s easy to scramble up a half (or whole) dozen and get a lot of calories.

bananas6. BANANAS

Nutrition at a Glance
Serving Size: 1 medium banana (about 7 inches)
Calories: 105
Fat: 0 g
Carbs: 27 g
Protein: 1.3 g

Bananas are a top-notch choice for a post-workout carbohydrate to refuel glycogen stores and prime the muscle rebuilding process. Well-ripened, brown-spotted bananas are especially useful because, as the banana ripens, its sugar content shifts from primarily fructose to a mix of glucose and sucrose. Fructose isn’t the ideal sugar after lifting weights because it’s more likely to replenish liver glycogen than muscle glycogen, but ripe bananas shift the sugar content to the more-useful glucose and sucrose forms that get sucked up by muscle cells.

The body has specific receptors for each type of sugar, so ripe bananas give you a nice blend of fructose, glucose and sucrose to ensure that the majority of the carbs you ingest are put to work for replenishing well-used muscles.

STOP READING, START EATING!

These six foods share some common characteristics. They’re easy to eat in large quantities, which helps you eat enough calories. They play some essential role in the mass-gaining process, whether it’s triggering insulin release, protein synthesis or hormonal stability. And finally, they’re all healthy! No junk food or processed garbage here.

Now put down the computer and pick up the fork. Lift, eat and hibernate your way to a more massive self this winter.

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Posted in Lists, Nutrition, Tips and Tricks
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