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Can you gain muscle with poor nutrition?

Can you gain muscle with poor nutrition?


If you don't eat enough, or if your diet lacks certain nutrients, it will be harder to make progress. And if you eat a lot of processed and industrial foods, it's likely to damage your health as well as hinder your progress. But where do you draw the line? Should we exclude all junk food? And how can you optimize your nutrition to maximize muscle gains ?

I don't want to eat healthy!

While it's still possible to build muscle while eating a poor diet (provided you train properly and eat with a calorie surplus), you probably won't get the same result as if the majority of your calories came from unprocessed whole foods.


If you have a poor diet, low in nutrients and high in processed foods, it will damage your health and you'll even feel the effects in everyday life. Symptoms such as lack of energy, unstable blood sugar levels and poor digestion are common when you eat a lot of processed foods.

The effects of poor nutrition

To build muscle properly, there are a few basic mistakes to avoid that can tip you over the edge. Here are 5 disadvantages of poor nutrition during mass/muscle gain:

1 - A lack of vitamins and minerals

If you're trying to build muscle but get most of your calories from poor-quality, highly processed foods, your macros (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) will probably be out of balance, and your diet will lack certain nutrients, vitamins and minerals essential to your body.

If you consume most of your calories from low-quality foods, you'll likely lack many of the essential vitamins and minerals you get from eating whole foods. Although vitamin deficiencies tend to develop slowly over time, if you regularly eat foods lacking essential nutrients, you'll experience symptoms such as lack of energy, dizziness, mood swings and muscle weakness.

The most common micronutrient deficiencies found in highly processed diets are low levels of iron, B vitamins and the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. These substances are essential for many bodily functions, including feeling energized. Over-consumption of sugar can promote vitamin D deficiency, and tends to deplete the body's calcium and magnesium levels. As a reminder, vitamin D and magnesium are precious allies of testosterone, a hormone of prime importance in bodybuilding as it promotes muscle growth.

2. Poor-quality proteins

Poor-quality, highly processed foods often lack the essential amino acids the body needs to build muscle. For this reason, it's best to consume protein from whole food sources such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products.

Of course, you need to consume an adequate amount. Protein is an essential nutrient for building muscle. If you don't get enough protein in your diet, you'll find it much harder to build muscle.

3. Inadequate calorie intake

While muscle building requires a surplus of calories, if your caloric intake is much higher than the standard recommended surplus - 250 to 500 kcal - you're likely to gain weight but a lot of fat. Even if you're still building muscle, it's best to avoid excess fat when you're in a mass gain phase.

Conversely, if you don't eat enough calories, it will hinder your muscle gains and you risk stagnation. Your body needs a regular calorie surplus to build muscle.

In short, irregular caloric intake, whether far too many calories or not enough, will affect your body's efficiency in building muscle. If you consistently eat below the caloric surplus needed to build muscle, your body won't have enough fuel to properly develop lean mass. And consuming far too many calories will lead to excessive fat storage, which will have to be eliminated after mass gain with a painful dry phase.

4. Poor digestion

Eating is not assimilation! If you're constantly eating the wrong foods, which are low in fiber, high in sugars and fats and therefore difficult to digest, this will have a negative effect on your digestion, leading to various disorders such as constipation.

Although it doesn't seem to have a direct impact on whether or not you can build muscle, digestive problems such as bloating and constipation can contribute to feelings of heaviness, lack of energy, and potentially lead to more health problems later on.

For this reason, it's important to eat a diet rich in natural, whole foods that provide fiber, which will help support a healthy digestive system.

5 - Weakened immunity

Certain foods eaten in excess weaken your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to all kinds of illnesses and infections. Do you regularly fall ill and feel tired? Colds, gastroenteritis, flu: it's always you! And what's more, you have trouble getting over them..

It's hard to build muscle and make progress when you lose weeks fighting these diseases. On top of the weight and muscle loss, it often takes another week or two to get back to your level and performance. So yes, some people ignore illnesses and train anyway. But this increases the risk of injury, and can even aggravate the disease.

What foods can harm the immune system? All the same. Excessive sugar and saturated fats make you vulnerable to bacteria. Excessive alcohol, coffee, processed foods - packed with additives and preservatives - and salt weaken your natural defenses. Fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, can boost your immunity.

Is junk food really over ?

If your diet is healthy and you eat enough most of the time, short breaks with a less healthy diet will probably not cause you to regress.

For example, going on vacation for a week during which your diet and calories are not monitored, and you indulge in processed foods, is something acceptable if it's an exception. It won't affect your progress or your physique in the long term, provided you get back on track when you return.

Similarly, if from time to time you're forced to resort to less healthy food choices when traveling or dining out with friends, this shouldn't affect your progress if you make up for it on subsequent days. This is known as cheat meals. These are meals where you allow yourself to eat certain foods that are not compatible with your diet. In general, when we're serious, we allow ourselves one or two cheat meals a week. As you can imagine, it's when these cheat meals become too recurrent that your physique can be affected.

In summary, while you should try to get the majority of your calories from healthy foods when you're trying to build muscle, that doesn't mean you can't indulge in junk food from time to time. A well-known and valid rule - the 80/20 rule applied to nutrition - is to eat 80% of your calories from healthy foods in the form of healthy menus and 20% for the rest. However, if you're fighting fat or going on a diet, you're better off with no more than 10% processed foods.

How to eat for muscle gains ?

If you're trying to build muscle, you should aim to do these 5 things with your diet:

1. Keep track of your calorie intake to stay on track.

If your goal is to build muscle, you need to consume a healthy caloric surplus over a consistent period of time (aim for 8 to 12 weeks) to see results. The best way to do this is to monitor your calorie intake daily to make sure you're eating enough.

First determine your DEJ or "Dépense Energétique Journalière", i.e. the amount of calories you burn each day. Use a DEJ calculator and a calorie-tracking app. To gain muscle, consume around 250 kcal more than your DEJ. If you're fat, subtract 200 kcal from your DEJ and increase your activity (cardio + weight training). Simple, isn't it?

2. Eat high-quality protein at every meal

The first thing you should focus on if your goal is to build muscle is protein intake. Not only do you want to make sure you're eating enough protein, but you also want to make sure it comes from high-quality sources.

To build muscle, eat 1.5 to 2 grams of protein per kilo of body weight. Do you weigh 70 kilos? Consume 2x70=140g of protein per day, in several meals. Don't forget to include protein from supplements such as whey or protein drinks and bars.

Good quality protein sources to include in your muscle building diet include:

- Meat and poultry (lean beef, chicken, turkey, pork)

- Fish (salmon, cod, sardines, mackerel)

- Eggs

- Dairy products (fromage frais, yoghurts, skyr, semi-skimmed milk)

- Pulses (soy, lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, broad beans)

- Whey protein or vegetable protein powder (pea, soy).

3. Unprocessed low-GI carbohydrates

Not only are carbohydrates important in the muscle-building process, they're also your body's preferred source of energy, which means they primarily fuel your workouts. Therefore, swallow high-quality carbohydrates that will keep you feeling full and energized throughout the day. Choose carbohydrates with a low GI (glycemic index), which means they won't spike your blood sugar and keep your energy constant.

Good quality carbohydrates to include in your muscle-building diet are :

- Whole grain bread and pasta

- Oats and rice

- Potatoes and sweet potatoes

- Pulses

- Fruit and vegetables

4. Good, healthy fats

For lipids, consume 1.3 grams of lipids per kg of body weight. This can rise to 35% of total calorie intake. Choose quality lipid sources:

- Oils (olive, walnut),

- Oilseeds (walnuts, almonds)

- Oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel)

- Fruit (avocados)

5. Fibre for digestion

To avoid symptoms such as bloating or constipation that can be caused by an unhealthy diet, focus on getting most of your calories from high-fiber, unprocessed foods. Fruits, vegetables and oilseeds will help your digestion and provide you with many nutrients you won't find in a processed diet.

Foods rich in fiber and other essential nutrients include :

- Leafy and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower)

- Carrots, Celery, Beets

- Berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries)

- Fruit (apples, bananas)

- Nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews, chia seeds and flax)

- Beans (chickpeas, black/red/white beans)

6. Plan your meals in advance

If you want to build muscle successfully, it's best to plan your meals in advance. This will help you avoid skipping meals and swallowing anything.

Try to establish a meal preparation routine at the same time each week. For example, if you have free time on Saturday, plan your errands for that day and take the time to prepare all your meals for the week ahead.

AuthorAlexandre CARPENTIER

Bodybuilding Champion N.A.C 2012

Alexandre shares his bodybuilding experience with MegaGear blog readers

Posted in: Sports nutrition