23 Jul Junk Food, IIFYM and Muscle Building: Useful Or Not?
Today’s article comes in response to a question from one of my muscle-building clients Milan who asked:
‘Is it as important to eat healthy foods during a muscle building phase as it is during a fat loss phase? What effect could eating junk, as long as it fits your macros, have on muscle gain?’
My thoughts on ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ are pretty straightforward. In fat loss phases, the closer you are to eating ‘clean’ most of the time, the better. This isn’t to necessarily demonise certain foods; it’s more to say that if you’re in a hard calorie deficit, you want your energy consumption to be nutrient dense, satiating and the most bang for your buck.
Of course, much of this depends on the type of client you’re dealing with, the time frame, and their lifestyle. But if we’re talking maximum results in minimum time for the serious trainee, I’d rather not take a flexible approach.
I’ve always thought back to the best bodybuilders, and observed what they did to bring extreme condition to the stage. When you look at their diets, you won’t see doughnuts or ice cream being ‘fit’ into their diet on a daily basis. It just doesn’t happen. If the best of the best who have the best genetics aren’t doing it, I don’t see why us average folk should be.
However, in muscle building phases, there’s definitely a time and place for some less conventional foods to help reach your calorie targets easier and make life more enjoyable.
For clients who are aggressively in pursuit for added muscle tissue, I think taking a [90:10] rule to your nutrition is the way to go. Sometimes [80:20], but again, it depends on what’s going on with your life, and how you can stay consistent. Remember muscle-building phases aren’t quick fixes, so you need to settle on a diet that you can follow day in, day out, for a long period of time. Think long term.
So that being said, I can live with an [80:20] approach to ‘clean vs. dirty’ during this time.
Here’s how I would do it, along with the benefits that less conventional foods can bring to a successful muscle-building phase.
‘IIFYM’ & Muscle Building Applications
Post Workout Window
There’s always an on-going debate as to whether the ‘anabolic window’ makes a difference, with studies still undecided.
Anecdotally though, this is a great time to take advantage of increased insulin sensitivity and glut-4 translocation and hammer a ton of easily digestible calories in, especially from carbs.
In my last off-season, my ‘go-to’ post workout meal was 150g Coco Pops with 30-40g whey poured on top as the ‘milk’. Anyone who’s watched me eat when calories are high will know I take at least 30-45 minutes to finish a box of chicken and rice.
If you give me 150s Coco Pops though, I can get it in within 10-15 minutes! The best thing about this is that you’re getting 130g carbs in one hit, and FAST.
Other good options include:
- Bagel and Jam: a very popular post workout meal!
- Any form of kid’s cereal with whey on top
- Soreen Malt Loaf
- Rice Krispies Squares
The common theme is that they’re all super easy to digest and won’t bloat you like chicken and 150g rice would do straight after training.
Of course, you could use carb powders post training, but I’ve always found them to be a ‘waste’ because I’d rather ‘eat’ something nice. If I were to use carb powders, I’d use them intra-workout (you can read more about the best ones to use here).
Speaking of intra workouts, you may have seen in bodybuilding circles posts about drinking full-sugar Coke during training. This is a great example of using ‘junk’ to fuel muscle building. Coke’s a quick source of sugars, tastes good and will digest easily. When you’re pushing the limit with carbs, adding something like a can of Coke can make hitting your targets more manageable.
That’s essentially how ‘junk’ should be used in muscle-building phases. We all know that to build muscle we need two things: PRs on the plate and PRs in the gym.
To fuel the training and the body’s stubborn ability to build muscle, we need to feed it with a lot of calories. If you’re a skinny guy who doesn’t put on fat easily, this will be tough to do just by eating chicken and rice.
Cheat Meals / Spike Days
A lot of my muscle building clients will get intentional ‘cheat meals’ where we want to spike calories hard to coax some more growth.
This is especially for the guys whose bodies are more stubborn and can burn through a lot of food on a daily basis.
What I like to do with these guys is to send them for a big burger and chips, pizza or similar either the night before a heavy session, or immediately after.
Provided all the other meals are within the required macros, I’ve found this to be a great way to add muscle tissue without accruing too much body fat.
There’s no point in trying to look good if you can’t ever live like a ‘normal’ human being.
When I’m in prolonged muscle building phases, I don’t want to be a slave to my Tupperwares or miss out on social occasions. If I made my money from bodybuilding, then sure, I might make that extra sacrifice all year round.
But I don’t; so what I’ll do is just swap a meal out for something similar when eating out. For example, if I’m due to eat a load of chicken and rice for a meal, and I’m meeting friends at Nando’s, I’d just order a half chicken and spicy rice instead.
Now, if you’re in a fat loss phase, it’s not as simple as this. It requires a lot more diligence, planning and discipline. But for lengthy periods of muscle building, this is the [80:20] rule we spoke about earlier being applied.
So what are the potential drawbacks?
When defining the level of flexibility in your diet, there are good reasons to maintain at least 80% as ‘clean’ food.
If you go completely IIFYM and disregard everything but the numbers, your muscle building may not be as optimal. Why?
If all you consume is junk food, you’re going to quickly run into some micronutrient deficiencies in vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, zinc, iron, calcium and copper.
To resolve this, it’s not as simple as popping a multi-vit on top of your pizza. You need to keep eating your fruits and veggies in muscle building phases as well, as the antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, enzymes etc. that they provide will benefit in a number of processes, such as:
- Collagen formation
- Strengthened connective tissue
- Protein synthesis
- Fighting inflammation
- Immune function
Many times the biggest limiting factor in client’s muscle building goals is injury. The longer you can stay injury free and healthy, the better chance you’ll have in progressively overloading your lifts consistently in the gym.
I’m a firm believer that diet plays a part in this too, as it helps to reduce inflammatory markers that can influence joint pain, slow down recovery and increase potential for injury.
One of the most important things you can learn when eating for muscle growth or fat loss is self-awareness, and the way your body feels and responds to different foods.
If after a meal you feel lethargic, and have symptoms such as a runny nose, itching, brain fog or any gastrointestinal issues, chances are the food you’re eating is triggering an inflammatory response.
Now, what’s important to bear in mind is that this could be ANY food. For example, it’s always weird when I tell people this, but I genuinely see a connection between eating milk chocolate and knee pain. So I avoid it!
For Adam, if he has the skin of a sweet potato, he feels like crap. This might be a ‘clean’ food, but for him it’s a trigger and something he’s learnt to avoid by staying in tune with his body.
On the topic of inflammation, a common mistake I see in people who only focus on macro numbers is their quality of fat intake. What will tend to happen when you make junk food a cornerstone of your diet is that your omega 3:6 ratios will become skewed, and your intake of hydrogenated and trans fats will increase.
Cheap oils, margarines and general junk are the problems here, and this can lead to poor blood lipid profiles, increased inflammation and endothelial dysfunction.
One thing I notice in many of my Asian clients who are in the 15+% body fat range is that they have a lot of ‘hard fat’ around their mid section. And after speaking with Adam about this, we both think it’s due to the poor quality oils and general food quality that Asians eat in their typical diets (especially Indian and Pakistanis).
Gut Health and Digestion
This is something not many people pay attention to. 70-80% of your immune system is found in your gut, making gut health something that we need to consider if muscle building and health are priorities of ours.
You can’t train hard or progress if you’re always sick and run down, or if your recovery sucks. And the health of your digestive tract plays a big part in this.
Two simple ways to improve your gut health have already been covered in this article:
1/ Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Especially veggies – most guys just stop eating veggies when they start muscle building that I think is a big mistake.
2/ Keep quality of food high 80-90% of the time, and become more self-aware in your reaction to different foods.
If you can nail these two things, it’ll go a long way in making sure you’re digesting and assimilating all the extra calories you’re eating and putting them to good use.
Note: When you’re REALLY pushing calories, providing you’re getting them from predominantly ‘clean’ sources, you’ll want to reduce veggies a little. This is because fibre intake will get too high (when you combine this with oats, rice, potatoes etc), and the satiating effect of veggies may limit your appetite and ability to get the required calories in.
Missing Complete Proteins / Protein Distribution
If you follow an IIFYM only style diet, one important thing they miss is the differentiation between ‘complete’ and ‘incomplete’ protein sources.
By ‘complete’, I mean containing the full spectrum of essential and non-essential amino acids.
If you’ve read our blog discussing and comparing BCAAs, EAAs and whey protein, you’ll know that whey, which contains all 20 amino acids is the best at stimulating and sustaining muscle protein synthesis.
In an IIFYM-type diet, it wouldn’t matter where your protein comes from.
200g of protein from bread, rice and beans ‘should’ create the same physique as 200g of protein from beef, chicken and eggs. Yet we see time and time again this isn’t the case.
If we want to build maximum muscle, we need to focus on maximising protein synthesis with each meal throughout the day.
This is something vegetarians and vegans need to pay particular close attention to, as it can be very easy to miss this if you’re not careful.
Another mistake I often see when analysing food diaries from some muscle building clients is the lack of attention paid to protein distribution.
When someone has a focus on just ‘hitting the numbers’, they think they can just eat a kilo of steak for dinner and be ok.
Yes, calories are king. But if we’re looking for maximum results, we want to optimise things like protein distribution. Studies have supported this too.
One particular study examined the difference in muscle protein synthesis over seven days between a group who ate their protein at dinner only, versus a group who spread the same amount over three meals (Mamerow, et al., 2014).
What they found was that muscle protein synthesis throughout the 7-day period was 25% higher in the group who distributed their protein intake, compared to the skewed protein group.
There’s a reason eating 3 to 6 times a day of ‘complete’ protein works so well, so it’s always cool to see it being backed up in the science too.
The key take-away points from this piece are:
If you’re in a fat loss phase, try eat clean as much as possible to get the most out of your calories, stay satiated and ultimately be compliant. You want your calorie intake to be nutrient dense.
If you’re in a muscle-building phase, apply the rule of being ‘clean’ 80-90% of the time. There are benefits to using less conventional junk foods to help meet calorie targets, strategically spike calories and ultimately, enjoy your life too. The key is to not take the piss with it, and know that if you want the best results, you still need to be smart about it.
Mamerow, M., Mettler, J., English, K., Casperson, S., Arentson-Lantz, E., Sheffield-Moore, M., et al. (2014). Dietary Protein Distribution Positively Influences 24-h Muscle Protein Synthesis in Healthy Adults. Journal of Nutrition , 876-880.