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The Baseline Diet

It’s common behavior among all trainees to try to be more advanced than they are.  It’s true of training and it’s true in nutrition.  I find that lifters, especially new ones, want to try all the cool sexy stuff before locking down the basics.  But the simple fact is that until you have the basics down, nothing else matters.  Why?  Because the basics always work.  They always have and always will.  And that’s what the baseline diet is about: it’s the basic diet that all lifters should get locked in before they consider anything else.

Some Pointed Questions

How much mass have you gained in the last few months (or years as the case may be)? If you’re like the average lifter, the answer is assuredly “Not as much as I’d like”.

Ok, next question: how much money have you spent on exotic supplements hoping they’d be the secret to freaky mass? Again, if you’re the average lifter the answer is probably “Way more than I should have”.

Next is a series of questions: How many meals are you eating per day?  How many calories? How many grams of protein?  Carbs?  Fat? When’s the last time you ate fruit or vegetables?  Do you do this consistently? How much water are you consuming on a daily basis. If you’re an average lifter (and want to stay such), your answer is probably “Umm, I don’t know.”

The bottom line is that until you can answer those questions to begin with and are doing the right things consistently, nothing else matters.    Nothing.

A Quick Word on Supplements

I’ve written a lot of columns and Q&A’s for various magazines (print and online) over the years and, by far, the biggest question revolves around supplements.  A majority deals with basic stuff of course: protein powders, thermogenics, creatine but a number also deal with the more esoteric stuff on the market.

Bodybuilding magazines are in the business of convincing lifters that taking a lot of expensive supplements it mandatory to reach their goals because that’s how they make their money.  Telling a lifter to follow a basic progressive training program with a good nutrition doesn’t make money, getting them to buy a product for $45 per month month-in/month-out does.

But the simple fact is that your training and basic diet will determine 90-95% of your overall success.  At most supplements can add 5-10% on top of that.  At most.  And unless you’re competing where that 5-10% is the difference between winning and losing, spending a small fortune on supplements is a waste.  As importantly, if you don’t have the 90-95% of your training and diet in order, that 5-10% doesn’t make a different anyhow.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-supplement even if I’m painted as such.  Sure, I think 99% of what’s out there is useless garbage but that’s just based on history.  In nearly 30 year of doing this I’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of supplements come and go and maybe a half dozen were worth anything.  The new magic pill or potion is unlikely to be one of those that works.

Echoing my mentor:  I’m anti-anything that detracts trainees from the stuff that really matters.  And supplements all too often do exactly that.  Lifters try to make up for failings in the important stuff with a magic pill, and the magazines and companies know and pander to this.

Ok, enough introduction, let’s get to the article.

What is the Baseline Diet?

Most simply defined, the baseline diet is what every athlete needs to determine and put in place before they go mucking about with any supplements, or any goofy diet interpretations (including mine). That is, you should establish AND follow the baseline diet for at least a few months, to track your body’s response, before you try anything else.

Because until you determine what your baseline response is (and have the fundamentals of your diet in place), you can’t make any sort of objective conclusion about the complicated stuff in terms of results.

Now, much of what I’m going to discuss has been said many times before, as I said above there’s not much new here. But I still see enough lifters making the same basic mistakes in their overall daily nutrition that it’s worth repeating the basics again (and again and again).

I’m going to divide the baseline diet into six distinct categories which are meal frequency, caloric intake, water intake, and protein, carbohydrate and fat intake.   Each is discussed in some detail below.

Meal Frequency

Meal frequency may be one of the more hotly debated areas of nutrition these days. While it’s always been  dogma (and in earlier versions of this article, I basically reiterated that dogma) that you must eat 6 times per day or more for optimal gains (or weight/fat loss), more recent research has called that severely into question.

Recent work into caloric restriction and intermittent fasting suggests that lower meal frequencies may have additional benefits. Some people are even fasting for many hours per day prior to food consumption with many claimed benefits (such as improved insulin sensitivity, calorie partitioning and fat loss).   To discuss that would require a separate article and there are many other resources online that are already available on the topic.

As I’ve discussed at some point in most of my books, there are more factors which go into choosing meal frequency than any absolute statement (e.g. you MUST eat 6 small meals per day) can cover. How many calories per day someone is consuming, along with several other variables all interact here.

A small female consuming 1200-1500 calories per day may prefer to eat fewer smaller meals (so that each is larger and more satisfying) whereas a large male bodybuilder seeking mass gains (who may be consuming 3000-4000 calories/day or more) may need to eat 6 times per day to get in the required food.

As I discuss in detail in The Protein Book, any given meal will maintain the body in an anabolic state for somewhere between 4-6 hours depending on its composition and form (a solid meal takes 5-6 hours to digest for example) and the idea that you have to eat every 3 hours or your muscles will fall off, or you’ll go into starvation mode, is simply nonsense.

Now, as many like to point out, higher meal frequencies have been found to improve various aspects of health (notably glucose tolerance and blood cholesterol) but many of these studies use a very unrealistic feeding pattern (e.g. 17 meal/day compared to 3). Whether 6 meals per day has a true benefit over 3 meals per day in terms of health is massively debatable.  As noted, emerging research is finding that intermittent fasting and lower meal frequencies may have major benefits.

But since this article is about a baseline diet for bodybuilders and athletes, who usually have a fairly high daily caloric intake, a higher meal frequency is probably still going to be preferred.  This is just a practical consideration, an athlete with a large caloric requirement will generally find it easier to get them in eating more frequently.

Just realize that it isn’t absolutely mandatory. As long as you’re eating every 3-5 hours (assuming large-ish solid meals), you’ll remain in an an anabolic state. Obsessing that it’s been 2.5 hours since your last feeding is simply silly; stressing out over nothing will do you far more damage than going 4 hours between meals.

For more details, you can read the full discussion of meal frequency in The Protein Book.

Nutrient Timing

Beyond the global issue of meal frequency, an area of major interest and debate is that of nutrient timing.  The original version of this article repeated the basic idea that breakfast was a key aspect of halting overnight catabolism, but the research and practical experience of the intermittent fasting folks calls that into question.  So I won’t repeat that particular bit of readily accepted dogma.

However, nutrient timing around training is currently a massive area of interest with some researchers going so far as to say that timing of nutrients (especially protein) around training is more important to overall results than total protein intake itself.  Maybe.  There are a lot of issues surrounding the studies (not the least of which is that most of them are done in the fasted state which means they have limited relevance to athletes who have eaten during the day) to date but the simple fact is that the research is fairly clear: nutrients consumed around training are critical to stimulating optimal gains in muscle mass.

Now, how soon after training is debatable, one study found that whether nutrients were taken an hour or three hours after training, the results were the same (in older folks, it’s critical that they be consumed soon after training).   So the whole focus on “You MUST eat within 47 seconds of finishing your last set or your workout was waste.” is basically a lot of internet nonsense.

But the general point still stands, lifters should be eating something around training. Whether it’s before, during, after or a combination of the three, nutrients (and that means carbohdyrates and protein) around training promote better gains in muscle mass.

I can’t possibly give sufficient details on amounts in this article.  Again, The Protein Book has a 35 page chapter dedicated to the topic of around workout nutrition for those who want to know all the details.

Eating at Bedtime/During the Night

In the original version of this article, I made some comments about the practice of consuming nutrients right before bedtime and/or in the middle of the night.   The idea was that the time between the last meal of the day and breakfast was one of catabolism and the theory is that eating at this time might help with growth.  Some recent data supports this.

There is data that the gut needs “rest” for optimal function (e.g. that around the clock feeding causes problems) but it’s all based on studies of folks in hospitals so it’s relevance to athletes is debatable.

Another consideration is that sleep should not be compromised to get more nutrients into the body.  Sleep is critical for recovery and forcing yourself to wake up to eat something probably does more harm than good.  I originally said simply this: If you wake up in the middle of the night (e.g. to pee), eating something might be worth considering.  If not, don’t worry about it.

Basically, I’m torn on this one.  Of course, as I mentioned above, the reality is that a solid meal takes at least 5-6 hours to fully digest.  If you eat a particularly large dinner meal, that will actually be providing nutrients through a good portion of the night anyhow.  I’m just not sure it’s worth worrying about, moreso if it means interrupting good sleep.

Calorie Intake

Although macronutrient composition affects success in bodybuilding and athletics, caloric intake is arguably as important. Invariably the lifters I’ve met who wanted to gain mass (but couldn’t) were either overtraining (or training stupidly) or simply not eating enough.  Usually it’s both.

In the late 90’s, we saw the rise (and subsequent fall) of the lean mass gainer, a low calorie drink that magically caused you to gain mass. In all cases, these products contained creatine which causes rapid water weight gain.  It was a neat trick but served only to confuse lifters who apparently thought that they could build muscle out of hopeful thinking and thin air.

On top of that, there is a pervading belief (perhaps we should call it a desire) to gain mass while losing fat at the same time. While fat beginners can pull this off, as can those returning from a layoff, anyone past the beginner stage will find this generally impossible without the use of repartitioning drugs or complicated diets which alternate distinct periods of over- and under-eating (such as the mass variant in my Ultimate Diet 2.0).

The strategy I regularly advocate is the alternation periods of specific mass gain (accepting fat gains) with specific fat loss (minimizing muscle loss). This avoids the buildup of excessive bodyfat levels, while allowing one to gain mass.  I feel this works better than either the GFH or lean gaining approach.

The bottom line is this: building muscle requires a surplus/excess of two things: the building blocks of muscle (protein/amino acids) and energy (calories).  You can’t build muscle out of nothing and, without both in sufficient amounts, nothing happens.  I discuss protein intake below.  For now let me look only at calorie intake.

Bodybuilders always want to know “How many calories for mass gains?” to which the simplest answer is “Enough.” In principle, for mass gains calories should be high enough that a small fat gain is seen (as measured by calipers) every couple of weeks. This should be more than sufficient to support muscle mass gains.

Some of this will depend on how advanced the athlete.  A beginner can gain muscle more quickly and handle a larger surplus than someone who is very advanced.  For those who don’t want to do that level of math just increase your current calorie intake by 10-20% and see what happens in a month.

If not, a caloric level of 16-18 calories per pound is usually a good starting place for mass gains; this then has to be adjusted based on real world results in strength, mass and body fat.   I’ve also known individuals who had to consume 25 cal/lb to gain weight/mass.

Why the Variance?

The big variable here usually has to do with non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), one of the four components of metabolic rate.  In short, NEAT refers to activities that aren’t exercise that burn calories.  Fidgeting, moving around, etc.  And people vary drastically in how NEAT responds to overfeeding with some people (the stereotypical “hardgainer”) often shown massively increased NEAT when they try to eat a lot.  So calories that would go to support muscle growth just get burnt off with excess activity.  But I’m getting off topic.

In any case, I suggest trainees start at that calorie level and make adjustments depending on biweekly body composition measures. So start at say 18 cal/lb and see how your caliper measurements (men should probably use abdominal, women thigh as these tend to be most representative of body fat levels) change after 2 weeks.

If they went up a little (maybe a couple of millimeters over 2 weeks) and you’re gaining strength in the gym, you’re probably at a sufficient calorie level to maximize growth without excessive fat gain.  More calories probably won’t increase muscle gain but will cause disproportionate fat gain.

If neither weight nor body fat has increased, calories are too low.  At that point, I’d suggest adding another couple of hundred calories per day to your diet. Eventually you’ll find that calorie level that starts putting weight on you. Obviously, as you get bigger, you’ll have to add more calories as well.

Of course, if body fat has gone up significantly more than that, calories are too high and should be scaled backwards slightly.  I’d note that, if you start at the low end of my calorie recommendations, too many calories shouldn’t generally be a problem.

And as noted up above, my general experience with folks who can’t gain muscle mass is usually an issue of too few calories (or truly absurd training schemes) rather than too many.

Water/Fluid Intake

While it should be a no-brainer, water/fluid intake is another place where trainees make basic mistakes (I am guilty of this myself). The effects of dehydration range from minimal (at 2% dehydration, strength and performance decrease) to painful (can anybody say kidney stones) to worse (at 10% dehydration, death can occur).

While there are many generalized water intake equations (such as 8 glasses per day), these may not be correct for everyone. To poach another guideline from my mentor, a good rule of thumb is that you should have 5 clear urinations per day, and 2 of those should come after your workout.  No this isn’t based on science and yes this means looking in the toilet when you pee.

This gives trainees a way of individualizing water intake. Obviously someone who lives in a hot, humid environment (or trains in a non-air conditioned gym) will need more water than someone who lives in moderate temperatures and trains in a posh gym.

I’d note that, despite more dogmatic rhetoric to the contrary, all fluids contribute to hydration state (as do many high-water foods such as fruits and vegetables).  Yes, even caffeinated ones; research clearly shows that the small amount of fluid lost from the caffeine is still much less than the amount gained by drinking the drink.

It’s worth nothing that recent research has found that plain water is actually the worst drink for rehydration following exercise.  Milk was actually shown to be superior to either plain water or Powerade/Gatorade type drinks, most likely due to the potassium and sodium content.

Another approach is to simply let thirst be your guide.  Outside of older trainees, thirst is a pretty accurate indicator of hydration.  If you’re thirsty, drink.

Protein Intake

.For bodybuilders and other strength/power athletes, arguably more has been written about protein than any other nutrient and there are reasons (both good and bad) for this. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of confusion surrounding dietary protein for athletes; since much of the supplement industry tends to be driven by commercial (rather than scientific) biases, the profit to be had from protein powder sales means that a lot of nonsense gets written about the topic.

Contrary to popular belief, protein is NOT the main component of muscle, water is.  Frankly, I’m a little bit surprised that nobody has pushed anabolic water supplements for this reason (new Hydrobolic Dermal Water, now with an added Ester!) but I digress.

Protein requirements for bodybuilders has been a perennial topic of debate. Athletes have long-felt that high-protein diets were superior for muscle growth and results while classically trained dietitians maintain that only the RDA is necessary.  Who’s right? Well, I am.

Varying lines of research strongly suggest that higher protein intakes than provided by the RDA (or DRI or whatever you want to call it) are necessary to optimize the results from training. How much is still debated endlessly in the literature among scientists but this isn’t the place to detail that debate.

As I discuss in some detail in The Protein Book, I recommend that bodybuilders consume 1.1-1.4 g/lb protein per day (bodybuilders have long used a range of 1-1.5 g/lb); for reasons I won’t discuss here, females can usually get by with less than that, about 1.1-1.2 g/lb. I’d note that these values are for natural lifters; while there is far less research available, it’s generally felt that anabolics work better with more protein and intakes of 2 g/lb or higher are common.  These values should also be set relative to lean body mass, not total.

I do want to point out that just jamming in more protein than needed won’t magically increase muscle growth; there is a limit to the rate at which muscle can be synthesized no matter how much protein you eat.  You can’t force muscle growth to occur faster by eating more calories or more protein.  Only anabolic steroids can have that effect.

I’d also note, and this is discussed in The Protein Book, that once protein requirements have been met, eating more dietary energy (from carbohydrates or fats) actually has a greater impact on growth than just eating more protein. I bring this up as lifters often get so far on the protein bandwagon that they eat little else; growth is usually disappointing.

Having talked about total protein requirements, I want to talk about a few related issues such as frequency, timing and type. Like the issue of meal frequency above, lifters often go a bit insane about protein frequency. Claims that your muscles will fall off if you don’t eat protein every 2.5 hours has people acting like obsessed maniacs but the truth is far different.

The fact is that whole protein sources take a pretty long time to digest, they may still be releasing amino acids into the bloodstream 5-6 hours later.  As the now famous Boire study showed, casein protein was still digesting 8 hours after consumption.    The idea that you have to eat protein every 2.5 hours just makes no sense.

As an additional factor, there is actually some evidence that consuming protein too frequently could be detrimental for growth. Again, this is a topic I discuss in some detail in The Protein Book and while the data is preliminary, the idea does seem to be supported. I know this goes against long held ideas in bodybuilding nutrition but the research says what it says.

With that said, I do feel that whenever a meal is consumed, it should contain some protein. Given the rather high protein intakes of bodybuilders and athletes (a 200 lb lifter at 1.5 g/lb is getting 300 grams of protein), spreading it fairly evenly throughout the day simply makes sense.

Of course, an additional issue is that of protein timing around training.  As I described above, some researchers feel that timing of protein around training is more important than total intake per se. Maybe. The point is this: having nutrients in the system around training certainly seems to be critical for optimal results.

Another issue that athletes often get very obsessive about is protein quality, which protein is best?  You can get up to speed on that topic with my Guide to Dietary Protein Sources.

Frankly, once total protein and caloric intake is met, I don’t feel that there will be a huge benefit to one protein source over another, total intake will trump quality issues unless someone is doing something very strange with their diet (like eating a single low-quality protein as their only source).

Carbohydrate Intake

.Before I discuss dietary carbohydrates, I want to get something out on the table first. Despite what has been written by otherwise well-meaning individuals, activities such as weight training can ONLY be fueled by muscle glycogen (carbohydrate stored within the muscle).

No amount of adaptation can shift the body to using fat for fuel during weight training (unless your sets last more than about 3 minutes at which point you’re not really doing weight training anymore). The implication of this is that glucose is an absolute requirement to sustain weight training performance. And the primary source of glucose in the diet is going to be dietary carbohydrate (I’d note that protein can be converted to glucose in the liver as well).

Carbohydrates are surrounded by controversy in the world of sports nutrition for lifters (and in the general public). Well meaning dietitians give the same carb recommendations to lifters as they do for endurance athletes. Others argue that there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate (true) and prefer to use ludicrous protein intakes to produce glucose.

As with so many topics, I tend to come in more or less right in the middle. While I think that lifters generally don’t need massive carbohydrate intakes (well, maybe if you’re training 2 hours/day every day), I consider excess protein intake an expensive (metabolically and financially) way to produce glucose.

Carbs taste better anyhow and produce more insulin (which is important for overall growth). How many carbs is needed depends on a lot of factors but can range from very low to very high indeed.

A lot of general equations have been thrown around for lifters in terms of carbohydrate intakes for optimal results. I’m no fan of percentage based diets but, assuming calories are adequate, an intake of 45-55% of total calories seems about right as a starting point for carbohydrate intake.

In practice, this might yield a carbohydrate intake of 2-3 g per pound body weight. So a 180 pound lifter might be consuming 360-480 grams of carbs per day or 1440-1920 calories per day. Assuming he was consuming 18 cal/lb (3240 calories), this would yield 45-60% of the total. Math is fun.

I’d note that this can be highly variable, individuals with poor genetic insulin sensitivity often do better with proportionally less carbs and more fats in their diets. So take the above as a starting point and nothing more. If you find yourself bloated and puffy with that many carbs, consider reducing carbs and increasing dietary fats.

Beyond the argument about carbohydrate quantity, there is a separate (but somewhat related) argument about carbohydrate quality (i.e. type of carbohydrates). Carbohydrate sources are roughly divided into starchy carbohydrates (e.g. bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, etc) and fibrous carbohydrates (e.g. most vegetables).

More technically minded nutritionists will frequently speak of something called the Glycemic Index (GI), which refers to the propensity of a given food to raise blood glucose and insulin. In general, fibrous carbs tend to have a lower GI (meaning they have less of an impact on blood glucose and insulin) than starchy carbohydrates but there are some exceptions and GI is problematic at best in the real world.

Lately, this concept has been further developed into discussions of the glycemic load of the diet. Glycemic load is found by multiplying the glycemic index by the total carb intake. Thus a huge amount of a low GI food can have a similar glycemic load to a small amount of a high GI foods.

There is much debate over the importance of GI for athletes and bodybuilders. Many are adamant that only low GI foods should be consumed and, certainly, from a nutrient density standpoint (low GI foods typically contain more fiber and nutrients than higher GI foods, but not always) there is some logic to that. There is also a school of thought that low GI foods should be consumed except around training (where more insulin release is required) and there is certainly much logic to that.

At the same time, GI becomes increasingly more irrelevant when mixed meals are being consumed. High GI foods become lower GI food when you start combining them with protein, fat and fiber. As well, there is evidence that regular (endurance) training decreases the GI of foods.  Stranger still, at least one study suggests that low GI foods are low GI because they cause a faster initial insulin response.

My point being that the whole issue of the glycemic index and glycemic load is a lot more complicated than low GI is good and high GI is bad.

The best guideline I can give regarding this is that, of course, it will be better to choose more nutrient dense, high-fiber carbohydrates (which are usually lower in terms of GI) for the majority of your diet. Just don’t lose sight of the big picture, small differences in GI (or even moderated amounts of higher GI foods) aren’t going to kill you, especially not in the context of regular training, maintaining a reasonable body fat, etc.

Fat Intake

.For years (especially coming out of the fat-phobic 80’s), dietary fat was the forbidden nutrients in athletic and bodybuilding diets. Sometime around the 90’s, that perception started to change as it was recognized that not only were essential fats crucial for health, fat loss, etc. but that fats were not inherently evil.

Arguably one of the main benefits of increased dietary fat is that it makes foods taste better and adherence to your daily diet is a huge aspect of maintaining it in the long-term. As well, for many individuals it can be difficult to consume sufficient calories when dietary fat intake is too low. The caloric density of dietary fat is an easy way to raise calories. I’d note that some individuals find the opposite to be true, in that increased dietary fat promotes such feelings of fullness that caloric intake is more difficult to keep high.

Before I continue, just for background, I want to make sure everyone is familiar with the different ‘types’ of dietary fats which are:

  • Saturated fats: Saturated fats are found primarily in animal source foods, although coconut and palm kernel oil both contain high amounts of saturated fats (although they are a special type of saturated fat called medium chain triglycerides). They are solid at room temperature (think butter, milk fat).
  • Unsaturated fats: Unsaturated fats are found primarily in vegetable sources foods, although they are alos found in animal source foods in varying amounts. They are liquid at room temperature (think vegetable oil). Oleic acid (found in olive oil) is the most common mono-unsaturated fat.
  • Polyunsaturated fats: Technically a sub-category of unsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats are also liquid at room temperature. The essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats and are found in varying amounts and ratios in various foods. Generally speaking, they are found in vegetable source foods but the omega-3 fatty acids (aka the fish oils) are found, as you might expect, in fatty fish.
  • Trans-fatty acids: Also known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, trans-fatty acids are formed when hydrogen is bubbled through vegetable oils to make a semi-solid (think margarine) with a longer shelf life. Some research suggests that trans-fatty acids are worse than saturated fats in many health-related respects.

From a health perspective, massive amounts of research support the critical importance of the essential fatty acids (EFA’s), they improve calorie partitioning, decrease inflammation, and have so many health benefits that if you saw a list of them you’d probably think I was making them up.

And while bodybuilders may be less interested in health than in getting huge, the simple fact is that an unhealthy athlete of any sort isn’t one who can make optimal progress. Ensuring daily EFA intake is critical to optimal health and functioning.

And while it is held as proven true that the omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory (and that an excess of w-6:w-3 fatty acids causes health problems), recent research actually calls this into debate.

Of course, there is a great deal more controversy regarding the health effects of the different types of fats. The reality is that a great many studies link a high dietary fat intake with a number of disease states. However, it’s a lot more complicated than that sentence makes it out to be.    Simply put, the global context that fats are being consumed in (e.g. sedentary, overweight, stressed out vs. lean, active athlete) plays an enormous role in how dietary fats affect human physiology.

Of course, there are other reasons for athletes and bodybuilders to worry about dietary fat beyond just heath effects.

A big issue has traditionally been made of the impact of diet on testosterone levels.  Specifically a number of studies have shown that low-fat (20% calories or less) and high-fiber diets can reduce testosterone levels while higher fat diets raise it.  Some work has suggested that saturated fat specifically plays a role.  Others say it’s only total fat intake.

But there are issues with this.  One is that when you do studies of this sort, multiple variables change.  Even at face value we can’t say if it’s the change in dietary fat, the change in fiber or the combination at work.   As well, some of those studies show that as testosterone changes, so does SHBG such that free testosterone levels are unchanged.  As well, we can question how much of a difference small changes in testosterone within the normal range really have.  A 10% change in testosterone in either direction simply doesn’t mean much.  Now, if you double or triple levels with anabolic steroids…

At this point all that can be said is that sufficient dietary fat intake may be required for optimal hormone levels. But the data set is more unclear than many make it out to be.  And honestly the impact is fairly minor in the big picture.  Changes in testosterone of 10% either direction just don’t mean that much.

I would also note that a handful of studies have noted improved nitrogen balance (a measure of how much protein is being stored in the body) with higher fat and lowered carb intakes; some work I cite in The Protein Book suggests that dietary fat may be better for protein retention than carbs.

Which brings us to the question of how much dietary fat.

As noted, I don’t particularly care for percentage based diets but, for dietary fats, I make an exception and feel that an average intake of 20-25% of total calories is probably as good a starting point as any.  On average this will put most people in the realm of perhaps 0.25-0.5 g/lb (0.5-1.0 g/kg) of bodyweight.

If we take our same 180 lb lifter above consuming 18 cal/lb (3240 calories), a 20-25% fat intake equates to 72-90 grams of fat per day (or about 0.4-0.5 g/lb). Across 4-6 meals per day that’s 12-15 grams of fat per meal which I think is about right. As I noted above in the section on carbohydrates, some lifters may find better results with less carbs and more fat depending on the specifics.

Of that total intake, the majority should probably come from monounsaturated fats, I entreat all athletes to get sufficient fish oils (an intake of 6-10 standard 1 gram capsules per day is sufficient IMO) and the rest can come from saturated fats.

Summing Up the Baseline Diet

Ok,so that’s the 6 factors of The Baseline Diet. Once again, by baseline diet, this is the diet I think lifters, athletes or even the general public should follow (to establish their results) prior to trying other diet interpretations.

Of course, it’s also arguably the dietary template that most bodybuilders have followed (more or less) over the years. There’s not much new under the sun here. To sum up the 6 aspects:

  1. Meal frequency: 4-6 meals per day depending on the specific circumstances. There are exceptions.
  2. Total caloric intake: for mass gains, a rule of thumb starting place is 16-18 cal/lb to be adjusted based on real-world body composition changes.
  3. Fluid intake: Sufficient to generate 5 clear urinations per day, with 2 after training.
  4. Protein intake: 1.1-1.4 g/lb for males, 1.1-1.2 g/lb for females.
  5. Carbohydrate intake: ~45-55% of total calories (~2-3 g/lb) from a mix of starchy and fibrous carbohydrate sources, high GI carbs right after training
  6. Fat intake: 20-25% of total calories (~0.4-0.5 g/lb).

That’s the Baseline diet.  Until you’ve got all of those factors locked down consistently there is no point worrying about other magic approaches to diet.  Once you’ve got it locked down, you might not need anything else.  Well your training may still need work but that’s a different article series.

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15 thoughts on “The Baseline Diet

  1. Lyle,

    If consuming a large amount of B-vitamins via whole foods and a daily multi-vitamin (ex. on the order of 75 mg each of B1-B3, 50 mg of B6, and 500 mcg of B12) , is it possible for urine to take on a bright/fluorescent yellow color even if consuming sufficient fluids?

  2. Sure, excessive water soluble vitamin intake will throw off the ‘clear’ recommendation. Then again, the fact that you’re just pissing most of it out should tell you how much good it’s doing you (hint: none).

  3. Hi Lyle,

    Another great article. My main problem (out of the ones you have laid out in this article) is with water intake so you’ve just dropped me another hint to get it under control. I’ve always had trouble drinking my 2L of water a day and an idea I had yesterday was to increase fluids other than water, eg. tea, miso soup, milk.
    What is your take on the following response to the urine colour issue:

    “Q: Lately, I’m hearing from a lot of places that vitamins and other supplements just create expensive urine. Is that true? Am I really just pissing it all down the toilet?
    “A: Next time some idiot tells you that, suggest that he explain the concept to the cocaine addict who just spent a week’s salary on nose candy, or a Mr. Olympia contestant whose medicine chest is overflowing with Deca and D-bol.
    “When either of those guys pees in a cup, you’ll see traces of their drugs. Does that mean the drugs didn’t do anything between ingestion to excretion? Of course not. If traces of the drugs didn’t show up in their samples, their dealers have some explaining to do.”

    Is this just too simplistic? Is it an issue of some quantity of the vitamins/drugs do have an effect, but the excess is excreted and are creating “expensive urine”?

  4. Great read. I love the section about supplements.

  5. I’ve gained probably 5lbs of muscle.

    Don’t buy supps except fish oil

    I drink water and eat veggies and fruit regularly. Don’t count grams or cals.

    I eat 3-4 times per day on normal days and 1-2 per day on fasting days.

  6. We were up in Calgary a few years back for their speed skating finale and got a chance to talk to the guys who run their strength and conditioning facility. Note that these guys are producing Olympians.

    The supplements they use:
    protein powder
    fish oils
    I think glutamine

    That was it.


  7. hey what happened to part 2?

  8. Matt: there was a site glitch last week, looks like some stuff was lost. Apparently Part 2 was one of the lost bits. Crud. Thanks for alerting me to it.

  9. Hello Lyle,

    I have a question about night catabolism.
    Lately, I’ve read your book “The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook”, very good book, i think i’ll try The Crash Diet in the summertime maybe 😉

    To the point…
    You’ve written about starvation, and this is the problem which is very interesting for me.
    You’ve written, that our body will take necessary protein from our body – organs and muscles, so this is catabolism – ok, i’m deal with it.
    But I’ve read, that firstly, after about 12-18hours liver glycogen is emptied – ok, but 12-18h is a lot of time!
    Some organs need glucose for fuel.
    So can’t our body, take glycogen from liver for fuel at night, when we are sleeping?
    And than, it doesn’t need to brake down our muscles, to take protein for fuel.

    Where’s the problem?
    Have we got night catabolism?

    What’s your opinion about it?

    Greetings from Poland
    Michał Ryters

  10. hey Mr. Lyle
    help me please 🙂

  11. I’m years late getting to this but I want to add a comment on nutrition.
    (Amateur nutritionist hat placed firmly on head.)
    There are two amino acids that I know of that we get less of than they use to.
    One is Taurine:
    “Taurine, or 2-aminoethanesulfonic acid, is an organic acid widely distributed in animal tissues. It is a major constituent of bile and can be found in the large intestine and accounts for up to 0.1% of total human body weight.”

    Taurine is destroyed in cooking. While it is not a Vital Amine (Vitamin) as in your body can make it. Your body does expect it to be there and has to make it instead. I supplement this with meals. (Cheap at Amazon.)

    “Glycine is an organic compound with the formula NH₂CH₂COOH. Having a hydrogen substituent as its side-chain, glycine is the smallest of the 20 amino acids commonly found in proteins, and indeed is the smallest possible.”

    When we eat the whole animal we get a lot of glycine. When we eat just the muscle some but not as much.
    Glycine tends to hang out in the organs connective tissue and skin.
    Supplementing might help the connective tissue keep up with the muscle growth.
    Glycine is a main component in gelatin.
    Think Jello. Knox makes an unflavored version.
    (Also cheap and easy to get.)

  12. Amateur nutritionist is an understatement. You’re making stupid shit up.

    At the kinds of protein intakes seen in athletes/Western countries, there is NO way that taurine or glycine are insufficently supplied. Stop drinking the paleo kool aid and worrying about what we used to get when we ‘ate the whole animal’. Even the native americans didn’t that.

  13. I didn’t have time to explain last night how I concluded this supplementation was a good idea:

    1. Gelatin balances out your meat intake.

    “Muscle meats and eggs are high in methionine, an amino acid that raises homocysteine levels in the blood and increases our need for homocysteine-neutralizing nutrients like vitamins B6, B12, folate, and choline.
    We don’t want high homocysteine in our blood because homocysteine is a significant risk factor for serious diseases like heart disease, stroke, mental illness, and fractures. (This might even explain why researchers sometimes find a correlation between high meat intake and various diseases.)
    Those eating lots of animal protein need adequate glycine to balance out the methionine from meat, and you’ll get that from gelatin.”

    A high meat diet requires more gelatin to balance out the amino acid profile. (glycine among others in gelatin)
    But she sounds like a “Paleo Kool Aid” drinker as well.

    How about Ray Peat?
    ” Gelatin (the cooked form of collagen) makes up about 50% of the protein in an animal, but a much smaller percentage in the more active tissues, such as brain, muscle, and liver. 35% of the amino acids in gelatin are glycine, 11% alanine, and 21% proline and hydroxyproline.

    In the industrialized societies, the consumption of gelatin has decreased, relative to the foods that contain an inappropriately high proportion of the antimetabolic amino acids, especially tryptophan and cysteine.”

    It’s a long article. Bottom line:
    “If a person eats a large serving of meat, it’s probably helpful to have 5 or 10 grams of gelatin at approximately the same time, so that the amino acids enter the blood stream in balance.”

    Perhaps you can suggest a link showing this, “Paleo Kool Aid” drinker, athletes do not benefit from this?

  14. Hi Lyle,

    Could you clarify that quote of “If they went up a little (maybe a couple of millimeters over 2 weeks)”? Is that 2mm in 14 days just on the abdominal site?

    I have been dieting for some time and measuring both weight and caliper measurements and for me, my abdominal site measurement goes down roughly 1mm per kilo of bodyweight lost. Now that I want to start lifting and bulking, do you recommend I adjust my calorie intake upwards till I’m gaining 2kgs per 14 days? This seems above the usual bulking recommendation of a pound per week.

  15. It’s been a long time since I wrote this but I was assuredly referring to this sentence
    “So start at say 18 cal/lb and see how your caliper measurements (men should probably use abdominal, women thigh as these tend to be most representative of body fat levels) change after 2 weeks.”

    So 2mm change in the representative caliper measurement. A 2mm increase over 7 sites would be irrelevant. Hope that clears it up.

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