Musings on Diet, Muscle Gain, and Longevity

Over at Doug McGuff’s blog, there was some discussion regarding hypertrophy…big shock, right? Brandon Schultz DC proposed this regarding hypertrophy:

these men must choose to eat AND train to get bigger, with VERY specific meal times, protein servings every three hours or so, abundant rest/recovery/sleep, and pre/peri/post workout supplementation to exaggerate the insulin/amino acid uptake cycle for maximal anabolic response. Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of men willing to follow this because they have chosen a dietary lifestyle (like Paleo or IF) for health reasons, and it may not be an optimal one for maximal hypertrophy. If you want a specific goal, you have to go after it with your ENTIRE lifestyle, not just training protocol selection.

And here was my response:


Martin of the Leangains fame has shown that you don’t need to eat every 3 hours (or whatever) to drive muscle gain, just like you don’t need to eat every 3 hours to drive fat loss.

Which causes me to question: how can eating every 3 hours be both good for fat burning and good for muscle gain, 2 polar opposite outcomes? It can’t and it doesn’t.

That said, you’re right about being actively eating for hypertrophy, being consistent to get enough when it is appropriate, and matching a training program that provides a sufficient stimulus for growth. Most guys simply don’t eat enough to maximize their gain but that gain on average is very small. Simply put the nutrient signals that we all like about an ancestral health type of diet (controlled insulin, adequate protein, high satiety signaling) are the opposite of what tends to promote growth (high insulin, more protein, less satiety to help get enough calories).

Much like fat loss and muscle gain are opposite ends of the spectrum, a diet that promotes growth promotes aging while a diet that promotes health and longevity doesn’t. There is a great read by Michael Rose called “The end of aging: Why life begins at 90″ that lays this out.

The link to Michael Rose’s article is found here.

Upon reading my response again, it makes it seem like I disagree with what Brandon has proposed but that isn’t the case. I only took umbrage with the eating every 3 hours bit; everything else is very correct. When it is spelled out, it makes it seem more complicated than it is however, again citing leangains, the “pre/peri/post” workout is taken care of by aminos before the workout and your largest meal after the workout. There is even more recent research to suggest that what really matters is the amount of calories and nutrients ingested. Quoting an interview with Alan Aragon:

Alan: The post-exercise “anabolic window” is a highly misused & abused concept. Preworkout nutrition all but cancels the urgency, unless you’re an endurance athlete with multiple glycogen-depleting events in a single day. Getting down to brass tacks, a relatively recent study (Power et al. 2009) showed that a 45g dose of whey protein isolate takes appx. 50 minutes to cause blood AA levels to peak. Resulting insulin levels, which peaked at 40 minutes after ingestion, remained at elevations known to max out the inhibition of muscle protein breakdown (15-30 mU/L) for 120 minutes after ingestion. This dose takes 3 hours for insulin & AA levels to return to baseline from the point of ingestion. The inclusion of carbs to this dose would cause AA & insulin levels to peak higher & stay elevated above baseline even longer.

So much for the anabolic peephole & the urgency to down AAs during your weight training workout; they are already seeping into circulation (& will continue to do so after your training bout is done). Even in the event that a preworkout meal is skipped, the anabolic effect of the postworkout meal is increased as a supercompensatory response (Deldicque et al, 2010). Moving on, another recent study (Staples et al, 2010) found that a substantial dose of carbohydrate (50g maltodextrin) added to 25g whey protein was unable to further increase post-exercise net muscle protein balance compared to the protein dose without carbs. Again, this is not to say that adding carbs at this point is counterproductive, but it certainly doesn’t support the idea that you must get your lightning-fast post-exercise carb orgy for optimal results.

Something that people don’t realize is that there’s no “magic anabolic window” that’s open for a short period of time near the workout & then rapidly disappears. As a result of a single training bout, the receptivity of muscle to protein dosing can persist for at least 24 hours (Burd et al, 2011).

Or to sum it up:

The Primary Laws of Nutrient Timing

  • The First Law of Nutrient Timing is: hitting your daily macronutrient targets is FAR more important than nutrient timing.
  • The Second Law of Nutrient Timing is: hitting your daily macronutrient targets is FAR more important than nutrient timing.

Here might be why paleo + milk makes people grow like gangbusters assuming they get enough calories. What I’m taking here is Dan’s summing up of Pedro Bastos’ (Sup, Bastos?) presentation at the Ancestral Health Symposium:

  • How can milk lead to rapid growth? Maybe insulin.
  • Insulin response is 5x higher than expected for glycemic index. Doesn’t matter if it’s skim or whole.
  • The good: Whey can increase muscle protein synthesis and glutathione, one of the major endogenous antioxidants the body.
  • Betacellulin – Another growth factor in milk. Survives pastorization. Found in cheese.
  • IGF-1 in bovine milk is identical to human IGF-1. Not high amounts in bovine milk.

But there’s a downside, from the same article:

  • Increasing height associates with increasing risk for epithelial cell cancers.
  • Milk may promote premature puberty, a risk factor for breast cancer.
  • Prostate cancer shows a high correlation with milk intake.
  • Milk may be protective against colon cancer.
  • Milk seems to promote acne, at least in people who have insulin resistance.

So you want to promote muscle growth but not cancer growth. Milk calories are cheap and, assuming no gut or lactose issues, easily digested.

In the “I can’t yet prove it but I highly suspect it” category, I suspect that there is a peak anabolism in our lifetime. What I mean is that there is a peak muscle mass for our genetics and a closing window in which to reach it. If you reach it, your ceiling is set high for the rest of your life…you’ve reached your “10” level. But if you start training after that critical point, you’ll never get to “10,” maybe a maximum of “8” on that same scale. Here is why I think that; first let’s look at a slide of lifetime bone mineral density to illustrate my previous point:

See how the peak hits around age 35 and maintains before a decline? Also note that lifestyle (read: physical loading) is the main reason why the peak densities are different between the lines. The second and third lowest line, upon reaching their max around 35, can never drive their BMD up to that of the first line. Now let’s look at some muscle evidence:

This muscle mass curve is from the book “Bending the Aging Curve” by Joseph Signorile and it is a visual of the data presented in the study “Variability in muscle fibre areas in whole human quadriceps muscle: effects of increasing age.” The bent muscle curves, while not from the same study, are shown in other studies. Check out the MRI from the master athletes in the study “Chronic Exercise Preserves Lean Mass in Master Athletes:”

Fairly compelling visual evidence, in my opinion, to just how much lean mass we can build and maintain. Different life stages prime us for different outcomes, which leads me to…

Putting it together

I didn’t intend for this to be as long as it has become but in conclusion

  1. Maximizing muscle growth requires adequate nutrition, smart strength training, and adequate time.
  2. Nutrient timing for strength and mass gain is far less important than getting enough calories in during the 24 hours after a workout.
  3. A proper diet, nearly ancestral in its framework, can effective “stop” aging around 35.
  4. Milk promotes growth above and beyond its caloric value. Good for muscle, bad for cancer.
  5. Muscle, like bone, seems to have a “peak” value that can be achieved. There are studies that suggest this occurs in and around our 5th decade (which, like centuries, means the value 1 number below the number actually listed, so our 40’s)
  6. So if you want to maximize muscle growth milieu while minimizing the negative implications of a growth-promoting environment, follow a paleo+milk-type diet with plenty of calories up until around the age of 35. Note that I’m suggesting adding milk only after a workout, the amount will vary depending on your size and goals.  After that I would suggest dropping the milk and ramping up calories by way of shakes like those suggested by Dallas in his “Clean Mass Gain” while also understanding that you’ve likely reached a high percentage of your potential anyway. You’re unlikely to add more than 2lbs/year at this point so the calories you need won’t be very much above baseline. If you maintain 12-13% bodyfat, you’re eating enough to support whatever muscle you’re likely to have in your genetic tank.

I hope this helps some of you regarding the balance between longevity and maximum muscle. The latter helps the former, generally, and there seems to be a “best time frame” to maximize this.

19 thoughts on “Musings on Diet, Muscle Gain, and Longevity

  1. I’ve seemed to tolerate milk retty well throughout my life. No digestion issues that I can detect. No abnormal/early age for puberty. Some acne when I was younger but topical care seemed to take care of it pretty well. Still a good idea in terms of cancer prevention to cut dairy out of my morning smoothies and coffee at age 42? What about whey? I’ve alternated between whey and hemp protein. Cancer was present in both my parents and throughout both their extended family history.

    (I also wanted to ask your take on some recent news articles re light/moderate alcohol use and increased rate of breast cancer in women who have the gene that makes them more susceptible to it. Maybe for another post or forum..?)

    1. Jeanne,

      The cost/benefit ratio of removing the milk from your diet (morning coffee) might be a bit much. I’ll have to go back and watch Pedro’s talk but it was noted in the link to Dan’s Plan that whey is OK; its the casein that tends to be problematic.

    1. Chuck,

      That’s not what I’m saying; I’m saying that if you’re eating enough to support 12-13%, you’re eating enough to support muscle gain. In your case, adding a small dose of kcals could be good.

  2. I think you’re spot-on with that “magic age window for maximum hypertrophy” idea. Early teens to mid-twenties seems to be the sweet spot, and the earlier within that window, the better. The anabolic hormone milieu of this period can never again be matched — even with pharmacological help. Even the best “late bloomers” would have faired better having started earlier in their lives. Health benefits, though, are another matter entirely. A health vs performance discussion for another time.

    1. Very true; however I’d wager that a lifetime of training (again can’t prove it) with weights may allow a person to get that second wind if they want to build “big showy muscles” to quote Clarence Bass. In that case he was an oly lifter that eventually switched to bodybuilding. I suspect the FT IIb fiber type expressed during his chosen activity gave him a leg up when it came to moving into bodybuilding.

  3. Tyler Skanner,

    “Which always begs to question: how can eating every 3 hours be both good for fat burning and good for muscle gain, 2 polar opposite outcomes? It can’t and it doesn’t.”

    Don’t you mean raises the question, rather than the logical fallacy, begs the question?

    1. Words mean things. Shit, great eye! Between this and the Byzantine Empire folly I’m lucky you’re still around.

  4. Of course, the question is the cause — do people that train all their lives end up with more muscle? Or do the people that have better genes tend to be the ones that also train all their lives?

    1. Excellent points and a question that is possibly “both”. Part of discussing with people that health benefits far outstrip cosmetic benefits in most tends to go a long way toward getting people on board for brief, infrequent, intense training.

  5. here is something i have always observed at my globogym. the people on the mouse wheel cardio equipment either are real skinny with little muscle or have excess body fat. the people in the weight room are relatively lean and definitely have more muscle mass.

    i have wondered about the people in the weight room, are they there because that is what they have always been proficient at? what came first, the strength and muscle, or were they muscleless and/or fat before they started spending a lot of time in the weight room?

    just based on the eyeball test, i would choose to spend my time in the weight room because that is who i would want to look like.

    1. Great eye! I think there was a book that came out ~10 years ago “The No Cardio Diet” or something to that effect that made the same point.

  6. I learned about intermittend fasting last summer and have switched from 6 meals a day to only 1 to 3. I regularly do not eat for16 hours or more, but experience no negative effects to performance or muscularity. It’s easier to stay lean this way and it leaves me with plenty of time to be productive and get things done. Love it.

    1. Awesome Daniël. I too typically fast for 16 hours, occasionally more, and suffer no ill effects except staying leaner.

  7. Great post! This answers many questions I’ve had and addresses many personal observations from the ~6 months I’ve gone “paleo” and (more recently) shifted to a high-intensity/low-force lifting routine. I have to say I have not noticed much difference in results or performance, whether I fasted completely and lifted, had a small protein-centric snack beforehand, eaten a big meal afterwards, or some combination of these.

    I know it’s anecdotal, but I see little evidence that the timing matters much. I just listen to my body in terms of intermittent fasting, workout and refeeding.

    Of course, I’m not going for giant gains in muscle or competition-level ability, just to be healthy, lean and reasonably “built”.

    An interesting related point: I’ve noticed most studies on athletic dimensions of health (such as muscle growth vs depletion and glycogen replenishment) do not “filter” for keto-adapted individuals. My hypothesis, after reflecting on my own experience, listening to friends also doing “paleo”, and thinking about the biochemical underpinnings, is that keto-adapted individuals will tend to have improved glycogen replenishment and lean tissue hypertrophy.

    Why would this be? I suspect that hormones controlling these results stop being “insulin-driven” in keto-adapted individuals, since the body’s bulk energy consumption becomes coupled to fat burning, and (important) any glucose needed is readily produced by liver gluconeogenesis.

    So the keto-adapted body “knows” that carbs and (high) insulin come to have little to do with fuelling it — either for endurance or “fast twitch” output.

    While you might be able to “superoptimize” muscle growth glycogen replenishment by carb-loading, I suspect 95% of the final results people such as Berkhan report simply come from being keto-adapted while eating an adequate amount of protein plus bulk energy (i.e., optimally, dietary fat).

    Hinting at this, in my own experience, I had problems with slightly low energy about 4 months into paleo, with slowing weight loss. I suspect this was a result of leptin falling, due to my significantly lower body fat. Yet I was eating only something like 800-1000 calories a day. Too little. Upping the calories (but doing so in an “intermittent fasting” pattern) has totally eliminated the low energy, while allowing weight loss/lean gains to continue.

    I haven’t done any intentional “carb-loading”, yet “leaning up” continues.

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