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Eat Like An Athlete

How To Eat Like An Athlete

By Brandon Van Every


This document is to help you gain muscle and lose fat, in conjunction with a rigorous exercise program.


I wrote this to help people out, particularly beginners. Due to my tremendous generosity and sympathy for the newbie exerciser, I found myself saying essentially the same things over and over again to people in alt.sport.weightlifting. This is my way of reducing the workload for answering questions - I am still happy to answer people's individual questions as best I can.

However, in no event will I be held legally liable in any way whatsoever for the information in this document, for the use of said information by any party, or for any advice I may give you as a followup to info in this document. It's boring to say this, but legal precedents concerning FAQ's on the Internet make it essential for me to say this.

Caveat Emptor. That's Roman for "Let the Buyer Beware."

I lift weights mainly for fitness and some muscular development; I am an ectomorphic "hard gainer," if that means anything to you. I am not a competitive bodybuilder or a powerlifter. The information herein is based on articles that I have read, nutritionists that I have talked to, and my own experiences for the past 2 years. This is a fairly long time and I don't have a reference for everything contained herein. If you must have 100% authoritative info, go to a library, or a bookstore, or talk to someone with a medical degree in nutrition. I have done this at various points, and that's mainly where my knowledge comes from.

To my knowledge this FAQ contains factual information. I solicit and encourage corrections to the factual content of this document. After all, we are all learners, and I'd like to see this FAQ improved. In fact, I'd like to hear what you have to say on certain subjects. However, there are some things that I'm not going to debate.


First off, if you are new to sports nutrition, buy 2 books. A book on how to eat, and a book that counts up the protein, carbs, fats, etc. in the foods you eat. If you are new to weightlifting and/or sports nutrition, you are going to have to go through a learning curve of sorts. Long as this FAQ is, I can't possibly provide all the information you need. You'll need something convenient to refer to.

I have two recommendations at present. I solicit other people's book recommendations, along with some comments on why it's a good book.

Nancy Clark. "Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook." $13.95 (USA) ISBN 0-88011-326-X

This book has just about everything you could possibly want to know about eating like an athlete, from gaining muscle, to losing weight, to doing it veggie style, the effects of vitamins, recipes, how to do all of this in the real world, etc. The knowledge in this book is a lot to chew on and will last you a very long time. It's pretty close to a "one stop shop."

Corinne T. Netzer. "The Complete Book of Food Counts." $5.99 (USA) ISBN 0-440-20854-8

This is a tabular listing of the calorie, protein, carbohydrate, fat, cholesterol, sodium, and fiber content of almost every food imagineable. [It doesn't have any info on vitamin content.] It's a great reference for answering those nagging questions about whether certain foods would be good or bad for your sports program. It includes brand name foods, frozen foods, and fast foods. Other books offer similar lists, but make sure that they tell you everything you want to know - some books list carbohydrates only, for instance.


If you believe that ***NORMAL*** people need to eat tons of meat to either gain muscle mass or to lose weight, then in my opinion your view is bogus. This is also the prevaling opinion of the medical nutrition community. "Tons of meat" in this context means a daily protein intake in excess of 20% of your daily total caloric intake.

If you are a really huge, competition bodybuilder (i.e. you are not ***NORMAL***), or are otherwise a high-performance professional athlete, and you think you need more than 20% protein, then I'd like to hear about your experiences. I'd also like to hear from bodybuilders and professional athletes who think that 10%-20% protein is just fine.

If you don't think carbs are important, or that they should be minimized for some reason, then your view is bogus as above.

If you don't think veggies are important, bogus as above.

Hopefully we can all agree that eating lots of fat isn't desireable!

Are there any successful "vegan" weightlifters out there, i.e. you eat only veggies, no milk products or eggs?

Does anyone with basically the same dietary philosophies as I do, find that "weight gaining drinks" improve their weightlifting in any way? I've tried these various drinks for extended periods of time, and the only thing that they really made bigger was the size of my credit card bill. I find that normal foods eaten in proper amounts work just fine. But as I said, I'm not a serious bodybuilder or power lifter.


There are 2 things you have to do to gain muscle. 1) do regular anaerobic exercise (weightlifting), 2) control what you eat.

There are 2 things you have to do to lose fat. 1) do regular aerobic exercise (like aerobics), 2) control what you eat.

"Aerobic" means "oxygen-using." Aerobic exercise is any sport that stresses endurance for long periods of time, like continuous, repeated activity over the course of an hour. Typical examples are biking, swimming, jogging, cross-country skiing, karate, and of course aerobics. In fact, most vigorous sports are primarily aerobic, so it should be easy to pick one. Aerobic exercise works the slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are responsible for endurance activities only. When you work a slow-twitch fiber, you improve its tone and efficiency at delivering nutrients. The fibers don't get any bigger - that's why bicyclers and joggers typically have a skinny build. An aerobic process uses oxygen, and oxygen is required to use fat as a fuel. So if you do aerobic exercise, you will burn both fat and carbohydrates at the same time. In fact, you have to burn some carbohydrates - you can't just starve yourself and expect your body fat alone to fuel your activity. That's why people use aerobic exercise to burn fat, and why people still have to eat carbohydrates and not starve themselves in order to become slimmer. You may eat less calories overall, but your diet still has to mainly be carbs as described below.

"Anaerobic" means "not oxygen-using." Anaerobic exercise is any sport that stresses great strength for very short periods of time, like 30 seconds or less. Weightlifting, sprinting, and shot-put are examples of primarily anaerobic sports. Since greater strength is helpful in most sports, people often lift weights in order to boost their performance in some other sport. Anaerobic exercise works the fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are responsible for exerting great strength. When you work a fast-twitch fiber, it will hypertrophy (become larger). That's how bodybuilders get the big muscles. An anaerobic process does not use oxygen, and oxygen is required to use fat as a fuel. Thus, the only thing that will fuel your muscles for weightlifting is carbohydrates. That's why weightlifters will eat tons of carbohydrates.

For both aerobic and anaerobic exercise, the proper athletic diet is the same. You need to eat the "right" amount of protein, a large amount of complex carbohydrates, a minimal amount of fat, and a good chunk of veggies. Percentages of dietary calories will vary depending on who you talk to, but 10%-20% protein, 60%-70% carbs, and 20%-10% fat. Here are the caloric values for each:

	1 gram protein	=       4 calories
	1 gram carbohydrates =  4 calories
	1 gram fat =            9 calories

What percentage of protein and how many calories you need to consume per day is directly related to your level of physical activity. If you are relatively inactive, cut back on protein. If you are very active, you will need more protein, but don't buy into the myth that you have to eat lots of protein to be big and strong. You don't. You need lots of ENERGY to become big and strong. So when in doubt, eat more carbs, not more fat and not more protein.

Almost everyone has plenty of fat; for instance, there's enough fat in your liver alone to run a 10,000 mile marathon race. You just need a certain minimal amount of fat in your diet to stay healthy, that's all. Don't go crazy trying to completely eliminate fat from your diet, because you will damage your health. Make sure that the fat you do eat is of the monounsaturated or polyunsaturated variety (most vegetable oils.) Saturated fats (all animal fats, coconut oil, peanut oil, egg yolks, brains, livers, kidneys) have harmful types of cholesterol in them, which will scar your arteries and can kill you by age 50 if eaten regularly. A word to organ-lovers out there, if there are any. A brain or a liver is about the highest source of harmful cholesterol known to humanity. Don't eat these foods regularly unless you have a death wish. You would do much better to eat a 1 lb. T-bone steak every day of your life, than to eat internal organs on a regular basis.

With protein, you need a certain amount in order to rebuild your damaged muscle tissues. It doesn't matter if the damage came from aerobic or anaerobic activity, or if the damage is to fast-twitch or slow-twitch fibers. You still need a certain amount for repairs. But anything in excess of this amount is converted directly to body fat. So there is no point in eating massive quantities of meat. You might as well eat massive quantities of fat, because the end result is the same.

How much protein to eat: the range is between 1/3 lb. to 1 lb. of meat per day for most people, depending on your level of physical activity. [If you don't want to eat meat, more on that below.] 1/3 should be about right for totally inactive types, maybe ever so slightly less but I wouldn't push it. 1 lb. should be plenty for even professional athletes, although I'd be interested to hear from some about what they think of this in practice. I find that you can actually "feel" when your body is deprived of protein. It's sort of a feeling of need throughout your muscles. And I find I can also "feel" when I've eaten too much protein. It's sort of like your skin has an extra layer on it, and your abdomen feels like you've just put on extra bulk. Where you feel it may differ according to your body type and gender: you may feel the extra fat in your chest, or your hips and thighs if you're a woman. This whole approach of "feeling" how much protein you need may sound flaky, but it works for me.

It's better to err with carbohydrates, because carbohydrates are more likely to be converted to energy than they are to body fat. How true this is, depends on how complex the carbohydrate is, and what your level of insulin intolerance is. If you are an ectomorph (skinny body build), don't worry about it. Eat any damn carbohydrate you want, in whatever form. If you are an endomorph (you put on fat easily), stick with unprocessed complex carbohydrates, like fruits, beans, peas, long grain wild rice, whole wheat bread, organic grits, etc. Try to minimize highly processed complex carbohydrates, like white rice or pasta, as these tend to produce fat more easily for insulin intolerant peole. And avoid processed simple carbohydrates at all costs: sugar, cookies, cake, soft drinks, etc. You know, the stuff you like a lot. Go eat a peach or some stawberries instead. Be VERY CAREFUL with cookies that say "non-fat" on them. If you are an endomorph, non-fat doesn't mean non-fattening. If you eat a box of non-fat cookies, the processed carbohydrates and simple sugars WILL make you fat.

Even people who have no reason to worry about gaining fat should eat a diet that's high in unprocessed complex carbohydrate sources. The thing is, you need the fiber. You need the fiber in order to keep your digestive tract running smoothly, and to prevent the various cancers of the digestive tract. It also will control such stress-related illnesses as Irritable Bowel Syndrom (also called irritable colon). Basically, a high-fiber diet is the miracle cure and best preventative measure for all intenstinal ailments.

You also need to eat your veggies. Veggies don't provide energy or building materials in and of themselves, but they expedite, catalyze, and improve all the bodily processes. For instance, green leafy vegetables will make the conversion of carbohydrates to energy much more efficient. This is vital to maximum athletic performance. And if the carbs are turning into energy, then they aren't turning into fat, are they.... You also need veggies to protect your body from the damaging effects of "oxidation" and the creation of cancerous "free radicals." I don't have the inclination to get into all of it here. Suffice it to say that vitamins are very important, and veggies are a more efficient way to get most of them than are pills. Nancy Clark's book, given above, has a good section on all of this.

It is possible to get your protein requirements from vegetable-only sources, or vegetables + milk. All of these sources have "incomplete" proteins, which are proteins missing one of the 9 essential amino acids that your body cannot manufacture by itself. Animal proteins, in contrast, are "complete" proteins because they have all 9 essential amino acids.

The trick with "incomplete" protein sources, is that you have to eat a variety of such sources in order to get all the amino acids. Sources differ as to which amino acid(s) they are missing. I don't have precise data on what sources have what amino acids, but in my experience the sources fall into roughly two groups: (grains) and (beans, peas, milk). If you eat foods from both of these groups, you should be fine. Note that you don't have to eat the two groups at the same time. It's enough to simply have the food in your digestive tract. I find that eating things 4 hours apart is just fine. For all I know 8 hours may be fine, but I never have that much separation in practice, so I don't know.

There are many advantages to a vegetarian diet. I find that my energy levels are higher when I eat vegetable protein sources. You also don't need to worry about preservatives, animal hormones (beef and chicken), or river pollutants (fish and shellfish). Beans and grains are also way cheaper than meat. The main disadvantage is that vegetables are not as protein-dense as animal sources, so you have to eat a lot more to get the same protein. In the real world this can be time-consuming and annoying. So I'm what I'd call a "semi-vegetarian:" I get half of my protein from vegetable sources, and the other half mainly from chicken and fish. For me it's a good compromise between health concerns and real life. I have experienced no inconvenience and no loss of performance as a result of this diet. In fact, it's often more convenient to slam a can of refried beans than it is to cook meat, my energy levels are significantly higher, and I feel physically better.

If there are any weightlifters out there that have managed a strictly "vegan" diet (no eggs, milk, or animal products), I'd like to hear about your experiences. I have a book by Bill Pearl, a former Mr. Universe, which says he has been a lacto-ovo vegetarian (eats milk and eggs) for the past 20 years and that this works just fine for him.

So ends the essay. Have fun eating!

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