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The Baseline Diet, Part 1: Meal Frequency, Caloric Intake and Water Intake

by Lyle McDonald, CSCS



I'm going to start this article with a few questions. How much mass have you gained in the last few months? If you're like the average lifter, the answer is '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? 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.'

Which brings us to the topic of the next two articles. I'm sure people are hoping that I'll discuss all manners of new nutritional strategies in this column in the upcoming months. While I might share a few, there's really not much new under the sun when it comes to bodybuilding nutrition. Sure, we know a lot more now than lifters did 30 years ago, but overall the same basic rules apply. In this article and the next, I want to talk about some of those basic rules.

A quick word on supplements

I would say that over half of the questions I get for my Q&A column have to do with supplements. Most deal with basic stuff: protein powders, the ECA stack, creatine but a number also deal with the more esoteric stuff on the market. I will say this for the bodybuilding magazines, they have many lifters (especially new lifters) convinced that one must spend a buttload of money on supplements to make gains. I'm tempted to rant about it, but I'll save that for a later article.

It's time to face a simple fact: lifters got damn big and damn strong before any supplements existed. Another simple fact: your diet (and of course your training) will determine 95% of your success in bodybuilding (or any sport). At most, supplements can add 5% to that level. Unless you're planning on competing, and that 5% may mean the difference between winning and losing, spending a small-fortune on supplements is a waste. As well, until you get the 95% of your training and diet in order, you're wasting your money and energy on supplements.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-supplements. To echo the words of a wise man, I'm anti-anything that detracts trainees from the stuff that really matters (training and diet). Protein powders have their use, but one can easily fulfill a day's protein requirements without them. I think a multi-vitamin/mineral is not a bad idea either, because no-one eats perfectly every day. Creatine will make you stronger and you'll gain some water weight, which might mean a little bit faster gains down the road.

I'm torn on MRP's. On the one hand, food is cheaper, more nutritious, and tastes better. On the other, if your schedule is very busy, MRP's may be an easy way to keep up your nutrition. Then again, spending an hour on Sunday cooking up chicken breasts, eggs, pasta, rice, etc in preparation for the next week works well too. That's all I'm going to say about supplements for now. Maybe at some point I'll write an article on the ones that I think might have some benefit.

What is the baseline diet?

 Most simply defined, the baseline diet is what every lifter needs to determine before they go mucking about with any supplements, or any goofy diet interpretations. That is, you should establish AND follow a baseline for at least a few months, to track your body's response, before you try anything else. Along with this, it's necessary to have some method of measuring changes in body composition (hint: get a cheap set of calipers and get into the habit of taking skinfold measurements).

Much of what I'm going to discuss has been said many times before. However, I get enough mail from people who are making mistakes in their basic nutrition to believe that it bears repeating again. The baseline diet can be divided into 7 categories: meal frequency, total calories, water intake, protein, carbohydrate and fat intake. In this article, I'll discuss the first three topics. In the next article, I'll discuss protein, carbs and fat.

Meal frequency

Although discussed to death, serious bodybuilders should be eating 4-6 times per day, period. Three meals per day simply will not cut it for mass gains. The biggest part of this is because it's difficult to consume sufficient calories for mass gains in only three meals. As well, multiple smaller meals keeps a steadier flow of nutrients into the body. Studies have also shown positive benefits of multiple, smaller meals on cholesterol and bodyfat levels (and I'm sure other indices of health). If nothing else, multiple meals typically makes it easier to consume the kind of high-calorie diets needed to sustain mass gains.

In practice, lifters should be putting something in their mouths food-wise ever 3 hours or so. While I've seen more frequent feedings suggested, I have trouble believing that eating every 2 hours is going to be significantly better than eating every three. That's about how long you'll maintain blood glucose, insulin after a meal. Most proteins take 2-3 hours to fully digest (if not longer) so I see little need to eat protein more often than that.

Beyond that, arguably the most important meals are breakfast (to halt overnight catabolism) and post-workout. Post workout nutrition is a place I see lifters making major mistakes. I've watched guys at my gym finish their workouts and hang out talking (or flirting) for another 30-60'. There is a window of opportunity where nutrients are more effectively absorbed after a workout. By the hour mark, you've already lost some of the benefit. In my opinion, you should take something with you (or buy it there) to drink right after your workout. As I'll discuss in a subsequent article, there may be some benefit to consuming nutrients before or halfway through the workout as well. Although guidelines are sparse, typical recommendations for post-workout are 1-1.5 g/kg of carbs and about 1/3rd as much protein.

A final place to consider meal frequency is right before bedtime and in the middle of the night. Between your last meal and breakfast can be a long time to go without nutrients and anabolism might be better maintained if nutrients are consumed. There is also some data that the gut needs time to 'rest' itself and that round-the-clock eating may hamper that. Another consideration is that sleep should not be compromised to get more nutrients into the body. Since I usually wake up in the middle of the night anyhow (to go to the bathroom), I'll usually have some milk or something while I'm up. If you don't usually wake up in the middle of the night, a shake before bed (containing protein, carbs, fat and fiber) will help to keep a continuous flow of nutrients into your bloodstream.

Total calories

Although macronutrient composition surely plays a role in dietary success or failure, caloric intake is arguably as important. Invariably the lifters I've met who wanted to gain mass (but couldn't) were either overtraining or simply not eating enough. A few years back, 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.

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 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. The strategy I regularly advocate is the alternation of mass gain (accepting fat gains) with fat loss (trying to minimize muscle loss). This avoids the buildup of excessive bodyfat levels, while allowing one to gain mass.

So the next question is "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. In practice, a caloric level of 16-18 calories per pound is suggested as a starting place for mass gains. I've known individuals who had to consume 25 cal/lb. to gain weight/mass.

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 bodyfat levels) change after 2 weeks. If they went up a little (maybe a couple of millimeters), you're fine. If not, add 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.

Water intake

While it should be a no-brainer, water 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 a guideline from a friend of mine, a good rule of thumb is 5 clear urinations per day, and 2 of those should come after your workout. 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.

Water intake should ideally come from water and water alone. However, other sources such as milk, fruit juice, or fruit and vegetables can count towards total water intake as well. Anything with caffeine in it doesn't count because the caffeine will act as a diuretic. As well, alcohol tends to further dehydrate you so beer after a workout isn't a good way to increase your fluid intake. Oh yeah, thirst is a poor indicator of hydration state. By the time you're thirsty, you're already a bit dehydrated.

Your assignment

Your assignment between now and next month is to determine (by keeping records) your current meal frequency, caloric and water intakes. This means keeping a food log of everything you eat and drink during the day. You should keep such a log for a minimum of 3 days (including one weekend day, where most of us let dietary discipline lapse) up to a full-week. You'll also need a basic calorie counter to determine caloric intake.

After you've kept your record, check it against my guidelines for the basic diet. Are you eating 4-6 meals per day, getting enough calories to support mass gains, getting sufficient water? If the answer is yes, you're ahead of the game. If the answer is no, spend the next month correcting the deficiencies. Psychologists estimate that it takes 3 weeks to develop a habit. So by the time you read part 2, you should have corrected any problems you were having.

The Baseline Diet, Part 2: Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fat

by Lyle McDonald, CSCS
Author of The Ketogenic Diet



Last article, I discussed three of the primary aspects of the baseline diet: meal frequency, caloric intake and water intake. To recap briefly, at a bare minimum bodybuilders (and probably everybody else for that matter) should be eating 4 times per day. Six time per day is probably closer to ideal, although this depends on caloric intake to a degree (i.e. a female bodybuilder who only consumes 1500 calories per day will find dividing those calories into 6 meals results in very small meals).

In regards to mass gains, many lifters who classify themselves as hardgainers simply don't eat enough. A good starting point for calories, is 16-18 cal/lb. (for fat loss, a good rule of thumb is 12 cal/lb.). Some may need less, others more so consider those values starting points only. Finally, water is intimately involved in just about every reaction in the body, and water intake should be kept high. In the second part of this article, we will discuss the macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat in regards to setting up the baseline diet.


Arguably more has been written about protein than any other nutrient. Contrary to popular belief, protein is NOT the main component of muscle, water is. I'm surprised nobody has pushed water supplements for this reason (new Hydroderm dermal water!). Every lifter knows the importance of protein intake for mass gains (as well as mass maintenance while dieting). Research supports the rough value of 1 gram/lb. of bodyweight for mass gains (actually, research supports 0.8 g/lb. assuming calorie intake is sufficient). This is for natural lifters. Drug-assisted lifters may be able to assimilate more protein as protein synthesis is ramped up to much higher with anabolics (others could comment on this much better than I, so that's all I'll say on the topic).

Despite what is written in muscle magazines, there is little reason to consume more than 1 gram/lb., IF long as caloric intake is high enough (this is a big if for many people). There is a limit to how much muscle protein can be synthesized in a given time period, and eating more protein is simply converted to glucose.

Although far from scientifically supported, most lifters feel that spreading protein intake throughout the day is more beneficial than consuming it in three servings. If you're eating 4-6 times per day, you should be consuming protein at each of those meals (so if your protein intake is 180 grams/day, you're looking at 30 grams of protein at each meal). This is an important aspect of the baseline diet, lost on many individuals (i.e. a bagel or a piece of fruit does not cut it as one of your meals).

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, as long as your protein sources are high-quality to begin with (think milk, chicken, fish, meat, etc). Spending twice as much for a protein supplement that may give a (hypothetically) few percent improvement is sheer folly. To a great degree protein is protein and amino acid are amino acids and the body will treat them all the same in the end. Yes, there are some differences in biological value between different types of protein. At the levels of protein intake seen in bodybuilders, this becomes a fairly moot point. As a final comment, various types of proteins (for example chicken vs. whey protein) all have their pros and cons and there is no single protein which is applicable to all dietary situations. As long as lifters consume sufficient calories (10-20% above maintenance) and sufficient protein (~1 g/lb.) from high-quality sources, small differences in protein type are unlikely to make a big difference in the rate of gains.

Arguably the biggest difference between food protein and powders (especially hydrolyzed/predigested) is in how quickly they get into the bloodstream. I could make a case for using a hydrolyzed protein powder right after workout, when you want to get aminos into the bloodstream as soon as possible. I could also make a case for eating some whole food protein about 2 hours before the workout, so it will still be digesting and releasing aminos into the bloodstream during and at the end of your workout.


Before discussing dietary carbohydrates, let's 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). The implication of this is that glucose is an absolute requirement to sustain weight training performance.

Carbohydrates are surrounded by controversy in the world of sports nutrition for lifters. 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 excessive protein intakes to produce glucose. For the most part I'm 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.

For mass gains, I think 45-55% of total calories as carbs is a good place to start although some will do better with more, some better with less. This will generally allow protein to be easily set at 1 gram/lb. as well as allowing sufficient dietary fat intake to optimize testosterone levels (see next section) and satiety.

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.

There is much debate over the importance of the GI concept for bodybuilders. On the one hand, excessively high insulin levels (caused by eating very high GI foods) tend to promote fat storage and cause problems. On the other hand, when high GI foods are combined with other nutrients (such as protein, fat and fiber), GI is always lowered, making the impact on blood glucose and insulin lower. And while current research is suggesting that consuming lower GI foods has much benefit for individuals with diabetics, it's still debatable as to whether this has any relevance to healthy, non-diabetic individuals.

Additionally, GI interacts with total carbohydrate intake as well. That is, GI is measured after consumption of 100 grams of a given food (some studies use 25 or 50 grams). A small amount (10-20 grams) of a high GI food may actually have a smaller impact on blood glucose and insulin than a large amount (50+ grams) of a low GI food.

About the best guideline I can give at this point is to experiment with different sources of carbohydrate in the diet to see if results (in terms of muscle or fat gain) are significantly different (as well, ensuring a mix of both starchy and fibrous carbs will help to ensure optimal vitamin and mineral intake).

About the only time that we can conclusively say that high or low GI foods are ideal is immediately after a workout, where high blood insulin levels are of benefit. Consuming a high GI carbohydrate (typical amount is 1-1.5 g/kg) with some protein (about 1/3rd as much protein as carbs) right after workout helps with recovery and may promote better growth.


Until a few years ago, fats were sort of the forgotten nutrient in bodybuilding diets. While it was accepted that you'd get some in your diet, most bodybuilders (and everybody else) tried to minimize dietary fat as much as possible. Recently, though, the benefits of increased dietary fat has become more emphasized in most bodybuilding publications. Arguably one of the main benefits of increased dietary fat is that it makes foods taste better. Let's face it, any diet that you can't stand (because the food is unpalatable) isn't one you're going to follow 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. However, 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. The health benefits of the essential fatty acids (EFA's, found in vegetable source fats such as flax and safflower oil, and most nuts and seeds) are becoming increasingly emphasized.

Perhaps the biggest argument for raised dietary fat for bodybuilders is that a number of studies have documented decreases in blood testosterone (both bound and free testosterone) with low-fat, high-fiber diets. As well, a few studies have documented improved nitrogen balance with higher-fat (and lowered carb) diets.

So this raises the question of how much dietary fat to consume? The unfortunate reality is that a great number of studies have linked high dietary fat intake with a number of disease states. However, it is difficult to strictly differentiate the effects of quantity of dietary fat vs. quality of dietary fat. For readers who are unaware, dietary fats (more technically: dietary triglycerides) come in several "flavors":

a. Saturated fats: Saturated fats are found primarily in animal source foods, although coconut and palm kernel oil both contain high amounts of saturated fats. They are solid at room temperature (think butter, milk fat).

b. Unsaturated fats: Unsaturated fats are found primarily in vegetable sources foods, although small amounts are found in animal foods. Unsaturated fats are typically subdivided into mono- and polyunsaturated fats but this is an unnecessary distinction for us here. They are liquid at room temperature (think vegetable oil)

c. 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.

Studies have linked the majority of health problems associated with a high dietary fat intake to saturated fats and trans-fatty acids. In fact, cultures which consume most of their dietary fat as unsaturated fats (such as the Italians) show none of the health problems found in America, despite a high-percentage of dietary fat in their diet (note: there are other differences than simply dietary fat intake, such as higher vegetable intake, greater amounts of exercise, etc).

Despite the link between "high" fat diets and a number of disease states, bodybuilders are arguably best-served by consuming 15-25% of their total calories as dietary fat as a rule of thumb. As well, ideally most of this dietary fat should come from unsaturated fats, although small amounts of saturated fats aren't going to kill you.

Summing up

Ok, we've now discussed what I consider to be the 6 major aspects of the baseline diet. Once again, by baseline diet, this is the diet I think lifters should follow (to establish their results) prior to trying other diet interpretations (such as the Zone or CKD's or whatever). Arguably, it's the general diet template that most bodybuilders have more or less followed over the years. To sum up the 6 aspects:

  1. Meal frequency: 4 meals per day should be considered the bare minimum, 6 per day is probably closer to ideal

  2. Total caloric intake: for mass gains, a rule of thumb starting place is 16-18 cal/lb., for fat loss 12 cal/lb.

  3. Water intake: high, 6-8 8 oz. glasses per day

  4. Protein intake: 0.8-1 gram/lb. from high quality sources

  5. Carbohydrate intake: 45-55% of total calories from a mix of starchy and fibrous carbohydrate sources, high GI carbs right after training

  6. Fat intake: 15-25% of total calories, with most coming from unsaturated fats

The above approach would probably fulfill the dietary needs of the majority of bodybuilders. Sure, you'll always find individual exceptions (i.e. the person who truly does benefit from higher protein intakes, or the one who is very sensitive to starchy carbs) but I would consider the above a good starting point diet for most folks under most conditions.

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