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

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.

If you would like further reading by Lyle McDonald please check out all of his ebooks on diet and nutrition at:

Body Recomposition

This article was originally published and is copyright 1999 to Used with permission.