Strength Training Diet Myths and Misconceptions
By: Kyle Butler, BSc, RD, Sports Dietitian, Registered Dietitians & Sports Nutritionists at JM Nutrition
Strength training diet is an often talked about topic in the world of athletics. Specifically, there’s a great deal of discussion about strength training diet myths and misconceptions. Because of this popularity, and the resulting stockpile of information that’s found online, the subject can be confusing. For most. This is certainly true for those starting their strength training journey. Surprisingly, it also applies to many experienced strength training enthusiasts and athletes in general.
Separating fact from myth is a daunting and time-consuming task, even for the most proficient of researchers. And, to maximize your own strength-training potential, there is absolutely no room for misinformation.
Here’s where our team of registered dietitians and sports nutritionists come in. Inspired by the topic, we have compiled some common strength training diet myths and misconceptions seen today. What’s more, we suggest better approaches for tackling these strength training nutrition concepts.
Let’s take a close look.
Strength Training Diet Myths and Misconceptions
1. Strength training diet myth: You must consume protein immediately after your workout to get results
Many avid strength trainers believe that they must consume protein within 30-60 minutes after a workout during the so-called “anabolic window”. This belief is based on the premise that during strength training muscles are broken down. As a result, by consuming protein quickly post-workout, you optimize your ability to repair it.
Things are not so simple.
Although there is some truth to this claim, protein timing has a smaller effect on muscle hypertrophy. According to BMC Journal of the International Society for Sports Nutrition, what is more important for strength training and muscle growth is the total daily protein intake. This is in conjunction with resistance exercise.
Furthermore, when we look at muscle protein synthesis after weight training, some research suggests that there is an elevation for at least 48 hours, with a peak in sensitivity to protein around the 3-hour mark. This clearly indicates that the window for consuming protein is likely much larger than the suggested 30-60 minutes post workout.
In reality, we need to take into account what food we eat and when we eat it, prior to the workout. Digestion and absorption are not immediate processes. They take several hours and depend on numerous factors. If the pre-workout meal contained a sufficient amount of protein, then these amino acids are still circulating in the body and are available for repairing damaged muscle. Therefore, if you consume a pre-workout meal containing adequate protein, you allow for more flexibility in terms of when you should have your post workout meal.
Should I still take in protein after a workout?
That said, you can certainly enjoy a protein shake or protein-filled meal immediately after you work out. There is no harm done if you do. You should, however, your goal should be to reach total daily protein needs first, rather than to prioritize protein timing.
2. Strength training diet misconception: You can only absorb approximately 20-30 grams of protein per meal
This idea suggests that your body can only use roughly 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal. As a result, it is better to split your protein intake into smaller meals throughout the day (5-6) in order to keep your body in an anabolic state and maximize muscle growth. This claim holds that if you consume protein quantities larger than this in a single meal, it would be a “waste”, and that it will simply be excreted from the body.
The first problem with this idea is that for healthy individuals, almost all ingested protein is absorbed by the body. Whether you consume 100g of protein in one meal, or 100g of protein spread throughout the day, your body will break down that protein and absorb almost all of it into the bloodstream. Although not its primary job, excess protein can be used for energy and therefore will not go to waste. This is very important.
The real question most people are referring to is if more than 20-30g of protein in one sitting can be used for building muscle. Research suggests that there may be an upper limit, in which consuming amounts greater than this range may have no significant effect on muscle protein synthesis.
Although this may be true, we need to consider to some factors. There are a number of variables that impact our daily protein requirements.
These factors include age, gender, body composition, and the type and frequency of exercise being performed.
Therefore, some people may utilize and require more protein for building muscle than others. This is precisely why you should use an individualized approach to determine your protein needs. Thus, you need to distribute protein throughout your day, so that it best suits your schedule and normal hunger patterns.
3. Strength training diet myth: Eating carbohydrates shortly before going to sleep will make you fat
The thought process behind this statement is that your metabolism slows down while you sleep. As such, when you eat carbohydrates before going to sleep, they won’t be used as energy. Instead, they will be stored as body fat.
Let’s analyze this in some detail.
Our metabolism is what determines how many calories we burn throughout the day. The biggest contributor to our total daily energy expenditure is our resting metabolic rate (RMR).
Resting metabolic rate is the energy required to keep normal bodily functions going and to keep us alive. This is measured in an awake, rested state. In fact, research has shown that sleep metabolic rate is actually higher than awake resting metabolic rate in non-obese individuals.
Furthermore, carbohydrates are not easily converted into body fat. A process called de novo lipogenesis turns carbohydrates into fat, which is then able to be stored as body fat. This process, however, is inefficient in humans. Unless certain conditions are met, it is unlikely that it contributes significantly to your fat storage.
So what should you do?
It is more important to consider your daily and/or weekly intake of calories and macronutrients.
Why is that?
Doing so is really going to be the key driver in determining changes in body composition and fat storage.
Individuals in a caloric surplus (i.e. eating more calories than they are burning) will store excess energy. This, in turn, will contribute to weight gain.
If you consume carbohydrates shortly before sleep, you will not directly add body fat. It’s the overconsumption of carbohydrates that may play a large factor.
Distribute calories throughout the day based on your hunger cues, preferences and lifestyle. This is a key point.
4. Strength training diet misconception: You must only eat “clean” foods to build muscle
“Clean eating” is a term that has been popularized in today’s society. It can also be defined in a number of different ways.
In general, clean eating occurs when you consume foods that are whole, natural and nutritious. It also calls for you to avoid refined, processed and non-nutritious foods.
While this type of eating is beneficial from a health and environmental perspective, it can potentially cause harm when taken to an extreme level.
The problem is such that some strict clean eaters completely eliminate certain foods and/or certain food groups. Doing so, however, can bring negative side effects.
Such elimination can eventually lead to nutrient deficiencies, if food choices are limited. It can also contribute to the development of an unhealthy relationship with food. Essentially, this mindset categorizes foods into “good” vs “bad”. This can create feelings of shame or guilt when stepping outside of the “clean eating” regime.
We explore this topic in greater depth here: Do I Have A Healthy Relationship With Food?
In reality, your body can’t distinguish between foods, once it has been digested and broken down into smaller parts and nutrients. In other words, your body wouldn’t recognize the difference between protein that came from a lean piece of chicken breast versus a fast-food hamburger, once it is digested and broken down to amino acids.
Rather, it looks at your complete diet as a whole–the macronutrients and micronutrients you are consuming each day.
This isn’t to say diet quality doesn’t matter. Not at all. Of course it does.
But, it allows for a more flexible eating lifestyle. Instead, focus on eating whole, nutritious foods most of the time to meet your daily caloric needs.
As a guide, many people utilize the “80/20 rule”, which encourages them to eat good foods 80% of the time while allowing 20% for more ‘fun’ and less healthy foods. Not only does this help you comply with a healthy eating routine, but it can also make your life more enjoyable. In other words, it brings back the pleasure that is associated with eating food.
5. Strength training diet myth: High protein diets increase your risk for osteoporosis
Roughly two million Canadians are affected by osteoporosis. The majority of the cases occurring in individuals who are 50 years or older.
Other risk factors include your gender, fractures, use of some medications and certain medical conditions that either impact your body’s ability to absorb nutrients important for bone health (such as calcium and vitamin D) or contribute to bone loss.
In addition to these micronutrients, protein is an essential nutrient for bone health and strength. Protein actually makes up about half our bone volume and roughly one third of its overall mass.
Osteoporosis Canada indicates that “diets that include recommended amounts of protein are associated with greater bone mass and fewer fractures when calcium intake is adequate. Adults who limit protein intake are at a high risk for bone loss and fractures”.
Early research suggested that when you consume more protein, you are at risk for increased calcium in the urine, which was thought to be coming from our bones.
This claim, however, was later debunked by the National Osteoporosis Foundation. The NOF found that increasing protein intake actually increased the efficiency in which the intestines can absorb calcium. This explains why individuals on higher protein diets have higher urinary calcium levels. The Foundation also found that there is no increase in skeletal breakdown when consuming additional protein.
Consequently, if you increase protein in your diet, you will not be put at risk for osteoporosis. Rather, if you do so, you can promote the building of strong bones and support muscle development. And this is critical for balance and mobility.
6. Strength training diet misconception: Supplements are required when strength training to build muscle
Before we dive into this misconception, let’s start with some definitions.
What is a supplement?
A supplement, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, is “something that is added to something else in order to improve it or complete it; something extra”.
What is a dietary supplement?
A dietary supplement, as defined by the National Institutes of Health, is “a product that is intended to supplement the diet”.
These definitions alone may already explain this misconception.
Nevertheless, let’s take a closer look. Shall we?
There is a time and a place for supplements. You should strongly consider taking them when your diet does not provide certain vitamins, minerals and so on. We are certainly not discounting these instances. For this reason supplements have their benefits. There is no doubt about that.
However, it is important to underscore that they are not always necessary. Despite the convenience, they are often expensive. They can also potentially cause harm, if misused.
A well-planned and balanced diet is paramount. It, alone, can meet your daily caloric, macro- and micronutrient needs for building muscle. The International Society of Sports Nutrition supports this notion by stating that “dietary supplements should be viewed as supplements to the diet, not replacements for a good diet”.
In other words, focus on a food first approach as the primary goal. This is because a balanced diet can provide you with sufficient nutrients. Only when it doesn’t, consider dietary supplements, if appropriate.
As always, we recommend to consult a sports dietitian or registered health care provider first before taking on any new supplements.
7. Strength training diet myth: Diets high in protein are bad for your kidneys
Similar to the idea that taking in too much protein is bad for your bones, it is not uncommon to hear people say that if you eat too much protein, you will strain your kidneys. This claim, however, has little scientific evidence to support it. In fact, most of the research suggests the exact opposite.
According to Oxford Academic Journal of Nutrition, higher intake of protein has no negative impact on kidney health for healthy people.
Researchers and scientists from McMaster University demonstrated this by conducting a systematic review using data from 28 different studies and 1358 participants.
This conclusion is also supported by the World Health Organization. The WHO states that “the suggestion that the decline of glomerular filtration rate (a measure of kidney function) that occurs with advancing age in healthy subjects can be attenuated by reducing the protein in the diet appears to have no foundation”.
Consequently, if you increase protein in your diet, you will not be put at risk for kidney problems. That said, it is important to keep in mind that this applies to healthy individuals only. Reason being, individuals who have varying stages of kidney disease will likely have to limit and monitor their protein intake. In this case, we recommend you seek professional guidance by a medical doctor. You can also seek nutritional counselling for kidney health.
8. Strength training diet misconception: Everyone needs 8 glasses of water per day to stay hydrated
”You need to drink 8 glasses of water to stay hydrated” is a common misconception. In all likelihood, the idea is propagated and perpetuated through countless recycled articles and blog posts found online.
First, a concession. The ‘8 glasses per day’ is a good target for most people. But it is a very general guideline. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The truth is, our individual fluid requirements can vary greatly. Again, we need to keep in mind that are all made differently.
There are several factors why these fluid requirements vary.
- body size
- body composition,
- level of activity,
- health conditions
- even your environment
How much water should I drink?
Health Canada sets an adequate intake (AI) of water for male adults as 3.7L/day and 2.7L/day for females. Again, this is a general guideline.
Naturally, you can obtain this amount from water itself. You can also acquire it from other beverages (such as tea).
In addition, you can get water from food. Foods such as fruits and vegetables can certainly contribute a good portion of your daily fluid intake. Foods that are rich sources of water include cucumber, watercress, tomatoes, apples, celery, watermelon and many others.
Water is the body’s major component and accounts for roughly 45-70% of total body weight, depending on body composition. Muscle tissue contains the highest concentration of water compared to other tissues in the body.
As a result, athletes and individuals who regularly strength train typically fluid require higher fluid intake than suggested. Many of these people do not consume sufficient water to meet the demands of their training. Mild dehydration of even just 1-2% can have an impact on exercise performance, amongst many other things.
Thirst is our primary indicator for when we should consume more fluids, but it is a delayed reaction. Other symptoms of dehydration include fatigue, dizziness, infrequent urination and dark coloured urine.
For that reason, it is ideal to consume fluids regularly throughout the day to avoid getting to this point. This is especially true for athletes, who should plan to be adequately hydrated well in advance for a training session and/or competition. Once again, we recommend speaking to one of our sports dietitians to help you estimate your current intake and determine your daily fluid requirements.
9. Strength training diet myth: There is a perfect macronutrient ratio for strength training
Over the last several decades, there has been debate on what macronutrient ratio strength trainers should follow to maximize their potential. Numerous research studies have been conducted trying to answer this very question. But, generally speaking, there has been little success.
Plain and simple, there is no such thing as a perfect macronutrient ratio. For anyone!
Humans are all unique. We are made differently with varying dispositions and needs. Our diets are, too. Or at least should be. What works for one person, may not be suitable for another. This is no different for individuals who strength train.
Here’s a case in point.
Health Canada sets adult macronutrient intake recommendations based on percent of total energy intake as follows:
- 45-65% carbohydrate,
- 20-35% fat,
- and 10-35% protein.
As you can see, these recommendations include ranges. This effectively demonstrates that the intake of each can and should vary. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Personalization is the key, strength trainers.
Moreover, the macronutrient ratio that is best suited for you is going to differ based on your age, level of activity, health conditions, goals and preferences. This is something that’s important to keep in mind.
Admittedly, protein intake should be higher when strength training. As for the other two macronutrients, namely carbs and fat, there is more flexibility. Some individuals gravitate towards foods higher in fat. And this is fine. Others, on the other hand, feel more satisfied with diets higher in carbohydrates.
It is beneficial to find a balance that works for you. Doing so will help to maintain consistency, which is key for success.
10. Strength training diet misconception: Diets of individuals involved in strength training differ dramatically from individuals who are sedentary
Similarly, there are many who think that diets (ie. consumed foods) for individuals involved in strength training differ dramatically from those who are less active.
This is not entirely true.
Thinking along these lines can and often does lead to confusion. This especially applies to beginners. Reason being, most novices think they need to change their diet completely in order to make progress. The structure of the diets, however, are essentially the same. Only the quantities will likely differ.
In general, as a strength trainer, you will need more calories, protein, carbohydrates and water. Fats stay relatively the same, to meet the demands of strength training and building muscle.
Not only that, your body will also need more micronutrients to keep your body running smoothly. This is primarily due to the fact that metabolically active muscle tissue burns more calories compared to fat tissue. As a result, you will need to fuel your body with additional calories and nutrients to keep energized.
As for structure, no matter what style of eating pattern you choose to follow, be sure to include a wide variety of nutritious food. Doing so is optimal for your health and athletic performance. Healthy eating models, such as the balanced plate model, are effective at encouraging a well-balanced diet to support your body’s needs.
Because so many strength training diet myths and misconceptions circle around the internet, be sure to consult the latest evidence. You should also confer with qualified health professionals who specialize in the nutrition field, when making significant changes to your diet. We are hopeful that the aforementioned information has shed some light on the topic, allowing you to plant your strength training regimen more effectively.
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Kyle Butler is a sports dietitian who specializes in macronutrient distribution and optimization, improving body composition, as well as pre-, intra- and post-workout nutrition. Contact us to book an appointment with Kyle.