Jun 1, 2017
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Lizzie Kuckuk

Many athletes want to gain muscle mass but don’t realize how much goes into achieving this goal. While they usually work hard in the weightroom, they often overlook the nutritional component. This leads to underestimating how many calories they need to consume, not knowing which types of foods to eat, and not allotting time to grocery shop and cook.

Ben, a 5-foot-9-inch college baseball player, struggled in all of these areas. Last May, he came to the Sanford Sports Science Institute in Sioux Falls, S.D., looking for the best way to gain weight over the summer and fall before his senior season. As an upperclassman, he wanted to set an example by working hard, eating well, and getting the most out of strength and conditioning workouts. At the time, he weighed 173 pounds, and he wanted to reach at least 185 pounds.

Looking at an athlete’s overall diet can expose gaps in their eating routine, so my first order of business was to have Ben do a diet recall. It revealed that he simply wasn’t consuming sufficient calories to support his active lifestyle and regular workouts — let alone to promote muscle growth.

Along with not eating the right things, Ben wasn’t eating at the right times. He wasn’t planning ahead to have meals on the go and didn’t snack throughout the day.

To help us visualize the deficient areas of Ben’s diet, we filled in a chart that split his daily meal components into columns for carbohydrates/starches, protein, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats. We saw that although Ben usually ate healthy foods, his meals were heavily protein-focused and didn’t contain enough calories or carbohydrates.

Along with not eating the right things, Ben wasn’t eating at the right times. He wasn’t planning ahead to have meals on the go and didn’t snack throughout the day. As a result, he often went hours without eating while training regularly and working an active, 40-plus-hour-a-week summer job.

To tackle these issues and help Ben meet his ultimate goal of weight gain, I developed a more balanced fueling strategy for him. I gave Ben four specific tasks to focus on:

• Eating more complete meals by including carbohydrates, protein, a fruit and/or vegetable, and a healthy fat at each one.

• Eating more often by increasing snacks and treating them as “mini-meals” that contained a carbohydrate and a protein. Good snack ideas that fit this recommendation are: Greek yogurt with berries and nuts or granola, grapes and string cheese, a banana with peanut butter, trail mix made with dried fruit and mixed nuts, chocolate milk and peanuts or almonds, tuna and whole grain crackers, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

• Preparing food ahead of time and having easy staples on hand, such as frozen vegetables, quick-cooking rice, canned tuna, eggs, and frozen meat. This would ensure that Ben could eat well-balanced meals throughout his busy summer.

• Adding high-calorie — yet healthy — foods to his diet, such as nut butters, nuts and seeds, avocados, full-fat dairy, and olive oil.

Once we established Ben’s new fueling approach, we developed a sample eating plan for him to follow. It was based off his original diet recall, but we added a variety of higher-calorie foods to it. The aim was for Ben to take in roughly 2,700 to 3,200 calories per day, depending on his workout schedule.

We also discussed strategies for easy meal preparation, taking into consideration Ben’s kitchen skills and financial constraints. He agreed to set aside one night a week to make meals he could eat on the go. These would include a protein, grains, and a serving of frozen or fresh vegetables.

Ben’s new meal plan involved eating every few hours. Starting with breakfast, he would follow a morning lift with his usual protein-rich eggs and add oatmeal, yogurt with granola, and a fruit smoothie. Instead of working all day without eating, he started packing a well-balanced lunch of chicken, rice, and vegetables or a turkey and cheese sandwich, with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to snack on throughout the day. For dinner, he would usually eat some of the food he had prepared ahead of time.

After six months, Ben returned to our facility and reported that he had been consistent with his eating plan for the entire summer and into the school year. He had already exceeded his weight gain goals and was feeling more energized.

Despite these positive results, Ben admitted it took a while to get used to his new eating plan. It took him more than a month to buckle down and get into a good routine where he was consistently grocery shopping, making meals ahead of time, packing his lunches, and bringing plenty of snacks to eat at work. He said the biggest challenges were trying not to eat so lean all the time, allowing himself to eat a larger variety of foods — including higher-fat foods and more carbohydrates — and eating every few hours.

After all of Ben’s hard work and dedication, he continues to gain strength in the weightroom and set a good eating example for the rest of his teammates. With his weight gain goals achieved, I am confident Ben’s last season has been the best of his college career.

This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.

Lizzie Kuckuk, MS, RD, LN, is the Dietitian at Sanford Sports Science Institute in Sioux Falls, S.D. She can be reached at: [email protected].

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