Aug 24, 2017
Healthy Gains
Susan Kundrat

Calvin was not unlike many high school football players — he wanted desperately to get bigger and stronger. By the time I started working with him at the beginning of his junior year, he had been trying to gain weight for six months, spurred into action by college coaches who encouraged him to put on 15 to 20 pounds. Despite lifting three mornings a week, diligently consuming protein before and after workouts, and eating as much as possible, his weight would not budge from a slender 160 pounds. At 6 feet tall, his lean mass was 147 pounds, fat mass was 13 pounds, and body composition was eight percent body fat.

There was more to Calvin’s situation than wanting to gain weight, however. When his parents first contacted me, they were concerned about his frequent muscle cramping and dehydration during summer workouts. Once the school year started, Calvin reported feeling like he ran out of energy quickly at practice. During hot weather, he was dropping between six and eight pounds at each session and struggling with cramps. The problem was keeping him on the sidelines instead of leading his team.

To get a clearer idea of what was causing these problems, I had Calvin write down what he ate. A typical day’s intake included:

Breakfast/Pre-lift: 40-gram protein shake (200 calories)

Post-lift: 40-gram protein shake and a granola bar (380 calories)

Lunch: 12-inch sub, bag of chips, and a 20-ounce sports drink (1,000 calories)

Pre-practice snack: 20-gram protein bar and water (200 calories)

During practice: Water

Post-practice snack: 16 ounces of chocolate milk (300 calories)

Dinner: Two grilled chicken breasts, roasted potatoes, a salad, and two eight-ounce glasses of skim milk (1,000 calories)

Snack: A bowl of ice cream with a couple of cookies and water (500 calories).

Upon reading Calvin’s eating log, I could immediately see some problems with his total calorie and macronutrient intake. For starters, he was consuming roughly 3,600 calories a day, with most of them coming at lunch and dinner. Based on his body type, level of training, and desire to build lean mass, he needed between 4,500 and 5,000 calories per day to gain weight at a healthy rate of one to two pounds per week.

On the flip side, by eating roughly 250 grams of protein per day, Calvin was consuming well above his recommended intake of 160 grams (based on one gram per pound of bodyweight per day). Although he was doing a great job getting protein during the day as well as before and after workouts, focusing too much on this macronutrient meant he was neglecting needed carbohydrate calories.

I estimated Calvin should be consuming at least four grams of carbohydrate per pound per day, or 640 grams. However, based on his daily eating log, he was coming in at approximately 425 grams of carbohydrate per day — well short of his recommended intake. Without enough carbs, it would be difficult for Calvin’s body to utilize protein for muscle gains.

Another issue I noticed in Calvin’s sample meals was the lack of sodium in his diet, which accounted for his dehydration issues. Because his parents were very in tune with eating healthy, they had cut back on sodium at home. While this is certainly a healthy way to eat, it caused Calvin to miss out on the sodium he needed to maintain optimal fluid balance and prevent cramping during practices and workouts.

To better address all of his dietary needs, Calvin and I came up with a new food plan. It prioritized fueling evenly throughout the day and refueling after workouts, both of which put Calvin in the best possible position to optimize muscle energy and gain lean mass. To further balance out his energy levels, I boosted his high-carb options at breakfast and before and after workouts. In addition, I included a high-protein snack before bed.

Regarding Calvin’s cramping and dehydration issues, I instructed him to bring two salt packets to practice and mix them in with two 20-ounce bottles of sports drink. By taking this step, Calvin found his cramping lessened, and he only lost three to four pounds each practice — an amount of fluid he could easily replenish with snacks and meals.

Here’s what a sample day looked like under Calvin’s new performance plan:

Breakfast/Pre-lift: Bowl of cereal with milk, 16 ounces of orange juice, and half a protein shake (600 calories)

Post-lift: Peanut butter sandwich, 16 ounces of grape juice, and half a protein shake (700 calories)

Lunch: Six-inch turkey sub with cheese, bag of pretzels, two bananas, and two 20-ounce bottles of sports drink (1,000 calories)

Pre-practice snack: Trail mix bar and 16 ounces of apple juice (400 calories)

During practice: Two 20-ounce bottles of sports drink with two salt packets (260 calories)

Post-practice: 20 ounces of chocolate milk (400 calories)

Dinner: Six ounces of lean sirloin or pork loin, side of potatoes, side salad with half an avocado, one bowl of fruit salad, and 16 ounces of orange juice (1,000 calories)

Snack: Smoothie with Greek yogurt and frozen fruit and a couple of cookies (500 calories).

In total, this new menu had Calvin eating about 4,800 to 5,000 calories per day. His protein intake was 200 grams, and he was consuming about 700 grams of carbs daily.

After sticking with the plan for a few weeks, Calvin started to see results. He felt more energetic and performed better at practice. Being more aware of his fluid and sodium needs helped him maintain an optimal hydration status, as well. And to top it all off, he was finally able to achieve his goal of gaining weight. Within eight weeks, he had put on 10 pounds and continues to add more.

Susan Kundrat, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, is a Clinical Associate Professor of Kinesiology and the Nutritional Sciences Program Director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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