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Looking to GAIN weight for the New Year? You must be an athlete

by Staff Writer / Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Red Wings dietitian Lisa McDowell has a passion for fresh, functional food and enjoys sharing her knowledge with athletes to improve performance. McDowell applies the science behind sports nutrition and translates rigorous scientific research to food and meal planning for the Red Wings. Read more in this month's Priority Health Wellness Blog below. TO VISIT THE PRIORITY HEALTH MONTHLY DIGITAL MAGAZINE, CLICK HERE.


My phone rings. It’s the parents of a high school athlete, and they would like my help. Their son is a football player, they explain, who is being recruited by a Division I football program. But the coaches have told him he needs to be bigger to compete at their level. What can be done to help him gain weight, they ask.

I find it interesting as a clinical dietitian to have my feet in a couple very different worlds. In the hospital, I mostly see patients who are struggling with obesity, and all of the maladies that go along with carrying too much weight such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Help me lose weight, they say.

With athletes, however, the challenge is often the opposite. A young hockey player, for example, who is showing promise in the minor leagues, is measured by not only skill, but also size. A defenseman who is 6-foot-4, but weighs 180 pounds is considered undersized. Help me gain weight, he says.

In reality, these two athletes are not looking to simply gain weight, they are looking to add lean muscle mass, and that is far more difficult to achieve. Adding weight, after all, could be achieved by eating poorly while engaging in a sedentary lifestyle. Many of my hospital patients demonstrate this every day. The good news, though, is that athletes are far from sedentary. Indeed, like the talented young hockey player or football player, they are training to exhaustion most days.

While the majority of Americans have set New Year's resolutions to lose weight and exercise more, there are a large number of athletes looking to gain a competitive advantage by increasing lean muscle mass. Strength, power, agility and endurance are necessities for athletic excellence. For many athletes looking to compete in high school, college and beyond, increasing muscle mass represents an important part of their athletic development. But you don't have to be an athlete to benefit from having great body composition. Lower fat mass combined with optimal lean tissue results in more energy and a higher metabolic rate.

Of course, a well-designed fitness routine, including resistance training, is fundamental. But consistent attention to other details like purposeful meal planning, timing of intake, recovery, adequate sleep and hydration also contribute to overall success.

Start with a realistic goal

Quick results are difficult to achieve because muscles take time to build. Genetic potential (muscle fiber type and number), hormonal balance, calorie intake, duration of sleep and stress management all factor into the equation.

The upper limit for producing new muscle tissue is on average, about one ounce of muscle tissue gained per day. So, if you are looking to add pure muscle mass, it will realistically take 16 days for one pound, or 80 days for five pounds. This is approximately the most realistic weight gain that can be achieved.

Eat enough calories and protein

To gain muscle mass successfully, muscle protein production must surpass muscle protein breakdown. This requires you to eat enough protein (typically 1.2-2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight), healthy fats and complex carbohydrates to help build stronger muscles.

Protein is made out of amino acids. Nine of them are considered ‘essential’ because our bodies cannot make them, so we need to obtain them from our diet. If a food contains all the essential amino acids, it is considered a complete protein. Examples include meat, poultry, fish, beans, quinoa, eggs, etc.

Research has shown essential amino acids can help repair muscle tissue that has been broken down with exercise. So to build stronger muscles, essential amino acids are the lumber needed for construction. Eating enough calories is also imperative. If you do not eat enough, the body will use muscles for fuel.

Make sure you focus on carbohydrates as well. Muscles are fueled by carbohydrates in the form of muscle glycogen. Your workouts will suffer without muscle glycogen. You may benefit from lowering carbs on lower activity days. But gains are made in training sessions, and without proper fuel, your training time is being wasted. You must force your muscles to adapt, rebuild and ultimately become stronger by creating a more difficult threshold than your current state.

Eat like our Red Wings

Increasing your protein and calorie intake is not always easy. Even our Red Wings players find it challenging to keep up with their calorie needs, especially on the road. For example, Danny DeKeyser is 6-foot-3 and pays careful attention to meals and snacks. He is very muscular, so his metabolic rate is off the charts. It is a challenge for him to eat enough because his calorie needs are so high. He is also a player who logs significant ice time, so he looks for foods that fuel his game. DeKeyser chooses natural, whole foods without refined, artificial or processed ingredients. He is committed to eating the volume he needs to support his hormonal needs and weight maintenance.

It is very common to see weight loss mid-season in the NHL. Many players find it difficult to eat the volume they need to fuel daily training. So they look to add calorically-dense foods like avocados, nuts, seeds, dried fruits and peanut butter to their meals or snacks. This helps to balance the omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio as well. Making a grocery list and stocking snacks in the car and gym bag is very helpful. Most athletes who need to gain weight prefer to eat three meals and 3-4 snacks each day. Eating throughout the day allows the nutrients to be available for muscle growth. Smoothies, bags of nuts, protein bars, yogurt and even avocados on toast are favorites amongst our team.

Know your numbers

Many athletes utilize data from lab panels to understand opportunities to improve dietary and sleep patterns. Optimal testosterone and growth hormone levels help the body build muscle.

Sleep is crucial to hormonal health. Sleeping 7-9 hours each night might be the most efficient way to improve lean body mass. Lack of sleep leads to lower testosterone, thyroid hormones and growth hormone. It also leads to the increase of the stress hormone, cortisol. Magnesium status is very important as well. Many athletes will check Red Blood Cell Magnesium levels to determine if additional supplementation is needed. Vitamin D is required for testosterone health and muscle gain. Certainly, optimal levels of testosterone and growth hormone for athletic performance can be debated, but being deficient--or on the low end of normal--is not helpful for muscle gain.

A nutrition plan is the starting point for workouts, performance and optimizing muscle mass and body composition. Proper meals and snacks are just as important as your workout because they provide the vital fuel your body will use during the workout, and will assist in your body’s recovery from the workout. Here are some things to keep in mind if you are trying to gain muscle mass:

1.You need to eat, minimally, six times per day:

  • Never skip a single meal.
  • Eat three great meals a day that contain healthy fats, protein and complex carbohydrates.
  • Add pre-workout and post-workout snacks or smoothies.
  • Make sure to include a bedtime snack as well.

2.Break the fast! Eating breakfast is critical to transition your body out of a catabolic (breaking-down) state. Don't ever skip this morning meal.

3.Protein is a vital factor in building muscle because muscle is composed of water and protein. Therefore, it is recommended to consume, minimally, the following quantities of protein:

  • Breakfast: 20-30 Grams
  • Pre-workout: 10-20 Grams
  • Post-workout 10-25 Grams
  • Lunch: 30 Grams
  • Dinner: 30 Grams
  • Bedtime snack: 10 Grams

Consuming protein before and after you lift weights optimizes gains in muscle mass and power. Consume 10-20 grams of protein before a workout and 20-25 grams within 10 minutes of finishing the workout. This should include the essential amino acids featuring 3-4 grams of leucine within 30 minutes post-workout. Focus on combining a good source of lean protein, healthy fat and fruits/vegetables together for your meals and snacks.

4.It is imperative to adequately hydrate because a higher protein intake requires water for proper digestion and absorption. Monitor urine color as a quick guide to your level of hydration. The color of pale lemonade should be your target. Dehydration impairs performance and also raises cortisol levels.

5.To successfully build muscle, eat meals and snacks consistently throughout the day to provide a steady source of carbohydrates and healthy fats (to fuel) and protein (to build and repair) muscles. During prolonged exercise, your muscles require water, carbs, electrolytes and protein for optimal function. While the need for protein during exercise to enhance performance can be debated, consuming small amounts of protein will not be detrimental. For example, drinking a veggie/fruit smoothie with added whey protein will lower post-exercise markers of muscle damage, reduce post-exercise muscle soreness, and enhance recovery.

6.Consuming a small (100-200 calorie) high-protein snack (such as quinoa, organic turkey, cottage cheese, fruit or Greek yogurt) before going to bed can enhance the availability of amino acids throughout the night. Anabolic (muscle building) activity is highest at night due to the surge of testosterone, growth hormone and DHEA while sleeping. A bedtime snack will help optimize the goal of one ounce of muscle per day.

7.Metabolic efficiency is your body’s ability to use fat for fuel as opposed to your body using the glycogen in your muscles. The more you are able to burn just fat for fuel (your body’s metabolic efficiency rate), the longer you will be able to perform at a high rate without hitting the wall. Choose carbohydrates that will not cause sudden blood sugar spikes and dips (considered low-glycemic carbs). Examples include whole grains, beans, quinoa, brown and black rice, oatmeal, certain fruits (berries, cherries, peaches, apples, pears, plums) and vegetables.

8.If you choose to use supplements, make sure the bottle has NSF® certification on the product packaging. This ensures that the supplement has been approved for sport usage. Recovery supplements such as Biosteel, Klean, Exos and Bipro provide a quick source of easily absorbed protein and are NSF® certified.

Sample menu with protein sources

To help, here is an example of a menu plan:


•Three-egg omelet with spinach, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, avocado
•One cup of berries
•Sprouted grain English muffins with one tablespoon of peanut butter
•Matcha tea or coffee


•One cup Greek yogurt with walnuts, pistachios and pomegranates
•500 milligrams of water


•Recovery smoothie
•Banana with two tablespoons almond butter
•500 milligrams of water


•Chicken wrap with guacamole, black beans, vegetables
•Green salad
•Handful of grapes
•One cup of brown rice
•One cup of carrots
•Water, juice, milk, tea


•Six ounces of wild Alaskan salmon
•One sweet potato
•One cup of broccoli
•One ear of corn on the cob
•Mixed salad with dark, leafy greens
•One cup of watermelon
•One cup of cantaloupe melon
•Water, juice, milk, tea


•One cup of quinoa with toasted almonds

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