As iron addicts, we eat to build mass. But food is many things, depending on who you ask: fuel for energy, building blocks for the body, comfort for the mind and soul. It seems everyone has their idea of what food is and popular diets have flocks of believers who rarely bother with nutritional science. How then, do you go about creating the most anabolic meal possible?
This is a valid question in light of the many recent diets that made headlines and (so-called) documentaries that pretend to inform people, yet what they’re actually doing is preaching the gospel of their own version of the ideal diet. Whether they succeed or fall short, all of them do add to the global confusion on what actually is ideal. This is particularly true for the health-minded fitness crowd who want to build muscle, lose fat, and perform well in life and at the gym.
While the only great answer to this is “it depends” (on who, at what time, in what circumstances, etc), there are definitely many clues we can use to piece together the optimal, most anabolic meal possible that will induce positive gains in muscle mass and improve body composition.
Meat or Proteins?
The first item on the list, the essential building block of muscle, is protein. And this is not a misnomer. Protein literally means “primary” or “of first importance” in Greek. While we like to think of protein as only good for the muscles, the truth is, any system in the body, including organs, can use protein. The immune system is also heavily dependent on protein to manufacture the various types of white blood cells and compounds that protect us.The neurotransmitters, another crucial system, is heavily dependent on protein intake for optimal performance.
The best source of proteins is of course animal meat, fish/shellfish, and poultry. It is rich in all the essential amino acids, unlike most plant proteins, and is easy to digest and absorb. The latter fact often gets forgotten in the debate of animal vs. plant proteins: most vegetarian sources of proteins offer incomplete proteins that are not as easily absorbed. If you want to go the plant protein route though, make sure your consumption is 25-30% above your needs to cover for this poor bioavailability.
Meat has other advantages as well. It is a rich source of many nutrients that are essential to muscle-building and high performance.
Zinc is a key nutrient indeed, since it covers 200+ enzymatic functions in the body. It is not only critical for overall health and well-being, but also for testosterone production. Low zinc levels correlate very well to low testosterone levels. It is even hypothesized that it is a major factor in andropause, aka male menopause. An example of this: in a 2011 study, researchers looked at zinc levels in 88 men whose age ranged from 40 to 60 years. What they found is a strong correlation with high testosterone and high zinc levels while the opposite was also shown with low zinc levels and low testosterone.
Zinc does this via several mechanisms, including upping production levels, but also conversion of androstenedione to testosterone, the active form of the hormone. Coupled with high-intensity exercise, this process is further amplified.
Where can you find zinc? The richest nutritional source is seafood, namely oysters, but also organ meat. Liver is the best choice to increase the body’s levels of zinc. Zinc is also present in some plant/non-meat sources such as seeds: sesame, pumpkin, and watermelon for example.
The Right Kind of Fat
Animal fats have been unnecessarily vilified by popular science and media, but they have experienced a revival of late. Which is good news, because not only are they good for your health, but for your muscles as well. You see, testosterone is part of a wide family of hormones called steroid hormones. No, not the injectable ones. Those are the synthetic versions. Every animal on the planet, male or female, needs endogenous steroid hormones to be produced in adequate amounts in order to survive and thrive. These compounds cover many different functions, from fight or flight reactions (cortisol), to regulation of water and sodium in the body (aldosterone). All of these different hormones come from the same basic molecule: cholesterol. The –sterol part of the name is what is being used to manufacture the steroid hormones, including testosterone.
So, no cholesterol, no testosterone. That is not an endorsement for you to gorge on bacon, but it is a warning against lowering your consumption of meat to the point where your endocrine system suffers. Most of those important compounds are produced from scratches in the human body, so having plenty of the basic building block definitely matters
The Other Good Kinds of Fat
The much talked-about omega-3s have many health benefits. But did you know they also help the body produce more testosterone? This was shown in a recent study on boars where researchers performed analysis on the animals and found that those who had more omega-3s in their diet had significantly greater levels of testosterone. They concluded that omega-3s have an impact on fertility and anabolic hormone production.
This could be related to omega-3s well-established benefits of lowering cortisol. Cortisol, when produced in large quantities and over a long period, can cause muscle degradation. So, the omega-3s can enhance the anabolic quality of a meal by creating a greater muscle-building environment in the body by decreasing muscle protein breakdown and increasing muscle protein synthesis following resistance training. If you know anything about omega-3s, it is that they come from fish. Hence the fish oil supplements. They are also present in grass-fed beef and wild game.
As with zinc, the best source seems to be animals in nature, as the plant sources have issues. The alpha-linolenic acid found in flaxseeds and chia seeds for example, needs to turned into the more potent and usable DHA and EPA, while animal sources offer those forms readily. This negates the need to have adequate levels of enzymes for the transformation of ALA to DHA and EPA, which can be an issue when consuming only plant-based sources.This is especially important since the vast majority of people are not enzymatically equipped to do so efficiently
Iron does the body good
Iron is known for its role in the production of hemoglobin, the molecule in charge of oxygen transportation in the body. What is not as well-known is that iron and testosterone levels are closely related. A lack of proper iron levels in the body can lead to a matching reduction in testosterone. Anemia in particular has been linked in research to low testosterone levels. This condition is characterized by low iron status in the body. One study looked at type 2 diabetic men with low testosterone. It turned out that 24% of them had anemia. But the relation goes both ways too. Low testosterone has also been independently linked to lower iron levels, causing lower hemoglobin, and thus oxygen transport in the body. It bears mentioning that both low testosterone and low iron are related to the development of chronic kidney disease, and one of the major causes of chronic low-grade inflammation. While science still has to establish the exact nature of the link between testosterone and iron, other research has shown the link between kidney diseases, low testosterone, and anemia.Conversely, iron is necessary in the early stage of production of two important neurotransmitters: dopamine and serotonine, aka the accelerator and brake on the brain. No dopamine, no drive to push heavy iron.
The bounty of meat
Fruits and vegetables are often, rightfully so, touted as nutrition powerhouses packed with nutrients. What the story does not say though, is that meat is rich in a surprising number of essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals as well.
Vitamin D – The sunshine vitamin! Well, meat is the only food where you can get a significant intake of this essential vitamin. This is important, since a 2009 paper has shown that 75% of the US teen and adult population might be deficient. Although usually linked to strong and healthy bones, current science has revealed that vitamin D, a pro-hormone, is essential for many key processes in the body. And yes, research has shown that being deficient in this vitamin will inhibit testosterone production as well. A new study on the relationship between testosterone and vitamin D found that taking a vitamin D supplement raised testosterone levels in previously deficient men, aged 20-49. Supplementing with 3,332 IUs of vitamin D daily for one year resulted in significant increases in total, free, and bioactive testosterone. There was no change in testosterone levels in a placebo group.
B Vitamins – Yes, a lot of the B family of vitamins can be found in meat, in surprisingly high quantities. Vitamin B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine), and B12. Although most of the B vitamins can be found in plant foods as well, vitamin B12’s best source is meat. It is a necessary component for the synthesis of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the gene-containing component of cell nuclei. As such, it is an essential substance for human growth and development. It should be noted that B12 is one of the most common deficiencies found in those following a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, as plant sources of vitamin B12 provide a low quality and poorly absorbed form of the vitamin.
Amino acids and peptides – Many compounds such as creatine, taurine, and carnosine are found almost exclusively in meat. Creatine is involved in cell bioenergetics, storing phosphorus to rapidly re-create ATP molecules during short bursts of intense efforts. It is present in every cell in the body, and as such is one of the most studied compounds in research. Its effectiveness in muscle mass gains and performance has been demonstrated for decades, as well as its total innocuity. Taurine is present in muscle tissue, as well as the brain, heart, and kidneys. It has functions in muscle contraction, bile salt formation, and antioxidant defense, as well as a soothing effect on the nervous system. Lastly, carnosine is a big player in muscle performance. High levels of carnosine are linked to reduced muscle fatigue and improved performance.
Choline – it is an essential nutrient that plays a critical role in many key areas: brain development during the fetal period and early infancy, cell signaling, nerve impulse transmission via production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and lipid transport and metabolism – as part of cholesterol.
As you can see, meat is a superb and essential addition to the perfect anabolic meal.
In the next installment of this series, we will discuss the properties of fats and carbohydrates, as well as why you might want to double down on your veggies for muscle growth!
The Strength Community
Adit A. Ginde, MD, MPH et al.; Demographic Differences and Trends of Vitamin D Insufficiency in the US Population, 1988-2004
Eisenegger, C., Naef, M., et al. Prejudice and Truth About the Effect of Testosterone on Human Bargaining Behavior. Nature. January 2010. 463(21), 356-365.
Finkelstein, J., Susman, E., et al. Effects of Estrogen or Testosterone on Self-Reported Sexual Responses and Behaviors in Hypogonadal Adolescents. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. July 2998. 83(7), 2281-2288.
Angier, Natalie. Does Testosterone Equal Aggression? Maybe Not. New York Times. June 20, 1995.
Howie, B., Shultz, T. Dietary and Hormonal Interrelationships Among Vegetarian Seventh-Day Adventists and nonvegetarian Men. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. July 1985. 42(1), 127-134.
Belanger, A., Locong, A., Noel, C., Cusan, L., Dupont, a., et al. Influence of Diet on Plasma Steroids and Sex Hormone-Binding Globulin Levels in Adult Men. Journal of Steroid Biochemistry. June 1989. 32(6), 829-833.
Raben, A., Kiens, B., Richter, E., et al. Serum Sex Hormones and Endurance Performance After a Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian and a Mixed Diet. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. November 1992. 24(11), 1290-1297.
Siepmann, T., Roofeh, J., et al. Hypoganisdism and Erectile Dysfunction associated with Soy Product Consumption. Nutrition. August 2011. 27(8), 859-862.
Smith, G., Atherton, P., Reeds, D., Mohammed, B., Rankin, D., Rennie, M., Mittendorfer, B. Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation Increases the Rate of Muscle Protein Synthesis in Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. 2010. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 93(2), 402-412.
Castellano, C., Audet, I., et al. Fish Oil Diets Alter the Phospholipids Balance, Fatty Acid Composition, and Steroid Concentrations in Testes of Adult Pigs. Theriogenology. July 2011. Published Ahead of Print.
Grossmann, M., Panagiotopolous, S., et al. Low Testosterone and Anemia in Men with Type 2 Diabetes. Clinical Endocrinology. April 2009. 10(4), 547-553.
Carreo, J., Barany, P., et al. Testosterone Deficiency is a Cause of Anemia and Reduced Responsiveness to Erythropoiesis-Stimulating Agents in Men with Chronic Kidney Disease. Nephrology Dialysis Transplant. May 2011. Published Ahead of Print.
Neek, L., Gaeini, A., Choobineh, S. Effect of Zinc and Selenium Supplementation on Serum Testosterone and Plasma Lactate in Cyclist After an Exhaustive Exercise Bout. Biological Trace Element Research. 9 July 2011. Published Ahead of Print.
Chang, C., Choi, J., Kim, H., Park, S. Correlation Between Serum Testosterone Level and Concentrations of Copper and Zinc in Hair Tissue. Biological Trace Element Research. 14 June 2011. Published Ahead of Print.
Pilz, S., Frisch, S., et al. Effect of Vitamin D Supplementation on Testosterone Levels in Men. Hormone and Metabolic Research. March 2011. 43(3), 223-225.
Venderley, A., Campbell, W. Vegetarian Diets: Nutritional Considerations for Athletes. Sports Medicine. 2006. 36(4), 293-305.