With the continual growth and popularity of CrossFit, organic food and the intermittent fasting diet, many performance athletes are turning to the paleo diet in search of improved health, increased energy and better body composition through weight loss.
Typically the paleo model as outlined in The Real Paleo Diet and The Paleo Answer focuses on improved energy, metabolic function and sustainable weight loss. Strict paleo is great for the majority of people who are training to build a lean physique, but is it possible to eat like a caveman for weight gain and muscle growth?
By just looking at a typical paleo food list it is easy to see why adapting paleo to gain muscle can be difficult for most, the food sources are typically not calorie-dense enough and are difficult to overeat, exactly why the paleo diet benefits those seeking weight loss.
Fortunately including these simple muscle building paleo foods into your favourite paleo recipes and paleo snacks, can help get in enough calories to promote weight gain and muscle growth.
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Avocados are one of the most nutrient dense foods on the paleo food list, boasting upwards of 20 vitamins and minerals as well as plenty of phytonutrients that provide benefits against heart disease and signs of aging.
A whole medium size avocado contains over 220 calories of which 80% of the calories come from healthy monounsaturated fats.
Research shows that a diet enriched with monounsaturated fatty acids can stimulate enhanced testosterone production the catalyst for increased muscle size and strength, provided an adequate training stimulus.
Beyond their muscle building capabilities avocados provide crucial nutrients that can help enhance performance based activities like crossfit or iron man competitions. Compared to the banana an avocado contain more than 30% more potassium and are a high quality source of magnesium and calcium. All these essential vitamins provide crucial electrolytes that work to modulate both fluid balance and muscle function during high intensity nd endurance exercise.
Adding a daily serving of fatty fish such as tuna, salmon or mackerel will help add valuable omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D to the paelo diet. A diet high in omega-3s and fish oil can assist hard training bodybuilders and athletes in limiting chronic inflammation that is generally associated with heavy strength and hypertrophy based training.
These fish also contain high levels of zinc, a vitamin that is essential in the support of male vitality and maintaining healthy testosterone levels. Interestingly fish also contains high levels of the amino acid arginine that supports increased blood flow and nutrient delivery, along with creatine levels that match those of red meat.
Few paleo options offer as much nutritional power in such a small and convenient package, making eggs a great choice to add to paleo recipes. Eggs provide a big protein punch that contains all of the essential amino acids such as leucine, isoleucine and valine that are involved in protein synthesis and the building of new muscle tissue.
Eggs from free-range chickens typically contain high amounts of conjugated linoleic acid or CLA for short. CLA is a healthy fat derived from animal sources that has been clinically shown to support muscle growth and improve body composition.
The cholesterol found in eggs is also of utmost importance for the synthesis of testosterone, essentially cholesterol provides the raw materials from which testosterone is formed. Although there is a lot of debate regarding the risks of high cholesterol, various studies have shown that individuals with higher blood cholesterol levels performing resistance training experience greater muscle growth.
A paleo diet and muscle building plan is simply not complete without coconut oil, a unique saturated fat that is made primarily of medium chain fatty acids (MCTs). MCTs are absorbed and digested much more quickly than other sources of fat and as such can be utilized by the body very quickly for energy, making them ideal for enhancing athletic and bodybuilding performance.
Coconut oil plays an important role in improving the enzyme activity involved in the synthesis of the hormone testosterone, which we know plays a crucial role in building muscle and strength. Beyond this coconut oil is a very effective way to easily increase daily calories for weight gain without having to force feed extra food. Coconut oil contains just over 170 calories per 20ml, so simply adding 3-4 servings per day to meals can considerably increase total daily caloric intake.
It’s all well and good to include high quality lean meats like chicken and turkey to make up the majority of protein sources in a paleo diet, but for those that simply need to gain weight it is ideal to also include fatty cuts of meat. The reason is two fold, not only is the amount of dietary fat eaten important for adding calories important but also the ratio between different types of fatty acids is important for optimal testosterone production.
Studies have correlated that diets higher in saturated (red meat, eggs, coconut) and monounsaturated (olive, almond, macadamia oil) fatty-acids are associated with significantly increased testosterone levels, whereas diets higher in polyunsaturated fats (canola oil, margarine) resulted in much lower levels of testosterone. The data is very clear and unforgiving for vegans / vegetarians who have noticeably lower levels of testosterone than than meat eaters.
Similar to avocados the macadamia nut is filled with monounsaturated fatty acids and a range of nutrients such as potassium, iron, calcium and zinc making them perfect for any muscle gain paleo diet. A single cup of macadamia nuts contains over 100 grams of total fat, so skinny individuals who swear the scales won’t move would be well served adding calorie dense macadamia nuts into their daily nutrition plan.
Although technically not a ‘strict’ paleo option, milk has been adopted by many strength athletes following a loose paleo diet as one of the highest quality protein sources available. For someone really looking to get their daily calories ticking over the best option is going to be full cream milk providing not only high quality protein but a substantial dose of carbohydrates and fat to support intense training demands.
Milk contains both whey protein and casein in one convenient form, providing the faster digesting whey protein to kick start immediate recovery and the sustained release of amino acids from casein.
All of these foods fit perfectly into the paleo diet model of only eating natural and organic foods, whilst also providing valuable muscle building proteins and micronutrients.
Typically bodybuilders, strength athletes and those involved in competitive crossfit who wish to adopt the paleo model of eating will need to make some adjustments from what is classed as ‘strict’ paleo.
Including protein shakes with added dextrose or maltodextrin or consuming whole milk during the post workout window will help to induce the insulin spike that athletes desire for recovery and to shuttle bulk nutrients directly to muscle tissue.
Regardless of the approach it is still fundamentally important to have meals prepared in advance and have a good understanding of how many calories a strength athlete requires to get bigger, stronger and faster so using a high quality calorie counter and nutritional plan is a must.