(Updated July 13, 2015) As a skinny guy, each and every time I tried to build muscle people would tell me two things: “just eat more” and “just lift heavy.” Then they’d look at me like they’d just solved all of my problems – totally confident they’d given me the information I’d been missing all my life. I was quite familiar with being skinny though, so I was also quite familiar with that advice.
I’d even tried it. Many times.
We’ll cover the lifting heavy part in another post. Both are really misunderstood and fascinating topics, and I think going into some depth could be really helpful. In this article we’ll cover the eating more part – the part that hits really close to home for me. Literally close to home – even my mother would tell me to just eat more.
That’s because in a world where the average first worlder is overweight, us skinny guys, hardgainers, ectomorphs, dreamboats – whatever you want to call us naturally thin guys – we’re outliers. Even when it comes to building muscle we’re often slotted into a footnote – “Oh yeah, and for hardgainer ectomorph body types, you’ve got a fast metabolism and stuff so you’ll need to eat more. Eat carbs – lots of carbs.”
That “just eat more” advice would work fine for most people, but the fact that we aren’t most people is precisely why they’re giving us that advice … and also why that advice is rather naive. I mean, for most people eating lots of food and gaining weight is second nature. If you tell the average dude to “just eat more” he’d be able to. He’d probably get fat, but he’d be able to do it. Hell, he’d probably even like it.
Little do people know that they’ve just casually told us to climb the mount everest of ectomorph challenges.
Eating more is rough. First, our physiology makes it hard to get into a caloric surplus. Second, most mainstream approaches to muscle make it even harder, since they either totally ignore appetite issues or, worse yet, they’re cleverly designed to reduce our appetites. Third, even when we do manage to get into a caloric surplus, our adaptive metabolisms kick in.
By trying to simply eat more and lift heavy we often find our results underwhelming and unsustainable. Ironically, as skinny guys we often have the most natural potential for muscle growth … since, err, we’re so far away from our genetic potential …
Anyway, we should be seeing extremely rapid gains – especially at first. Gaining 2+ pounds of muscle per week is pretty much unheard of in the muscle-building world, and yet us skinny guys are able to do it pretty consistently.
Appetite can bottleneck our results, yes, but most of the news is actually pretty good. In this article we’ll cover ectomorph physiology and appetite, and how overfeeding, building muscle and staying lean differs for guys like us. Turns out we’ve even got some incredible natural advantages when it comes to leanly building muscle – advantages that we can leverage.
Different goals, different physiology
I’m not a neuropsychologist, so I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of this neuropsychology of appetite stuff went a little over my head – especially at first. Nobody else is writing about this stuff from an ectomorph perspective though, so if we want to get to the bottom of this we pretty much need to do it ourselves.
The first thing I did was sign myself up for some research reviews analyzing all the studies done into appetite and satiety (aka fullness). How little attention was given to us naturally skinny guys became more and more evident the more and more research I did. There haven’t been many studies looking into healthfully gaining weight since the Second World War, when famine was running rampant through Europe. Nowadays the smartest people are all feverishly conducting research into preventing overeating. That’s not wrong – obesity is a far more widespread problem than ours – but it means that when we read things we need to need to be constantly asking ourselves “does this apply to me, or are they assuming that I’m overweight?”
That can be really damn confusing.
Lots of popular approaches to fitness, nutrition and muscle-building bundle up weight-loss tricks along with them. During my first few attempts at building muscle I lost weight – even though I was doing programs seemingly designed to build muscle. I attributed this to my own lack of potential. Now, sixty pounds later, I’m realizing that my failed efforts were largely due to a lack of understanding. Our potential is just swell.
That lack of understanding is pretty understandable. For example, maybe you’ve read about intermittent fasting – about how strategically reducing the number of meals you eat will help leanly build muscle. Little do we know that it’s a dieting strategy designed for people with enormous stomach capacities and ravenous appetites. Since these guys love eating big meals, it’s a diet designed around eating fewer meals instead of smaller meals. Martin Berkhan, the creator of LeanGains, and arguably the most influential intermittent faster out there, is notorious for his insatiable appetite and epic cheesecake binges.
Reducing meal frequency and increasing portion size can help people comfortably consume fewer calories overall (study) … but these are not the woes of an ectomorph. What intermittent fasters are desperately after – being able to eat fewer calories without going crazy – is what we do by default. We need exactly the opposite – a way to comfortable increase the amount of calories we eat.
Or maybe you’ve read about Paleo – about how avoiding grains, beans, peanuts, dairy and junk food can help you become lean and muscular. This approach works for many people, but this is still a restrictive approach to nutrition. It’s a diet designed around comfortably eating less. Again, we need the opposite. Restricting the foods that we eat should be the last thing on our to-do list.*
*If you’ve got an allergy, dislike a food, feel bad after eating a food, can’t afford a food, etc – no worries. The benefit of a non-restrictive approach to nutrition is that once you understand the fundamentals of nutrition you can eat however you like. A healthy and balanced approach to nutrition is very flexible. If you believe in a plant-based diet, prefer Paleo or enjoy intermittent fasting – no problem.
Since most people eat too much, the emphasis in most diets is on what to remove. Since we’re actively trying to eat more, the first thing we should be doing to our diets is cleverly adding things in. We don’t really need to be restricting anything.
So, since most diets are based around the physiological needs of people who overeat by default, let’s start by understanding a little bit about our physiology regarding appetite so that we can realistically and efficiently build muscle.
Ectomorph Insulin Sensitivity.
Insulin is one of the main drivers of appetite. When we eat, our insulin levels go up. As our insulin levels go up our appetite goes down, leaving a nice pleasant feeling of fullness behind. This is one of the reasons that we know when to stop eating.
Many of us ectomorphs tend to be rather sensitive to insulin. This means two things. First, that our insulin rises eagerly in response to food: in goes food, up goes insulin. Second, it means that our bodies are hyper-sensitive to insulin: up goes insulin, down goes appetite. This is good as far as health and appetite regulation goes … but bad as far as eating enough to build muscle goes. We certainly aren’t about to overeat by accident, since our bodies are so good at regulating our appetite.
Beefy dudes are generally much less sensitive to insulin. Since their response is blunted, their process looks more like this: in goes food, in goes a little more food, up goes insulin, up goes a little more insulin, and finally down goes appetite. By the time their insulin gets high enough to trigger a feeling off fullness they’ve already eaten a whole lot more food than us.
The fact that we’re insulin sensitive, while seemingly a pain in the ass, is actually a tremendous asset. More insulin sensitivity in muscle cells and less in fat cells will direct more nutrients toward muscle and less toward fat, making building muscle very leanly very easy. We hit the genetic jackpot with this one, and we want to hold onto it at all costs.
Luckily, so long as we approach building muscle cleverly, we can not only hold onto our insulin sensitivity, we can improve upon it. Being lean increases insulin sensitivity. (study) Heavy weightlifting increases insulin sensitivity. (study) So does building up more muscle mass. (study) So if you take a skinny guy with a genetic advantage already and then put him on a hearty muscle-building program, well, he’ll be an insulin sensitivity powerhouse.
At this point it’s probably worth mentioning that the last thing we want to do is recklessly dirty-bulk our abs away* with a ‘see food’ diet, where you try your best to eat everything in sight. Our body types are the best at rockin’ those kinds of diets, but that doesn’t mean that those diets are any good for anyone, even us. If were to go about gaining a bunch of fat we’d be reducing our insulin sensitivity every step of the way. (study) I’m not saying that to scare you or anything though. If you gained a little bit of fat it wouldn’t be any kind of big deal – you’d be able to burn it off in a jiffy.**
*Back as a skinny guy I didn’t have abs. I’m much leaner now than I was at 130 pounds, because nowadays I have 60 more pounds of muscle on my body and I lift weights three times a week. If you don’t have abs now that’s not any kind of concern. If you’re a naturally thin guy you can probably get them relatively easily if you want them.
**Members, here‘s our guide for guys who are either ‘skinny-fat’ or who bulked their abs away and want them back.
I’m not even a guy who cares all that much about how lean I am. I spent so much of my life being skinny that these days I just want to be big and strong. A lot of our members are the same – we’re more keen on building up burlier biceps and broader shoulders than worrying about being super duper lean. What I mean is that we may as well run with our natural strengths – being able to build muscle very leanly.
So having heightened insulin sensitivity is a tremendous asset, and it helps to take advantage of it. But while it helps us build muscle quickly, leanly and healthfully … it certainly doesn’t help us overcome our appetites.
(Appetite tips are coming, don’t worry.)
Many of us ectomorphs are like caloric bottomless pits. No matter how much food we shovel into our mouths our weight refuses to budge on the scale. Some experts argue that most people burn around the same amount of calories – that us ectomorphs just underestimate how much we eat. So why does it often seem like we’ve got these furnace-like ecto-metabolisms that make it impossible to gain weight?
Well that’s because those experts are wrong 😉
While we do burn about the same amount of calories as everyone else while we sleep (BMR), when we’re roaming around and being active (TEA), while we exercise (EPOC), and when we digest food (TEF) … we’ve also got our ectomorph metabolisms kicking things into overdrive in a far more elusive way.
William Sheldon – the 1940’s psychologist who coined the terms ectomorph, endomorph and mesomorph – described our body type as being ‘fidgety’. He was trying to link up personality types to body types. Huge fail. You can’t predict someone’s personality based on his body type. All of his psychological body type stuff has been disproven in pretty much every way imaginable.
As far as the underlying physiological qualities go though, his categorizations are still rather useful. You can’t tell how adventurous someone is based on their body type, but you can tell a lot about their body type from their body type. (Obviously.) When it comes to building muscle that can be incredibly useful.
And it turns out Sheldon was onto something with his “fidgety ectomorph” thing.
See, where our metabolisms tend to differ from other guys is in our non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). These are the calories burned through our subconscious activity – things like heat production, fidgeting, postural control, etc. (study)
That’s what does us in calorically.
Most people are fairly frugal with their calories, trying to store as many as possible for a rainy day. Not us. We’re caloric high rollers, baby, and we’re all about spending calories like there’s no tomorrow.
For example, I don’t get cold. Ever. I live in Canada and don’t even own a winter coat. I don’t own a car either, so I do a lot of roaming around outside in frigid temperatures and generally feel just dandy. My friends joke that I’m a human furnace. I also pace when I talk on the phone, roam around the gym between sets, tap my feet along to music and just generally find sitting still really damn difficult.
How much of an effect can this have? A pretty huge one, apparently. A study looking into metabolisms found that regular people burned 3% more calories sitting in a chair than they did lying motionless on their backs. Add in some fidgeting though, and they burned 54% more calories just by casually relaxing in a chair. The same is true with standing. Casual standing burns just 13% more calories than lying on your back, whereas ecto-standing burns 94% more calories. (study)
Over the course of a day that works out to a 600 calorie difference if you spend most of your time sitting, and a 950 calorie difference if you spend most of your time standing. And that’s just the fidgeting part of this – that doesn’t account for heat production, postural control, etc.
As far as posture and body position goes, James Levine, the leading subconscious energy expenditure researcher, recruited ten obese people and ten lean people and measured their body postures and movements every half-second for ten days. (He did this by using kinky high-tech undergarments.) The lean people spent two more hours standing than the obese people, burning an estimated 350 more calories each day (again via NEAT). He also found that this held true even when lean people gained weight, leading him to believe that this is largely genetically predetermined. (study)
To put this into perspective, most people’s calorie requirements fall within the range of bodyweight x 13-23. For a 150 pound guy that’s the difference between burning 2,000 and 3,500 calories each day. That’s a huge difference.
And that’s actually only the beginning. Things get really interesting when you start overfeeding us.
A hardgainer’s response to overfeeding
Different people respond very very differently to overfeeding. In one study, the participants were overfed by 1000 calories per day for eight straight weeks and instructed not to exercise. (study)
At the end of the eight week study some guys gained 0.79 pounds of fat and some guys gained 9.3 pounds. That’s more than a tenfold difference in how much fat was stored.
This puzzled researchers for a long time, but it’s now attributed to subconscious movement. When overfeeding almost everyone’s metabolism will rev up, but it’s usually not nearly enough to offset the effects of overeating. Us hardgainers respond to overfeeding by turning up our caloric furnaces far higher than your average person – producing more heat, moving more, fidgeting more, etc. Other studies have found the same ecto-phenomenon. (study, study) This keeps us lean, but it also keeps us small.
So that “just eat more” advice is pretty damn shoddy. Our metabolisms eagerly adapt to any attempts at overfeeding, making our attempts feel totally futile.
Luckily, we aren’t simply trying to gain weight, we’re trying to build muscle. This is actually a highly desirable trait. People are probably quite jealous of you for it – and rightly so. You know how chubbier guys often do all kinds of cardio when trying to build muscle? If they don’t … they often risk building up fat alongside their muscle. Us ectomorphs don’t really need to worry about the cardio because we burn off the surplus calories automatically.
With a good enough nutrition and weightlifting program this won’t much get in the way of building muscle. Our body’s adapt to the training stimulus by building up extra muscle before sending the extra calories off to the furnace. Calories that ‘need’ to be invested in your biceps aren’t extra calories, after all. This can be a huge asset, since it makes some of us extremely resistant to fat but not muscle.
So, combined with our heightened insulin sensitivity, we can often get away with eating large caloric surpluses, building as much muscle as our bodies will allow … and any caloric excess not used for building muscle won’t get stored as fat – it will get tossed in the furnace. This allows us to leanly build muscle more rapidly than your average guy, who needs to add in cardio while keeping a strict eye on his caloric surplus. As with most of these things though, that depends on the ectomorph, and everyone can hit a point where the excess calories do eventually start spilling over into fat. We tend to get a pretty wide berth though, especially when our nutrition fundamentals are in order.
Overfeeding & food aversion.
That fact that we’re awesome at building all kinds of lean muscle when we’re in a hearty caloric surplus is all well and good … but the problem remains that eating a huge caloric surplus is really damn hard.
During the 70’s the obesity researcher Ethan Sims spent his time running a decade’s worth of overfeeding studies on American prisoners – men who were in a totally controlled environment and were at the nutritional whim of the research team. Force-feeding and then starving prisoners is perhaps a little ethically questionable by modern standards, but hey, this was the 70’s. (study, study)
One interesting thing that the researchers found was that many of the subjects slowly started growing bored of food during prolonged periods of overfeeding, finding it more and more difficult to sustain the willpower needed to overeat. Some even developed an aversion to food – they just didn’t ever want to eat. They’d want to skip breakfast, and then as the day went on sometimes their appetite would come back, but sometimes it wouldn’t. Some men even dropped out of the study because they couldn’t handle eating the volumes of food they were being asked to eat.
Overeating is a lot harder for some of us than a lot of people realize, especially when we’re talking about overeating by a fairly significant amount. This is especially true with us naturally leaner hardgainers:
“One of his volunteers, for example, began at 132 pounds. He struggled resolutely for more than thirty weeks to gain weight, ate great amounts of food, and reduced his activity to less than half its former level, but was never able to push above 144 pounds. He simply didn’t have the willpower to get fat.”
Story of my life.
Well except for the fat part.
Interestingly, this study also shows more good news for us naturally thin guys: while the number of fat cells varies even among lean guys, we likely have a modest number of fat cells compared to people who struggle with being overweight. Perhaps partially because of this, the leaner guys gained modest amounts of fat and then were able to return to a lean state far more quickly than the others. Better still, the participants gained 23 pounds of fat on average and still had the same number of fat cells as when they started. This suggests that even when we store a fair bit of fat, our fat cells simply increase in size instead of increasing in number, making it relatively easy to get back to being comfortably lean again. Long story short: our potential for gaining fat is small, and if we do it’s easy to burn off.
If you’re anything like me you may have realized that attempting to eat enormous meals doesn’t work very well. Back in skinnier times my girlfriends could always eat me under the table. Since they were keen on eating less and I was keen on eating more, well, we all found it rather disheartening.
Turns out that stomachs come in different sizes. In a 2001 study researchers discovered that obese people had markedly larger stomachs than people of normal bodyweight, and that binge eaters had larger stomachs still. Stomachs are sort of like balloons, with the balloons coming in different sizes and capable of being inflated to different degrees. (study)
Are we stuck with our stomach sizes? In another study, scientists recruited a group of obese men and women and split them into two groups: one group ate what they normally ate, and the other was forced to eat itty bitty meals. Four weeks later the group that ate normal sized meals, not surprisingly, had the same stomach size as when they started. The itty bitty meal group, however, had reduced their stomach size by 27 to 36 percent. (study)
More relevantly, the researchers in the first study posit that binge eating behaviour was the cause of the larger stomach sizes. The binge eaters weren’t born with larger stomachs, but rather their stomachs adapted to their eating habits by growing larger. This suggests that by gradually eating larger and larger meals we could gradually increase our stomach sizes, sort of like how stretching out a balloon makes it easier to inflate. This certainly lines up with my own experiences. After having gained 60 pounds my stomach capacity has seemingly doubled, allowing me to effortlessly eat much larger meals. I don’t get eaten under the table on dates anymore, either.
With that said, we don’t even need to increase our stomach sizes. Simply eating more meals, or adding snacks between meals, can work pretty well. I suspect that’s why many bodybuilders consume lots of meals – because they have so many calories they need to consume. Perhaps that’s why there’s all that mumbo-jumbo mythology about needing to eat every three hours to build muscle. The myths are false – you can eat however many meals you want – but that doesn’t mean that snacking every couple hours isn’t a great idea as far as fitting food in our stomachs goes. Nothing says they need to be fancy either – just a handful of trail mix, some fruit or a glass of milk between meals will add up over the course of a day, making it a easier to hit your nutrition goals.
Heightened dopamine sensitivity
Eating food causes the release of dopamine, and that release of dopamine causes feelings of intense pleasure. In fact, that’s how our bodies let us know that we’re doing something pleasurable – by releasing dopamine.
Not surprisingly, it’s pretty common for people to get bummed, tired or stressed and automatically turn to food, knowing that if they eat enough of it they’ll stimulate the release of dopamine and thus feel better. It’s not a physiological hunger thing – they don’t need more food –they eat simply due to the pleasure response that their body has in response to calorie rich food. This is your typical scenario where the heartbroken gal drowns her sorrows in a tub or ten of Ben & Jerry’s.
When enough dopamine is released it eventually satisfies that insatiable craving or urge. Some people are more sensitive to it than others, and thus some people need to eat a hell of a lot of food in order to stimulate a large enough dopamine response to satisfy their cravings. Our bony hearts, however, are mendable with relatively small portions of ice cream.
… but turning to ice cream in tough times isn’t even something that skinny guys tend to do in the first place. Eating for that pleasurable hormonal response is more of a beefy person thing. (study, study) Moreover, our stress response is often far more affected by other factors – factors that turn our appetites off. When we get stressed, bummed or tired we often lose our appetite entirely or forget to eat. In tough times we tend to find ourselves losing weight, not gaining it.
So if you get in a fight with your gal she might storm off and raid the fridge, meanwhile you’re busy forgetting to have dinner.
Hunger & Weightlifting
This applies to other stressors as well, like weightlifting. Lifting heavy things makes many guys ravenous, whereas I’ve always found that it makes me less hungry. According to a study published in Physiology and Behavior, some people compensate for the calories burned by eating more … whereas others respond by eating less. They suggest that this may relate back to dopamine sensitivity and our hedonistic response to food, i.e., how primed our brains are to food pleasure and reward signals. This lines up with other studies as well, and seems especially pronounced when the type of exercise is heavy weightlifting. (study, study, study)
This is one reason why some guys go to the gym and lift weights and wind up way bigger and stronger in no time – their bodies automatically up-regulate their food intake (or they already eat enough). Since rate of bodyweight change is largely determined by the degree of the caloric surplus, this is one reason why weightlifting alone seems to make some guys automatically gain weight.
A recent meta-analysis (January 2014) compared the results of all studies looking into exercise and appetite. The study found that, on average, exercise caused people to eat a little bit more … but not by enough to compensate for the amount of calories they burned by exercising. So maybe after exercising we’ll naturally eat an extra 200 calories, but if we burned 300 by exercising … we sure as hell won’t be gaining weight. (study)
Luckily there’s a good fix for this one, and we wrote up a big blog post on ectomorph workout nutrition here.
Muscle & Metabolism
One big worry I used to have is that if I were to successfully build muscle, well, I’d surely just lose it again. I worried that as soon as I stopped overfeeding my muscles would shrivel up back up and be skinny again.
Luckily I was dead wrong. Building muscle can require consuming a lot of calories (among other things) and that can certainly be challenging, but maintaining muscle is a whole different story. Your calorie demands drop back down into the realm of normalcy, for one. A pound of muscle only burns around 6 calories per day, so adding even 20 pounds of muscle to your frame won’t really make your life much harder. (study, study, study) That’s only 120 extra calories you’ll need to eat. That’s a small glass of milk.
Sometimes we can lose weight if we turn to a life of inactivity and Pop-Tarts, but so long as we stay strong and healthy our hard-earned muscle mass will stick around just fine. You don’t need to eat that much protein to maintain your muscle mass, and you don’t even need to lift weights all that often*. Plus, if we do lose muscle mass, it’s generally pretty easy to build it right back up in a jiffy. Re-building muscle is a whole lot easier than building muscle.
*Although it would certainly be good for your health, longevity, brainpower, energy levels and mood if you kept up a regular weightlifting routine.
HOW TO EAT MORE
If I were to share every useful strategy I’ve come across, this post would be a hundred pages long … but I do want to conclude this article by sharing a few actionable tips and one of the more fascinating appetite studies I’ve come across.
You know how when people are trying to lose weight they’re encouraged to eat lots of voluminous and fibrous veggies (like broccoli) since they’re so low in calories and take up so much stomach space? Don’t you wish there was a study that looked into which nutritious foods were easy to eat whole hell of a lot of? Luckily, there is one: A satiety index of common foods.
I adore this study with a passion. I mean, they took a bunch of the most common foods, figured out how filling they were, and then figured out how many more calories people would naturally eat in their next meal based on how filling their previous meal was. The goal of the study, of course, was to figure out how to fill people up with fewer calories so that they could lose weight without feeling hungry … but given that a lot of the not-so-filling-foods are actually pretty healthy, it can also be applied to leanly building muscle without feeling full. To make things a little easier still, I organized the foods into categories and remade their results graph:
Some of this stuff will be pretty obvious. Obviously fish is more filing than donuts. Eating 1000 calories of junk food is pretty easy, whereas you’d be hard pressed to shovel down 1000 calories of fish, no matter how bottomless your pit.
Some of the stuff might surprise you though. Would you have guessed that 250 calories coming from potatoes was three times as filling as 250 calories coming from bananas? Even more impressively, potatoes are seven times more filling than a croissant. Potatoes are also pretty damn nutritious, making them pretty much the best food ever if you’re trying to lose weight. Prrretty crazy.
Does how filling something is affect how many calories we eat? In this case, yes. The researchers found that with these 250 calorie meals, for every 100 point difference on the satiety scale, there was a corresponding 50 calorie difference in how much was eaten in the next meal. That means that if you ate an itty bitty 250 calorie croissant (47 satiety) for lunch you might eat an 800 calorie dinner, whereas if you ate a huge 250 calorie potato (323 satiety) you’d eat a 650 calorie dinner. Over the course of a few meals that would add up to several hundred calories without you even noticing the difference. You’d still be eating a comfortable and natural amount … except all of a sudden it might be enough to build muscle.
So what makes a food more filling than another food? The researchers concluded that a combination of three things make a food fearsomely filling:
- High protein content.
- High fibre content.
- High water content.
Considering that protein is the building block of muscle, fibre is incredibly important when it comes to digesting large amounts of food, and water is kind of the most essential thing out there … this is tricky. These three things are both essential for building muscle and yet simultaneously make eating enough to build muscle a challenge.
The solution? Get the protein that you need to maximally build muscle in, but get most of your calories from carbs. (More on that here.) Drink water between meals, but not necessarily between bites. (study, study) You don’t necessarily want to be filling your stomach up with water at the same time as you’re packing it full of food. And as far as fibre goes, getting enough is key, since it will allow you to process the large amounts of food you’re consuming, but more fibre is not always better. Fibre will tend to take care of itself if you get around 80% of your calories from whole foods, but eating too ‘clean’ can lead to getting more fibre than you need, making this a little harder than it needs to be.
Long story short: now’s not the time to be loading up on low calorie watery fibrous foods like broccoli, lettuce, watermelon, etc. Go for the higher calorie and denser fruits and veggies instead. Bananas, grapes, peas, etc.
Should we start adding in tons of hyper-palatable (junk) food? Probably not. They’re very easy to consume in large quantities, but they’re lower in micronutrients, very low in fibre, and often contain a ton of fat. Us ectomorphs tend to build muscle the most leanly when the majority of our calories are coming from carbs. Junk food tends to throw our fat intake way too high… often making our gains a little fattier.
Like I said at the beginning of this article though, as skinny guys we need to emphasize adding things into our diet, not taking things out. Removing all the hyper-palatable food from your diet is going to leave a caloric hole. Now isn’t the time to cut out the “bad” stuff, it’s time to add in the good stuff—to add in nutritious whole foods.
If 80% or more of your diet is made up of whole foods, you’re doing pretty swell from a micronutrient and fibre standpoint, so with the high calorie diets we’re eating that certainly leaves room for some desserts.
Make your food taste good. Mark Schatzker, author of The Dorito Effect, wrote about how the 60’s changed the food industry in two key ways.
First, artificial food flavouring scientists were truly mastering the art of making junk food taste incredible. Artificial flavours were beginning to taste more intense than natural ones. Flour fried in vegetable oil could now become the delivery vehicle for the richest flavours that science had to offer.
Second, farms were starting to master the art of growing greater volumes of food, which was excellent for feeding tons of people at reasonable prices… but not so great for food flavour. The soil was less nutrient rich, and produce was being bred for size instead of taste. All of a sudden farmed foods began tasting blander.
It’s no surprise then that people started gravitating towards junk food.
There’s another solution though. We can make our food taste better. Buying from small local farms, or maybe buying organic—that could help. That can be expensive though, if those options are even available at all.
However, there are other ways to make our food taste better. For example, adding hot peppers to a food will stimulate our body’s pain response system, causing us to produce morphine-like pleasure hormones in an adept to blunt the “pain.” This is something many cultures have been doing for thousands of years to get a (very healthy) almost drug-like feeling out of our meals. Doritos take advantage of that spicy bliss feeling, and so can we.
And as technology has progressed, so too has the availability of other spices from all over the world. While eating boiled chicken, rice and a tomato for dinner might not be as fun as it used to be, back when farmed food was naturally incredibly flavour rich, we don’t need to eat plain boiled foods anymore either. We could combine those ingredients together with spices imported from India and have a delicious Tikka Masala. Or combine steak and potatoes into a hearty European stew. Or ground meat and beans into a delicious latin chili.
We can add delicious flavours to the whole foods that we cook. That way they taste comparably good—or even better—than all the junk food we have at our disposal. The better your food tastes, the more fun it will be to eat a ton of it.
Dried Fruit. When it comes to adding in nutritious high calorie whole foods, dried fruit is about as good as it gets. Dried fruit contains about the same amount of nutrients as fresh fruit, but is way less filling, since all the water is removed. Water is one of the three main factors that make a food filling, so taking the water out of fruit makes it easier to eat a ton of.
Other studies found that energy density (calories / volume) is a key factor in how filling a good is, so the fact that dried fruit is smaller helps too. As you can imagine, eating 10 plums is very very difficult. Eating 10 prunes is very very easy.
Dried fruits are also super healthy. If you were to compare dried fruit against fresh fruit by weight, dried fruit contains about 3.5 times the amount of fibre, vitamins and minerals as the fresh fruit.
Making things more interesting still, our bodies tend to crave a variety of flavours. If you fill up on a salty and savoury chili for dinner, chances are you’ll still have room for something sweet afterwards—something like dried mangoes, perhaps?
Still struggling to eat enough? It’s time to get clever. So, given that potatoes are incredibly filling, should we eat them? Sure. There are lots of ways to increase the energy density of them, too, so that we can still get our calories in easily. Looking at that chart, homemade french fries might do the trick. You’re adding delicious fats and salt to the potatoes, and then perhaps dipping them in Ketchup to make them taste refreshingly sweet and acidic.
Are there even easier ways to eat a lot of calories? Probably. Rice isn’t very filling, and that’s Marco’s go-to bulking staple. Cook it with spices, add some soy sauce, or put some chili on top.
Our chili recipe is deliciously spicy and rich in a variety of complementary spices and nutrients. It’s indulgently delicious and savoury, fresh and spicy, and incredibly healthy. Best of all, you can cook up fourteen servings of it in thirty minutes. That means thirteen extra servings of it in the freezer for later. (That’s my go-to bulking staple.)
Making things easier still, you don’t even need to cook! Muesli cereal takes seconds to prepare (just pour into a bowl and add milk), it’s made up of nutritious whole foods (dried fruit and nuts), it’s easy to eat a ton of (see chart), and it’s delicious—especially if you add in some dark chocolate and berries.
Snacking. Snacking itself also makes it easier to eat more calories. Generally having a snack will cause you to eat only just slightly less in your next meal. For example, if you eat a 300 calorie snack, you may only reduce the size of your dinner by 100 calories. You’ll still effortlessly come out ahead by 200 calories. (study) Snacking on something like trail mix combines the appetite wizardry of dried fruit and nuts, too.
Liquid calories. Then there’s liquid calories, which are incredibly easy on the appetite. (study) Our bodies hardly count liquid calories as calories at all, making it really easy to get in a lot of ‘bonus’ calories. Milk is great for that – it’s cheap, quick and incredibly good at building muscle. Smoothies are fantastic too, especially since you can blend up so many nutritious foods. And having a high calorie workout shake is pretty helpful too.
There are dozens of ways to make eating more achievable, efficient, affordable, effective, enjoyable, etc.
(For members, I’ve put an article on the member forum with a sample meal plan optimized for all these things, a few more studies, links to a bunch of our recipes that bring a bunch of these principles together, and a few more tips, tricks and strategies for how to apply this stuff to leanly building muscle.)
To say that this was a huge challenge of mine is an understatement. “Just eat more” kept me up at night, had me browsing articles for hundreds of hours trying to find a way around it, had me trying all kinds of weight gainers and fad diets. None of it worked, and so for most of my life I thought it was physically impossible to overcome the dastardly hardgainer trio: a really high metabolism, a really small appetite and a really small stomach. I didn’t just think this was tough, I thought it was impossible. I though I was just $%^& out of luck.
Every once in a while though I’d think “okay enough is enough – I’m fed up with being skinny” and I’d give it another try. Over years of research, personally experimenting, recruiting guinea pigs (like Jared), and then starting up the Bony to Beastly Program and helping other guys master this stuff … now we’re actually really quite good at this stuff. Eating well is easy and enjoyable.
Plus, due to homeostasis (our bodies regulating our body weight), once our bodies adjust to their new muscular burliness, our appetite will naturally increase to accommodate our ever so slightly higher caloric needs. There is an adjustment period, but it soon begins to feel just as effortless as ever. It’s the changing part that’s challenging, since our bodies are programmed to resist change. Although those regulatory systems kept us small in the past, they can also keep us strong and healthy in the future. Moreover, due to the increased insulin sensitivity that the weightlifting and added muscle mass give us, it eventually becomes pretty easy to stay strong and fearsomely lean without ever really needing to do any cardio, restrict our diets, feel miserably hungry, etc. Nowadays I hover between 180-190 pounds just as easily as I used to hover between 125-130 pounds.
This was a really big deal for me, so if you’re in the same boat I was in then I really hope this article helps.
Questions? Tips and tricks? Success stories? Drop ’em below.