It can be hard to figure out what the best diet for ectomorphs is. When you search for the healthiest diets, you’ll find diets that are designed to help people lose weight. And that makes sense. After all, at least in the United States, the CDC estimates that only 1.9% of people are underweight. Wanting to gain weight is quite rare.
The reason the CDC cares about this stuff is because so many people are running into health problems from being overweight. As a result, most people need to adopt various diets to help them lose weight. This has become the standard recommendation for improving health: choose a diet that helps you lose weight.
In fact, the very term “dieting” implies that we should be restricting foods and calories to help us eat less. But what if we’re trying to gain weight? Do ectomorphs need an anti-diet?
Yes. We do.
I had coffee a few weeks back with a good friend of mine from Montreal. I had just finished a couple months of the Bony to Beastly program, and I’d put on 20ish pounds of muscle since she last saw me. She was wowed by my progress and told me I looked a Hell of a lot stronger. My physical health was obviously not a problem, but she was worried that I was headed down the road to obsession. She knows that I barely train 3 hours per week, so there’s obviously no obsessive behaviour there. But she also knows that I’m extremely fascinated by the role that nutrition plays with fat loss, health and building muscle—especially for us ectomorphs. So, despite the fact that we had just finished pouring rum into our coffees, she was concerned that I was developing an obsession with eating healthy foods and only healthy foods.
The interesting thing is that eating healthy and only healthy foods can actually hinder your results. Many people struggle to build muscle, lose fat, love life, and accomplish their goals because they place too much emphasis on “healthy” eating.
The true secret to becoming superhuman isn’t to eat superfoods, it’s to eat “Clark Kent” foods—everyday bulking foods that will give you superhuman results.
Underweight Ectomorph to Obsessed Bodybuilder?
I used to suffer from what I now call “apparent anorexia”, where I would dream of being more muscular but often have strangers wondering “does this guy have an eating disorder?” I was 6’2 and 130 pounds, with a body that made starving female runway models jealous. Damn ectomorph genetics. In fact, my dad was in the same skinny boat at my age, despite infamously being able to finish several entrees at a time at restaurants.
Our diets may not have been the best, but we weren’t intentionally making ourselves thin—quite the opposite. This is an example of me having no idea what I was doing nutritionally, and quite obviously it wasn’t working out for me.
Now, 60 pounds of muscle heavier and with my “genetics” soundly defeated, I’ve been accused of something a little bit more flattering: orthorexia. “Orthorexia” is an unhealthy obsession with eating only extremely healthy foods.
The accusation raises a very interesting point, even though I consider my interest in nutrition quite psychologically healthy. I mean, I’ve never enjoyed what I eat more than now, and I neither crave nor avoid going out for a few beers and some suicide wings with friends. I’m also extremely happy with my physique, even as I push myself for health and strength improvements.
In fact, if you had to classify me as either a clean or dirty bulker, I’d probably fall more on the dirty side of things.
This isn’t always the case with nutrition-loving guys though, and many dudes perpetually follow extremely strict and limited diets consisting of supplements and superfoods. Does this give them results? Of course. Does it give them the best results, though? No. In fact, most people following the popular diet trends run into nutrient deficiencies.
The Problem with Restrictive Diets
Part of the reason they run into deficiencies is simply because they’re consuming fewer calories. Eating fewer calories means that fewer nutrients are coming in overall, which makes it more likely that you won’t get enough of them (study).
But this is where things get wild. Health-conscious people who are on restrictive diets have the highest chance of suffering from nutrient deficiencies, even when comparing them against the general population. In fact, nutrient deficiencies are common among athletes and bodybuilders (study, study, study, study, study). The people who pay the most attention to their diets are suffering for it.
The reason for this is pretty obvious when you give these diets a look-over. Eating a “clean” bodybuilding diet, for example, is kind of a weird way to eat. It’s usually based around just a few foods: skinless chicken breast, egg whites, lean cuts of steak, olive oil, fish oil, spinach, broccoli, sweet potatoes, brown rice, tuna, oats, protein powder and creatine.
I mean, if you’re cutting out dairy, potatoes, fruits, egg yolks, fatty meat, and so on, it’s no surprise that you’re going to run into some problems. You can’t pick a list of twelve “clean” foods, eat them day in and day out and expect them to add up to a balanced diet.
Most cultures have found a way of meeting their nutritional needs, and over time these practices become cultural traditions. Mexicans can’t just go Paleo and cut out beans, Northern Europeans can’t just cut out dairy because it’s an animal product, Americans can’t just cut out fruits because of the carbs/fructose, and us Canadians can’t just cut out polar bear steaks because of the saturated fat.
If you deprive it of a food group that’s commonly consumed in your culture (grains, dairy, breakfast, carbs, sugars, beaver tails, etc) you leave a nutritional hole that needs to be plugged. I’m not saying you’re stuck eating brussels sprouts even if you hate them. These holes can be plugged. If you need to (or want to) avoid a certain type of food that’s okay. I’m just saying that you need to be mindful of it.
One issue is that restrictive diets are very very common nowadays. You’ve probably heard a lot about vegan diets, ketogenic diets, intermittent fasting, and needing to eat every 2-3 hours. You’ve also probably heard a lot about acai berries, flax, pomegranates, red wine, goji berries, broccoli, spinach, coconut oil, chick peas, blueberries, turmeric and garlic.
The interesting thing is that despite all the hype, in order to look like Superman you shouldn’t be restricting evil foods, eating “superfoods,” and following trendy diets. Instead, you should be eating Clark Kent foods—staple foods.
Trendy Diets Do Work,
When the Fundamentals Are Also Handled.
If you eat a plant-based diet that focuses on whole unprocessed foods (and supplement with leucine) you can build a ton of muscle. Similarly, if you follow a meat-rich paleo diet, you can also achieve an incredible physique. Eating nine times a day works. Eating two square meals can work too, assuming you take in the same quantity and quality of nutrition. If you find that your lifestyle or moral code meshes well with a certain doctrine then great—you can probably make it work wonders for you. Most diet fads do work, at least in part, but probably not for the reason you think they do.
Don’t suffer any delusions though. Whether you eat three meals a day or twelve, you’ll get comparable results if the foods you’re eating are the same. Plant-based pea protein blends are an awesome source of protein, but so is steak. There are many valid ways to get in the macronutrients you need to accomplish your goals.
“Superfoods” Are Incredibly Healthy,
When Incorporated Into a Balanced Diet.
Blueberries are fiercely rich in antioxidants and polyphenols, broccoli has fat and toxin fighting properties, flax is a great source of polyunsaturated fats, and turmeric has incredible anti-inflammatory properties. If you love these foods then fantastic—eat plenty of them. Knowing about them and their benefits is great. I love trying out weird superfoods, and many of them taste fantastic.
Blueberries rock, but so do apples and oranges—everyday Clark Kent foods. Chick peas are great, but so are yams. Don’t place too much emphasis on superfoods or super supplements, because that’s not how a superhuman body is built. Chances are they won’t produce a noticeable difference in your results unless you figure out a great overall approach to eating.
Consider this study, where blueberries are being examined for their superfood-like phytochemical and antioxidant levels. The premise is that blueberries might be able to improve strength training recovery times, thus allowing you to build muscle more quickly. One group of study participants was given 2.2 pounds of blueberries between workouts, while the control group was given 2.2 pounds of regular fruits (bananas, apple juice, etc). Both were in the form of fruit smoothies, and neither group knew which type of smoothie they were drinking. The result? Eating 2.2 pounds of Blueberries sliiightly improved muscle recovery versus the control group.
Now check out this study, where participants started strength training and eating at a calorie surplus. The first group, who didn’t alter their diets at all, gained 3 pounds of muscle in 8 weeks just from the strength training. Pretty good. The second group, who consumed an extra 356g carbs and 106g protein powder, gained over 6 pounds of lean mass. More than double the muscle gains! The third group, who consumed an extra 438g carbs and just 24g protein powder, gained 7.5 pounds of lean mass!
These weren’t fancy carbs—just simple sugar and starch powders. A potato, fruit or bagel would have had the same effect. Interestingly enough, eating more bananas and potatoes, it seems, result in more muscle gains than even consuming protein powders.
The moral of the story? Superfoods can make the tiniest of differences, so if you’re looking to gain 1.1 pounds of muscle instead of 1 pound of muscle this week then go for it. How do you double your gains? Eat large amounts of staple foods. (Easier said than done, I know.) The problem is that people fall hook line and sinker for supplement ads and novel dieting strategies, when the simple truth is that a rock solid training program and whole hearty foods is where the real results are built.
The “Anti-Diet” for Ectomorphs
If you’re trying to bulk up, build muscle, gain strength, and improve your health, that’s probably going to require that you lift weights and change your diet. And when it comes to your diet, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t learn about nutrition. In fact you absolutely should.
If you don’t have the physique that you want, obviously some things need to change. If you’re a naturally skinny guy like me, then you might even need to change your lifestyle quite a bit. What I’m saying is that you don’t need to adopt any kind of extreme diet.
We help our members build a bulking diet that suits their preferences, lifestyle, and budget. Our members in Texas are eating quite different from our members in Latin America, who eat a very different diet from our members in India. And that’s okay. You can bulk up on a wide variety of foods. If you’re reading this from halfway across the world, rest assured that your local foods will be perfectly fine for bulking up. You don’t need to import your foods from Los Angeles because some fitness blogger there is in love with grass-fed beef or whatever the new fad is.
A good ectomorph bulking “diet” should be built around the foods that you enjoy. Within reason, of course. We can’t build your muscles entirely out of McDonalds and Pop Tarts, no. But we can build them out of hamburgers and chicken parmesan. You may want to eat a side of green beans with your burgers to make your diet a bit more balanced, but there’s no need to eat a restrictive diet.
Skinny guys trying to build muscle and gain weight are the last guys who should be restricting foods for no reason. All this restrictive stuff is really more so for people trying to avoid foods that are easy to overeat. We’re trying to overeat, and we’re intentionally consuming a lot of calories. We’ve got a lot of room in our diets for the things that we love, even if they aren’t technically “clean” foods.
Even dessert can help. When it comes to eating enough food to build impressive amount of muscle, us skinny guys often struggle. That’s one of our biggest struggles. It’s a complicated issue, too. There are a lot of reasons why it’s so hard for ectomorphs to gain weight. Processed foods and desserts offer us an easy way to get more calories in. So long as we’re also getting the nutrients that we need to be healthy and build muscle from other foods, well, a dessert will sure help us hit our calorie goals.
We aren’t taking a casual approach to our bulking diets because we don’t care about results. Rest assured, our goal is to help you build muscle as quickly as humanly possible. We use this approach because this how you get results.
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with superfoods and supplements. It’s fascinating, but it becomes so easy to forget the bigger picture.
Consider this example. Lots of struggling ectomorphs are tempted to take the popular supplement branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) after hearing about its muscle-building properties. BCAAs are a low-calorie way of getting leucine, primarily, which is fantastic for building muscle. What’s another way to get BCAAs? Drinking milk, eating meat, or frying up some eggs. A decent sized steak has 13-15g of BCAAs in it. That’s 2-3 scoops of fancy BCAA powder in every steak.
And not only are these whole foods a better way for your body to absorb the BCAAs, they’re also packed full of other muscle-building and healthful nutrients—and they’re full of calories!
The photo up above is of a steak cooked up with some onions and garlic, and served alongside a half-loaf of buttery bread and some broccoli. 950 calories. You could order something similar at a restaurant, or serve yourself up a dish like this at Thanksgiving.
It’s a pretty normal meal. But if you were trying to sell it in a supplement store you could say that the starches in the bread are reloading our muscle and liver glycogen stores, the fancy amino acids in the steak are boosting muscle-protein synthesis, the broccoli is proprietary blend of phytonutrients that will improve your performance, and the butter has monounsaturated fat and dietary cholesterol in it, which are great for testosterone production.
You have a cupboard full of foods that can rival the very best muscle-building supplements on the market.
Tips for Bulking on an Anti-Diet
- Eat a balanced diet that isn’t overly low or high in protein. Moderate protein intake stimulates the most muscle growth in ectomorphs.
- Eat plenty of carbohydrates, especially after training. Yams, brown rice, pasta, whole grain bread, potatoes, bananas. This is anabolic fuel for us ectomorphs.
- Eat irresponsibly large amounts of fruits and vegetables. Carrots, apples, pineapples, cherries, berries, oranges, sea cucumbers—whatever you want. All fruits and vegetables are healthy in their own way, and a variety is best. If your appetite or stomach are a limiting factor though, as they often are for us skinny dudes, you may find it helpful to stick to the ones that are high in calories though.
- Eat plenty of healthy fats. Nuts, butter, fish, coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, eggs, cheese, full fat yogurt.
- Don’t base your diet around processed foods, but don’t be scared of it either. It’s cool if your dessert has flour and sugar in it.
- Eat the right amount of food, but don’t stress about your schedule. You need to eat enough calories to gain weight, but don’t worry about how many meals it takes you.
- Supplements can help, but they’re a cherry on top of the cake, so treat them as such—put the bulk of your bulking focus on regular foods.
- Enjoy a drink now and then. It won’t do you any harm, and it may even help.
- Consider drinking more milk (or smoothies, or protein shakes). Liquid calories tend to be easier on the appetite.
- If you enjoy eating superfoods don’t let me stop you! They do rock.
- Base your diet around your personal preferences and personal convictions. You can build muscle on a vegan diet. You can build muscle on a Paleo diet. You can build muscle in India, China, Greece, Mexico, etc.
- Eat a diet that helps you to eat more calories. This may mean following the opposite advice that you see in most fitness magazines and on most blogs, since most of them are talking about foods that make it easier to lose weight.
A good rule of thumb is to get around 80% of your calories from whole foods. And then when it comes to choosing which whole foods to eat, choose a wide variety of foods that you actually want to eat. If you can do that, you’re going to have a good chance of avoiding nutrient deficiencies. You’ll also have a much easier time bulking up.
Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained sixty pounds at 11% body fat and has nine years of experience helping over ten thousand skinny people bulk up.
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