Like taxes, most of you take for granted what you put on your plates. Day in and day out, you devour copious amounts of pasta, chicken, and dairy, all in the name of more muscle and less flab. You probably think that tub of yogurt you lapped up for an afternoon protein jolt or the He-Man portion of pasta you sent down your gullet after tossing around the iron are model citizens with plenty of nutritional discipline. Thing is, like James Bond, many of these so-called “healthy foods” can have a hefty arsenal of secret weapons that strike a serious blow to your hopes of building a constitution like that of an M&F cover model.
Over the years, food manufacturers have done a wonderful job of nutritionally degrading many go-to bodybuilding staples, all in the name of profit and satiating our need for all things salty, sweet, and satisfying. To prevent you from falling prey to those sneaky, unscrupulous food demons, we’ve assembled 10 beloved power foods, and will show you how to turn them from physique-killers into physique-builders.
Physique-builders: The right pizza with toppings such as spinach, grilled chicken, and smoked salmon can be—here it comes—a pretty good bodybuilding food. Lycopene-rich tomato sauce may increase levels of anabolic insulinlike growth factor-1 and help stave off cancer.
Physique-killers: Slather a thick processed crust with cheese and fatty meats like sausage and pepperoni and that muscle-builder turns into a belt-stretcher. A serving of Uno Chicago Grill Classic comes in at a whopping 770 calories and more than 50g of heart-stopping fat. Not how the Italian folks meant for it to be.
Smart play: Request lean protein sources like chicken and ham. Florida-based sports dietitian Tara Gidus recommends going one step further and asking for half the cheese and, if available, whole-grain crust. Many pizza joints offer made-to-order pies, so take advantage. Like salads, scrutinize the nutrition information offered online. Or make your own with whole-wheat dough, low-fat mozzarella, and cubed chicken breast.
Physique-builders: The best ones you’ll find are adorned with protein-dense salmon, grilled chicken, beans, or hard-boiled eggs. The veggies harbor antioxidants and plenty of fiber, which tempers blood-sugar fluctuations.
Physique-killers: Bread that chicken and fry it, then pile on croutons, cheese, bacon, and creamy dressings (like many restaurants routinely do), and the calories and fat can add up faster than snowflakes during a blizzard.
Smart play: Before you hit the drive-thru, check the nutrition information on the establishment’s website for the salads that have the best protein-to-fat ratio. Opt for lower-fat dressing and gravitate toward healthier toppings such as fruit and nuts. Remember, tomatoes fight disease. Croutons? Not so much
Physique-builders: This great white is brimming with high-quality protein, gut-friendly bacteria, testosterone-boosting zinc, and bone-strengthening, fat-fighting calcium.
Physique-killers: Sugar and processed fruit are yogurt’s (and your midsection’s) arch nemeses. Flavored versions can have enough of the added sweet stuff—up to 80% of total calories—to cause unwelcome blood-sugar surges, a scenario that triggers the release of extra insulin, which encourages the body to store fat. More gooey jam at the bottom also means less protein.
Smart play: Stick with plain yogurt and add your own fruit, if needed, for more nutritious sweetness. With only 40 calories in a half-cup, antioxidant-rich blueberries are a good sidekick. If you just can’t bring yourself to part with the sweetened stuff, get your fix post-workout when increased insulin levels are favorable for muscle growth.
Physique-builders: Dressings made with vegetable oils like olive oil are chock full of unsaturated fats that can promote fat-burning and healthy cholesterol levels. These same fats improve the absorption of fat-soluble antioxidants found in vegetables, such as beta-carotene. Olive oil goes one step further, dishing out the natural anti-inflammatory oleocanthal.
Physique-kllers: In similar fashion to peanut butter, many low-fat and fat-free dressings are simply pumped with more sugar (like corn syrup) than their fattier brethren. Not a good exchange for your six-pack. That said, creamy dressings can add unwanted calories and fat to your green giants.
Smart play: Forgo the creamy and wimpy slimmed-down versions and select healthier oil-and-vinegar mixtures. Better yet, make your own: Combine olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and hot Dijon mustard for a well-dressed salad.
Physique-builders: Deck out a sandwich with the right lean deli meat and you’ll help your body stockpile heaps of protein, B vitamins, iron, and zinc. “Iron is needed for the synthesis of muscle protein, whereas zinc helps regenerate their cells,” Gidus points out. Zinc has also been found to help raise levels of testosterone and IGF-1, and helps elevate the metabolic rate.
Physique-killers: Many packaged cured meats contain nitrite preservatives. Nitrites cause oxidative stress in the body, which is why processed meats have been linked to prostate cancer. On top of that, add too much saturated fat and sodium and your sandwich isn’t so body-friendly.
Smart play: Concentrate on meat slices with a high protein-to-fat ratio such as sliced chicken breast, turkey breast, and roast beef. Gidus suggests looking for brands that do away with nitrites and a portion of the salt.
Physique-builders: “Fruit juice can be a great source of vitamin C and other important antioxidants needed to repair oxidative muscle cell damage that occurs during exercise,” says Gidus, who is also a nutritionist for the NBA’s Orlando Magic. Vitamin C also enhances nitric oxide production.
Physique-killers: Never consider juice a snack. Although most 100% juices digest very slowly, the lack of chewing involved when consuming the juice leaves you less satiated and on the hunt for the nearest vending machine. When snacking, choose whole fruit over juice.
Smart play: Choosing 100% juices over sugar-waters labeled “fruit drink” guarantees your body more antioxidants with less added sweet stuff. You could consider exploring your feminine side, as University of Florida (Gainesville) researchers determined that pure pink grapefruit juice contains more nutrients per calorie than other common nectars. Enjoy juice before a workout for slow-digesting carbs that will provide long-lasting energy for your training and won’t interfere with fat-burning. Mix juice with your protein powder, or better yet, choose real fruit for much-needed extra fiber to keep you more regular than Norm’s presence at Cheers.
Physique-builders: Fat-torching, testosterone-raising monounsaturated fat; blood-glucose-regulating magnesium; growth-hormone-stimulating niacin; and muscle-repairing vitamin E are among the many reasons to go nutty.
Physique-kllers: Peanut butter often has two unwelcome guests—sugar and trans fat. Hydrogenated oil (aka trans fat) is added to many commercial brands to extend shelf life and prevent oil separation. Unfortunately, research shows it can also prevent you from separating from your own fat stores. In addition, trans fat increases muscle breakdown and discourages muscle growth.
Smart play: “Go for natural brands that are just peanuts,” Gidus advises. Bypass any low-fat versions, since they simply replace healthy fat with nutritionally suspect sugar.
Physique-builders: Any way you slice it, beef has a nutritional arsenal to give you more muscles than a clambake. “Steak is an excellent source of protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12—all bodybuilding musts,” Gidus explains. And don’t be afraid of getting some saturated fat from beef—it’s essential for maintaining testosterone levels.
Physique-killers: Not all cuts are created equal, though. Some, like the infamous rib eye and prime rib, can have more fat than a plastic surgeon’s waste bin. Sure, they taste awesome, but think with your midriff instead of your palate.
Smart play: Gidus, who encourages red meat consumption, recommends opting for leaner cuts such as those labeled round or loin. A cut of top sirloin may weigh in at 50 fewer fat grams than prime rib. “You can also trim visible fat,” she adds. But don’t do this until after cooking to maintain moisture.
Physique-builders: Pasta’s lowbrow image has many trainees forgoing it in favor of chicken. Too bad, since pasta’s complex carbs are a great fuel source that frees up amino acids (from the aforementioned bird) to be used for muscle growth. “The plentiful B vitamins in pasta help create energy from food,” Gidus says.
Physique-killers: Food manufacturers have beat up this Italian classic by milling and refining it, turning it into a fiberless, calorically dense product with a much higher glycemic index than it needs. The upshot: It’s more likely to pad your abs than your muscles. What’s more, eating more quick-digesting carbs can lead to fatty liver disease, which can result in liver failure, reports a study in Obesity.
Smart play: Choose pasta made from a whole grain such as whole wheat, brown rice, or spelt that’s listed as the firstingredient. This ensures your bowl contains more fiber and bodybuilding-friendly nutrients such as magnesium, vitamin E, and selenium. Gidus explains: “Eating pasta with a source of protein like meat sauce slows carbohydrate digestion for more sustained energy.” Post-workout is a good time to take advantage of regular pasta’s ability to boost insulin levels and drive aminos into muscle cells. However, at other meals, choose whole-grain varieties.
Physique-builders: Eat enough tuna and you won’t have to fish for compliments when it comes to those big guns. It’s jam-packed not only with protein but the superhero omega-3 fatty acids that can help your body burn fat like a well-oiled machine.
Physique-killers: Wolf down a can drowned in oil and you’ll reel in 150 extra lackluster calories. Not to be overlooked, your albacore (solid white) tuna might be swimming in mercury, a potent neurotoxin. Yikes.
Smart play: Save calories by building a sandwich with tuna packed in water. Choose chunk-light tuna for lower mercury levels, or select the albacore version from smaller companies that test for mercury.
BY MATTHEW G. KADEY, MS, RD