In this article, Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics alumnus and PhD candidate Bryce Brickley set the record straight on some of the more common food myths surrounding men’s nutrition. Bryce is currently completing a research project examining the delivery of patient-centred care by general practitioners in partnership with the Gold Coast Primary Health Network.

Implementing evidence-based nutrition strategies are important for recreational athletes (i.e. the active population) to optimise training performance, recovery and reach body composition goals.

Unfortunately, inaccurate nutrition information is often spread by other gym members or personal trainers or is found sporadically in online forums and social media. In gym circles, this type of unfounded nutrition advice is easily spread and creates stubborn nutrition myths.

Myth 1: You need to eat meat to gain muscle

Not all protein-containing foods are indeed equal, but the advice of needing to eat large amounts of meat to gain muscle is not true at all. Protein consists of 20 amino acids that are vital for red blood cell production, muscle building and recovery. Eleven of the 20 amino acids are essential because our body cannot synthesise them, so we must include them in the diet. Animal proteins are superior to plant proteins because they contain all essential amino acids, whereas plants do not. There are exceptions though. Soy, quinoa and buckwheat are complete proteins that contain all essential amino acids.

Plant proteins including nuts, seeds, legumes and wholegrains contain most, but not all essential amino acids. However, when different plant foods are eaten in combination, they complete one another and form a high-protein meal containing all essential amino acids.  Replacing animal foods with plant-based alternatives is a well-established strategy to support long-term health. Animal foods contain higher amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat compared with plant foods, and these nutrients have been associated with weight gain and cardiovascular disease.

Although research has shown that milk and dairy proteins are optimal in increasing muscle strength and favourable body composition changes after resistance exercise. Milk-based and dairy proteins are popular among recreational athletes because they contain leucine, an important amino acid for muscle building. They are also in a fluid form which means the proteins are absorbed and digested rapidly. Variety in the diet is important, and the average athlete can meet their dietary protein requirements through a combination of plant, dairy and animal foods without going over the top on meat.    

Myth 2: Protein shakes are essential for muscle building and recovery

The protein powder supplement market is a multi-million dollar industry in Australia alone. It is especially popular in the world of men’s sport and fitness, where body image is a focal point, and muscle growth and recovery are training priorities. A common myth in the fitness world is that gym-goers and recreational athletes need to consume a protein shake immediately after training to lock in the effects of the training session. However, a closer look at the evidence shows that more is not always better when it comes to protein intake for recovery and muscle gains1.

The American College of Sports Medicine suggests athletes should consume between 1.2-1.7g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day2. The top end of the range is for elite endurance athletes and those in rigorous strength or power sports. The recreational athlete should aim for the bottom end of the range – around 1.2g/kg/day. Protein intakes and body weight data collected from the 2011-12 Australian Health Survey showed that the average sedentary Australian male already eats 1.2g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day3. The typical diet of strength-based athletes provides about 2g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day2. The data suggests that without the use of supplements, we are already meeting our dietary protein needs. The addition of post-workout protein supplements will merely add energy to the diet, which isn’t beneficial for those individuals pursuing weight loss.

Recreational athletes should aim to eat a greater volume of food with a focus on protein foods compared to sedentary people. By putting food first, individuals will realise the nutritional value of whole foods that are not included in isolated protein supplements. An accredited practising dietitian (APD) can assist with a detailed dietary analysis and support athletes with their diet and supplement regimens if required.  

Myth 3: The ‘If it fits your macros (IIFYM)’ diet is an effective dietary strategy for health and fitness

The IIFYM diet is common in the health and fitness world. Followers of the diet calculate their daily macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate and fat) needs and can eat whatever they want as long as they “hit these macros”. The IIFYM diet rationalises the consumption of fast food, chocolate and alcohol while potentially ignoring whole foods. Thinking the IIFYM diet is the best way to eat for health and fitness is most certainly a myth.

Food should not be merely viewed as protein, carbohydrate and fat. Micronutrients (i.e. vitamins and minerals) are essential for health and fitness. One example is calcium, an essential mineral for muscle contraction. If there are low levels of calcium in the diet, our body sustains calcium levels by breaking down the stores in our bones, and then athletes may be more susceptible to injury and bone fracture. Food also contains non-nutritive components important for fitness for sports performance and recovery such as fibre, antioxidants, pre- and probiotics. The diet needs to be carefully planned to consider all these factors, including hydration, and athletic performance aids, such as caffeine and creatine.  

There are many harmful nutrition myths in the health and fitness space. The average person should focus on a balanced diet full of different nutritious whole foods, rather than getting caught up in the hype about supplements and fad diets. A recreational athlete seeking to take their nutrition to the next level should engage with a local sports dietitian who can support their individualised needs.  

Reference List

1. Morton RW, Murphy KT, McKellar SR, et al. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. Br J Sports Med. 2018;52(6):376-384.

2.  Rodriguez NR, DiMarco NM, Langley S. Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009;109(3):509-527.

3.  Australian Bureau of Statistics. Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results – Food and Nutrients, 2011-12. In. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics; 2014.