In the past, the term ‘clean bulking’ was reserved for the idea of eating lots of whole, nutritious foods to build muscle.

Over time, the meaning of this term has slowly shifted to ‘eat in a small caloric surplus to build muscle and avoid fat gain.’ The term ‘clean’ now refers to gaining as little fat as possible while packing on slabs of meat, rather than eating healthy foods.

It seems like we’ve begun to care less about food choices and more about macronutrients and calories.

But which matters more? Do we need to eat ‘healthy’ to gain muscle? Is chasing calorie and macronutrient numbers a fool’s errand?

Today, we’ll answer these and more questions.

What are Micronutrients?

Micronutrients are small compounds that we need only trace amounts of, hence the ‘micro.’ The term refers to the 13 essential vitamins and 16 essential minerals.

Both vitamins and minerals play critical roles in numerous biological processes within the body, including hormonal balance, energy metabolism, immune system function, bone development, brain function, the production of essential proteins such as collagen, and much more.

Though most people don’t pay attention to micronutrients, they are essential for the normal work and development of the human body. Without them, we would cease to function.

The main differences between vitamins and minerals are their chemical status and origin. Vitamins are organic compounds (made in living organisms such as plants and animals) that can be broken down in various ways within the body. Minerals are inorganic (they are found in soil and water) and cannot be broken down.

For example, when you eat a fruit or vegetable, you consume the vitamins it has produced and the minerals it has drawn up from the earth. For the most part, we need to get our vitamins and minerals through food and/or supplements because the human body cannot produce them.

To get enough of each micronutrient, we need to consume a wide variety of food. In some cases, supplementation can help.

macronutrient infographic

What are Macronutrients?

Unlike vitamins and minerals, macronutrients are much simpler to keep track of. For starters, there are only three of them – proteins, carbs, and fats. Well, there are also fiber and alcohol, but their deal is a bit different.

We need carbs, fats, and protein in much larger doses, hence the ‘macro.’

Where we only need micrograms or milligrams of the many vitamins and minerals, we need many grams of proteins, carbs, and fats. That’s because macronutrients carry a caloric value for each gram.

Proteins and carbs both have four calories per gram, and fats have nine. Alcohol has seven calories per gram and fiber, which is technically a carb, has four. But since alcohol is not essential and researchers still can’t figure out how many of its calories count, we’ll mostly ignore it today. Fiber is in a similar boat, seeing as we can’t break it down into simple sugars like a traditional carb.

Now, since the human body needs calories to survive and function, we need to eat up. The three macronutrients also have their specific roles within the body. Carbs are the primary source of energy in the body, and glucose (a simple carb) is the primary fuel for the brain. Proteins provide the body with the building blocks (amino acids) it needs to repair itself and grow. Fats support brain health and hormonal balance, protect our organs, help the body create new cells, regulate our body temperature, and more.

We need to consume all three macronutrients to function properly, feel good, build muscle, and stay healthy.

Suggestion: Another article on Pump Some Iron discusses nutrition for gaining muscle.  It’s called “Slow Bulk: How to Minimize Fat Gain While Bulking”

What Nutrients Do We Need to Grow Muscle?

Aside from proper recovery and productive training, we also need to pay careful attention to what we eat if we want to grow muscle. Training is what stimulates us to build muscle, but if we don’t supply the body with the right nutrients, all that effort will go to waste.

Without further ado, here is how to ensure maximum muscle growth through proper nutrition.

  1. Adequate calorie and protein intake.

This is the most critical aspect. Past the beginner stage of lifting, you’ll find it incredibly hard, impossible even, to build any new muscle if you don’t eat enough calories.

But what does ‘enough’ mean? Well, you need to consume slightly more calories than you burn each day (i.e., create a caloric surplus). The general recommendation is to consume 200-300 calories above your maintenance level. That way, your body will have the energy it needs to perform its many tasks and build the new muscle tissue.

You also need to supplement the caloric surplus with adequate protein intake. A good rule of thumb is to eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight while bulking or 1.5 grams per pound while cutting.

As we discussed earlier, protein provides the body with the amino acids it needs to repair itself and grow, which fully applies to muscle tissue. If you don’t, the excess calories will only contribute to fat gain.

Suggestion: After you are done reading this one, check out this related article on PumpSomeIron.com to find out how much protein your body can absorb at once. 

infographic explaining the effect of fat on muscle gain

  1. Enough fats.

Protein and carbs can acutely impact our muscle-building efforts. If you don’t eat enough protein, your body won’t be able to synthesize new muscle tissue. If you don’t eat enough carbs, you’ll feel tired and flat, unable to complete your workouts.

Fats work more subtly. They impact many processes within the body and have a hand in hormonal secretion. If you eat a very low-fat diet for a while, it will take time for the effects catch up to you. If they do catch up to you, the result could be lower testosterone.

In this study, a group of 30 Men were fed a low fat diet for 6 weeks.  The researches found that, even in this short amount of time, the test subjects total testosterone and free testosterone both dropped by ten percent.  Over a longer period of time, testosterone levels could decrease even more.  As someone looking to gain muscle, we want to maximize testosterone. Not lower it.

A good rule of thumb is to consume 0.3 to 0.6 grams of fats per pound of body weight. If you weigh 160 pounds, aim to consume between 48 and 96 grams per day.

  1. Enough carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates, being the primary source of energy for the body, are essential for muscle growth. Training and other physical activities deplete our muscle and liver glycogen. After that, carbs help us replenish these stores of energy for our next workout.

Also, when we don’t consume enough carbs, the body begins to break down fats and protein into glucose.

Now, carb needs will vary significantly between people with the three main factors being sex, age, and activity level. So long as you cover your protein and fat requirements, you should aim to get your remaining calories from carbs.

So, wait, does the macronutrient ratio matter for muscle gain?

It does matter but things don’t have to be exact or complicated.  Saying, “one must eat 30% carbs per day” sounds good on paper, But that assumes we are all the same. Which we are not.

The fact is, these ratios sound good on paper but wouldn’t work equally well for everyone. That is why abiding by the above rules is going to be much better for you. It’s less confusing, and you have greater flexibility.

If you feel like eating more carbs one day, all you have to do is reduce your fat intake. The opposite also works.

Below is a related video from Jeff Nippard on Youtube.  Pumpsomeiron.com is in no way related to Jeff.  I just like his stuff.

Are vitamins needed for muscle growth and repair?

So long as you cover your calories, protein, carbs, and fats, you will get the majority of your results. But if you want to stay healthy in the long run and potentially get a bit more gains in the gym, you should pay attention to your vitamins.

Researchers have found that vitamins A, B2, B3, B6, B12, C, D, and E play a direct role in muscle repair and growth through various mechanisms.

What about minerals?

Much like vitamins, minerals are also essential for us, and certain deficiencies (such as in zinc) may lead to lower levels of testosterone.

Here are some of the most important ones, according to the literature: zinc, magnesium, copper, selenium, iron, and calcium.

Which is Better: IIFYM vs. Clean Eating?

The term IIFYM misleads many people because it comes off as, “Eat whatever you want, so long as it fits your macros.” To be sure, that’s it, but a lot of people take it up as a personal challenge to eat as much junk as possible while hitting their calories and macros.

Of course, this type of dietary freedom has its benefits, but it might not be the best long-term approach, especially for people who care about their health. Here are a few things to consider:

Consideration #1: The long-term impact of unhealthy eating.

This one is pretty clear. Our food choices play an essential role in our long-term health, and if you care about that, you should base the majority of your diet on whole, nutritious foods. It’s also important to get all the essential vitamins and minerals.

Consideration #2: The acute effects of low-quality foods.

We’ve all felt the acute effects of low-quality food. You could eat enough calories, and protein with a low-quality diet, but consider how you feel throughout the day.

In most cases, there are sudden spikes and drops in energy, brain fog, irritability, and overall sluggishness. Not to mention digestive issues, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.

Whole, nutritious foods deliver the essential vitamins and minerals we need for many different processes. They also provide the fiber that delivers numerous benefits, including digestive ones. And to top it all off, we also get slow-digesting carbohydrates that offer a steady stream of energy throughout the day.

Consideration #3: The protein quality.

A complete protein is one that has all nine essential amino acids. The issue is, many foods out there don’t offer complete protein.

It’s one thing to get 30 grams of protein from steak, and it’s a whole other thing to get it from a combination of refined bread, cookies, and chips.

So, it’s not just essential to consume enough protein every day, but we also need to pay attention to the sources.

Sure, you could hit your goal of, say, 180 grams of protein from a combination of junk foods, meat, dairy, and some vegetables. But we could argue that getting the same protein amount from whole, and nutritious meals is going to lead to better gains in the long run.

Consideration #4: The potential issues with satiety based on certain foods.

Some people have large appetites and have a hard time not getting fat during a bulk. For such individuals, it’s best to eat as little junk as possible and save all the calories for more filling foods such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

On the other hand, there are those – often called hardgainers – who have small appetites. And they would probably have to eat some junk food here and there to consume enough calories every day.

So, Clean Eating or IIFYM?

Based on the four recommendations from above, I would say that most people would do best with a modified clean eating approach. In other words, base the majority of your diet on the whole, nutritious foods and leave up to 15-20% of your calories for your favorite treats.

First, this will ensure that you get enough vitamins, minerals, and fiber into your diet. You’ll also get plenty of high-quality protein, slow-digesting carbs, and healthy fats.

Secondly, it gives you the freedom to enjoy your favorite foods in moderation. Come now, we all need a break from the chicken and broccoli. It’s okay to enjoy some junk food. So long as you mostly consume healthy foods, there’s no reason you can’t have some ice cream on a hot summer’s day or a few cookies after dinner.

Plus, you can keep your social life and enjoy meals and snacks outside with friends and family without having to worry if everything is 100% clean.

Conclusion

As with most things in life, nutrition is also about balance. Neither extreme is good in the long run.

We should have the freedom to enjoy our favorite foods from time to time, and we should be able to have dessert after dinner.

But we also shouldn’t eat like twelve-year-olds and only care about some arbitrary macro numbers.

Arguably, to make the best possible progress in the gym and stay healthy over the decades, you should base your diet around whole foods.