How To Bulk Up and Get Gains on a Paleo Diet

January 11, 2016
by Michelle Pellizzon for Thrive Market
How To Bulk Up and Get Gains on a Paleo Diet

Most people turn to a Paleo diet after hearing about crazy-fast weight loss from their friends who have already gone the primal route. But what about those lucky people who actually need to gain weight on their diets? 

If you're reading this thinking, "WHAT! Who goes on a diet to gain weight?", you're not alone. It's borderline-obnoxious for those trying to lose a few pounds to learn that someone is actively trying to nudge the scale up. But there are plenty of people who want to gain: women who want more curves, high school–aged athletes who want to add a few weight classes, men interested in generally bulking up—the list goes on.

For most, though, the aim is to put on muscle without accumulating too much excess body fat. Often people will try to bulk up by indiscriminately adding calories to their diet—pretty much eating everything in sight—and are shocked when they end up just looking kinda puffy and fat instead of strong and ripped. Sure, noshing on cheesy nachos and Twinkies all day long will bulk you up, but it'll also make it a lot more difficult to create the muscle definition you crave.

Want proof? The best professional bodybuilders in the industry follow strict meal plans when it comes to bulking—and junk food is nowhere to be found.

While it's true that the Paleo diet is excellent for creating a lean, healthy physique almost effortlessly, with a few small additions, it's also a pretty great way to put on muscle and weight. You still need to hit the gym and pound a few sets of heavy lifts, but the majority of body composition change comes from nutrition. If you need more convincing, here are a few reasons why eating Paleo works so well for bulking up.

1. The diet is high in nutrient-dense foods

One of the main tenets of the Paleo diet is to eschew processed food and instead stock up on veggies, protein, some low-sugar fruits, healthy fats, and, depending on how strict you're following, select whole grains. Intrinsically, eating food like this will leave your body feeling more satiated, even though you're eating the same amount of—or even fewer—calories than what you might normally. The high amounts of quality protein and carbohydrates help muscles repair more quickly, which is exactly what you want if you're trying to put on muscle.

2. It's easy to add high-quality calories

One of the most important aspects of bulking to gain muscle (or fat!) is an increase in caloric intake. "You’re going to be expending so much energy on the lifts, you’ll continue to burn through it even on rest days," says Mark Sisson of Mark's Daily Apple.

According to trainer Michael Matthews, "If you undereat, your body simply won’t be able to build much muscle." To encourage muscle growth, some experts recommend upping your daily caloric intake by about 10 percent; others suggest a more aggressive increase of 20 to 30 percent. However, adding this many calories can cause the body to store them as fat, in turn sabotaging muscle growth as increased body fat slows insulin sensitivity. This causes even more fat storage and decreases testosterone, the androgen responsible for building muscles.

The key is getting protein and fat calories in the form of high-quality foods. Eating a clean diet like Paleo makes that pretty easy. "While eating clean, Primal foods, fat accumulation shouldn’t be an issue at all," says Sisson. He suggests never letting your protein intake go lower than 1 gram per pound of body weight when you're aiming to add long-term muscle. "Protein is the building block of muscle, and your body is going to be starving for it," he says.  Supplement your meals with extra grass-fed beef, eggs, fatty fish, cricket flour protein bars, and wild-caught salmon and tuna.

3. Paleo foods are tasty (even if you cheat)

OK, so it's inevitable that you'll have a day where you don't exactly follow your diet protocol perfectly. It's fine—cheat days are even built into some bulking diets. But if you really go crazy and inhale processed sugar or suck down Cheetos like you found the last bag on the planet, the body's addiction centers activate, too. That means it's going to be way easier to fall off your diet in the future when confronted with junk food.

Instead, cheat clean. There are tons of Paleo-friendly foods that are super healthy even though they look and taste like "junk food" (including caramel–and–sea salt coconut butter cups and dark chocolate). Stick to the approved list, and you'll be much less likely to fall off the bandwagon all together.

The Paleo diet can be a great choice for those looking to bulk up and build more muscle. Instead of sabotaging your health with weird supplements and unhealthy foods in an attempt to make huge gains, live a clean lifestyle to get the same, if not better, results.

Photo credit: Alicia Cho

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This article is related to: Diet, Exercise, Fitness, Gluten-Free, Nutrition, Organic, Paleo, Tips

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  • Jesse

    Wow. Whole grains are not even remotely acceptable on a paleo diet. Also, there are TONS of articles and discussion boards online that explain the great difficulty people experience when trying to gain mass while eating a paleo diet. This article entirely missed the subject of adding quality dairy to a paleo regimen, a better alternative to whole grains by far. I love Thrive Market but the quality of your blog posts leaves much to be desired in terms of research and accuracy.

  • Legend79

    Gaining on a Paleo diet for hard gainers is....from experience I can tell you is a bit/h. If you don't have a lot to time to prep and of course shop for the extra, then the extra after that amounts, you will flounder. Personally, I can't eat that much on a regular, non-paleo diet (Mediterranean, etc) and gain much, struggling to always maintain, and having gone Paleo last year, I burned myself out...due to my underfed workouts and all the stress of trying to shop, prep and eat enough.

    One thing never truly addressed by the experts is how much extra time is needed to eat such narrowly defined diets. Oh they can advise to prep ahead, etc...but that only goes so far...and shopping and prepping starts to take on a life of its own.