Many in the strength training community commonly experience poor appetite in the off season. This can greatly impede progress for those who are trying to gain muscle. Eating large amounts of whole foods day in and day out often becomes repetitive and, in fact, very draining. This can actually lead to a decrease in gym performance, lowered insulin sensitivity, an increase in bloating and gas, and a reduction in total caloric intake over time as the appetite gets lower and lower. Weight loss can be the unwanted result.
It might seem like a dream come true to be able to justify overeating with a praiseworthy goal, but eating large amounts of junk—consisting of flavorful foods such as pancakes, burgers, fries, fried food, candy, cereals, refined foods, packaged foods, and pizza—does not provide the nutrients that are needed to grow and perform well. These foods provide nothing but empty calories and no micronutrients; they are also too high in fat and refined carbohydrates. Eating this way might make sense to combat a poor appetite, but it is counterproductive for athletes. It would contribute to unwanted body fat accumulation and possibly increase serum cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as making it even more difficult to eat your off season diet plan. So, what can be done? Here are 7 steps that you can follow to enhance appetite and resolve the most common bloating issues.
1. Consume Easy to Digest Carbohydrates
Oatmeal, potatoes, whole wheat pasta, and brown rice are considered to be the best carbohydrates for growth. These might be excellent options if you want to control body fat and reduce appetite because they are nutrient dense, higher in fiber, and improve glycemic control. But when increasing appetite is the goal, carbohydrates that are easiest to digest, lower in fiber, and do not contain wheat can help. Wheat can cause gas and bloating in some people, particularly when eaten in excess. Rice products are by far the best choice. For example, white rice, rice cakes, gluten-free carbohydrate products (made with rice), and cream of rice are non-gas forming, digest easily, and are generally easy to eat if prepared correctly. (TIP: Invest in a rice cooker—it is money well spent.)
2. Eliminate Gas Forming Foods
Gas is a huge problem for people who eat an excessive amount of whole foods. Carbohydrates are usually the cause of most gas related issues, but other culprits can be vegetables and dry spices containing either garlic or onion. The most common gas forming foods are garlic, onion, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes, oatmeal (in excess), sugar alcohols (found in diet products), and wheat products (in excess). Avoid or limit these foods. Find alternatives and choose spices that do not have garlic or onion in the first two ingredients. Choose lower gas forming vegetables such as romaine lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, and green beans. Choose white potatoes over sweet potatoes if gas and bloating persist.
3. Change Fat Intake
Fats can be a double-edged sword in the attempt to increase calories and appetite. Generally, fats decrease appetite because they decrease gastric emptying and digest slowly, leaving you feeling full for much longer. However, fats are very calorie dense and provide more than double the number of calories per gram than carbohydrates and protein. It may be easier to eat more fats per meal than carbohydrates, which is true in my case. Try both and see what works best for you. Limit fat intake to 10g per meal and increase carbohydrates, and then try increasing fats to 20g or even 30g per meal and lower carbohydrate intake. If one works better than the other in enhancing your appetite, stay with what works.
4. Add Cardio/Get Moving
Nothing kills appetite more than being sedentary. We commonly assume that we need to eliminate cardio and rest as much as possible in order to provide the best environment for muscle hypertrophy. While doing a lot of cardio or participating in long strenuous hikes or physical activities can be counterproductive, small short bouts of cardio of 10-20 minutes can do wonders for the appetite. Going even further, doing 10-20 minutes of high intensity interval cardio can increase the appetite even more. Adding this cardio in the fasting state or separate from training is the best, but doing it post workout is still beneficial. Short duration intermittent cardio is very effective in increasing appetite.
5. Drink Majority of Fluids Between Meals
Drinking a large quantity of fluids with meals can dilute the stomach acid and delay digestion. It can also cause bloating and stomach distention post meal in some people. To avoid this, try drinking the majority of fluids between meals and limit fluid with meals.
6. Avoid Overeating/Cheat Meals Midday
This tip is counterintuitive. It is easy and can be very enjoyable to kick back and overindulge in favorite foods, but this can reduce the desire to eat for days. Overeating destroys appetite. If the goal is to eat five to six meals per day which will provide sufficient calories for your goal, overeating early in the day will most likely reduce or eliminate any appetite for the next meal. This lack of appetite will likely snowball
and extend into the next day. It is possible to enjoy some nice meals out from time to time and even to overeat occasionally. However, it is better to limit cheat meals to once or twice per week and have them as the last meal of the day. This may go against conventional wisdom, but the goal is to gain weight and enhance appetite, not shed fat. Just a caution, though, do not binge out and stuff yourself. That only causes the fat cells to grow.
7. Take the Time to Make and Prepare Your Food
Food preparation is the biggest issue for most people. It is difficult to find the time to prepare and cook food properly. In fact, cooking may be a very new experience for some of you, and require special effort. Plain baked chicken breasts and rice in a pot can be hard to eat when you need to eat many pounds of meat and six or more cups of rice per day for weeks on end. Take the time to learn how to make palatable meals. It is absolutely necessary for you to enjoy the food you eat, otherwise you will not be able to consistently eat in order to gain your desired mass and strength. You can find many free cooking videos online, so take advantage of those resources and learn to make some good food you will enjoy eating.
If low appetite is a problem in the off season and you are still interested in gaining muscle, these tips will help. For those who find time an issue, you will be surprised how restructuring your day slightly can make a huge difference. Personally, I find that rising only 45 minutes earlier in the day gives me plenty of time to prepare better food. Small sacrifices, big rewards.