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Anabolic Eating: What and When to Eat for Growth, Repair, and Adaptation

There has been a recent upward trend in the interest and focus on eating specific nutrients to move towards or maintain an anabolic muscle state.

The whole concept of anabolic and catabolic is best understood as a spectrum upon which your body is typically sliding toward one extreme or the other depending on the time of day, time in relation to your last “meal,” and presence or absence of specific nutrients within your body.

So the main theory behind anabolic eating is to ingest “anabolic” or “anti-catabolic” nutrients to keep you as close to the anabolic side of the spectrum as possible.  Since one way to “measure” an anabolic state is by evaluating the presence and concentration of specific anabolic hormones, the primary focus behind the theory of anabolic eating is to eat specific amounts of specific ingredients to elicit specific hormonal effects.

In my ebook Hormonal Nutrition, I extensively discuss this concept as it relates to:

  • Insulin
  • Adeponectin
  • Leptin
  • Ghrelin
  • Glucagon
  • CCK
  • PYY
  • GLP-1
  • Cortisol
  • Testosterone
  • Growth Hormone
  • IGF-1

Since Testosterone is the most “popular” and yet one of the most misunderstood hormones related to anabolism, let’s take a look at how you can manipulate your diet to alter this anabolic and muscle specific hormone.  Here are some specific sections from the book dealing with Testosterone.


Testosterone production is controlled by gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GNRH). GNRH is produced and released from the hypothalamus at specific intervals, or pulses throughout the day and night.

A pulse causes the pituitary gland to secrete Luteinizing hormone (LH), which is directly responsible for initiating the conversion of cholesterol into testosterone. Did you catch that? Cholesterol is the “backbone” of testosterone, and it serves as the backbone for every steroid hormone we produce. For this reason alone, low-fat diets should raise some red flags.

It is understood that testosterone has both direct as well as indirect effects on skeletal muscle tissue. 
One mechanism in which it does this indirectly is by increasing the pituitary gland’s production of growth hormone (GH), which also plays a major role in muscle repair and growth.

Another indirect mechanism of action for muscle growth is through the neuromuscular system and its neurotransmitters. By binding to or interacting with specific sites of the neuromuscular system, testosterone can change the amount of neurotransmitters (and thus enhancing the potential force production of muscle contraction, i.e. strength!) as well as directly influencing the structural proteins that make up the muscle cell, and thus increase the mass of the muscle cell.


Testosterone not only increases the mass of the muscle cell, but also enhances neurotransmitter volume and increases force production!

The direct effects of testosterone on muscle are complex, but in a nutshell, they lead to increases in proteins that are within muscle cells as well as the proteins that make up the structure of the cells, and thus increases muscle density and size.

It is well established that calorie restriction (dieting), regardless of the macronutrient composition, results in decreases in testosterone levels, and chronically high caloric intake that results in obesity results in reductions in testosterone production, too. So, there is a total caloric “range.”

Secondly, research is quite clear that when the total percentage of daily calories from fat is held to 20% or less over time, there is a reduction in testosterone production. This is perhaps due to an inadequate amount of available cholesterol for steroid hormone “backbones.”

Increasing the amount of fat in the diet is correlated to increases in testosterone production, though when fat makes up 40% or more of the total caloric intake (again, over time), this increase in testosterone peaks, and then actually declines. For this reason, many nutrition professionals who specialize in body composition alterations suggest a diet with “moderate” intake of fat (between 20-­‐30% of total daily calories come from fat) to have the most beneficial effects on testosterone production.

There has been conflicting data regarding diets high in protein versus diets high in carbohydrates and their effects on testosterone. Though the evidence seems to lean towards high protein diets resulting in reductions in testosterone in comparison to high carbohydrate diets (whether exercising or not), the overall effect of muscle growth should not be forgotten.

In other words, though testosterone production may decrease on a high protein diet, research is clear that a minimum threshold of protein (and slightly less important, the total daily protein intake) or essential amino acids, specifically Leucine, must be met in order to maximize muscle protein synthesis.

Recent research on this topic has shown that supplementing with the “building blocks of protein,” amino acids, (specifically the Branched Chain Amino Acids: Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine) during peroids of high-intensity resistance training results in significantly higher levels of testosterone with simultaneously significantly lower levels of cortisol and creatine kinase (a marker of muscle damage).

Zinc plays a very important role in metabolism, immune and antioxidant function, as well as in maintaining cell structure stability. It is also a very major player in the normal production and functioning of the “sex hormones.”

Research is clear that exhaustive exercise has the effect of reducing testosterone levels as well as inhibiting thyroid hormones. Research indicates that Zinc supplementation has a potential to prevent these negative effects of exhaustive exercise; however, the prevention of these effects appears to be “exercise dependent” and may only be significant in anaerobic exercise to exhaustion, as opposed to aerobic exercise to exhaustion.

Calcium supplementation in addition to exhaustive training has been shown to increase testosterone levels to a greater degree than exhaustive training alone. Along these same lines, a combination supplement of Calcium and Vitamin D results in an increase in testosterone levels in elderly men and women, and this increase is highly correlated to a reduction in the risk of falling.

Vitamin D plays a significant role in male reproductive organs, and there exists a correlation between Vitamin D levels and testosterone levels. Some research suggests a distinct seasonal variation in testosterone production, with testosterone production being highest in the summer and fall months and lowest in the winter months. It has been theorized that this is connected to the amount of Vitamin D we can make from skin exposure to sunlight. Related to this, research has shown that supplementing Vitamin D results in significant increases in testosterone levels in men.

Vitamin D for Athletes

The fastest sprinters in the country are usually from sunny states, such as California, Florida, and Texas.  Did you get your vitamin D today?

There exists some conflicting evidence on caffeine consumption and testosterone production. The theory of increased testosterone production due to Caffeine ingestion is based on the effects that certain stimulants have on catecholamine response (increased epinephrine and norepinephrine). Increased production of catecholamines results in greater stimulation of beta-adrenergic receptors, and this, in a dose-­‐dependent response, promotes testosterone production and secretion.

Many studies show an increase above normal exercise-­‐ induced elevated levels when Caffeine is ingested prior to exhaustive exercise. One specific study showed that a caffeinated chewing gum improved repeated cycling sprint performance, increased testosterone levels, delayed fatigue, and reduced cortisol. Due to Caffeine’s potential effects on testosterone stimulation, it is a very popular ingredient in pre-­‐exercise/pre-­‐competition nutritional supplements.

Though touted for its potential anti-cancer characteristics, research shows that consistent ingestion of garlic actually reduces testosterone production, among other negative effects to the male reproductive organs. Just like everything else in life, moderation is key. I do not think having garlic a couple times a week will have significant effects on testosterone production, especially if you are doing other things to enhance normal production.

Finally, since testosterone is opposed by cortisol and insulin, it is very important to reduce or manage lifestyle stressors as well as limit dietary sugar. Research shows that elevated levels of glucose and fructose inhibit the proper function of SHBG (the chaperone that escorts cortisol to muscle tissue), and thus results in immediate reductions in testosterone levels.

The exception to this would be ingesting these sugars immediately before, during, or immediately after exercise, as simple carbohydrates at these times improve performance, aid in recovery, and promote an anabolic state.

Avoid Sugar

“Simple carbs, such as sugar, can actually be your anabolic friend in the midst of exercise, but other than that, avoid them like the plague”

If the information above regarding Testosterone and specific dietary and supplement factors interests you, please check out Hormonal Nutrition.  In addition to more in-depth discussion and explanation of peer-reviewed published data on these 12 metabolically influential hormones, I also discuss practical ways to make dietary changes to help you reach your athletic performance, training, and body composition goals.

Kevin Kuhn, M.S.Ed., CSCS, MFS is a Kinesiologist and Sport Nutrition Coach in Dallas, Texas, as well as the Vice President of Research and Development for Classified Nutrition (ClassifiedNutrition.com).  Before moving to Dallas in 2012, Kevin was the head strength & conditioning coach for the Indiana Invaders professional running club in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Kevin specializes in athletic performance with great interest and experience in running-specific strength & conditioning, corrective exercise, and exercise and sport nutrition.  Kevin has been certified by the National Strength & Conditioning Association as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and as a Master Fitness Specialist by the Cooper Institute.

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