Calories, Carbs, Fats and Building Muscle from NYC Registered Dietitian

Last blog, I discussed why protein is a critical component of strength training and how much somebody should have to maintain, and build, muscle.

There are other factors in the equation that many don’t pay attention to. Mostly, I think, because of the media and TV perpetuating the idea of hyper-protein diets in those who want to build muscle. Too much protein is not only not necessary (the majority of people I work with aren’t elite athletes who are competing in the Tour de France), but it is also unhealthy. Too much protein can cause many health problems including problems with our gut health, bad breath (ketosis), excess urination (to rid the body of ammonia, a by-product of protein metabolism), which is not good for the bones.

Like everything I discuss – from nutrition to movement – life is about balance.

Anybody who is active – everybody who walks the earth – needs sufficient calories, carbohydrates, and fats to build strength and function.

Muscle is harder to build, and maintain, as we age. After the age of 30, everybody begins to lose muscle. But with the right exercises, and right diet, we can maintain muscle and even build. Strength training is a critical piece of fitness, and everybody should work to build muscle at least twice/week. 

So, where do carbs, fats, and calories fit in this equation?

Carbs are critical for muscles. Again, the body is about balance. When we eat carbs (put down the donut!) – complex carbs, like whole-grain pastas and rice, quinoa, fruits and vegetables, pulses (like lentils, beans, and chickpeas ) – our muscles receive the necessary fuel they need to function. Yes, you use carbs to lift those weights not protein! Men and women who are strength training two times each week need at least half of their calories from carbs each day.  (Just a note: An hour before weight training, it’s a good idea to not eat too much of a high-fiber carb … for pretty obvious reasons.)

bagel sandwich

Fats, too, are essential for the body to function well. Saturated fats (fats derived primarily from animal products but also coconut and palm oil) are fundamental in several body functions including the construction of cell membranes, organ padding, hormone production, immune function, and more. Unsaturated fats (like avocado, nuts, fish, the fats most common in the Mediterranean Diet), also build cell membranes, lower LDL cholesterol levels, and reduce inflammation. Fats should make up between 25 and 30% of your total calories each day. Steer clear of trans fats. Always!

And finally, we need to discuss calories.

A calorie is, simply put, a unit of energy. Each person’s caloric needs differ depending on their age, gender, size, activity level and metabolism. Basically, the body is a beautiful machine that uses only what it needs. Everything it doesn’t need gets used as energy or stored as fat. Too many calories cause weight gain. So, how much is too much? If you eat when you are hungry and stop when you start to feel full, you won’t eat too much. Yes, even if you only have 5 fries left and a bite of your burger, stop! Those extra calories add up over time and slowly increase your waistline. The more active you are, the more you’ll need. 


Not all units of energy work alike. Every bite matters. If you fill your body with “empty” calories (fast foods, high-calorie coffee drinks that can cost you 1/3 of your caloric needs for one day), it puts into perspective what we’re putting on our plates, and in our bodies.  Choose your meals, and snacks, well!

Building muscle and strength training are critical to health – at any age. Fueling the body with the right balance of protein, carbs, fat, and calories is part of the equation.