Gaining Muscle Mass With IBS (and Other GI Disorders)
Before we begin, please note that this article is not meant to substitute professional medical advice, nor is it meant to provide a diagnosis or treatment to irritable bowel syndrome or any other gastrointestinal disorder. If you haven’t already, you should consult with a healthcare professional to find a suitable treatment option.
Lifting weights is all fun and games until you realize nutrition is what accounts for most of your training success.
While many people struggle to eat less in order to lose body fat, there is also an unfortunate bunch for whom a high-calorie diet seems completely out of reach.
When the reason boils down to a gastrointestinal disorder, such as irritable bowel syndrome, Chron’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, or any other of the physical abnormalities some of us have been blessed with, the solution isn’t as simple as “just eat more”.
For many of us, pain and discomfort are part of daily routine. This results in a stressful and complicated relationship with food, which exacerbates emotional stress, anxiety and depression, often impacting appetite in the process.
Now, I’ll be the first to say I don’t consider myself a poster child for gaining muscle with a GI disorder.
But, having been diagnosed with IBS about 4.5 years ago, I’ve been able to discern what (mostly) works and what doesn’t work based on my own personal experience, and those of clients I have previously worked with.
With that said, the information you are about to read is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and my own research done on the topic.
Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to give hard, cold guidelines that will apply to everyone with digestive issues. My first piece of advice then is to figure out what works for you based on your personal experiments with food, and to keep those in mind as you consider the suggestions within this article.
Before we begin, let’s go back to the basics of nutrition.
Calories In, Calories Out
If your goal is to gain weight, you need to ingest more calories than your body requires. This is known as a caloric surplus.
A reasonable surplus for someone who’s trying to gain muscle mass ranges from 300 to 500 extra calories per day. This is in addition to maintenance calories, which is the amount of calories needed to maintain your current bodyweight. (Note: we won’t go into the details of figuring out how many calories you need to eat; that’s a topic for a future article).
In terms of nutrients, muscle gain requires an adequate amount of protein to build and repair tissue. The recommended figures are 1.6g/kg of bodyweight to 2.2g/kg of bodyweight.
For someone who weighs 60kg, a daily diet consisting of 120 g of protein is a great place to start.
Just to give you an idea, 120g of protein is approximately two protein shakes (25g of protein each), 270g of chicken (50g of protein), plus trace protein you get from foods such as grains, dairy, etc.
Outside of protein needs, the remainder of your daily calories may be filled with virtually any combination of fats and carbohydrates.
For those with GI disorders, a high-carb diet will likely be easier to sustain than a high-fat diet. Plus, carbohydrates are great fuel for heavy strength training, so keep that in mind when choosing your preferred ratio – and don’t be afraid of carbs!
Now, the question is: should you be tracking your calories?
If you frequently under-eat, yes, you should. This will at least give you an idea of how much you’re eating, and how much more you need to eat for your goals.
Once you’ve established a routine that allows you to consistently hit a caloric target, then you can consider ditching the kitchen scale and eating by ‘feel’ instead.
Muscle Growth: Simple, But Far From Easy
As mentioned before, eating more isn’t always as easy as opening a cupboard or having 1000 kcal milkshakes in the morning.
If you suffer from a GI disorder, food selection is paramount, and unfortunately for us, most of the high-calorie foods tend to send us straight into a spiral of pain, discomfort, bloating, gas, and/or diarrhea.
The key, then, is finding other strategies that go beyond increasing portion-size and food selection.
Without further ado… let’s get to it!
1. Make Sure Your Sleep is On Point
Proper sleep is a prerequisite to a healthy gut.
It’s during sleep that the digestive system heals and repairs itself, which means those who suffer from conditions such as sleep apnea and insomnia may not be getting the recovery they need.
A study found that, in irregular-shift workers, the prevalence of IBS symptoms was significantly higher compared to regular day shift workers (32% vs 16%)(1). These workers also reported higher levels of stress and a lower quality of sleep.
If this sounds like you, consider how your lifestyle may be affecting your digestion and what possible steps you can take to remedy it.
2. Increase Meal Frequency Before Increasing Portion Size
If you currently struggle to eat enough, loading more food on your plate probably won’t work very well, at least not for long.
Instead, focus on increasing the number of meals you have during the day. This will add more calories to your diet without making you hate yourself after every meal.
Ditch the standard 3 meals per day mentality and go for 4 to 5 moderately-sized meals, supplementing with snacks as often as your schedule – and bowels – allow.
3. Stretch Out Your Feeding Window
The more hours you have in a day, the more opportunities you have to eat.
With the rise of intermittent fasting, more people are opting to skip breakfast and start eating at later hours in the day.
While this approach may work very well for those looking to lose weight, you need to maximize your eating window in order to fit in as many calories as possible.
You may also want to consider adding a pre-bed snack to your nightly routine so you don’t go to sleep hungry.
Opt for protein-rich foods that are also slow digesting, like cottage cheese, quark, peanut butter or casein protein shakes.
4. Don’t Skip Training
Training while feeling malnourished isn’t a great feeling, but it doesn’t always result in poor training sessions!
The reason for not skipping training is to retain as much muscle mass as possible.
Though you likely won’t be making significant muscle gains or setting any PRs during a flare-up, you can at least avoid losing additional muscle mass. This will give you confidence to keep trying, increase your self-esteem and, in some cases, possibly even help with digestion following the workout.
5. Eat Low-FODMAP as Much as Possible
If you have IBS, this one is non-negotiable. Figure out what hurts you, and avoid it at all costs.
Of the foods that you can tolerate well, try increasing their consumption, so long as they provide an adequate nutritional value to your diet.
Rice products, for example, tend to pack lots of carbohydrates per serving, without the presence of FODMAPs. Load up on rice, rice cakes, rice noodles, and other gluten-free products such as spaghetti made from corn and rice for a high-carbohydrate diet that is free of discomfort.
6. Drink Your Calories
If high-calorie drinks such as fruit juices and milk don’t make your symptoms worse, try increasing their consumption throughout the day.
For those with IBS or lactose intolerance, go for lactose-free milk instead of regular milk. Soy and almond products are also an option, though those often have fewer calories per serving compared to dairy products.
Protein shakes should be a part of your daily diet, with at least one but preferably two shakes per day. They are relatively cheap and can provide a good amount of protein with minimal digestive distress.
It will likely take some experimenting to find a brand that works for you, but the options are endless: whey isolate, gluten-free, vegan, egg protein, rice protein, etc. Choose a high-quality powder that you can tolerate, making sure to check for hidden triggers such as artificial sweeteners and other synthetic agents.
7. Give Digestive Enzymes a Try
Digestive enzymes such as lactase and peptidase can assist with breaking down food particles not easily digested by those with GI disorders.
In the case of IBS, enzymes that target FODMAPs such as oligossacharides and lactose can be a great way to avoid symptoms when dining out.
If you’re in the Netherlands, Disolut makes a series of products specifically for IBS sensitivities – i strongly recommend giving them a try.
8. Eat Protein-Rich or Calorie-Dense Foods First
Vegetables contain micronutrients that are necessary for the maintenance and promotion of good health.
But, when the goal is muscle mass, we need to get in as many calories as we can.
Unfortunately, vegetables often leave us feeling full faster, due to their high-fiber content, with not so many calories to show for it.
Instead, try consuming all of your calorie-rich foods early in the meal, such as carbohydrate and protein sources, then supplementing with vegetables as you’d like.
9. Eat More Calorie-Dense Foods
Food items such as condiments, dressings, sauces and oils pack ‘hidden’ calories that can help us increase our energy intake throughout the day.
Low-FODMAP items such as extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, all-natural peanut butter and lactose-free dairy products are high in calories due to their fat content.
Supplementing with a nightly dose of dairy-free ice cream and fruits is also a delicious way of staying on top of your calorie needs.
Keep in mind, foods that are high in fat may not necessarily contain FODMAPs, but they’re often not tolerated well by those with IBS. This includes the previously mentioned items, but also certain cuts of meat such as pork and ground beef.
10. But Also… Increase Your Bland Food Consumption
Foods such as rice and potatoes tend to sit well for most people, which is why they’re often recommended for those who suffer from diarrhea and other digestive complications.
They’re also high in carbohydrates, which, as mentioned earlier, is the perfect foundation to a muscle-building diet.
You can also increase your fiber intake if necessary by ingesting potato skins or opting for brown instead of white rice.
11. Consider Using Cannabis
Though this may not be my most popular recommendation, it’s certainly worth mentioning.
Cannabis works wonders for pain relief and appetite enhancement.
In the gut, cannabis affects the cannabinoid receptors which regulate pain sensations. It also reduces muscle spasms, alleviating symptoms such as gas, diarrhea, abdominal cramps and bloating.
It can reduce stress and anxiety and induce feelings of relaxation, which in turn contributes to a better emotional state and thus fewer physiological symptoms.
Of the two most known cannabinoids, THC and CBD, it is the former that has been associated with greater effects on the digestive system, including appetite enhancement (the ‘munchies’), muscle relaxation and pain suppression. THC is the main psychoactive component of cannabis, resulting in feelings of euphoria (the ‘high’), altered sensations of smell, taste and hearing, and sometimes unwanted side effects such as paranoia and anxiety.
CBD can be useful in reducing inflammation, though you won’t get as much spasticity relief as you would from THC.
For some individuals, smoking may actually make symptoms worse, so consider opting for CBD and/or THC oils, or vaporizing the plant.
12. Increase Your Energy Expenditure
This may seem counter-intuitive, but burning more calories can be a great way to stimulate your appetite.
I don’t recommend going crazy with this idea, but if you live a mostly sedentary lifestyle outside of the gym, something as simple as a daily 15-minute walk may be all you need to kickstart your appetite when you don’t feel like eating.
13. Prepare Your Meals in Advance
It’s a lot easier to eat well when you already have meals in the fridge (or in a bag) ready for consumption.
When we’re caught without food, we’re forced to choose from the options available to us. As I’m sure you’ve already experienced, it’s incredibly hard to know for sure what’s in a meal when eating food that’s not prepared by us.
Set yourself up for success by always having some gut-friendly snack on you, such as protein shakes or homemade protein bars.
14. Drink More Water
Drinking enough water has numerous health benefits. In this particular context, increasing your daily H20 consumption can help you stretch out your stomach overtime. A bigger stomach means a bigger capacity for food volume, which will eventually result in a greater appetite as well.
If all else fails, this may be a route worth considering.
15. Food Suggestions
Here are some of my personal favourites for getting in enough calories and protein while on a restrictive diet:
– Canned tuna
– Gluten-free products such as lasagna sheets, rice/corn pasta
– Oats (if you can handle insoluble fiber, oats can be a great source of carbohydrates and calories!)
– Lean meats such as fish and chicken
– Nuts and seeds
– Rice-based meals such as paella, fried-rice, stir-fries
– Sushi (you may want to skip the avocado if eating low-FODMAP)
I sincerely hope this article has been helpful to you. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them in the comments section below or to get in touch with me directly.
To your strength (and muscle gains),
1 – Ali, T. (2013). Sleep, immunity and inflammation in gastrointestinal disorders. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 19(48), 9231.
About The Author
Since 2013, Barbara has helped women of all fitness backgrounds get stronger, leaner and more confident, both inside and outside the gym.
Her passion lies in educating, empowering and encouraging women to find out what they’re capable of, and more.
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