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Foods with Leucine Strengthen Your Muscles

Ori Hofmekler is the author of The Warrior Diet, The Anti-Estrogenic Diet, Maximum Muscle Minimum Fat, and the upcoming book Unlock Your Muscle Gene. In this interview, he discusses how to build muscle and improve your health through nutrition.
Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Ori Hofmekler is an expert on how to use food to build muscle and improve your health. This topic is also the focus of his latest book, Unlock Your Muscle Gene, and I've learned a lot from him personally on how to optimize nutrition to enhance exercise performance.

Like Ori, I too believe that, as a species, humans are not designed to be overweight and unfit; we're actually genetically programmed to be lean and muscular, with potential for extreme longevity.  Unfortunately, most people are not fulfilling this genetic promise due to inactivity and poor diet. Even those who exercise regularly have trouble reaching the lofty goals Ori talks about.

But why?

Part of the problem is choosing ineffective forms of exercise.

Ever since I learned about the benefits of high-intensity interval training, which I termed "Peak Fitness," my physique has changed dramatically—despite the fact that I've been exercising regularly for over 40 years. I used to run, so I wasn't exercising my super-fast, white muscle fibers. Once I started, the metamorphosis was quite dramatic.

I believe the excessive focus on cardio may be part of the reason why so many are not seeing very dramatic improvements in their physique. Ori agrees, saying:

"I believe that most cardiovascular exercise is "junk exercise." It's like, they eat junk food, and they do junk exercise. People feel they are moving but they don't really progress."

I've already written extensively about the how-to's and health benefits of Peak Fitness-type exercises, so here we will focus on the nutrition required for optimal muscle building, fitness, and health.

Nutrition for Fitness

The common belief is that if you want to build muscle, you need to eat lots of protein and carbohydrates because carbohydrates fuel your muscles. However, the evidence that has emerged over the past several years shows us it's not that simple.

Ori describes one amazing finding in particular—that your body has a mechanism that allows it to build muscle even when deprived of food.

As it turns out, amino acids and protein serve not just as building blocks for tissues and muscle. Certain amino acids can also signal genes in your muscle to grow and to build protein, and they do that even during times of food deprivation as long as these amino acids are circulating through your blood stream.

Moreover, scientists have found that the ratio between protein and carbohydrates is critically important, especially as you age. Research shows that high-carbohydrate diets fail to build muscle even in younger people. Again and again, it's the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet that proves the most effective both for muscle building and weight loss.

So, there are two primary factors involved in effective fitness nutrition:

  1. A high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet
  2. Your diet must contain certain amino acids, the most notable of which is leucine

Leucine—A Powerful Muscle Builder

Leucine is part of branched-chain amino acid found in certain foods. It serves multiple functions in your body, one of which is signaling the mTOR (Mammalian Target of Rapamycin) mechanism, which causes protein to be created and builds your muscle. However, according to Ori, you need far more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of leucine in order to reap the optimal effect.

"You really need massive amounts of this amino acid," Ori says.

The highest concentrations of leucine and other branched chain amino acids (BCAA) are found in dairy products; particularly quality cheese and whey protein.

However, even though leucine is relatively abundant in our food supply, it is often wasted as an energy substrate or used as a building block rather than an anabolic agent. This means that to establish the right anabolic environment, you should try to increase leucine consumption beyond maintenance requirements. This is why Ori states you need "massive amounts" of it.

But beware that only FOOD BASED leucine can benefit your muscles without side effects. Using leucine as a free form amino acid can be highly counterproductive.

Intravenous administration of free form amino acids including leucine has shown to cause severe hyperglycemic reactions and insulin resistance. Apparently, when free form amino acids are artificially administrated, they rapidly enter your circulation while disrupting insulin function, and impairing your body's glycemic control.

This proves again that we're programmed to benefit from whole food nutrition only.

So how much leucine in the form of foods, NOT supplements, do you need to consume to get results?

Based on nitrogen-balance measurements, the requirement for leucine to maintain body protein is 1-3 grams daily. And to optimize its anabolic pathway, it has been estimated that leucine requirement should be about 8g - 16g daily. The following chart presents leucine content in common foods:

Leucine Content in food / per 100g

Whey Protein Concentrate 8.0g
Raw Cheddar Cheese 3.6g
Lean Beef 1.7g
Salmon 1.6g
Almonds 1.5g
Chicken 1.4g
Chick Peas 1.4g
Raw Eggs 1.0g
Egg Yolk 1.4g
Sheep Milk 0.6g
Pork 0.4g
Cow Milk 0.3g

This means that to get the minimum 8 gram leucine requirement for anabolic purposes, you need the following amounts of food:

  • a pound and a half of chicken
  • three pounds of pork
  • over a pound of almonds (over 3000 calories)
  • over a pound and a half of raw eggs (16 eggs)
  • half a pound of raw cheddar cheese

and remarkably, only 3oz of high-quality whey.

As you can see, whey protein supplementation can effectively allow you to get the minimum leucine you need to build muscle without consuming excessive amounts of food and calories.

Not All Carbs are Created Equal

You also need to pay attention to the quality and type of carbohydrates. You can get your carbs from high fructose corn syrup, or from breads and pasta, or from vegetables. The source makes a major difference.

"The reason why carbohydrates often fail is the glycemic index," Ori explains. "If carbohydrates are simple, they spike your insulin. Many still don't understand that after just one high-glycemic meal your insulin receptors are already becoming less sensitive. So when you have your second high-carb meal, you don't utilize the carbohydrates as well."

So low-glycemic fibrous carbohydrates are best. Nuts and seeds like almonds and chia seeds also contain carbohydrates, but they're low on the glycemic index, and they also contain good protein.

Both Ori and I agree that grains are rarely ideal sources of carbs—even though there are lower glycemic grains such as oats and barley.

Fructose is clearly at the bottom of the list, for a wide range of reasons. For those of you who may protest, saying that fructose is low on the glycemic index, it's important to realize that fructose adversely affects insulin (and leptin) signaling, and that is a major, if not THE most important, factor determining whether a food is good for you or not.

Insulin is a critical element in your body. Your liver detects insulin activity, which helps your body determine how to metabolize your food.

"So when you eat carbohydrates that spike your insulin, your liver knows exactly how to regulate your sugar metabolism," Ori explains. "But when you eat fructose, you fool the liver because in nature, fructose hardly ever appears alone in food. When we isolate fructose… your liver can utilize only so much and then, since insulin is not spiked, there is accumulation of by-products from the sugar metabolism in your liver—to the point that it causes insulin resistance in the liver itself.

So, your liver starts to throw out by-products and your body shifts into a state of insulin resistance. Worse, your body converts these by-products to triglycerides… So now you got insulin resistance, high lipids, and hypertension. The correlation between fructose, diabetes, and obesity is clear and proven."

You can add heart disease to that list of likely inevitabilities too, because fructose raises triglycerides and lowers HDL ("good" cholesterol), and the triglycerides to HDL ratio is one of the most potent predictors of cardiovascular disease we know of.

Insulin Resistance Leads to Muscle Wasting

Insulin performs multiple functions in your body. It helps mobilize or signal a certain kind of protein to mobilize glucose from outside your cells, and it's a satiety hormone that affects your hunger. It's also closely inter-connected with another hunger-regulating hormone: leptin.

In addition, it's part of the mechanism mentioned earlier called mTOR, which is part of the insulin pathway.  The mechanism that builds protein in your muscles is part of the insulin cascade pathway as well. It cannot be bypassed.

"Anything, in order to build protein in the muscle and grow muscle, must activate the mTOR mechanism, which activates what's called the "eukaryotic initiation factor" that…signals the muscle to build protein. If your insulin receptors are insensitive, like with type 2 diabetes, muscle wasting is inevitable. So you must keep your insulin receptors sensitive."

Other hormones can also activate the mTOR mechanism, such as testosterone (the anabolic effect of IGF-1) and, indirectly, human growth hormone (HGH) as it relates to IGF-1.

The Correlation Between Human Growth Hormone and Hunger

Human growth hormone is an anabolic hormone that also plays a role in hunger, along with the other hunger-regulating hormones, insulin and leptin.

"Let's say you are on a vegan diet, you eat a lot of whole grains, some pea protein, and some nuts," Ori says. "I can tell you now, your chances to build muscle are very slim. In fact, your chances to burn fat are also very slim. This is a serious problem.

I'm not against veganism. If it's done in a smart way it could be effective. In fact, I highly recommend the lacto-vegetarian diet. If you don't want to eat meat because of humane reason, I respect that. But the lacto-vegetarian diet has proven to be the most effective…

There is more science about the anabolic effect and the health benefit of milk protein than any other protein group in the world, more than meat, fish, and eggs. It's important to eat a high protein diet to build muscle along with low-glycemic carbohydrates."

It's worth remembering here that your ancestors didn't eat pasta or refined carbs. They ate animal products, dairy, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. So why would you suddenly need those types of carbs to grow muscle today?

"The question is, how did our ancestors manage to be so physically active while resisting hunger and sometimes lack of food, yet be in such great shape? We evolved to compensate for that," Ori says.

"One of the interesting things that happened is a process in your liver that converts amino acid to glucose. It's called the glucose-alanine cycle. It's one of the most efficient, primitive, and strong mechanisms in the human body.

Your body is so efficient in converting amino acid to glucose for energy that it… releases to your blood exactly the amount of glucose you need during times of lack of food or physical activity."… [W]hen you exercise on an empty stomach, your body will use amino acids for breakage of tissue."

However, your muscles are not the primary or only source, despite the fact that they are reservoirs of protein, so you don't need to worry that you're breaking down muscle.

"In fact, other peripheral tissue will try to break mostly the inactive muscle," Ori explains. "In the active muscle, there's a preservation mechanism—a very interesting phenomenon of "muscle shifting." If you know how to eat and when to eat… your body becomes very efficient in redesigning itself. The active muscle will build. The less active part will be recycled.

Protein will be recycled.

But, interestingly—going back to glucose—during that condition of semi-fasting and exercising, or if you just eat protein before exercising, your body will be extremely efficient in using exactly the amount of glucose that you need and no more. It's perfect efficiency.

Every time you eat a carbohydrate meal you shut down this mechanism; it doesn't exist anymore. Most people eat carbohydrate meals before exercise and then they hit the wall."

The Importance of INTENSE Exercise

Unfortunately, most people engage in the least effective type of exercise. Jogging and endurance training typically does not involve sufficient intensity to effectively shed excess fat and build muscle. You'll burn calories, yes, but you're not developing your body and regular aerobic training can even cause your testosterone levels to decrease; sometimes dramatically, according to Ori's research.

This is just as important for women as it is for men.

"The human female, unlike other females in the animal kingdom, is ready to mate all year round. When you look at the human size, there's not a big difference between men and women, as you see with other animals. Take the male gorilla versus the female gorilla, for example; the difference is huge. Same with the chimpanzees, tigers and wolves. But with humans, the females are sometimes as big as the male, or not that far away.

She has high testosterone, which is a potency or libido hormone for women too.

… So we are a testosterone driven species. We cannot allow losing this hormone. Yet we live in an environment that femininizes us with chemicals, with the wrong foods, and with the wrong exercise.

Exercise is not always beneficial. Sometimes it can be counter-effective. If exercise uses your testosterone; if it creates bad body composition, meaning wasting of muscle and building of fat; if it exhausts you, then it's not good for you.

As you age, you really need to be smart with the way you exercise. You can't just waste energy… You really need to know what to do, how to exercise, how to eat and what to eat."

Summary of Carb Rules

To sum up the subject of carbohydrates, Ori says:

"There is nothing wrong with eating carbohydrates if you just want to enjoy them, as a certain kind of a fuel that is very efficient for glycogen reserve. But it's not a necessary food to build muscle, and it could become problematic when it's overused in ratio to protein.

Carbohydrate foods are mostly grains, potatoes, starchy food, the endosperm of the grain and stuff like that. That is a carbohydrate food. Beans and peas are arguable whether they are really carbohydrates. They are more protein food in my opinion. The carbs are very complex and whole.

… [E]ven seed like chia seeds, which I really like by the way… have very good composition. At the end of the day, this is a protein food."

Chia seeds also have the highest omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of any of the seeds out there and could easily be called a super-food.  As for protein, one of the best sources of high-quality protein is whole whey made from grass-fed cows. As discussed above, it's also a marvelous source of leucine, which you need in abundance if you want to boost muscle growth.

For more information, please see my previous interview with Ori where we discuss the health benefits of whey protein specifically.

+ Sources and References