Without the right diet for muscle growth, you might as well not waste your time lifting weights. That’s because knowing how to make muscles grow through the foods you eat is going to make or break your results.
Don’t sabotage your gains with poor nutrition. Put simply: you need the right foods to gain muscle while avoiding the food that will hamper your progress.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a nutritionist to figure out what to eat to gain muscle – it’s all about sticking to the basics while keeping an open mind to foods that can potentially help propel your workouts and your gains to the maximum possible output.
If you’re confused about all the conflicting information out there about the best diet for muscle gain, then this is the guide for you! Discover dietary changes you can make today, what to eat, how often to eat, what not to eat and even foods that can help boost your all-important testosterone levels.
Table of Contents
- 1 The Importance of Nutrition for Muscle Growth
- 2 What to Eat to Build Muscle – How Much and How Often?
- 3 Conclusion
The Importance of Nutrition for Muscle Growth
Nutrition is an equal part of the muscle growth equation as your workouts are. This side of things can so often be given not much more than an afterthought: as long as you’re eating something, you’ll gain muscle, right? Not exactly.
The best food for muscle growth is not just one or two foods. Bodybuilding nutrition should be about variety. A wide range of foods that are rich in nutrients (not only protein), while avoiding the foods that do nothing but weigh you down, destroy your energy and metabolism and make you gain fat instead of muscle.
Science tells us that when you have a positive balance and synergy between the protein and nutrition you eat and the exercise you do, that’s when your protein synthesis is at its best. And it’s protein synthesis that’s the underlying mechanism to your muscle growth.
What happens if you don’t provide your body enough energy, through your food calories, to maintain your muscle and build more?
A calorie and nutrient deficient diet leads to the muscle itself being used by your body for energy rather than energy being taken from your food (your body’s fuel) – resulting in a loss of muscle mass.
Thankfully, it’s easy to avoid that happening – by eating enough calories, enough protein and importantly: the right types of foods. Quality and quantity are equal sides of the equation when it comes to planning the best diet for building muscle.
Nutrition Strategies (Rules) to Follow If You Want to Build Muscle
While muscle can certainly be successfully be built with more than one specific diet, there are some strategies or rules that you can live by with your food intake that will ensure that your diet is never the weakest link in your muscle growth plan.
In other words: if you stick to some tried and tested nutrition rules then you can spend the rest of your time focused on how you’re going to use that powerful fuel during your workouts to build massive muscle!
Here are some easy nutritional rules to follow:
1. Eat smaller meals, more often
Don’t make the beginner’s mistake of sticking to the old three meal a day trick. That’s not how bodybuilders roll. The most commonly recommended number of meals per day for ultimate muscle growth is six. This allows the process of protein synthesis to be continually active, as the body needs a ready source of protein to activate synthesis.
Keeping up your protein throughout the day ensures you’re not running low on supply. Multiple smaller meals also ensure that you’re not going burn up muscle as energy because you’re waiting too long to feed your body nutritional food. As far as what helps build muscle, your frequency of eating is just as important as what you’re eating.
2. Stay away from simple carbohydrates
Simple carbs are a disaster for health and muscle growth. This category of foods include all refined grains like white rice and white bread, as well as processed foods that contain too much sugar like cookies and soda drinks. Complex carbs, on the other hand, are a vital muscle building diet addition and include whole grains and vegetables.
3. Include plenty of water
Sounds simple enough, but it’s also easy to forget about drinking water until you feel thirsty. However, your water intake will have an effect on the quality of all your body tissues, including muscle. Expert advice states that to maximize your metabolic, mechanical and hormonal benefits during exercise, you should always begin your exercise fully hydrated.
4. Plan your post-workout nutrition
Don’t be spontaneous after a workout and eat or drink whatever comes along. Instead, have a quality plan. A post-workout meal and/or shake is vitally important as this is the time your muscles are literally broken after fatiguing them during your workout. The muscles need nutrients now, including a protein source and some complex carbs.
Many guys choose to use a shake at this time because it’s a fast way to deliver much-needed nutrients quickly. Follow this with a top quality meal within an hour of your workout finishing, and you’ll be on the road to faster muscle recovery and growth.
Diet Changes You Need to Make to Build Muscle
If you’re already on a perfect muscle building diet then you’re in the minority. Almost all of us could do with some refinement of what we’re eating; while a lot of us need to start from scratch and completely overhaul food intake to optimize it for muscle growth!
If you’re currently on a very average diet, or if you’re looking for ways that you can tweak and improve what you’re eating – I’ve listed a number of important diet changes you can start making right now that will result in only positive outcomes for your muscle building goals:
1. Increase your calorie intake
This one sounds obvious, but are you really paying attention to how many calories you’re eating each day? There’s no set amount: it depends on your body type, your goals, and how often you workout. But if you’re not seeing the progress you expect when looking at your calorie intake is the first step. Without enough energy (calories) from your food, the shorter and less intense your workouts will be (and thus – slower and smaller muscle gains).
2. Eat more protein
The amino acids you get from the protein in your food (and protein supplements) is what drives muscle growth – and not only growth but the repair and recovery of muscle tissue as well. This all leads to faster gains and makes it a no-brainer that paying close attention to both how much and what protein you’re consuming is critical.
When it comes to protein, but quantity and quality matter. The standard recommendation is 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight for bodybuilders, but more recent research found that anything more than 0.73 grams of protein per pound of body weight (or 1.6g per kg of body weight) gave no further benefit for muscle gain.
3. Don’t forget the good carbs
Avoiding carbs for fear of putting on fat is a common beginner’s mistake. But your body needs carbs to build muscle; that is, it needs GOOD carbs. Bad carbs must be avoided. Good carbs like brown rice and other whole grains, virtually all vegetables (sweet potato is a particular stand out), nuts, seeds, and legumes will all help add healthy, useful calories that you need to build mass.
4. Eat protein and carbs 1-3 hours before working out
Your pre-workout meal should have a good balance of protein and carbs and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends experimenting with your pre-workout meal timing; some people are fine with eating an hour before, while others will need longer to digest the food for a period of up to 3 hours before you hit the gym.
These simple (and easy to implement) changes will have a drastic effect on your muscle building diet. It just takes a little planning and determination to make the necessary adjustments: and stick to them!
What to Eat to Build Muscle – How Much and How Often?
The age-old question when it comes to planning the right diet for muscle growth: what do you eat, how much of it, and how often?
Your own personal calorie requirements will depend on several factors:
- Your body type
- Your metabolism
- How often and how hard you workout
- What your goals are
These variables mean that there’s no one size fits all answer to what builds muscle with a specific food plan. But you can still follow the basic known principals – many which are outlined throughout this article – centering around the fact that you know you need to eat more than enough calories to sustain your workouts, muscle recovery, and growth, and that you also need the vital protein, carbs and healthy fats needed for building muscle tissue.
What to eat?
You need to cover all the essential areas throughout your entire muscle building diet. You don’t need to be a nutritionist or study each calorie and nutrient at the micro level, but you should have some idea of what you’re consuming and what benefits each food gives you.
Protein, carbohydrates, and fats will make up the bulk of your diet for muscle growth. Quality sources of these will contain all the nutrients and macronutrients you need, including vitamins and minerals.
Protein sources for muscle growth include quality meats like lean beef, chicken breast (preferably organic to avoid nasty toxic chemicals), and oily fish like salmon and tuna.
Your healthy carbohydrate meal portion can then include filling foods like brown rice and wholesome vegetables. Healthy fats can be taken care of with the inclusion of olive oil, avocado or a sprinkling of nuts such as walnuts (if you’re eating fish, it also contains an excellent source of healthy fats).
If you’re not familiar with healthy fat-rich foods, it’s easy to be frightened off by the word “fat.” But make no mistake: these foods are vital for your gains and your health, and this is proven by the science.
The fats to avoid are saturated fats which are likely to make you gain weight and zap your energy while providing next to no nutritional value.
How much should you eat?
Your goal when building muscle is to gain weight – this means you need to be eating slightly more calories than youíre burning up. Otherwise, a calorie deficiency will result in your muscles being burnt as energy. This means muscle loss: something you must avoid at all costs.
There are many calorie calculators available which can give you a basic idea, based on your current body weight, how many calories you should be eating each day. Use this as a starting point and adjust as necessary based on how hard you plan to push yourself during workouts, and how you feel during recovery.
How often should you eat?
How often to eat for muscle growth is still a hotly debated topic. Many people have their eating strategy for best results. However, there’s no doubt that consuming up to 6 smaller meals spread throughout the day is going to provide your body with a constant supply of fuel and nutrients and remove the risk of losing muscle tissue by going too long between consuming your meals.
Multiple smaller meals throughout the day are now the gold standard recommendation for muscle building. Up to 6 meals per day are advised, although you could reduce this to 4 meals depending on your circumstances – some people don’t have time for six meals each day.
Studies show that spreading your protein intake out throughout all the meals is more beneficial than loading up on protein during one or two meals. The study results showed that this strategy resulted in a higher amount of protein turning into muscle tissue.
Muscle Building Foods That Are High In Protein
With so many choices for protein-rich foods, which ones do you choose to include in your muscle building diet plan?
We know that a balanced diet is essential for muscle growth, and that protein sources play a critical role: but just eating any old protein can have you missing out on getting the absolute maximum from your workouts. So which muscle building foods are high in protein and add the most benefit to your diet?
Any or all of these foods are well worth your consideration as staple parts of your eating plan:
Salmon and Tuna
The health benefit of salmon are well known, and this extends to it being one of the highest quality protein sources for muscle growth. Besides containing an exceptional 20% of protein per serve, it’s also one of the best omega-3 fatty acid sources available. Tuna provides another fish protein source. Like salmon, it’s considered a fatty fish but these are good omega-3 fats. Keep in mind that some fish contains higher levels of mercury, therefore it’s recommended that fish protein is limited to 2-3 times per week.
Serious bodybuilders swear by eggs as being a muscle growth food they wouldn’t live without. There are many ways to eat eggs though, so how can you get the most out of these oval-shaped powerhouses? Studies show that eating the whole egg is far more beneficial than just consuming the whites. Consumption of 18g of protein from whole eggs resulted in a 40% greater amount of protein synthesis than just eating the egg whites. There’s an average of 6g of protein in one boiled egg, so you’d need to eat three to achieve the 18g demonstrated in the study.
There’s beef and there’s beef: and if you want to get the most from this protein source, you’ll need to look at the higher quality sources of beef which are leaner without the excess fat that can result in empty calories (small amounts of fat are however important). Besides being protein-rich, lean beef is also a great source of B vitamins.
If you prefer to minimize the amount of meat you consume, or simply want another protein option, soybeans are a top plant-based protein source and it’s no surprise that you’ll often see this ingredient used in bodybuilding supplements. There are around 36 grams of protein in 100 grams of soybeans; they’re also rich in calcium, iron, and vitamin C. Many other types of beans are also excellent protein sources, including kidney beans and pinto beans. The best sources of beans are those that are cooked from raw, rather than canned products which can contain excessive added salt.
Foods to Avoid When Building Muscle
What’s just as important as knowing what to eat to optimize your muscle growth? Knowing what NOT to eat. The wrong foods can send your progress backward fast, so avoiding these foods is well worth making a habit in your diet and your lifestyle:
As already mentioned, refined or simple carbohydrates can be your worst enemy. They have little nutritional value as all the healthy nutrients have been stripped away; additionally, they are basically just sugar (which is what makes them addictive!). White grains, corn syrup, fruit juices, cakes, soda and packaged cereals are all examples of simple carbohydrates. Instead, consume wholesome complex carbohydrates which are amongst the absolute best foods for muscle gain and general health.
Top quality protein includes meats like oily fish and lean beef, but at the other end of the meat spectrum, you have processed meats like sausages, ham, hot dogs, corned beef and beef jerky. These are often dangerously high in salt and potential toxins and are linked to a wide range of serious diseases. Avoid these dangerous empty calories and instead rely on whole, healthy lean meats for muscle growth.
It’s easy to dismiss the effects of alcohol since it’s not food. But make no mistake, not taking alcohol consumption into account can have a real negative impact on your muscle gain progress. It can slow down your recovery and potentially lower your testosterone levels – something you need to avoid if you’re serious about making gains. A drink here and there is unlikely to do any harm to your avoided, but forget making solid progress if you plan to drink heavily every weekend.
Anything you’d class as junk food, processed, high in sugar or salt or otherwise not in its natural state – is not going to be something that positively contributes to your muscle growth.
What Foods Increase Testosterone?
Boosting testosterone is probably on your agenda – at least, it should be if you’re serious about muscle growth for the long term. While there are many testosterone supplements out there if you can give your T levels a boost through nutrition, why not go for it?
Are there any foods that help increase your testosterone production? There are indeed some:
Beets: these are often recommended for men with erectile dysfunction, and they’re also superb for muscle growth thanks to the way they can increase nitric oxide levels which delivers more blood to your muscles.
Cruciferous Vegetables – this includes familiar foods like broccoli and kale which are often considered to be “anti-estrogen” foods that men can benefit from. It’s thought these vegetables can help rid your body of excess estrogen, allowing more testosterone to be produced instead.
Any foods that contain zinc, magnesium, and vitamin D: these nutrients have a direct link to testosterone production so any foods containing them will provide benefits.
Consider garlic, chickpeas, and seafood for zinc.
Magnesium can be found in spinach, almonds, avocado, bananas, and yogurt.
Vitamin D foods include oily fish like salmon, egg yolk, beef liver, mushrooms, and of course by spending time in the sun!
Although no food is going to skyrocket your testosterone levels, every little bit counts and each of these foods have immense benefits for your overall health: so it’s well worth including them in your diet plan.
Carefully planning what to eat to build muscle will pay off in both the short and long terms as you provide your body with the right types and quantities of fuel to be used as energy and for protein synthesis.
Feeling confident with your knowledge of the types of foods you should be eating, these foods you should be avoiding, how much you should be eating and when, will allow you to quickly formulate an eating plan that not only compliments your workout and muscle growth goals; but helps you reach them faster than ever.