Muscle-Building Foods To Add To Your Diet

  • Christina Ingels Masters in Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Bristol
  • Zayan Siddiqui BSc in Chemistry with Biomedicine, KCL, MSc in Drug Discovery and Pharma Management, UCL
  • James Elliott B.Sc. (Hons), B.Ed. (Hons), PGCE, CELTA , FSB, MMCA

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Introduction

Building and maintaining muscle is important for staying fit and healthy. Skeletal muscle preserves our metabolic health and our body’s ability to digest and use food efficiently. In turn, conditions such as obesity, diabetes and kidney disease can be avoided. Additionally, maintaining sufficient muscle mass helps prevent the loss of independent movement and mobility at later stages of life.1

On top of resistance training, correct nutrition and diet are important factors in building muscle mass, and there are interactive effects between muscle use and diet. Consuming enough food, thus calorific energy, is important to support muscle growth. However, simply overfeeding yourself will not lead to a significant increase in muscle mass but will more likely result in fat gain. Calorific energy needs depend on many different factors, such as activity levels, age, and gender. There is no “one size fits all”, so monitoring how different amounts of daily intake affect you personally is important. That way, you can adjust your intake accordingly if you feel unsatisfied with your progress.2

Dietary protein, such as that from meat, fish, dairy or plant sources, plays a primary role in muscle building and maintenance. Indeed, muscle is mainly made up of water and protein, with protein synthesis being an important process for the building and maintenance of muscle mass. A high-protein diet is therefore recommended for building muscle.

However, it is also important to consider how much carbohydrate and fat should be consumed to ensure optimal growth. These two macronutrients are especially important for muscle growth during resistance training. Carbohydrates can help restore muscle energy stores after physical activity, allowing for adequate recovery before future exercise. Fat intake should also stay at a sufficient level, as this can affect specific hormones involved in muscle growth.3

Protein sources

As mentioned above, protein intake is one of the primary factors in muscle growth. In general, a daily protein intake of 1.6g to 2.2g per kilogram of body mass is recommended for optimal muscle growth.1 Several high-protein and low-fat food sources can help reach your target intake:

  • Lean meats: chicken breast, turkey, lean (low-fat) beef, lean jerky, pork tenderloin and bison
  • Fish: salmon, tuna, cod/other white fish, shrimps and scallops
  • Plant-based options: tofu, beans, chickpeas, tempeh, lentils and quinoa
  • Dairy products: (low-fat) Greek yoghurt, (reduced-fat) cheese, cottage cheese and milk

All of these food sources have a high protein content relative to their calorific value. If you are struggling to stay within your calorie intake target, you should opt for the lean and low-fat versions of the above. However, if you require a much higher daily calorie intake, you could choose the full-fat or less lean options instead. 

Carbohydrates for energy

As mentioned, carbohydrates help restore muscles after exercise and provide energy for your next activity. Additionally, carbohydrates play a role in hormone regulation, which is important for metabolism and other bodily functions. Carbohydrates can be found in the following:

  • Complex carbohydrates: brown rice, oats, buckwheat and quinoa
  • Simple carbohydrates: fruit, sugar, sweets and bread
  • Fibre-rich carbohydrates: whole grains, legumes, some fruit, broccoli and spinach

Complex carbohydrates are digested much more slowly than simple ones. Both are used for energy, but the complex carbohydrates will provide more long-lasting energy. In contrast, simple carbohydrates provide a quick, short-duration source of energy. Consuming these immediately before a workout could help performance. Fibre-rich carbohydrates play an important role in controlling hunger and blood sugar levels and help keep a healthy digestive system.4 

Healthy fats

Healthy fats are an essential part of your daily diet because they play a role in various vital bodily functions. In the case of muscle growth, fat intake can influence the concentration of testosterone in your body, which is an important hormone for muscle production. In addition, the energy density of fatty foods is much higher than that of proteins or carbohydrates, meaning that high-fat food sources can be used to increase your daily energy intake effectively without feeling too ‘full’.3 These healthy fat sources include: 

  • Avocados
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Olive oil

Dairy and dairy alternatives

In addition to macronutrients, there are several minerals involved in muscle growth. Calcium, for example, is vital for nerve impulses that are sent to your muscles by the brain, facilitating contraction. In turn, this helps with muscle growth and maintenance.5 Vitamin D can also encourage muscle growth by binding to specific receptors on muscle cells, which helps enhance muscle contraction and protein synthesis.6 Both calcium and vitamin D can be found in dairy milk and many dairy alternative milks that have been fortified with these minerals. 

Hydration

Sufficient water intake is crucial for muscle building as water is used to maintain an adequate blood supply to the muscles with the nutrients necessary for growth. Water makes up about 75% of skeletal muscle,3 so staying hydrated is key for building and maintaining the latter. In addition, hydration is very important during exercise. By sweating, our body releases water to make sure we don’t overheat, but this can make us dehydrated. This is especially true when exercising in hot temperatures, and it is important to rehydrate to replenish these water stores. 

Rehydrating after exercise can also help with fatigue and exhaustion. During exercise, the body uses specific nutrients in the muscles for energy production. Maintaining a good fluid balance will help slow down this nutrient depletion and give you enough energy during the workout to optimise muscle development. Through minimising muscle breakdown, water also prevents muscle cramps and high pain sensitivity.7 

Lastly, dehydration causes an electrolyte imbalance in the muscles, which plays an important role in the signals that cause muscle contractions. Reduced electrolytes due to water loss cause increases in muscle fatigue and tension, leading to cramps or weakness. In turn, this will reduce the quality of your workout and reduce the amount of muscle mass gained. Supplementing the body with electrolyte-rich drinks such as coconut water, electrolyte-infused sports drinks, or tablets will help maintain an appropriate electrolyte balance and fluid level while exercising to eventually build muscle.8 

Snacks for muscle-building

In addition to including the muscle-building foods mentioned above in your daily diet, there are some snacks that you can consume to help further with muscle growth:

  • Greek yoghurt with berries or honey – greek yoghurt has a high protein content, which will help with the protein synthesis necessary for muscle growth. Additionally, it is an excellent source of minerals and vitamins. Adding berries or honey can help improve the taste without adding too many additional calories, producing a healthy and tasty snack that is great for muscle growth.
  • Hummus with vegetables – hummus, made out of chickpeas, is full of healthy fats, protein, complex carbohydrates, fibre and important vitamins and minerals. Therefore, it is a good snack for muscle building. Pairing it with vegetables such as carrots or cucumber creates a well-balanced snack to help you grow muscle mass. 
  • Protein bars –protein bars are a great way to increase your protein intake quickly and easily. Although they are a great addition to your diet if your goal is to build muscle, it is important to view them as a supplement and not a replacement for whole foods or meals, as this can lead to a lack of essential nutrients in your diet. 

These are just a few examples of high-protein, balanced snacks for muscle building. However, you can get creative and use any of the high-protein food sources mentioned in this article to create your perfect snacks. The most important factors are that they contain enough protein, provide you with sufficient vitamins, minerals, fats and carbohydrates, and that you find them appetising. 

Meal timing

Meal and nutrient intake timing can affect workout quality, protein synthesis and muscle growth. Pre-workout, it is recommended to consume more carbohydrate-rich foods, as they help provide energy. Simple carbohydrates are ideal 30 to 60 minutes before exercise, whereas complex carbohydrates will be more beneficial when consumed 2 to 3 hours in advance. Avoid eating too much before exercise, as this may cause your stomach to feel uncomfortably full and could lead to vomiting.9

After exercise, it is recommended to refuel with a high-protein and carbohydrate meal within one hour of finishing. This is necessary to replenish the energy and protein stored in your muscles, which have been depleted during exercise.10 

Regarding meal distribution, several studies suggest that it is more beneficial for muscle growth to eat smaller meals more frequently. For example, instead of eating only 3 meals a day, you should aim to consume 5 to 6 smaller meals. This ensures that you consume enough calories and nutrients without feeling too satiated. For each meal, make sure it has a sufficient amount of protein to help reach your target, but balance it out with carbohydrates, fats and other nutrients for optimal muscle growth.3

Supplements

Supplements are in no way an absolute necessity if you want to build muscle. However, they can help you reach your goal if combined with a healthy, protein-rich diet. They include: 

  • Protein powder – can be consumed in the form of a shake or added to smoothies, yoghurt, oats and more. It helps increase your protein intake quickly and easily. There are many different types of protein powders, including whey, casein, pea and more. They are all helpful for muscle growth, though overconsumption can cause nausea, bloating, increased bowel movements and more. Additionally, too much protein could eventually lead to kidney damage or failure.11 
  • Creatine – plays a role in the production and maintenance of energy stores in the muscle. This helps increase your workout quality, speeds up muscle recovery and encourages muscle growth. Although creatine is naturally found in foods such as red meat and fish, this is at a very low level. Supplementing with up to 10 grams of creatine per day (depending on your body weight) is a relatively safe way of increasing muscle growth. Overconsumption, however, can lead to side effects such as bloating, dry mouth, liver/kidney damage and more.12 
  • BCAA – supplements can also be used to increase muscle mass and strength, as they are metabolised and used for muscle energy. It is recommended to take up to 20 grams per day in divided doses. Excess consumption can lead to fatigue, reduced coordination, nausea and more.13 

Summary 

Along with resistance training, diet is a very important factor in muscle building. Consuming enough calories and protein is key, but it is also important to include carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals in your diet and to stay well-hydrated. Dietary supplements such as protein powders/bars, creatine and BCAAs can help you reach your goal, though they should not replace whole foods and meals. Carbohydrates are especially useful for providing you with energy pre-workout and help with recovery post-workout. Consuming an adequate amount of protein within 1 hour after exercise helps replenish the protein stores in your muscles and encourages muscle growth. Eating more frequent, smaller meals throughout the day can help you consume enough calories and protein without feeling uncomfortably full. 

References

  1. Stokes T, Hector AJ, Morton RW, McGlory C, Phillips SM. Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy with Resistance Exercise Training. Nutrients. 2018 Feb 7;10(2):180. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5852756/
  2. Iraki J, Fitschen P, Espinar S, Helms E. Nutrition Recommendations for Bodybuilders in the Off-Season: A Narrative Review. Sports. 2019 Jul;7(7):154.Available from:https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31247944
  3. Slater GJ, Dieter BP, Marsh DJ, Helms ER, Shaw G, Iraki J. Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Front Nutr. 2019 Aug 20;6:131. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6710320/
  4. Allowances NRC (US) S on the TE of the RD. Carbohydrates and Fiber. In: Recommended Dietary Allowances: 10th Edition [Internet]. National Academies Press (US); 1989 [cited 2023 Sep 21]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234933/
  5. Kim YS, Hong KW, Han K, Park YC, Park JM, Kim K, et al. Longitudinal Observation of Muscle Mass over 10 Years According to Serum Calcium Levels and Calcium Intake among Korean Adults Aged 50 and Older: The Korean Genome and Epidemiology Study. Nutrients. 2020 Sep 18;12(9):2856. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32961901/
  6. Gordon PL, Sakkas GK, Doyle JW, Shubert T, Johansen KL. The Relationship between Vitamin D and Muscle Size and Strength in Patients on Hemodialysis. J Ren Nutr. 2007 Nov;17(6):397–407. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17971312/
  7. hydrocellusa [Internet]. [cited 2023 Sep 21]. How Much Water Should I Drink to Gain Muscle? Available from: https://hydrocellusa.com/blogs/press/how-much-water-should-drink-gain-muscle
  8. Yu-Yahiro JA. Electrolytes and their relationship to normal and abnormal muscle function. Orthop Nurs. 1994;13(5):38–40. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7854827/
  9. Rothschild JA, Kilding AE, Plews DJ. What Should I Eat Before Exercise? Pre-Exercise Nutrition and the Response to Endurance Exercise: Current Prospective and Future Directions. Nutrients. 2020 Nov 12;12(11):3473. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33198277/
  10. Van Vliet S, Beals JW, Martinez IG, Skinner SK, Burd NA. Achieving Optimal Post-Exercise Muscle Protein Remodeling in Physically Active Adults through Whole Food Consumption. Nutrients. 2018 Feb 16;10(2):224. Available from:https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29462924/
  11. Ko GJ, Rhee CM, Kalantar-Zadeh K, Joshi S. The Effects of High-Protein Diets on Kidney Health and Longevity. J Am Soc Nephrol. 2020 Aug;31(8):1667–79. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32669325/
  12. Cooper R, Naclerio F, Allgrove J, Jimenez A. Creatine supplementation with specific view to exercise/sports performance: an update. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Jul 20;9:33. Available from: https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-9-33
  13. VanDusseldorp TA, Escobar KA, Johnson KE, Stratton MT, Moriarty T, Cole N, et al. Effect of Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation on Recovery Following Acute Eccentric Exercise. Nutrients. 2018 Oct 1;10(10):1389. Available from:https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30275356/

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Christina Ingels

Masters in Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Bristol

Christina is a Psychology and Neuroscience student who has always been interested in health, especially mental health. Although she loves learning about the brain and behaviour, Christina is always keen to broaden her knowledge and discover new things. She also loves to learn new ways to improve both her physical and mental health.

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