Building muscle not only can make you feel better about your appearance, but it’s really good for your health.
Building muscle improves insulin sensitivity, reduces your risk of falls, and improves your heart health.
We’ll look at which foods to eat and which to avoid to help you on your muscle-building journey.
What to consider when making a meal plan for muscle gain
If you’re setting out to build muscle, you should consider what your goals are. Your nutrition plan will vary depending on how intense you exercise. For example, a bodybuilder’s diet will look much different than someone who wants to get more toned in general.
Remember that your diet alone isn’t enough to build muscle – muscle builds when its fibers are torn down and then repaired in thicker strands. Your diet can either support your body in making new muscle or make it more difficult.
- You’ll need to eat enough calories to support your exercise regimen. If you under-eat, your body can start to burn muscle to get energy, which is the opposite of your goal.
- Staying hydrated is also an important part of a diet to build muscle. Water transports the nutrients you need to support muscle growth throughout your body, and dehydration can lead to muscle cramps and reduce your mobility.
- There are many specific types of diets that some bodybuilders swear by. Some of these popular diets include Paleo, keto, vegan, carnivore, low-carb, and counting macros. But do you really need to follow one of these specific diets to build muscle? The answer is no, but you’re free to choose which kind of eating plan you’d like.
- You can build your own healthy, balanced diet that fits your lifestyle needs and personal preferences while also supporting muscle growth.
- While protein is important, you don’t need to go overboard to benefit from it. Aim for 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight per day.
5 foods to avoid when building muscle
While drinking alcohol in moderation or on special occasions likely won’t impact your muscle gains, drinking too much definitely can hinder muscle growth.
According to a small study, participants who consumed alcohol after an exercise routine had reduced rates of muscle growth, even when they consumed protein (1).
Alcohol doesn’t provide any beneficial nutrients, so you’re better off using those calories on foods that contain nutrients that promote muscle growth.
2) Sugary drinks and foods
Sugary drinks like soda, sweetened tea, and sports drinks often provide more than a day’s worth of added sugar in one serving. Sugary drinks and foods with added sugar raise your blood glucose levels and cause insulin to store energy as fat.
If your blood sugar levels spike after drinking sugary drinks, your body might not be as efficient at building protein (muscle) as it breaks down protein instead of building it.
Added sugar is in dry cereal, flavored yogurt, soups, condiments, and many other processed foods. Reading food ingredient and nutrition labels will help you identify added sugars in these types of foods.
3) Refined carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates include white bread, white rice, and anything made with refined grains. Like sugary drinks, refined carbohydrates can raise your blood sugar levels more quickly, which might disrupt the rate of protein synthesis (as mentioned above).
Refined grains are also lower in protein and nutrients that are beneficial to muscle growth compared to whole grains.
4) Fried foods
If you’re hitting the gym for long periods of time, you’ll probably want to eat before you go so you don’t get hungry.
It’s best to skip deep-fried foods since these take longer to digest and can lead to stomach upset. If you’re struggling with an upset stomach, you likely won’t be able to hit your workout as hard as you want, which can impact your muscle gains.
5) Branched-chain amino acid supplements
The branched-chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine make up around 20% of the protein in muscle mass. Because of this, branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) supplements are popular in the bodybuilding world.
However, a study found that taking BCAA supplements alone promoted muscle breakdown versus muscle synthesis (2). A good rule of thumb is to aim to get amino acids naturally in foods and in balance with each other instead of focusing on a specific group in high amounts through supplements.
4 foods to eat to help you build muscle
Now that you know what foods to should avoid when building muscle, which foods should you include in your muscle-building diet?
1) Dairy products
Dairy products are not only rich in protein, but milk protein, in particular, might help you build muscle. According to a study, consuming milk protein combined with an exercise routine resulted in more lean muscle mass and a positive muscle protein balance (3).
Aim for unsweetened, high-protein dairy products like plain Greek yogurt, milk, cheese, and cottage cheese while avoiding flavored yogurt and milk-based drinks.
2) Lean protein
Protein consists of amino acids, which are utilized by your body to build more muscle fibers. Lean protein is ideal when you’re looking to gain muscle because it’s higher in protein by mass compared to higher-fat cuts.
Lean ground beef, pork, skinless poultry, eggs, and seafood are all examples of lean protein sources that can help you meet your protein goals while building muscle.
3) Vegetables of all kinds
Both non-starchy and starchy vegetables can benefit your muscle-building diet. Non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, and bell peppers provide beneficial antioxidants, fiber, and other nutrients to keep you healthy as you build your fitness level.
Starchy vegetables like potatoes (both regular and sweet), peas, and winter squash are higher in carbohydrates than non-starchy vegetables. Starchy foods help build your glycogen stores, which are the energy stores that your body utilizes instead of burning the protein you need to build muscle.
4) Healthy fats
You need carbohydrates, fat, and protein to have a well-balanced diet. Fat is essential for absorbing certain nutrients and helps you meet your calorie needs while building muscle.
Healthy fats from foods like olive oil, canola oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados are more likely to help raise your HDL (good cholesterol) levels when replaced with saturated fat from animal products.
How does cholesterol tie in with building muscle? A study on mice suggests that HDL cholesterol is important for muscle synthesis as well as reducing body fat, which could help boost your muscle gains while you burn fat (4).
3 other tips for building muscle
- Eat whole foods: Instead of filling up on protein powders, nutrition bars, and supplements, try to get the majority of your nutrients from real food. This will also help you meet your macronutrient needs, provide antioxidants and micronutrients, and help meet your calorie needs necessary to support muscle growth.
- Allow rest days: Taking a couple of days off from intense resistance training like weight lifting allows your muscles to recover, boosting circulation and reducing muscle soreness and stiffness.
- Avoid fad diets: Building and maintaining muscle is a lifestyle, not a short-term fix. You’ll want to adopt a healthy eating style that you can keep up with, not one that you follow for a few weeks and then quit. Some red flags for fad diets are extreme restricting of specific macronutrients like carbs or fat, requiring that you buy specific foods like bars, soups, etc., and villainizing any specific food.
You can support muscle growth by eating a diet rich in whole foods. Protein is especially important for building muscle, as are healthy carbohydrates and fats.
Avoid low-nutrient foods and drinks like sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, refined carbs, and alcohol on a muscle-building diet.