The Foods You Should Be Eating If You Want To Build Muscle
Eating to build muscle requires a caloric surplus, meaning you eat more calories than your body burns each day.
It sounds like a dream — just eat tons of food. Sadly, it’s not that simple.
In addition to targeted strength training and proper recovery and sleep, what you choose to eat has a significant impact on whether you’ll end up putting on muscle or fat.
All three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) are crucial for muscle growth, because all three serve important roles in the body.
You should be eating at least 500 calories more than your body burns in order to build muscle.
It’s easy to underestimate how much you’re eating, especially if your diet is made up primarily of whole foods. These foods nourish and fuel the body best, but are also very satiating. Think of it this way — it’s much easier to consume a large bag of potato chips versus eat three large apples.
This is why many people find they just aren’t hungry enough to eat what their body requires for muscle growth. We recommend starting by adding at least 500 calories to your total daily energy expenditure (the number of calories you burn per day, or your TDEE) to stimulate muscle growth. But keep in mind that you may need to add 750-1,000 additional calories based on your goals.
Protein provides amino acids, which are the building blocks of our muscles.
The body breaks protein down into amino acids, which are the building blocks of our tissues (including muscle). Therefore, getting adequate protein from food is important if you want to maintain muscle mass, let alone build it.
Complete protein foods are ideal for muscle growth because they contain all of the essential amino acids. “Essential” means our bodies can’t synthesize these nutrients on their own, so we have to get them from food.
Focus on quality animal proteins and dairy to get all of the essential amino acids your body needs.
All animal proteins fall into the category of complete sources including chicken, eggs, turkey, beef, pork, fish and seafood. Dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese do too. Make sure you’re choosing high quality animal proteins — grass-fed, pastured, wild, organic.
If you avoid or limit animal proteins, you can focus on other foods provide that amino acids, such as beans and grains.
Use starchy carbs like potatoes, quinoa, and bananas to reach high calorie goals.
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. They’re broken down into simple sugars, which are either used immediately, or are stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. Glycogen is one of the top sources of fuel for our workouts. When we exercise intensely, we deplete our muscles of stored carbs and therefore, must replace them.
Complex carbs from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes are ideal because they contain tons of micronutrients and fiber. However, starchy carb sources are often more calorically-dense and therefore, can help you reach high caloric needs. These include potatoes, yams, yucca, plantains, bananas, oats, rice, quinoa, beans, and lentils.
Rely on refined grains like white rice and quick oats for post-workout fuel.
Most diets don’t permit refined grains — and for good reason. They can negatively affect blood sugar and contribute to weight gain. However, for muscle growth, using refined carbs wisely can be beneficial, specifically pre and post workout. Certain gluten-free grains like white rice can be beneficial sources that provide quick-digesting carbohydrates for fuel and recovery. Pair these with a protein source to help refuel post-workout.
Fat provides more calories in a smaller volume of food, so it can be helpful for those looking to hit high calorie counts.
Many muscle gain diets are lacking in fat since protein and carbs tend to take the spotlight. But fat is important! Fat is your friend, no matter what your goal.
Fat is the most calorically-dense macronutrient (it provides nine calories per gram versus the four that protein and carbs provide). This means that fat-rich foods can be a helpful focus in your diet to ensure you’re eating the calories you need, while also supporting recovery). Because fat provides more calories in a smaller volume of food, it can be a lifesaver for those looking to build muscle, especially those who have a tough time consuming the calories they need each day.
Some natural sources of fat include: avocados, olives, eggs (specifically yolks), butter/ghee, coconut, nuts/nut butters, and seeds. Cooking with quality oils such as olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil is also a simple way to boost your fat intake.
Smoothies and shakes are a great way to get in all the calories of an additional meal without feeling too full.
Sometimes, you’re just not hungry for all the food you need to eat to build muscle. If that’s the case, try adding a smoothie or shake to your diet. A shake can easily provide an extra 400-600 calories and likely won’t ruin your appetite like an additional meal could.
Blending food into liquid form makes it quicker to digest, meaning you don’t get as full. Smoothies are also an easy way to pack calories in. Start with protein (such as pasteurized egg whites or a quality protein powder), add almond or coconut milk (full-fat coconut-milk is super calorie-dense), a few spoons of nut butter and/or avocado, berries and/or banana.