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Best Foods for Muscle Building

Updated on 01. Jun. 2020
What should you be eating to gain muscle mass?
What should you be eating to gain muscle mass?

In order to build muscle, it is essential that your body gets the nutrients it needs. These nutrients enter our bodies through the foods we eat. Your body needs fuel, which it gets from converting the food you eat into energy. When you use your muscles, especially during strength building exercises, you burn this fuel. If you are serious about muscle building, then you also need to be serious about fueling your body with the right nutrients.

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In order to build muscle, you need to have positive net protein levels in your body. In other words, you need to take in more protein than you use in order to have leftover proteins for building muscle. Proteins make up every single tissue and cell in our body. The building blocks of proteins are called amino acids. Your body cannot produce the essential amino acids it needs, therefore these vital nutrients must come from what we eat.1

Once you hit the age of 30, it is harder to build and maintain muscle.2 You can lose as much as 3 to 5 percent of your muscle mass each decade.3 Increased protein intake as well as supplying your body with sufficient levels of potassium found in several fruits and vegetables is especially important for maintaining muscle in older men and women.4

When seeking to build muscle through exercise, your protein intake should be 10 to 35 percent of your daily diet.5 For women, it is recommended that you eat 20g of protein with each meal; for men, the recommendation increases to 30g per meal.6 Try to incorporate some form of protein into every snack and meal. Foods with high concentrations of protein include meat, poultry, legumes, tofu, eggs, nuts, seeds, milk, and milk products.7 When buying milk, try to buy organic milk. It is both a source of whey and casein protein, but it also contains more omega-3 fatty acids than regular milk. Another milk product, cottage cheese, is rich in casein protein and is also a slow-digesting protein. It is a particularly good nighttime snack because it provides your body with energy throughout the night and prevents your muscles from being used as an energy source while you sleep.8

Quinoa is another great protein to add to your diet. It is not only a complete protein, providing your body with all of the essential amino acids, but it is also a slow-digesting carb, providing your body with longer lasting energy.9 So instead of pasta, substitute it for a side of quinoa!

Protein levels of common foods:10
  • 1 large egg - 6g
  • 1 cup skim milk - 9g
  • 1 cup soy milk - 7g
  • 1 cup low-fat plain yogurt - 12g
  • 6 oz plain Greek yogurt - 17g
  • ½ cup low-fat cottage cheese - 14g
  • 2 TB peanut butter - 8g
  • 1 cup quinoa - 8g
  • 1 cup dry beans - 16g
  • ½ cooked tofu - 8g
  • 3 oz lean ground beef - 22g
  • 3 oz lean skinless chicken - 26g
  • 3 oz grilled salmon - 21g
  • 1 oz dry or ½ cup cooked grain - 3g
  • 1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked veggies - 2g

Carbohydrates are also important for muscle building. Your body converts carbohydrates into glycogen, which is fuel for your muscles. If you are strength training twice a week, you should get around half of your daily caloric intake from carbohydrates. This is not to say you are free to eat as much bread as you want. Rather, choose carbs that are good for your body such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy.11 Brown rice is a great carb to add to your diet. It takes longer for your body to digest it, providing you with longer-lasting energy. Cantaloupe, on the other hand, is a fast-digesting carb and is good to eat right after a workout to provide your body with some needed quick energy.12

Another important part of your daily diet for muscle building is the fats found in your food. Fats supply your muscles with energy, and should constitute 20 to 35 percent of your daily caloric intake. Fats often have a negative connotation, however, there are heart healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, avocado, and fish like salmon, halibut, mackerel, and albacore tuna.13

It is always important to monitor your serving sizes to make sure you are not eating more than the recommended amounts of any one food group.14

As far as specific foods go, spinach contains the amino acid glutamine which is important in the muscle building process. Beets contain the amino acid betaine, which not only enhances liver and joint repair but can also increase muscle strength and power.15 Drinking tea can actually help prevent muscle breakdown. Tea contains the antioxidant polyphenol that reduces inflammation and oxidative stress in the body, both of which result in muscle breakdown.16

If you find you have trouble fitting all of these vital nutrients into three meals, try eating more frequently rather than eating more at each meal. Many athletes choose to eat five smaller meals throughout the day rather than three large ones.

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1. American College of Sports Medicine, Protein Intake for Optimal Muscle Maintenance, N.p.: American College of Sports Medicine, 2015,, American College of Sports Medicine, Web.; "Preserve Your Muscle Mass," Harvard Men's Health Watch, Harvard Health Publications, Mar. 2016, Web.

2. "4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass,", Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 17 Dec. 2015, Web.

3. "Preserve Your Muscle Mass."

4.;  American College of Sports Medicine.

5. "4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass.";  American College of Sports Medicine.; Katherine Tallmadge, "What--and When--to Eat to Build Muscle," Health, Live Science, 3 Sept. 2013, Web.

6. Ibid.

7. Muscle & Fitness, "Nutrition 101: Eat To Build Lean Muscle,",, LLC, 22 Sept. 2016, Web.; American College of Sports Medicine.; Tallmadge, "What--and When--to Eat to Build Muscle."

8. Muscle & Fitness, "Nutrition 101: Eat To Build Lean Muscle."

9. Ibid.

10. "4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass."; American College of Sports Medicine.; "Preserve Your Muscle Mass."; Tallmadge, "What--and When--to Eat to Build Muscle."

11. "4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass."; AIS Sports Nutrition, "Increasing Muscle Mass," AIS, Australian Government, 2009, Web.

12. Muscle & Fitness, "Nutrition 101: Eat To Build Lean Muscle."

13. "4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass."

14. Ibid.

15. Muscle & Fitness, "Nutrition 101: Eat To Build Lean Muscle."

16. Tallmadge, "What--and When--to Eat to Build Muscle."


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