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The Best Foods To Gain Muscle

Nutrition Is As Important As Physical Activity

Picture of a sharp knife and green herbs on a chopping board

In order to gain muscle, attention has to be paid to both physical activity and nutrition in equal measure. Of course to start with you must challenge your body through physical activity, however without the right nutritional support your progress will halter – in fact it may not get off the ground at all.

High protein foods are one of the best foods to gain muscle, but coupled with this should also be carbohydrates and fats as necessary sources of energy. After all, if you can’t fuel your body for growth then your effort at the gym will go to waste – if you even have the energy to get there at all!

If your goal is to gain muscle, and lean muscle at that, then you should focus on exercising regularly and eating more calories from muscle-building foods (see my section on surplus calories in my article about building muscle fast for more info on that).

Have You Heard About Nutrient Partitioning?

Close up shot of a bar of chocolate made out of 24 squaresWe may have heard a lot about striking the right balance between protein, carbohydrates and fat, but perhaps less familiar to people will be the influence of ‘nutrient partitioning’ – or how your body decides if calories from the nutrients you consume are burned as fuel, stored as fat, or used to build muscle.

While the fate of those calories is mainly decided by genetics, there are a few lifestyle factors that influence the process too including the frequency and intensity of your workout, and the quality of your diet – which helps to regulate important hormones including cortisol, insulin and testosterone.

Nutrient deficiencies will almost certainly affect more than just nutrient partitioning. For instance too little vitamin E can cause muscle weakness and leg cramps, whilst ignoring vitamin A could result in dizziness, nausea and muscle and joint pain – not great when you’re half way through a potentially PB-smashing leg session!

So when considering a nutrient dense diet to aid in building muscle, as well as lots of protein you want to try to include all the other good stuff by way of carbohydrates, fats and micronutrients to help maintain a healthy body as well as giving your muscles the fuel they need to grow and develop.

The Best Foods To Gain Muscle

You may already be chomping on some of the foods below, but some may also come as a bit of a surprise. Either way though, all of them will fuel your muscle-building goals and help to create that Adonis physique. So next time you’re in the supermarket or grocery store, how about loading your shopping trolley with some of these muscle food picks.

Eggs

A wooden bowl filled with brown eggsHailed by some as the ‘perfect protein’, the protein in eggs has the highest biological value (how well it supports your body’s protein requirements) of any food. Calorie for calorie, you need less protein from eggs than from other foods to achieve the same muscle growth benefits.

You have to eat the yolk too though which contains Vitamin B12 – necessary for breaking down fat and for muscle contraction. The amount of vitamins and minerals in eggs is huge – they’re literally packed full of riboflavin, folate, iron, phosphorus and zinc, as well ad vitamins B6, B12, D and E.

Salmon

A close up shot of a raw salmon filletSalmon is literally swimming in high quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids which can decrease muscle-protein breakdown after working out therefore improving recovery.
This is important as you need to be able to store protein faster than your body breaks down the muscle to generate new, lean muscle.

The added benefits of regularly consuming foods like salmon include a reduction in your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Researchers at Louisiana State University discovered that when overweight people added around 1.8 grams of omega-3 fatty acid to their daily diets, their insulin resistance decreased by a whopping 70 percent over 12 weeks.

Almonds

A close up of brown almondsThese are literally muscle medicine and one of the best sources of alphatocopherol vitamin E – the type best absorbed by your body – which is really a big thing for your tired muscles. Vitamin E is a highly effective antioxidant that helps to prevent damage from free radicals after a heavy workout – meaning faster recovery time post-gym which means your muscles can start growing more quickly.

Around two handfuls a day is considered enough to get all the goodness your body needs – not just for your muscles but also for your brain. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, men who consumed the most vitamin E from food sources had a 67 percent lower risk of Alzeimer’s disease than those who ate less.

Greek Yogurt

A blue bowl full of Greek yogurt with mint leaves and a spoonAs well as Greek yogurt being loaded with both whey and casein proteins – both high quality proteins to help build lean muscle mass – it is also a source of vitamin D which
helps your body to absorb calcium and phosphorous. Calcium is essential for muscle contractions and phosphorous crucial for creating ATP (the form of energy your body uses).

In addition, Greek yogurt is one of few foods to contain conjugated linoleic acid or CLA – a type of fat that has been shown to help reduce body fat.

Soy beans

Close up shot of soy beans on a black table clothWhen your goal is building lean, green muscle, these should be your go-to option. Unlike most other vegetarian sources of protein, soy beans contain all nine of the essential amino acids, which makes them an essential vegan muscle food. Other alternative include Tofu, tempeh and many vegetarian meat alternative – all made out of soy – which gives your around 36 grams of protein per 100g.

Beef

Close up shot of a joint of beef with sprig of rosemary and chillies on a white plateBeef is a major source of iron and zinc – two important muscle-building nutrients – and a source of creatine which is your body’s energy supply for lifting weight. To get the most benefit without the huge calories, try to buy extra lean cuts of meat such as ‘loins’ or ‘rounds’, or the ‘flat iron’ cut which is the second most tender cut of beef overall.

Beef contains selenium which helps to prevent free-radical build-up in the body and is widely acknowledged to have some preventative effect over some types of cancer, including prostate cancer.

Turkey breast

A close up of turkey meat in a white rectangular bowlTurkey is another big hitter when it comes to protein, offering around 29 grams of protein per 100g. It’s also high in zinc – essential for protein synthesis – and aids your body in maintaining healthy levels of testosterone. In addition to all this, the meat is a source of vitamin B6 and niacin, which are both essential for energy production. Some studies have shown that consuming turkey regularly can help to lower cholesterol levels in the body. A real power-food not to be ignored.

Cottage cheese

Cottage cheese in a brown bowlCottage cheese contains casein – a slow digesting protein. Sleep will repair your muscles up to a point, but after a few hours a fasting element kicks in and your body may begin breaking down muscle to use as energy. Cottage cheese provides a sustained release of amino acids during the night to help prevent this, and with 15 grams of protein and 85 calories per 100g serving, it’s a staple muscle food you should have in your shopping basket.

Olive Oil

Close up shot of olive oil being poured into a glass dish next to some green olivesThe monounsaturated fat in olive oil is regarded as an ‘anticatabolicnutrient’ (yes all one word!) that prevents muscle breakdown through lowering levels of a really nasty cellular protein called tumor necrosis factor-a which is linked with muscle wasting and weakness.

Try to use the extra virgin variety as it has a higher level of free radical fighting vitamin E. Consuming olive oil, which is rich in monounsaturated fats, can help reduce your risk of heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis.

Quinoa

Quinoa being spilled onto a table from a glass containerQuinoa is one of a few plant foods that, along with soy beans, contain all nine essential amino acids along with fibre, magnesium, B vitamins, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin E, iron and potassium. With around five grams of protein in every 100g of cooked quinoa ,it’s not bad for a seed!

Protein powder

Close up of chocolate protein powder on a spoon above a glass containerDon’t be afraid to load up your shaker with protein powder. Although good diets should focus on whole foods, there are times when supplements can be beneficial, especially if you struggle to get enough protein from foods alone. There are many variants on the market including whey, casein, soy, rice and egg protein and most contain all 20 amino acids you need for a post-workout protein hit.

Water

Water being poured into glass sitting on a black surface infront of a blue backgroundMuscle is approximately 80 percent water and even a change of 1 percent in body water levels can affect your performance in the gym and how your body is able to recover afterwards. In a 1997 German study, protein synthesis was found to occur at a higher rate in muscle cells that were well hydrated when compared with dehydrated cells. Studies have also shown that those who drink five or more glasses of water a day are over 50 percent less likely to suffer a fatal heart attack than those who drank fewer than two

Fuelling your body for growth

These are just some of the best foods to gain muscle and that will help supercharge your body for growth when combined with an effective training routine. It’s one thing to smash out a good workout at home or in the gym, but if you’re not giving your body the energy it requires to fuel those sessions, or the nutrients it needs to repair itself afterwards, then you’re not only going to see little to no results – which is just precious time wasted – but you may also cause more harm to yourself than good.

What other foods do you consume that are great for fuelling your body and creating lean muscle growth? Comment below, I’d love to hear your recommendations!

6 Comments

  1. Hi Mark,

    Thank you for sharing this article about the best foods to gain muscles. I love to eat almost all of the food you mentioned. My favorites are salmon, eggs, Greek yogurt, soy milk, and meat. I would like to also add low fat milk and banana. Milk can be consumed after exercise. Milk which is high in protein, carbohydrates, potassium, calcium, and vitamin D is needed to build muscles. Bananas contain a substance called bromelain which has an important role in increasing testosterone levels. This content indirectly also affects the formation of body muscles.

    I enjoy reading your article so I have bookmarked it for future reference.

    Cheers,

    Ferra

    • Thanks for your comments Ferra. There are so many foods that help fuel your body with the right nutrients to create the optimum environment for growth, but these 12 are my go-to choices. 

      Absolutely agree, bananas are a great pre-workout snack as they deliver a nice dose of carbohyrdrates – in fact taken with protein before a workout the fibre in bananas help the carbs from being digested too quickly leading to a nice slow release of energy. Milk is also good but I try to steer clear of recommending too much dairy, also trying to keep in mind that some people have an intolerance to it. Personally I like coconut milk and oat milk – perhaps slightly less protein dense, but a good alternative! 

  2. Great post!  After quarantine, my husband and I decided to go on a serious health kick to jump start our gym workouts and healthy eating.  My husband is currently in the process of lifting to build muscle and I’m going to share with him the food suggestions you gave.  We both enjoy Quinoa but never realized this was a great food to consume to build muscle!  I really enjoyed reading the information you provided. It is such a value add for those working out to gain muscle or just looking for healthier food options.  Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for your comments Lindsey. There are lots of foods, especially vegan foods, that are great at helping to build muscle – they just don’t get as much airtime as meat and dairy! I’m glad you found value in the post – don’t hesitate to ask any questions if you have them – I’m here to offer advice. 

  3. Thank you for sharing that nutrition is as important as physical activity and for sharing the best foods to gain muscle. Keep sharing more articles like this. Hope to read more from you.

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