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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
August 04, 2022
Believe it or not, you can see amazing muscle growth without ever setting foot in a GNC. Crazy as it seems, it's true. Dietary supplements didn't even become a thing until sometime in the early 1980s.
So how in the hell did people build muscle during that time? They ate food. Real food. And while actual food can take a backseat to the fancy supplements lining store shelves, in reality, our main sources of protein and carbs should still be coming from whole food sources. Curious as to which ones? We've got you covered! This post explains the best foods you need to eat for maximal muscle growth. This post will also go over:
Let's get back to nature, and start eating real food for muscles!
Muscles don't just grow by themselves. Even our favorite compound lifts won't yield results without proper nutrition accompanying them. Consuming proper foods, which include protein, carbs, healthy fats, and essential vitamins and minerals, can have a huge impact on the type of results you see.
Proper nutrition can enhance exercise performance, support proper muscle function, improve recovery ability, and increase muscle mass. In fact, what to eat before a workout and what to eat after a workout both play a role in building muscle mass. Now imagine if you ate muscle-building foods all day!
Just a note, we won't list any fat-specific foods. Fat is important to your health and muscle growth, but as long as you're getting adequate amounts (around 30% for athletes), having more doesn't improve your muscle growth.
Protein, particularly high protein low fat foods, provides support and structure to muscle tissue. And protein is the nutrient responsible for repairing and recovering damaged muscle. That's why your protein intake is your number one priority when following a resistance training program.
Protein refers to a biomolecule composed of a long chain of 50+ amino acids. A chain of less than 50 amino acids is referred to as a peptide. So, in essence, the word "protein" is just nomenclature for classification as amino acids are the real building blocks.
There are a total of 20 different proteinogenic amino acids that are broken down into 3 groups:
Of these, your nine essential amino acids (EAA) are the most important as you must consume them in your diet. Further, these contain the essential amino acid leucine, which is one of three branched-chain amino acids or BCAAs. If you want to learn more about BCAAs vs. EAAs, we've got a great article that goes into far more detail!
In addition to leucine, your BCAAs include three amino acids that drive muscle growth. Generally speaking, animal proteins are the ideal source for those who want to build lean muscle. Every animal protein has all of the amino acids in enough quantity to produce muscle mass. This is called a complete protein.
On the contrary, when comparing plant proteins vs. whey proteins, many plant-based options are known as incomplete proteins. These are proteins that are lacking in one or more of the essential amino acids. Soy protein is one of the plant sources that provide a complete protein.
Today, many supplement companies are getting around the issue of incomplete proteins by combining two or more plant sources to fill their gaps when needed. For example, a variety of legumes, grains, and seeds can all be found in some plant proteins to ensure they're complete. Our article on the best pea protein powder features some excellent choices that provide all nine essential amino acids per serving.
So, how much protein per day to build muscle? That number can vary depending on who you ask, but we believe an effective muscle-building diet requires eating 1.6 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
This should be eaten in 4 to 6 smaller meals every 3 to 4 hours apart. Further, each meal should consist of at least 20 grams of protein to maximally stimulate muscle growth.
When you are bulking, you should be in a calorie surplus. Because you have these extra calories to fuel your muscles, your protein intake can be on the lower end of the range we provided. For meal inspiration and must-buy bulking grocery items, be sure to check out our 7 day meal plan for muscle gain.
On the contrary, when comparing cutting vs. bulking, your protein should be on the higher end for cutting. As you are in a caloric deficit, your body will look for extra calories. To mitigate the possibility of muscle wasting, extra protein (amino acids) makes maintaining muscle mass easier. If you're considering a cut, check out these best foods for cutting first!
Starting a workout fatigued will lead to an instant drop in your athletic performance. This is where carbs come in. They are a fuel source for your body and provide the energy needed to hit the gym hard.
Protein often gets all the attention, but carbs also play a very important role in building muscle mass in more than one way. The first was mentioned above in that it provides the fuel needed to train at an appropriate intensity to stimulate growth.
In addition, carbs also play a role in the actual process of muscle building. The exact mechanisms aren't fully understood yet, but numerous studies have shown that diets low in carbs are not as effective for muscle building¹.
The best muscle-building foods will be a combination of whole foods, both protein and carb sources. Here are the best of both.
Here are the best food sources to increase your protein intake and support muscle growth. It's hard to achieve muscle hypertrophy when you're not supplying enough protein to your muscles, so make sure you're getting enough each day.
The incredible, edible egg comes up first on our list for a myriad of reasons. That jingle isn't just some marketing gimmick, as the benefits found in eggs are plentiful.
If you are trying to include some quality protein in your diet, you can't get much better than eating eggs and more specifically, egg whites.
Egg whites are the purest form of protein you can find in nature, containing high levels of all the amino acids while being highly digestible. Depending on the size of egg you eat, each one provides somewhere between 5 to 8 grams of protein.
Amazingly, the protein in eggs may not be the biggest benefit for muscle growth. It could be argued that it's actually the cholesterol found in the yolk. We know, we know - cholesterol has got a bad rap. But hear us out.
The most important male hormone responsible for protein synthesis, testosterone, is synthesized from cholesterol. When you consume the whole egg, you are supplying extra cholesterol for the increased synthesization of testosterone. Assuming you're lifting properly, following progressive overload, and eating enough calories, this testosterone boost increases muscle protein synthesis, resulting in muscle mass.
Combining this with its low calories (if cutting) and lower price (eggs are cheap!), including eggs in your diet is a super smart decision. We like using them to make a large batch of high protein French toast!
Greek yogurt is one of our favorite muscle-building foods, especially when we need something quick. This makes it a great option for high protein lunches.
The protein content will vary some among the different brands but on average, one cup of Greek yogurt will bring in 15 to 20 grams of protein. When comparing the total calories of Greek yogurt, you'll find the protein ratio is very high for natural foods at 40%.
Greek yogurt is often sold in individual cups making it extremely convenient to have high-quality protein snacks whenever you want.
There are awesome protein powders available that are great for muscle building. Make sure to check out our list of best protein powders, so you know you're getting one that will help you see results.
We don't separate protein powder from "real food" as if it's been manufactured in a lab. Sure it's been dried out and processed, but at its core, it's just the isolated protein from real food.
And, protein powder is the easiest and cheapest way to add extra protein to your diet, making it much easier to hit your protein intake needs.
When we say protein powder, we're referring to any type of protein powder. While dairy protein powders, like whey and casein, are most popular, there are plenty of other great options, like lactose-free protein powder. Egg protein, beef protein, and yes, even vegan protein can be great sources (they’re perfect for lactose intolerants too!).
Because protein powder isolates the protein from the food source, it doesn't matter where it comes from. Many vegan protein powders will combine two or more different protein sources (peas and brown rice are most common) to create a full amino acid profile.
That said, whey protein is desirable because it provides high levels of all the amino acids, especially the amino acid leucine. As a fast-digesting whey protein, a whey protein shake is also the perfect post-workout meal. Need some inspiration? Try one of these delicious protein shake recipes!
We know we just spoke about protein powder, but we want to specifically mention casein powder. Due to it being one of the few slow digesting proteins, casein protein plays a special role in building lean muscle.
A slow digesting protein means it takes a longer time to break down in the stomach. As a result, the protein synthesis spike isn't as high when comparing casein vs. whey, but it lasts for a longer period. This makes it ideal to have as a pre-sleep protein.
Research shows that drinking slow-digesting casein protein shakes 30 minutes before bed can improve your muscle recovery significantly as you sleep. Keep in mind that most studies use 30 to 40 grams of casein protein in their studies².
In addition, casein protein powders work well as general protein for morning smoothies and snacks. You can also add casein protein powder to your morning java for delicious protein coffee. And because it does take longer to digest, casein protein tends to keep you satisfied longer.
Mmmmm...curdled milk. Delicious! Perhaps not the first food people want to dig into, but cottage cheese is an extremely nutritious food that’s packed with high amounts of quality protein.
With 1 cup containing 28 grams of protein at around 163 calories, you can not find any other food that delivers as much quality protein. In addition, cottage cheese also delivers a good dose of other nutrients, like B vitamins.
If you’ve blown off cottage cheese before, give it another shot. Your tastebuds may not thank you, but your muscle recovery certainly will.
You can't have a healthy diet without including a few servings of oily fish. Our favorite type is salmon, whether on its own or as sushi! Also known as fatty fish, these are great sources of your omega 3 fatty acids and other healthy fats. Try to get 2 servings weekly.
Both whey and casein protein are isolated from dairy milk, making milk a top pick for muscle-building foods. In addition to being full of high-quality protein, it provides healthy fats as well as vitamin D and calcium for bone health.
However, our love of milk is larger than just dairy milk. We’re also fans of other plant-based milk, such as soy milk. Some of this plant milk is processed to offer similar amounts of protein as dairy milk. In addition, plant-based milk offers a ton of other vitamins and minerals such as vitamin E, iron, and B vitamins. Not to mention they’re a great choice for anyone who is lactose intolerant.
Milk also has a cool surprise. Studies have shown that drinking milk post-workout can be a better hydrator than plain water and sports drinks like Gatorade³. Milk is composed of a thicker consistency that holds compounds such as protein, fats, and carbs. This causes milk to sit in the digestive tract longer allowing more water to be extracted.
The bottom line is milk is one of only two liquids on this list that can help you gain muscle. What better way to crush the workouts in your 7-day split than by replenishing with a glass of milk afterward? It contributes to healthy bones, lean mass, and muscle repair, so there's nothing but benefits!
We know it's cliche, but there's a reason chicken breast is on every muscle-building food list. It is the best source of lean protein from meat, providing 26 to 28 grams of protein per 100 grams (168 calories).
The issue is people make jokes about not wanting to eat "boring, dry chicken breast." Agreed.
So don't cook it too long, and make sure to season it. The chicken breast doesn't need to be cooked plain and served with a side of broccoli. We're no gourmet chefs, but even we can cook some easy chicken-based meals.
You could even add it to a bulking breakfast for an extra protein boost. Well, look at that. No dry chicken to be found.
Ground beef is a must for anyone trying to add bulk to their frame without spending a ton. There are a ton of ways to prepare it, making it ideal for anyone wanting an easy meal.
Depending on your money situation and goals, you can get a variety of meat. A 70 (lean)/30 (fat) mix is going to be cheaper but provides more calories. On the other hand, you could get a more expensive cut like 90/10 which is a bit more expensive but lower in calories. Regardless, either one is cheaper than other red meats.
Whether making a hamburger or throwing some chuck into a hot pot, ground beef is a muscle-building staple.
Full of muscle-building protein, you don't need to be rich to enjoy a nice steak once in a while. Cuts of red meats provide a slew of nutrients, such as B vitamins and zinc, on top of high-quality protein.
What makes red meat special is its creatine content! Red meat is one of the best sources to eat to consume creatine naturally. It is one of the reasons vegans have lower-than-average creatine stores⁴. The benefits of creatine are endless, and we often recommend including a creatine supplement to support your training goals.
Needless to say, including cuts of red meat in your diet is a sure-fire way to increase your creatine stores naturally. As we all know the effects creatine has on building lean muscle mass, the inclusion of red meat should be a priority for your muscle-building diet.
You have the proteins needed for building muscles after a tough workout. Now you just need some fuel to get you through your killer sessions. Combined with a great pre-workout supplement, you'll constantly feel ready to hit the gym hard.
These are our favorite sources of carbs to add more calories to our diet. All of them will help you gain lean muscle mass by improving your performance in the gym. You need carbs if you want serious gains.
Quinoa is a carb source that's quickly becoming a favorite alternative to cooked brown rice. It's packed with antioxidants, fiber, and a list of vitamins and minerals.
We know there is a riff between brown rice and white rice, but both would work with building muscle. Any style of rice will deliver the carbs. It's a staple of the vertical diet, a plan designed to support muscle growth.
The primary difference with white rice is that it's been refined, and a lot of its nutrients have been stripped. More nutrients are better, but this may or may not be an issue depending on what other foods you're eating.
Regardless, rice is easy, clean, and cheap. Having a huge bag of rice in your house is always a good idea for lifters.
A flavorful source of good carbs, sweet potatoes are nature's candy and an awesome treat for athletes.
You would be amazed by how sweet and delicious sweet potatoes taste after you’ve cut sugar out of your diet. Some claim them to be sweeter than fruit. While that depends on what fruit, the point is we love having these as part of a meal or snack.
If you're feeling crazy, add a bit of brown sugar and butter for a healthy and delicious dessert.
A true superfood, oatmeal is at the top of just about everyone's list of muscle-building foods. As far as building muscle is concerned, its main benefit comes from it providing a cheap, easy source of healthy carbs. Slow acting, a bowl of oatmeal makes the perfect food to start the day. Or, you could have a bowl a couple of hours before you’re ready to hit the gym to help fuel an intense training session.
Full of vitamins and minerals, including the all-important iron, oatmeal brings a wide variety of health benefits. Oatmeal helps improve body composition, cholesterol levels, and blood sugar levels.
What makes oatmeal stand out is its high quantities of antioxidants, specifically a group known as avenanthramides. Avenanthramides are only found in oatmeal and may be able to increase nitric oxide, lower blood pressure, increase blood flow, and act as an anti-inflammatory.
Plus, if you're following a cutting workout and diet plan, you'll want a hearty long-lasting carb such as oatmeal to keep you full and energized. Every serious lifter has a huge bag of oatmeal in their house. You should too.
Tip: Look up "Overnight Oats".
Similar to rice, all fruits have unique qualities that make them stand out. While oranges provide vitamin C, bananas will provide potassium. The one common thread all fruits have is they're a great source of carbs.
You can find fruits along the entire glycemic index scale. Fruits like pineapple or ripe bananas have a higher GI, making them ideal for post workouts or recovery.
On the lower end of the GI scale, you can find fruits such as oranges or blueberries. This makes them more suitable as a general source of carbs.
Don't worry about the walnuts vs. pecans debate here. All nuts are good for you. Macadamia, cashew, almonds, walnuts - whichever your preference is, you can't go wrong. Especially high in vitamin E, nuts carry a range of nutrients like fiber, magnesium, and iron.
Depending on your goals, the possible downside is that nuts are notoriously high in fat. While they do provide healthy fats, they bring a lot of calories. You could unknowingly eat 500 calories in 5 minutes. If calories are a concern, buy packages with smaller packets to make it easier not to overeat.
While soy protein and lentils are the go-to choices for vegan bodybuilder diets due to their amino acid profile, you should include a variety of beans in your diet. Kidney beans, black beans, and pinto beans - we eat them all.
Beans are cheap, healthy, and pack a ton of nutrients and vitamins. They taste great and can be added to any meal to add some zest. Mix some beans and rice with chopped-up chicken, and you're good to go. Eating healthy does not need to be complex or expensive, and beans make that possible.
For whatever reason, water is not talked about nearly enough when discussing the best foods for healthy muscles. We are aware it's not technically "food," but as it's essential for life, we made an exception and put it on our list.
Being that our muscles are up to 79% water, you'd be pretty foolish to not emphasize hydration. Walking around dehydrated will not only decrease your performance in the gym, but your muscles will just not function properly.
In addition, a hydrated muscle is quite literally more anabolic than a dehydrated muscle. Multiple studies have found that proper hydration can decrease cortisol levels, increase anabolic activity, and increase the release of human growth hormone⁵,⁶.
This means the guys walking around with a gallon of water are like a gardener watering their plants to grow. Always stay hydrated, especially before, during, and after a workout.
With your nutrition in check, you now just need to include muscle-building exercises in your training program. To increase muscle strength or see as much muscle gain as possible, you can't just sit around and eat.
Follow a proper training program that utilizes progressive overload to capitalize on your muscle-building diet. We have great plans available that will help you reach your muscle-building goals.
Our PHUL Program, for example, stands for Power Hypertrophy Upper Lower and is designed with strength gains and building muscle mass in mind. Our PHAT Program stands for Power Hypertrophy Adaptive Training and combines powerlifting and bodybuilding into one incredible routine.
Or, if you're trying to obtain a classic physique with less body fat, the Aesthetic Workout Routine may be more suited for your goals. The SFS Strength Program is perfect for serious lifters looking to improve their strength in every major compound lift.
Prepare to maximize your gains with our exclusive 12-week hypertrophy training program. Choose between a 4 or 5 day training split and gain 2-12 pounds of muscle over 90 days...
Of course, other foods can help build lean muscle tissue, and let's not forget about supplements, like pre-workout and creatine, that can help as well. However, the ones we listed above should build the foundation for optimal muscle growth and results. Including them every week will ensure you reap the benefits from your time in the gym and build a great physique. Plus, when you eat whole, healthy foods, it just makes you feel good.
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