When you’re serious about getting fit, the most important move you can make isn’t one you can do at the gym. It’s hand-to-mouth activity. “A lot of people don’t realize that you don’t just need to pump iron, you have to push your fork,” says Leslie Bonci, RD, owner of Active Eating Advice and a sports dietitian for the Kansas City Chiefs. Knowing which muscle building foods to include in your diet “is the only way you’re going to see the benefits of all the time you’re spending in the gym.”
After all, even the most dedicated athletes eat way more often than they work out, and what you put into your body, how much food you put into your body, and how often you eat those foods, affects your body’s ability to build and maintain muscle. What matters most, says Bonci, is that in the course of each day, you’re eating muscle building foods in a way that fuels anabolic activity and prevents breakdown. These strategies will help you do just that.
1. Eat more muscle building foods.
You already know what to eat to build muscle: protein. But if your goal is to gain muscle, you need to be eating more than the recommended amount, Bonci says. Her rule of thumb is between .6 and .8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So, for example, a woman who weighs 140 pounds would consume between 84 and 112 grams of protein a day. That may sound like a lot, but it’s about an additional 30 grams a day. Don’t use this as an excuse to overeat—your calorie needs will go up, at most, around 200 calories per day. In the best-case scenario, you’d gain about a pound of muscle a week, so any extra calories can still be stored as fat.
2. But not all at once.
“The biggest mistakes people make is not spreading their protein out over the day,” says Bonci. “You can’t have a little here, a little there, and then eat a whole turkey.” Here’s why: Your body can only process so much protein at one time. Sure, some goes toward building muscle, but some is diverted for use in other bodily functions, and the rest is excreted. Going HAM on ham won’t build more muscle, and because protein is so satiating, you run the risk of not feeling hungry when your body is ready to build muscle again.
“More isn’t always better, sometimes it’s just more,” Bonci says. Making sure you have a decent amount of protein (say, 20 grams) every time you eat—especially before and after your workouts—is a better strategy. “It’s important not to work out on empty so your body doesn’t sacrifice muscle to get you through the workout,” Bonci points out. Surprisingly, one of the best times to eat protein may be before bed. Some studies indicate that doing so may stimulate muscle protein synthesis while we sleep, she says. Try muscle building foods like a little yogurt or cereal with milk, but nothing too heavy or large.
3. And get the right kind.
Where your protein comes from makes a difference, too. You can drink all the almond milk you want, but you may not see muscle growth. That’s because your body needs certain amino acids, including one called leucine, to synthesize protein into muscle. Some plant-based sources of protein are leucine-poor, so vegetarians and vegans in particular need to pay attention to how they meet their protein needs, says Bonci. She recommends aiming to get 2 grams of leucine every time you eat protein. Muscle building foods highest in this amino acid include whey, beef, chicken, yogurt, eggs, fish, and soy.
4. Don’t forget carbs.
With all the emphasis on protein for muscle building, people tend to forget that they need carbohydrates, too. But these nutrients play a key role in fueling workouts and preventing your body from breaking down muscle. They also have an indirect effect on the release of the growth hormone needed to make muscle. “You should actually be eating twice as many carbs as protein,” says Bonci. “They should be present at every meal, in a cup, plate, or glass.”
5. Eat whole foods.
Not only is there evidence that your body absorbs nutrients from them better than from supplements, but whole foods also provide other nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that play a supporting role in getting toned. “Some studies have looked at very low-fat diets and found they may have a deleterious effect on testosterone and estrogen production,” says Bonci. “And those hormones play a role in muscle building.”
B vitamins and magnesium, which are abundant in many whole grains, are also critically important in helping extract energy from the foods we eat. And iron helps red blood cell formation. In general, whole foods deliver the whole package, and Bonci prefers to avoid supplements unless you have a doctor-diagnosed deficiency.