Grab your cheat sheet
When you think about building muscle your first thought probably involves going down to the gym and throwing heavy weights around.
While weightlifting is obviously important for bulking up and building muscle, it’s actually the kitchen where you should be turning your attention first.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “abs are made in the kitchen”, well, so is muscle. Your muscle-building ability heavily depends on what you fuel your body with.
As you’ve already calculated the number of calories you need to eat for your body type, we can now dive into creating your own personalized muscle-building diet plan.
Why food is important for muscle growth
So why is what you eat as important as the weights you lift to build muscle?
Because food fuels your body through its workouts, what you eat directly impacts how effective those workouts are and the results you experience.
We previously looked at how your macros should be split across your weekly meals, now, we’ll dig a bit further into what each of those macronutrients provides for your body, along with some examples to include in your plan.
Of the three macronutrients, protein is the one most associated with muscle growth – and with good reason.
Protein contains amino acids (including all nine of the essential amino acids that your body can’t produce on its own), which repair the muscle tissue after a workout and help you maintain that newly-formed mass.
This is essentially what muscle building is: the tearing of muscle fibers through heavy lifting, which is then healed and nourished by food so they can be reformed at a slightly larger mass. This then makes you stronger and better equipped for lifting heavier in the future.
While it’s important to eat the correct amount of protein, the timing of your protein intake can also impact muscle growth.
As you need to consume more protein than your body breaks down during your workout to successfully build muscle, it is a good idea to bookend your workouts with some sort of protein intake.
Before your workout, eating a protein-based snack, or simply supplementing with some branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), puts your body in the necessary anabolic state to build muscle. (We recommend a fruit smoothie with added protein powder or some natural nut butter on a slice of whole-grain toast.)
Anabolism is the name for the metabolic process mentioned above, where your body repairs itself to become bigger and stronger than before (the opposite of this, the breaking down of molecules like protein to use as energy, is called catabolism).
You can maximize this “anabolic window” further by consuming protein within two hours of finishing your workout. This is the optimal time to get the most out of protein, as it works to refuel your body and replenish your sore muscles.
You should also space your meals out to at least three or four hours apart, as this allows your amino acid levels to return to baseline and they are then able to initiate a fresh bout of protein synthesis in the body.
So that’s how protein works for muscle growth, now let’s take a look at some great sources of protein that you can build your meals around.
- Chicken: Lean meats like chicken and turkey are high in amino acids and low in fat. They’re also incredibly versatile – you can grill them, bake them, or add them to salads, pasta, wraps, or anything you like.
- Beef: However you choose to prepare it (e.g. steak, mince, strips), make sure you stick to lean cuts of red meats like beef or pork, as these have a lower fat content.
- Fish: Many fish are high in protein and omega-3s that have anti-inflammatory properties for improved muscle recovery. Tuna, salmon, cod, prawn, and sardines are all great options.
- Tofu: If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, tofu is a versatile alternative to meat as it’s a complete protein source made from soybeans – as is tempeh. Both of these can be used in dishes like salads, stir-fries, and healthy curries.
- Eggs: Another highly-versatile protein source, eggs are affordable and packed with essential amino acids. They’re also easy to prepare – you could scramble them, boil them, poach them, or make a healthy omelette filled with vegetables.
- Dairy: Your best sources of dairy protein are cottage cheese, milk, and Greek yogurt. They also provide a healthy dose of calcium for improved bone strength. Be careful you don’t overdo it with dairy though, as there is often a hefty amount of fat involved.
- Beans: You’ve got loads of quality choices when it comes to beans. Kidney, black, pinto, edamame, lima… All of them can be used to round out a meal’s protein content, as well as boost your intake of fiber and numerous vitamins and minerals.
- Nuts, grains, and seeds: Quinoa, peanuts, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, lentils – again, lots of options here to add extra protein to your meals and fill you up without having to overeat.
- Protein powders: If you ever struggle to reach your daily protein goal, adding protein powder to a smoothie (or just making a protein shake with water or milk) can help you top up your intake and reach your target. There are plenty of flavors available too, so it never has to be boring. Whey is the most common form of protein powder, but pea, soy, and other plant-based proteins offer up decent alternatives for vegetarians and vegans.
Now you’ve got your protein sources in mind, we’ll take a look at some carbohydrates to fill up the next part of your plate.
Ahh carbs. We all love carbs – bread, pasta, potatoes (in all their many forms)...
But you can’t just wolf down pizzas or bags of chips all the time and expect to get results. You have to be smart about the carbs you eat if you want to build muscle.
Fortunately, carbs don’t have to be boring to be healthy, as there are plenty of options for you to incorporate into your meals.
But before we get into which carbs you should eat, we’ll first see why carbohydrates are vital for our bodies.
And that’s the thing about carbs: they do play a crucial role in muscle building. Forget any rumors you might hear about carbs being the enemy – you really don’t need to fear or avoid them.
Eating the right carbs at the right times will enable you to power through your workouts more effectively as they provide you with energy.
By breaking down into glucose in the body, carbs are your body’s preferred source of energy to keep you going. If you don’t eat enough carbs, your body will use the protein and fats you consume as energy instead – which isn’t what you want when trying to build muscle.
Clearly then, carbohydrates are a key component to a healthy diet. However, just as all calories are not created equal, neither are all carbs.
Each carb is classified as simple or complex depending on how many sugar molecules a carbohydrate contains.
Simple carbs are essentially sugar in disguise. There are some healthy sources, like fruits or milk, but most simple carbs are to be avoided – particularly things like soda, candy, cookies, and many more refined or processed foodstuffs.
Complex carbs, on the other hand, are high in fiber, are digested much more slowly, help replenish your glycogen stores, and release glucose into your bloodstream more gradually.
These are all positive points, as your body has to work harder to break them down and it won’t spike your blood sugar like simple carbs do. Instead, you’ll get a nice slow release of energy to keep you fueled throughout the day, particularly if you time your carb intake just right.
As energy from complex carbs is released steadily, you should ideally eat a meal that includes carbohydrates around three to four hours before working out. Whereas eating simple carbs so long before a workout will likely lead to an energy crash before you even set foot in the gym, leaving you feeling unmotivated and lethargic.
After smashing it at the gym, you’ll then need to replenish those glycogen stores that we mentioned earlier. Eating carbs and protein within two to three hours post-workout will help restore your fuel supply – pushing your energy levels back up and also aiding with recovery. Your typical post-workout meal should contain a lean protein source, such as chicken or fish, alongside some complex carbohydrates, like brown rice or quinoa.
As you start to experiment with your food timings around workouts, you might find that your individual response to carbohydrates means you have to change up when you eat. This is absolutely fine. If you need to eat more carbs in the morning to get you set for the day: go for it. If you prefer eating later in the day because you work out in the evenings (or because carbs make you feel sleepy): great. If you like spacing out meals at regular intervals to fit with your personal life: have at it. It’s all about finding the perfect balance that works for you.
Some complex carbohydrates that you should be serving up as part of your muscle-building diet plan include:
- Oats: Opt for rolled or steel-cut oats instead of heavily-processed instant oats, as these are higher in fiber and have a lower glycemic index than most other grains or cereals – plus, there is no added sugar like you get with the manufactured breakfast foods.
- Rice: Whole grains like brown rice and quinoa are incredibly fibrous and help to regulate your blood sugar. Spelt, buckwheat, barley, and bulgar wheat are also good inclusions for a healthy diet.
- Sweet potatoes: Due to their slow-release sugars and high vitamin C content, sweet potatoes should be your potato of choice. They can be prepared in the same way as any other potato, too – boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew…
- Pasta: As with rice, whole-grain versions are your friend when it comes to pasta. Wholewheat pasta isn’t stripped of its bran like refined and processed white pasta is, so it maintains all of its essential nutrients and fiber. The same goes for bread.
- Fruit: High-fiber fruits are what you’re looking for here – think apples, bananas, and berries. Make sure they’re fresh, and avoid fruits from a can (as these often have loads of sugary syrup added into the mix).
- Vegetables: You can pretty much go to town with leafy green vegetables. Spinach, broccoli, kale, cabbage, lettuce… All are packed full of vitamins and minerals, all are incredibly versatile. They can be sauteed, baked, added to smoothies, made into salads, and prepared countless other ways. So there’s no excuse to skip your vegetables.
The key takeaway from this list of carbs is that you should prioritize natural whole foods like rice, oats, and potatoes, as well as lots of fruits and vegetables, and avoid anything processed and packed full of sugar or unnatural sweeteners.
That’s your protein and carbohydrates taken care of, so let’s move on to the final component of your macronutrient-focused meals: fat.
Just like carbohydrates, fat has long had a bad reputation. But it’s just misunderstood.
As it was with carbs, it’s all about ensuring you’re eating the right fat. And there are plenty of those to choose from.
When you worked out your calorie needs, you'll probably notice that fat often comes in as the macro with the lowest necessary ratio of the three. This is because it is far more calorie dense than the other two. Whilst protein and carbs both weigh in at four calories per gram, fat is more than double that number at nine calories per gram! So it makes sense that we need less of it.
Just like we divided carbs into good and bad categories, fat comes in several main forms, with some much healthier than others.
- Saturated fats: Often found in animal products like meat and cheese, as well as butter, ghee, lard, and coconut and palm oils. These are not the best types of fats for a healthy diet, so you need to limit their intake when creating a macro-focused meal plan.
- Unsaturated fats: These are the fats you’re looking for. As they promote blood flow and help lower heart disease, unsaturated fats are known as “good fats” and should therefore make up most of your fat macros. There are two types, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, which can be found in a wide variety of healthy foods, which we’ll explore shortly.
- Trans fats: Also known as trans-fatty acids, these are the bad kinds of fat. Trans fats are often found in highly-processed foods (such as most fast food, fried food, and baked goods) and are likely responsible for the negative press that fat gets. They can raise your cholesterol levels and lead to heart disease and other dangerous health issues. Keep these out of your diet if you want to gain muscle.
You should aim for a balanced mix of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and (some) saturated fats. This will cover all your bases and ensure you are getting a range of healthy fat in your diet from a variety of sources to help regulate your hormone production, improve your joint strength, and support your overall health and well-being.
Like with carbs, you may want to experiment with fat-timings somewhat, as they can delay the digestion of other nutrients. Avoiding high-fat meals or snacks just before and after your workouts will ensure that your body properly processes the protein and carbohydrates that you’re using to fuel your workouts.
Instead, include healthy fats during meals at other points during the day to help lower your glycemic index, slow down carb absorption, and help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins (that’s A, D, E, and K) more efficiently.
Some healthy fat sources include:
- Avocado: High in fiber and monounsaturated fat, avocados are great for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. They can be eaten as a snack on their own or added to salads or sandwiches – they can even be used as a substitute for butter or eggs when baking!
- Fatty fish: The omega-3 fatty acids in fish like tuna, mackerel, salmon, and herring play a vital role in the health of your heart and brain. They also provide lots of protein, so they’re a bit of a two-in-one health hack.
- Eggs: As well as being a great source of protein, eggs contain healthy fats that can help raise HDL (that’s high-density lipoprotein – the good cholesterol) and lower triglycerides, thus reducing the risk of heart disease.
- Olives: Another solid source of monounsaturated fat, olives also contain a compound called oleuropein, which has been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes and aid longevity.
- Nuts: There’s lots of choice here – peanuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts… All of these provide your body with healthy fats and added nutrients, just make sure you go for unsalted kinds. If you prefer nut butter, only buy ones made from 100% peanuts (or your nut of choice) – no extra salt, sugar, or other harmful additives should be included.
- Vegetable oils: Picking the right oil to cook with or drizzle onto salads is crucial. Olive oil, canola oil, and oils made from walnut, corn or soybean are all healthy options that contain good kinds of fat. Avoid palm oil and hydrogenated oils.
- Seeds: They might not sound particularly appetizing, but seeds can be easily added to oats and smoothies and make a nutritious snack on their own. Sesame, chia, flax, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds are all small but powerful sources of omega-3s, fiber, minerals, and antioxidants.
- Greek yogurt: Make sure you opt for a full-fat version, as you should with any type of dairy (as long as it fits into your plan). Fat-free and low-fat dairy products often have their fat content replaced by sugar or artificial sweeteners so that they don't lose any flavor, which isn’t ideal for a muscle-building diet.
You probably noticed here that all of the best fat sources are naturally occurring, as was the case with carbohydrates and protein. This is no coincidence. Manufactured and processed foods are almost always unhealthy and should be avoided as much as possible.
Humans have evolved over thousands of years to digest and make use of natural and healthy foods, and these are still the best things for your body now – no matter what your goal. We haven’t evolved an ability to easily turn Big Macs and cheesecakes into muscle mass yet, unfortunately.
Along with the lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats we’ve covered, there are a few more things to consider when building your muscle-building meal plan: micronutrients.
Whilst the three macronutrients will make up the bulk of your muscle-gaining meals, micronutrients need to be taken into account, too, as they play a significant role in your overall health.
You’ll find many of these, in varying amounts, are part and parcel of some of the foods we’ve already mentioned, but it’s worth noting just what additional nutrients you should be keeping an eye out for on food labels and nutritional information to avoid any deficiencies.
- B vitamins: There are eight vitamins in the B complex – B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7 (often called biotin), B9 (also known as folic acid), and B12. Each provides multiple health benefits, including positive impacts on your immune system, energy levels, and brain function. Meat, dairy, eggs, and leafy greens all provide high levels of B vitamins.
- Vitamin C: Mostly found in citrus fruits like oranges and lemons, as well as Brussels sprouts and bell peppers. Vitamin C (AKA ascorbic acid) is vital for healthy skin, protecting your cells, and healing wounds and injuries.
- Vitamins A, D, E, and K: These four are known as fat-soluble vitamins, as they don’t dissolve in water, so they are better consumed alongside a source of fat. They are then stored in your liver and fatty tissue to be used to improve immune function, aid your vision, and boost bone and muscle health.
- Magnesium: Plays a role in numerous biological processes, particularly those related to metabolism and energy production. Spinach and other leafy greens, as well as nuts (particularly cashews and almonds), are your go-to sources here.
- Calcium: Well known for keeping your bones strong and your teeth healthy, calcium is best obtained from dairy products like yogurt, cheese, and milk.
- Zinc: Muscle growth, testosterone production, and immune function all benefit from zinc in your diet. Shellfish, meat, and dairy all provide healthy doses.
- Potassium: This mineral keeps your electrolytes balanced so you stay hydrated and can recover well from your workouts. Bananas are a famous source of potassium, but fruits like apricots, as well as beans, seeds, and pulses, all provide it too.
- Iron: By helping create red blood cells and carry oxygen to your muscles, iron plays an important role in both exercise and recovery. An iron deficiency can lead to anemia, so vegans in particular may need help from an iron supplement, as most dietary iron is found in various types of meat and fish (although many beans and nuts also contain iron).
Something we haven’t mentioned yet, that you may be wondering about in relation to your daily and weekly calories is alcohol.
Alcohol is actually considered to be the fourth macronutrient. However, this is not something that you should include in your plan if you want to see serious results. Whilst there is an argument to track your alcohol consumption as a part of your carbohydrate allowance, going without alcohol is the best option when you’re looking to add muscle mass to your frame.
In addition to consuming your optimal amount of macros, you can take your muscle-building diet one step further by introducing supplements into your routine.
We briefly mentioned whey (and other forms of powder) protein as something to include in your calorie count, but other supplements are not something that you need to track with regard to your macros. Supplements are additional aspects of your diet that come in handy when it comes to boosting your workout performance, energy levels, or recovery process.
There are many kinds of supplements, and they come in a variety of forms – powders, pills, and capsules are the most common.
Our main recommendations, no matter if you’re a gym newbie or a bodybuilding beast, are:
- Creatine: One of the most popular supplements with gym-goers and bodybuilders, creatine can enhance muscle strength and endurance during a workout. It aids with hydration, has you pushing out extra reps, and helps you recover faster.
- BCAAs: Branched-chain amino acids are usually taken as a pre-workout supplement to provide extra energy and focus in the gym. They also reduce muscle fatigue and soreness, boost muscle growth, and support your recovery.
- Testosterone boosters: Testosterone is the key hormone when it comes to building muscle mass. If your levels are too low, then you’ll struggle to make gains. T-boosters that include zinc, magnesium, fenugreek, D-aspartic acid, and nettle leaf (yes, really) are the ones to look for.
- Vitamin and mineral complexes: There are lots of vitamin and mineral supplements out there that can help cover any deficiencies you might have. Common ones include fish oil/omega-3s, zinc, vitamin B12, and calcium. Blood tests from a doctor may be required to reveal any such deficiencies that could hinder your muscle growth or negatively impact your overall health.
All of these supplements can offer a little something extra to your muscle-building diet plan but remember, they are just that: supplementary. They are not a substitute for a healthy and well-balanced diet – they should complement it, not replace the real food you consume.
Fuelling your workouts
The nutrient-dense foods we’ve discussed will ensure your body is ready and equipped to gain muscle and power through your workouts.
Learning how to work with your body’s preferred meal timings is key to success, so take note of how it responds to various different food and workout strategies.
Just because something works perfectly for somebody else doesn’t necessarily mean that you will experience the same effects. Everyone is different, so use all of the information we’ve been through above and mold it to fit your lifestyle and your biology.
Here’s a handy little cheat sheet that you can refer back to if you ever need a primer:
- Build your meals to fit your macros, using predominantly natural ingredients and fresh, whole foods – no artificial, manufactured, or processed rubbish!
- Pre-workout fuel should give you the energy you need to power through intense gym sessions – easily digestible carbs and some protein are ideal.
- Post-workout nutrition should be geared towards recovery, muscle repair, and replenishing your glycogen stores.
- Find a routine that works for you – it should allow you to perform optimally at the gym and build solid muscle mass without risking injury or fatigue.
- Be mindful of missing out on micronutrients – ensure the macros you choose to eat also include the vitamins and minerals you need to function at a high level.
- Complement your meal plan with supplements that would safely benefit your progress.
- Stay on top of your hydration! Drink plenty of water throughout the day (it’s calorie free, after all), particularly before, during, and after workouts.
- BONUS TIP: Plan your meals in advance – this not only saves time and keeps you on track to reach your goals, it will also stop you from grabbing something unhealthy if you’re in a rush or feeling too lazy to cook.
There we have then, lots of choices for you to include as part of your muscle-building diet plan. Now that you’ve determined how to fuel your body through gym sessions properly, you can start building your very own muscle-building workout plan to complement it.
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