The Importance of Nutrition for Muscle Growth

Are You Eating for Muscle?

Eating right for muscle growth is essential. Unfortunately, there are a few things often misunderstood in the process. Creating muscle definition is hard work and requires excellent sports nutrition to make it happen. Avoiding common mistakes will allow you to develop a proper nutrition plan and achieve those lean mass gains. 

The Problem

Rear view of body builder
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Going on a diet: Dieting is probably the worst mistake made when trying to build lean mass (muscle). In fact, the body will seek out energy sources to consume when calories are restricted. Guess what, muscle tissue is seen as fuel to the body and will provide energy when calories are down. When you don't eat enough to sustain your muscle, you are unable to grow lean mass. In addition, starvation mode will increase fat stores and leave you wondering what the heck happened. 
Not eating enough protein: Protein is an essential macronutrient needed for muscle growth and repair. Not consuming enough can leave lean mass (muscle) screaming for attention.
Restricting carbs: Carbohydrates are important macronutrients and your primary energy source. Carbs provide needed energy for those tough workouts and also replenishing muscle glycogen (energy stores). Taking carbs out of your daily food intake will diminish your athletic performance and leave your muscles struggling for nutrients. 

Not eating fats: Healthy fats help boost metabolism and regulate hormone function. Keeping healthy fats from your nutrition can rob your body of peak performance and diminish function to grow muscle and lose fat. The old saying ‘eating fat makes you fat’ is a myth and definitely not a friend to improved muscle definition.

The Solution

Toss the diet and eat for muscle. Your body needs healthy food to function efficiently. The physical demands of an added exercise program will require even more calories. This is no time to consider a diet leaving your muscles flat and energy tanked. Eating like a bird and following fad diets are not going to develop the muscle definition you desire. Lean mass gains require you to eat a wide variety of macronutrients. In order to achieve a muscular body, it will be essential to consume lean proteins, healthy carbs, good fats, and drink plenty of water throughout the day. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) indicates eating too little metabolizes (eats away) muscle while storing fat.
Eat protein to support your muscle mass. Protein is made up of amino acids that help with cellular function and muscle repair. Amino acids need to be available for muscle metabolism (energy) and for ongoing anabolism (muscle growth). It will be the sufficient amount of protein intake keeping your body in a positive amino acid balance to build muscle. A decline in the balance will mean a breakdown in muscle tissue. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends a general range of 10 to 35% of your caloric intake coming from protein determined on an individual basis.   

Eat carbs to fuel muscle building workouts and keep blood sugar levels even all day. Consuming quality carbohydrates like veggies, fruits, and grains in proper portions is essential for muscle growth and reducing fat. Healthy carbs provide superior fuel for hard workouts and well-defined muscle. There is a difference between good and bad carbohydrates and nutrient dense carbs are recommended. Carbohydrate (CHO) requirements will vary according to exercise demands. They have a very important job of restoring muscle glycogen (stored form of energy) after exhausting workouts. 

Eat healthy fats to help hormonal function, especially testosterone for growing muscle. Did you know fat supplies 70 percent of your energy at rest? Also, essential fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K are obtained by eating healthy fats. Fat also has an important function of padding and protecting your vital organs. Your body simply doesn’t run efficiently without adequate fat intake. Similar to eating carbs, consuming more fat is typically required to meet the physical demands of intense workouts. Eating healthy fat in proper portion doesn't make you fat and is an important macronutrient the body requires to build lean muscle.

Best Diet for Muscle Growth

Eating a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods coming from proteins, carbohydrates, and fats have shown to be effective for optimal muscle growth. Lean mass diets are highly marketed and claim to enhance muscle building. Is this all hype? Is there a specific diet that should be followed for building muscle? 

According to Kelly Pritchett, PhD, RD, CSSD, National Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a specific diet isn’t recommended. Instead, she suggests aiming towards the goal of maximizing protein intake and availability. This means consuming foods that are high-quality proteins beneficial for muscle repair, and synthesis including:

  • Lean meat
  • Fish and poultry
  • Eggs and dairy 

Pritchett also recommends protein timing for optimal muscle growth. She indicates protein timing has been shown to be important for optimizing MPS (especially within the 24 hour periods following exercise). However, longitudinal studies are warranted to determine how this translates over time (i.e. if someone did this chronically). To elaborate, the optimal dose can be defined even further to 0.3g protein/kg body weight if someone wanted to maximize their protein intake.

Foods high in the amino acid leucine are also important for building muscle says Pritchett. According to numerous studies, leucine has been suggested to accelerate MPS (or speed up the process). 

The following list includes leucine-rich foods for lean mass gains:

  • Lean steak
  • Soybeans
  • Firm tofu
  • Cheese
  • Chicken and pork
  • Fish and seafood
  • Beans
  • Nuts and seeds
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