The Best Nutrition Tips for Muscle Growth

Food that supports muscle growth

Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou

Building muscle and gaining strength requires sufficient and consistent nutrition and fitness habits. No matter what your goals are, both what you eat and your activity level can be adjusted to help achieve those milestones. Building muscle, for instance, requires strategic shifts in both how you move your body and how you nourish it.

Erik Bustillo, Registered Dietitian and Strength Coach

Nutrition's role in building muscle is providing nutrients and energy for the body to recover optimally and build muscle. As stated in the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) position stand on Diet and Body Compositionthere has to be sufficient energy (calories) for someone to build muscle.

— Erik Bustillo, Registered Dietitian and Strength Coach

Why Macronutrients Matter

Though macronutrients are important, there are a few other things that go into muscle growth as well.

"First and foremost, adequate calories are a priority for gaining muscle and fueling the resistance training sessions that help with building muscle," reports Erik Bustillo, registered dietitian and strength coach at train8nine in Miami, FL. "This and lifting weights/resistance training is the most important factor for building muscle."

If you think that means you can eat any combination of macronutrients—protein, carbohydrates, and fats—you're right, however, Bustillo mentions it's important to be mindful of what's optimal.

"Protein is the key recovery nutrient, while carbohydrates help with ensuring adequate calories and energy to fuel training sessions. Fat is not particularly anabolic like protein and carbs can be; but fats provide calories and help support hormone levels, so they're certainly essential," notes Bustillo.

Protein

Dietary protein is the most important macronutrient for building muscle—specifically the essential amino acids and an abundance of leucine. These particular amino acids stimulate protein synthesis, or building of new muscle, and prevent the body from using existing muscle as fuel during workouts.

It's totally doable to get your daily protein needs from whole foods, however, when trying to build muscle or participating in sports, supplements including protein powders, shakes, and bars are a convenient way to increase the amount of quality protein you're taking in each day.

Proteins are primarily found in animal products, but can also be found in smaller quantities in plant-based ingredients.

  • Eggs
  • Beans and legumes
  • Lean meats
  • Salmon and tuna
  • Soybeans and tofu
  • Turkey and chicken breast
  • Yogurt, cottage cheese, low-fat or nonfat milk

Since protein foods highest in leucine are more equipped to build muscle, opt for choices like beans, cottage cheese, and eggs whenever possible.

Carbohydrates

Carbs are important for energy during tough workouts. Without enough carbs you'll have a hard time getting the most out of your resistance training sessions. Specifically, fueling up with carbs before and after an intense sweat session can quickly replenish energy stores and promote even more muscle building potential.

Opt for nutrient-dense sources that sustain the glycogen stores necessary for you to be able to exercise longer and more effectively, such as:

  • Buckwheat
  • Legumes
  • Quinoa
  • Root vegetables
  • Starchy vegetables
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Winter squash
  • Whole wheat breads, oats, and rye
  • Pasta
  • Fruit

Fats

While dietary fats may not play a huge role in building muscle, they are important for maintaining hormonal function and a healthy immune system. A fat-free diet can impede muscle growth in a person who vigorously exercises.

Healthy fats include more than just olive oil. There are a number of other sources, both for cooking and for eating, including:

  • Avocados
  • Dark chocolate
  • Ghee
  • Greek yogurt
  • Nuts and chia seeds
  • Olives
  • Whole eggs
  • Fish
  • Flaxseeds

How Do I Know How Much to Eat?

Trendy diets can be appealing since they tend to promise quick results. The problem is, they're often not ideal for building muscle since most mainstream diets rely on a restricted number of calories. Since this goes against the science of nutrition and building muscle, you may find yourself quickly hitting a wall.

"How much one should eat is highly varied depending on the person, their goals, their energy output, and their respective preferences of foods," reports Bustillo. He recommends starting with a simple equation to determine calorie needs:

Calculating Calorie Needs

To determine calorie goals, multiply your bodyweight in pounds by 16 and by 18 and then attempt meeting those caloric goals for one to two weeks.

"There are more scientific approaches like getting a metabolic test done, but this is not very convenient and may be expensive. Starting with the 16-18 times bodyweight in pounds can help give a starting point; thereafter, monitor progress," notes Bustillo, who also emphasizes the following, "do not be afraid to eat a lot (it is needed for growth) and stay consistent with training and working out."

Whenever possible, consult with a qualified training coach and registered dietitian who can help you map out a workout plan and calorie needs to meet your goals, and work with you through the process.

In addition, Bustillo recommends that you "have your body composition measured at the start and several months down the line, this will help give measurable data to help see progress."

Consistency Is Key

Nutrition and fitness goals aren't met overnight. Patience and consistency are the most important tools for sustainability. "How long it takes [to see change] is highly varied from person to person," reports Bustillo. "It may take months to see minimal gains."

"I like to say this for muscle gain, fat loss, and so many other things in life: trust the process, be patient, and stay consistent," he concludes.

Follow these tips for better consistency:

  • Create a weekly menu or meal plan
  • Keep stock of what's in your pantry and replenish weekly
  • Don't miss meals
  • Have a workout buddy and meal prep buddy
  • Prioritize rest, sleep, and recovery
  • Use convenient resources like grocery delivery services, meal prep services, and supplements.
  • Prep meals and snacks in advance
  • Make foods in bulk like chicken breast, rice, and vegetables

A Word From Verywell

Restrictive dietary fads go in and out of style and are often not the best choice for building muscle. Nourishing your body with a variety of nutrient-dense foods, especially protein and carbohydrates, is important for meeting your muscle building goals. If you need help in putting together an appropriate diet plan for muscle growth, speak to a registered dietitian or qualified sports nutritionist.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How much protein should I eat for muscle growth?

    The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends consuming 1.4-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight per day for muscle growth when combined with physical activity. An emphasis on leucine-rich protein sources is ideal and can consist of whole foods and supplements.

  • What happens if I don't eat after a workout?

    "Nothing major will happen if you don't eat immediately after a workout," notes Erik Bustillo, Registered Dietitian and Strength Coach. "I advise ensuring adequate nutrition throughout the day; however, if possible to consume a carb and protein drink or meal after a workout, that helps begin the recovery process sooner."

  • What vegetable is high in protein?

    The best plant-based protein sources include soybeans, tempeh, green peas, quinoa, beans, lentils, chickpeas, broccoli, tempeh, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. Keep in mind, you generally have to eat a larger portion of plant-based proteins to reap the same amount of protein as one serving of animal proteins.

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