How Women Can Build Muscle With Diet and Exercise

Young woman eating a oatmeal after a workout
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A common fitness goal for both men and women is gaining muscle. Not only does muscle make you look and feel stronger, it reduces the risk of many chronic conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis.

But learning how to apply the best nutrition strategy for lean muscle mass gains can be tricky. Eating for muscle development is different from simply trying to reduce body fat. Muscle is a highly active metabolic tissue that requires substantial nutrients for repair and growth, especially after difficult workouts. 

Because most women naturally have less testosterone than men, muscle-building can be a slower process. Some women also shy away from eating for muscle growth due to concerns about gaining body fat. This misconception can lead to restrictive dieting that doesn't support muscle growth and definition.

How to Eat to Build Muscle

To build muscle, your body needs nutrients and calories. Some popular eating patterns and habits fail to supply them.

  • Fad diets: The billion-dollar fad diet industry is filled with empty promises and fake health foods. Many people follow these expensive diets and are still unable to reach and maintain fitness goals. Overtraining combined with undereating is a futile cycle that's more likely to inhibit muscle gains than support them.
  • Food guilt: If you get down on yourself and allow slip-ups to define you, you may be more susceptible to unhealthy exercise practices or giving up. While some people can enjoy a cheeseburger and move on, others believe that all of their muscle-building efforts are ruined by one less-than-perfect meal. Spoiler alert: They're not.
  • Restricting carbs and fats: Both carbohydrates and fats have been blamed as a reason for excess body fat. However, eliminating these macronutrients deprives lean tissue of essential nutrients for muscle growth, making it harder to get the results you've been working towards.
  • Focusing too much on fat loss: Focusing on losing fat without considering what it takes to build muscle can become a mental roadblock. Many people find it difficult to believe that eating more healthy, nutrient-dense calories results in faster muscle gain.

Without adequate carbs and fats, the body is unable to function at optimal levels. This leaves many people tired and frustrated because they are not seeing the results they're striving for. 

Adopt the Right Mindset

If your goal is to build muscle, changing your mindset and lifestyle are key. While it takes hard work, it can provide lifelong benefits.

Forget Fad Diets

Although tempting, fad diets just don’t work. Quick-fix approaches and restrictive diets are temporary solutions. They typically rely on pre-made meals, pseudo health bars, and expensive shakes and supplements. Fad diets don’t teach nutrition, leaving people unable to fend for themselves in the kitchen or grocery store.

Fad diets are also not geared ​for people whose goal is to gain muscle. They target people looking for a quick way to lose weight. In order to build muscle, implement a long-term nutrition plan that will provide long-term results. Use sustainable food plans to learn how to shop, cook, and eat for healthy muscle mass. 

Eat Carbs and Fats

Avoiding healthy carbs and fats sets your body up for low energy and muscle loss. It's important to learn the difference between the carbs and fats that can benefit your body and those that won't contribute to your fitness goals. 

Reducing the simple carbs and fats found in doughnuts, white bread, and processed foods is a good place to start. However, there's no reason to restrict the complex carbs and healthy fats in vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, avocados, and healthy oils.

Doing so robs your body of essential macronutrients that your muscles need for glycogen (energy) and anabolism (growth). Healthy carbs play an important role in muscle-building. They are stored as glycogen in the liver and muscle tissue and provide energy during and after your workouts. 

Our bodies generally don't tolerate carb restriction well and will convert amino acids (protein) stored in muscle to fuel workouts in the absence of carbs. This process is called gluconeogenesis and can mean losing hard-earned muscle. 

Fats, especially essential fatty acids (EFAs), play an equally important part in muscle development. They are linked to muscle preservation, fat burning, and hormone function. Fats help transport nutrients in and out of our cells and deliver amino acids to muscle tissue.

Focus on Muscle Growth

Make a mental shift from focusing on foods for fat loss to eating for muscle gain. This means consuming nutrient-dense foods in the form of lean proteins, healthy carbs, and fats in the right quantity to support muscle growth. 

It also means putting your food to work in the gym with regular weight resistance training. If your goal is to achieve muscle definition, it will require more than cardio to get there.

Try various and challenging weightlifting classes or solo lifting to build muscle. Approach your workout with a determination to be challenged and accepting of the normal discomfort of lifting heavier weights. Your new outlook and efforts will create sculpted muscle and a natural reduction of body fat at the same time. 

Go Easy on Yourself

It's not uncommon to go through guilt cycles when it comes to food. Our bodies and brains don’t respond well to exercise as punishment. Completing hours of cardio or overly restricting your intake to "make up for" indulgences hinders muscle development and causes physical and emotional stress.

Remember, one unhealthy meal won’t make you gain weight just as one healthy meal won’t make you thin. It’s what we do on a consistent basis that determines our overall body composition.

Both women and men need to be able to enjoy a meal and move on. This is a healthy perspective because growing lean muscle is not about restriction.

If your mindset is focused on muscle growth rather than fat loss, an occasional treat is not going to make or break your results. Reframe your way of thinking to free yourself from needless and counter-productive guilt.

A Word From Verywell

Gaining muscle is a popular health and fitness goal, and eating well to support lean mass gains is essential. Once proper nutrition is incorporated, building muscle can lead to effective fat loss as well. A review of your current food intake and more mindfulness around your eating habits will unlock your muscle development potential.

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4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Chappell AJ, Simper T, Barker ME. Nutritional strategies of high level natural bodybuilders during competition preparation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018;15:4. doi:10.1186/s12970-018-0209-z

  3. Allman BR, Morrissey MC, Kim JS, et al. Fat metabolism and acute resistance exercise in trained women. J Appl Physiol. 2019;126(3):739-745. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00752.2018

  4. Jouris KB, McDaniel JL, Weiss EP. The effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on the inflammatory response to eccentric strength exercise. J Sports Sci Med. 2011;10(3):432-8.

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