Best Muscle-Building Foods
A balanced, nutritional diet is integral, but people with different goals need specific types of food to catalyse the process. This article will focus on the most beneficial foods for those looking to build muscle.
It’s highly important to consume a nutritious and balanced diet, especially if you’re looking to achieve a weight loss goal. Many foods are packed with nutrients that are believed to have different beneficial functions in terms of dieting. This article, however, will look specifically at the most popular foods for building and strengthening muscles.
Athletes, bodybuilders and anybody looking to train intensely and regularly need a lot of energy so that they can train to the best of their abilities, and this is achieved through a calorific but incredibly nutritious diet. Here, we’ll explore which nutrients are essential for gaining muscle mass and not fat.
Nutrients for Building Muscle
When you’re looking for the right foods to eat to gain muscle, there are certain nutrients that you should be focusing on.
Perhaps the most widely known nutrient said to encourage muscle growth is protein. Many bodybuilders and athletes consume protein supplements such as protein shakes before, after or even during workouts, which will be discussed later in the article. This is to provide the body with adequate amounts of protein, and while it’s said that the average person consumes enough through a balanced diet, the idea is to consume larger amounts of protein quickly, to either prepare or repair the muscles for/from exercise.
Protein is important in muscle growth because it’s believed to work at repairing and developing muscles and tissue. As athletic workouts can damage muscle fibres, the protein is said to repair them faster and more effectively, allegedly resulting in faster production of muscle cells, subsequently resulting in muscle growth.
In order to consume a sufficient amount of protein to build muscle, you need amino acids. Amino acids are believed to be ‘the building blocks of protein’; it’s said that when we digest or break down protein in the body, we’re left with a number of different amino acids. Our bodies are then said to use these amino acids to form protein, which then allegedly helps to build and repair body tissue and muscles, as well as break down food and help the body to grow.
There are three different types of amino acid: ‘essential amino acids’ allegedly come from food as they can’t be made by the body, ‘non-essential amino acids’ are believed to be made naturally in the body, and ‘conditional amino acids’ are only believed to be needed if we’re ill or stressed.
While protein and amino acids are crucial for muscle building, carbohydrates are also believed to be important. It’s said that intense training burns energy, and this energy is allegedly burnt in the form of ‘muscle glycogen’. As the stored muscle glycogen is burnt from the exercise, it’s important to replace the glycogen in order to help repair and build the muscles. This is supposedly achieved by consuming sufficient amounts of carbohydrates in your diet.
A lot of people working towards a weight loss goal avoid carbohydrates, as they think they’re unhealthy. However, this is merely a misconception; of course, some carbohydrates are said to be unhealthy if they’re low in fibre, such as products made with ‘white grain’, and these include bread made with white flour or white rice.
Healthy carbohydrates, however, include higher amounts of fibre such as bread products made with whole grains, brown rice or pasta, beans, fruit and vegetables. Consumption of healthy carbohydrates is also said to boost the body’s levels of insulin. Insulin is a hormone which is believed to increase the rate in which amino acids reach the muscles.
Which Foods are Best for Gaining Muscle Mass?
It’s said that beef is protein-rich and contains amino acids, iron, which supposedly creates red blood cells, and zinc which is believed to aid in normal cell function, as well as encouraging growth. Beef is also said to contain ‘selenium’, an antioxidant and essential trace mineral that the body needs in small quantities to allegedly aid in protecting cell damage.
Beef is also believed to be rich in B vitamins, allegedly including B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), pantothenic acid, B6 and B12. The chemical ‘creatine’ is another ingredient said to give beef its muscle-building properties; creatine is found naturally in muscles, and has been shown to improve exercise performance and build muscle in various studies in appropriate doses.
One study explores how consumption of protein-rich beef can affect nutritional status and muscle mass in a sample of 142 adults aged between 60 and 88 years old. Participants consumed beef in their diet and recorded a ‘Diet History Questionnaire’ as well as other surveys related to nutritional status and activity.
As these methods are perhaps subjective, subjects also had their body composition and strength measured, and blood was taken to examine ‘biochemical measurements’. Results showed that regular consumption of beef positively correlated to muscle mass in the mid-arm area, and the protein intake was positively associated with nutrition status, calf circumference and BMI.
Many types of fish are said to be very healthy, and some are believed to aid in building and strengthening muscles. Salmon is said to aid in increasing muscle mass as it’s protein-rich, with approximately 20-25g per 100g serving. Furthermore, salmon is also believed to contain a number of other healthy nutrients such as monounsaturated fats, claiming to benefit heart health, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, said to reduce triglyceride levels and potentially encourage fat loss.
Fish oil is often taken in supplement form to treat joint pain, but it can also be consumed naturally through fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, anchovies, trout, sardines, mullet, sturgeon and herrings. It’s also said that fish oil can boost testosterone levels, which may be beneficial for male athletes and bodybuilders, as well as reducing body fat through its blend of omega-3 fatty acids.
It’s said that while eggs are rich in protein, with around 5-7g per egg, they’re also fairly low in calories at an average of 60 calories per egg, and can be prepared in a number of different ways that range in healthiness. However, it’s believed that it isn’t just the protein contents of eggs that encourage them to build muscle. Egg yolks are allegedly the most important part for gaining muscle, as they contain vitamins A, D and E, as well as cholesterol. Although cholesterol is generally seen as unhealthy, there are 2 types: good (HDL) cholesterol and bad (LDL) cholesterol, and eggs are supposedly rich in good cholesterol.
We all know that fruit is good for us, but some fruits are said to contain specific ingredients which target muscle gain. For example, oranges are believed aid in muscle growth because they’re rich in vitamin C and they contain magnesium and antioxidants such as beta-carotene. Organic apples supposedly contain pectin, said to suppress appetite, and the peels are believed to have strong antioxidant effects. Likewise, berries are also popular for their alleged antioxidant contents, claiming to boost the immune system and protect cells against damage and disease.
Much like fruits, it’s said that any nutritious diet should contain an adequate amount of vegetables, but there are some in particular that specifically target muscle growth. Spinach is an alkaline food rich in iron, but it’s also said to contain the amino acid ‘glutamine’, said to be highly effective for lean muscle growth, claiming to strengthen muscles and improve endurance.
This study used a sample of 20 well-trained men who were given a daily supplement dosed at 1g per kg of body weight before running 21.1km for 14 days. Half of them received a spinach supplement while the other half were given a placebo. Results found that the spinach significantly increased ‘total antioxidant capacity’ as well as ‘creatine kinase’ and ‘malondialdehyde’, implying that regular exercise and consumption of spinach may improve muscle damage, potentially allowing muscles to grow more effectively.
Beets are believed to increase muscle strength and power, as well as repair joints. They’re said to achieve this by boosting levels of nitric oxide, supposedly created when L-arginine enters the body.
One study observed the relationships between nitrate supplementation, exercise and vascular muscle control using a sample of rats. Some were supplemented with dietary nitrate via beetroot juice, while others received a placebo, and they all participated in a treadmill exercise. After 5 days, results found that the rats given the beetroot juice improved vascular control and metabolic control. The beetroot juice also appeared to elevate delivery of oxygen to muscles during exercise.
Quinoa is a grain believed to be high in fibre, easy to digest, gluten-free and allegedly contains more protein than rice and oats, with arguably more flavour. In addition, the protein found in quinoa is said to contain all 9 amino acids in it, as well as magnesium and iron. This makes quinoa a popular food amongst vegetarians and vegans, as it’s adaptable and can be eaten in many ways.
Cheese is often high in fat and avoided by people with a weight loss goal. However, it’s said that non-fat/low-fat, organic cottage cheese can help build muscle as it’s high in protein, with roughly 14g per ½ cup, but it’s also allegedly low in calories, with 80 calories in a ½ cup, and less than 2g of fat. Furthermore, cottage cheese is believed to contain nutrients such as calcium and vitamin B12, and it’s also said to be a good source of casein protein. Casein protein is said to be most effective for recovery and repairing muscles after exercising. It’s believed to be a slow-digesting protein, which allegedly prevents the muscles from being used as an energy source when you sleep.
Greek yoghurt is said to be a beneficial food for increasing muscle mass, if you choose the correct type. There’s a huge range of yoghurt available, but it’s said that Greek yoghurt is the best choice, as long as it’s plain, non-frozen and isn’t flavoured or added with sugar. It’s said that as well as improving gastrointestinal health, Greek yoghurt is a good source of casein protein. Furthermore, Greek yoghurt is said to contain more protein (20g) and fewer carbohydrates (9g) in a cup compared to regular yoghurt, which contains an average of 16g of protein and 16g of carbohydrates per cup.
Many athletes and bodybuilders supplement protein using protein powder. While this may not be necessary, as you can consume enough protein through food, many argue that the shake provides the muscles with the protein and its nutrients quickly.There’s a growing market for protein shakes, and they can be taken before exercise to prepare the muscles or after to repair and recover. There are generally 3 main types of protein used in shakes: whey, casein or soy, but whey protein arguably appears to be the most popular.
One study discusses how whey protein contains high levels of ‘leucine’, an amino acid said to increase muscle protein synthesis. A sample of 63 men and women completed a resistance training program and consumed daily supplements of carbohydrates, whey protein or soy protein for 9 months. Results showed a significant increase in muscle gain in those consuming the whey protein, with a 20% rise in leucine levels, indicating that the combination of regular resistance training and whey protein consumption may build muscle. More information can be found in our ‘Best Protein Shakes for Muscle Building’ article.
In conclusion, muscle mass can be gained healthily and effectively without having to supplement nutrients. When combined with exercise, a diet consisting of the foods listed above should potentially help to build and strengthen muscles due to the protein, amino acids, minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrients they each contain. However, everybody is different, and so it’s important to consult a GP or nutritionist before any dramatic change in diet/lifestyle, especially if you have any type of medical condition or dietary requirement as they can offer guidance. It’s integral to consume a healthy diet that reflects your lifestyle and the training you do.
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