A Nutritionist Tells Us What to Eat to Build Muscle

Jessica Bippen, MS, RD, enlightens us on what to eat to build muscle so you can get the results you’re looking for at the gym… by starting with your food choices. You know the saying “abs are built in the kitchen”? As cliché as it sounds, it carries some truth. You can do squats and crunches all day, but until you focus on what you’re eating for fuel, you aren’t going to get the results you want! Truth be told, the food you put in your body can either help or hinder your progress. If you want to gain muscle mass and see your hard work at the gym pay off, these are the foods you need to reach for.


Before diving into the foods that support muscle growth, let’s talk about calories. Coupled with a solid strength training routine, increasing your caloric intake is imperative to supporting muscle growth and seeing results at the gym. If your goal is building muscle, you need to eat more calories than you’re burning. This surplus allows the food to fuel your gym sessions and support the muscle repair and growth that happens between those sessions. If you’re eating too little, your goal to gain muscle can backfire on you. With too much of a calorie deficit, your body starts breaking down muscle. Adding 250 to 500 calories per day can help you increase your overall calorie intake in a healthy way. However, that doesn’t mean you can blow through pints of Halo Top or turn every mealtime into a full-fledged buffet. Your choices matter. The additional calories should come from quality, whole foods, especially protein, complex carbohydrates like fruits and veggies, and healthy fats. Now let’s take a closer look at the foods you should be eating to build muscle.

What to Eat to Build Muscle

Protein-rich foods to build muscle, including chicken, beef, salmon, and lentils


You might have guessed it! In order to gain muscle, you need more protein—but it might not be as much as you think. The current recommendations advise getting 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories from protein. However, to support muscle growth, you need to be closer to the 25 to 35 percent range. Current research shows that most people need 1.2 to 2.0 g/kg/day to support muscle growth. (For example, a 140-pound individual would need between 76 to 127 grams of protein per day to promote muscle gain.) Protein-rich foods to help you meet your daily protein goals include:
  • Eggs
  • Lean turkey
  • Lean chicken
  • Seafood
  • Greek yogurt
  • Cottage cheese
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Peanut butter
  • Protein powder
It’s best to incorporate these protein-rich foods after a workout and throughout the day (every three to four hours) to ensure a constant supply of protein for muscle growth and recovery. Meal prep with vegetables, fruit, crackers, and other complex carbohydrates to help build muscle


Protein isn’t the only food group you need for muscle growth. Carbohydrates are also necessary for fueling your muscles. Why? Because carbohydrates are partially converted to glycogen, and your body stores glycogen in muscle to use as energy. In order to power your workouts, you tap into these glycogen stores. To build muscle, you need about 50 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates. The healthiest carbohydrate options are complex carbohydrates. Some examples include:
  • Oatmeal
  • Quinoa
  • Brown rice
  • Whole-grain bread
  • Whole-grain crackers
  • Fruit (berries, apple, bananas, etc.)
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Winter squash
  • Plantains

Healthy fats including almonds, avocado, and coconut to help build muscle

Healthy Fats

Last but not least, you also need fat. Your body relies on stored fat to supply energy to muscles when you’re working out. The general recommendation is to have fat make up 20 to 35 percent of your total calories. However, this range will vary from person to person, depending on their goals. For example, if your goal is to build muscle while reducing body fat, you’ll want to eat less fat and more protein (to prevent muscle loss). Note: Fat contains twice the number of calories as carbohydrates and protein, so the numbers can add up quickly! For example, one tablespoon of olive oil has 120 calories and a quarter-cup of cashews has about 180 calories. The best sources of fat for overall health include:
  • Avocado
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Nut and seed butters
  • Coconut
  • Coconut oil
  • Olive oil
  • MCT oil

Bottom line

In order to see desired results from your gym sessions, you need to fuel your body properly. Focus on eating more calories from whole-food sources at each meal. Doing so provides the extra calories you need to help promote muscle gain and recovery. Make sure each meal is balanced with the right portions of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Despite the typically heavy emphasis on protein in regards to gaining muscle, you truly need all three not only to build strong, healthy muscles, but also for your body to function optimally.
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BodyFitnessCaloriescarbohydratesfitnessHealthy FatsLean Muscleprotein

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