You don't have to be an aspiring bodybuilder to care about muscle mass. In fact, maintaining a healthy muscle mass is one of many ways we can stay healthy and improve our overall well-being, especially as we age. And, along with a balanced regimen of exercise and strength training, our diet is a critical factor for building and maintaining strong muscles.
Protein, in particular, plays a key role in supporting muscle growth. This collection of amino acids makes up a large portion of our muscle and organ tissues. It's an essential part of your diet, but that doesn't mean you have to down daily protein shakes to get enough. Although that's certainly one way to boost your protein intake, you can actually find it in many delicious whole food sources.
With a little effort, it's easy to add plenty of foods with high protein and other muscle-building nutrients to your diet. In this article, we'll look at how various foods help you build muscle mass — and the best things to eat if you're trying to boost your strength.
How food helps build muscle
Although protein is essential for muscle building, it's not the only important food component in the process. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, a good muscle-building diet must also include plenty of carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. A balanced diet that features all these will provide the necessary ingredients to help your muscles repair and rebuild after a workout.
Overall, the NASM recommends that most people consume at least 0.7 to 0.8 grams of protein and 1.8 to 3.2 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight each day. Total calorie intake also plays a role in muscle building, as it's difficult to build muscle if you're burning more calories than you consume.
Diet alone isn't enough to stimulate muscle growth, though. Exercise — especially resistance training such as lifting weights — is necessary to start the process. When you tear the fibers in your muscles, that stimulates cellular growth and repair. That's when your body can use the food you've eaten to rebuild and strengthen muscle tissue. Other factors also influence how effective and efficient this process is, from when you eat your food and how much rest you give your muscles between workouts to your hormonal and genetic makeup.
8 foods to optimize your gains
Although there are many factors at play in building muscle, there's no doubt diet plays a key role. Here are eight muscle-building foods you can eat to optimize your workouts and increase your muscle mass.
Eggs have long been considered a power food, and for good reason. They're incredibly rich in nutrients from fat and protein and include a potent mix of vitamins such as B12, B6 and thiamin. Their nutrient-dense profile makes them especially powerful, but most important is that they contain a hefty dose of leucine. This amino acid is known for its muscle-building prowess.
If you already get enough fat in your diet but need to boost your protein intake, look no further than fish. It's one of the best lean sources of protein you can eat, and it's full of other vitamins and minerals. A bonus? Fish is packed with omega-3 fatty acids. Although they're known for their many other health benefits, omega-3s may also improve muscle performance and help prevent the loss of muscle mass. Salmon and tuna are particularly great muscle-building food choices.
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When eaten in moderation, nuts are an excellent choice for building muscle. These tasty snacks offer a perfect mix of protein, fats and fiber, making them one of the most balanced ways to supplement your workouts. You have to be careful, though, as many nuts (including peanuts, which are actually legumes), are high in calories. For the most nutrient-rich options, try almonds or walnuts.
If you're trying to build muscle on a meatless diet, soybeans should be one of your closest friends. These are one of the most nutrient-dense legumes you can eat, and they pack a potent punch of protein to aid in building muscle. Soy contains all nine essential amino acids, making it one of the best plant-based protein sources available.
5. Greek yogurt
Dairy is a unique source of protein because it provides a combination of fast-digesting whey protein and slow-digesting casein protein. When consumed together, these two types of protein may enhance and prolong the protein-synthesis process that your muscles go through when rebuilding, helping you build your lean mass. Greek yogurt is a particularly great dairy choice because it contains twice the protein compared to regular yogurt and boasts additional probiotic health benefits you can't find in milk or cheese.
6. Cottage cheese
It doesn't offer the same probiotic benefits as yogurt, but cottage cheese is a great second choice for dairy-based protein. In fact, cottage cheese packs more protein than Greek yogurt while boasting the same slow- and fast-digesting combination. It's a particularly great source of casein, and it provides a significant calorie boost if you need to make sure you're getting enough.
7. Olive oil
It may not sound like your typical body-building food, but extra virgin olive oil has become increasingly popular for its muscle benefits in recent years. Widely known as a source of healthy monounsaturated fats, olive oil also helps to reduce inflammation and slow muscle breakdown. Both of these features can aid in any muscle-building regimen.
They don't call quinoa a superfood for nothing. This dynamic grain (it's a seed but classified as a whole grain) packs a little bit of everything, including a lot of protein, fiber and carbohydrates, plus a hefty dose of vitamins and minerals. It's a perfect food for building muscle and maximizing the benefits of your workouts.
A recipe for stronger muscles
Adding these muscle-building foods to your diet will definitely help you on your way to boosting muscle mass and increasing your strength. Remember, though, that boosting muscle mass takes time – and diet is only one piece of the puzzle. Combining a balanced diet of high-protein foods with healthy exercise and rest will speed up your journey and improve your overall health along the way.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.