5 Diet Tweaks to Help You Build Muscle

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
by Sidney Fry, MS, RD
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5 Diet Tweaks to Help You Build Muscle

Strength training is an essential type of exercise and a key factor in maintaining a healthy weight. It also helps build muscle, which will help your body begin to burn calories more efficiently. As you gain muscle, you’ll also experience improved balance, flexibility, coordination and bone health.

But aside from kettlebells, resistance bands and running shoes, there’s another essential element involved in building muscle. Diet has the ability to play a large role in how efficiently and effectively you bulk up.

Guess what? Simply adding more protein to your plate isn’t exactly the answer, though it may seem the obvious choice. After all, protein is made up of amino acids, which are essential for building muscle. However, you can’t build more muscle with just amino acids. Your body also needs lots of supporting nutrients, such as certain carbohydrates, heart-healthy fats and even a little H20. It’s the combination of protein, those supporting nutrients and eating adequate calories that will help you fuel your body to reach your goals.

Ready to build more muscle? Here are a few small diet tweaks that can help you:

1. Don’t cut out carbs.

Carbohydrates are especially important when building muscle. Eat carbohydrate-rich foods at breakfast to replenish fuel that’s broken down during sleep. After a workout, eat them to restock glycogen burned during exercise. Carbohydrates are what your body uses for fuel during anaerobic exercises like weightlifting. Additionally, carbs are broken down into glucose, which stimulates insulin, a hormone that transports amino acids into muscle tissues.

It’s best to choose high-quality carbohydrates because refined carbohydrates — like those found in white bread, white rice, white pasta, sugar-filled snacks and cereals — cause a rapid spike in blood glucose, followed by a sharp decline. Energy levels plummet, along with the motivation for strength training. Instead, load up on minimally processed whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruits, which deliver fiber, minerals and nutrients but keep blood sugar steady.

2. Boost your intake of heart-healthy fats.

Fat contains 9 calories per gram, more than double that of carbohydrates and protein. But doesn’t that make it twice as difficult to burn off? It depends on how you look at it. When it comes to strength training, fat is doubly efficient in providing your body with energy to fuel your exercise. Fat is also necessary for nutrient absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). So, if you’re going to be eating fat make sure to choose heart-healthy fats like monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fats.

3. Spread out your protein intake throughout the day.

Unlike carbohydrates and fat, excess protein isn’t stored for energy, so protein-loading at one meal isn’t beneficial. There’s a limit to how much protein the body can use to build muscle at any given time. A study from the University of Texas looked at protein synthesis efficiency in two groups. The first group ate a moderate 30-gram serving of protein (the amount you’ll find in about 3 ounces of roasted chicken breast), while the second ate a larger serving that contained 90 grams. Despite the second group’s threefold increase in protein, the researchers found no greater boost in muscle synthesis. On average, the group who ate 90 grams of protein got the exact same benefits as those who ate 30 grams — a 50% boost in muscle-building activity. If your goal is to build muscle, you’ll get the most bang for your protein buck by spreading your daily intake out among all your meals.

4. Pick quality protein from real food.

Protein drinks, powders, supplements, chocolates, cereals, bars and beyond are everywhere, but are they necessary? Not if they replace whole, unprocessed foods in your normal diet. Protein from naturally occurring sources, such as seafood, lean meats, nuts and dairy, also contains essential vitamins and nutrients. Protein powders and shakes do not offer any muscle-building benefit above and beyond what real food does. And most people, even athletes, can get everything these products offer by eating natural sources of lean protein. Stick to protein-rich whole foods spread throughout the day.

5. Drink lots of water.

Your muscles are thirsty. Muscle fibers are more than 70% water. When muscles aren’t well-hydrated, protein production is inhibited and sometimes even starts to break down. Dehydration can also impact your performance, slow you down, cause greater damage to muscles and even impact digestion. Water will keep your GI tract healthy, and it helps you feel full.

The takeaway? Go for a winning combination

Aim to eat protein-rich foods alongside high-quality carbohydrates that are full of fiber and heart-healthy fats. Pairing these powerful nutrients will not only keep you fuller longer, but they also will give you the energy you need to continue strength training and building muscle. Make a diet tweak by incorporating foods from the list below into your diet:

Lentils: Plants don’t get more protein-packed than these little legumes, with 18 grams of protein and 16 grams of fiber per cup.

Edamame: These beans are a starchy mix of protein and fiber (8 grams and 4 grams, respectively, per half-cup). This powerful combination will both fill you up quickly and keep you full for long durations.

Quinoa: This protein-packed whole grain is one of the few plant proteins that supplies all nine essential amino acids. It’s high in fiber and gluten-free, making it easy to digest. Added bonus: It only takes about 15 minutes to prepare.

Chickpeas: Think beyond hummus. These tasty peas pack a mighty 10 grams of fiber and 11 grams of protein into each cup. Toss into salads, stews and sautés, or sprinkle lightly with salt and roast at 300°F for about 90 minutes (stirring every 20 minutes or so) for a crunchy pre-workout snack.

Salmon: This tasty, quick-cooking fish is packed with 27 grams protein per 4-ounce cooked fillet and 1.32 g omega-3 fatty acids. Bonus: Omega-3 fats may also increase joint mobility and can help increase blood flow during exercise.

Nuts and nut butters: Calorie-dense but smartly packaged, nuts have it all – heart-healthy fats, fiber and protein. Add a handful to protein-packed Greek yogurt, fiber-filled salads or just enjoy an ounce of them naked before a workout. A little goes a long way with nuts, but they also require no preparation, no refrigeration and are perfectly portable.

Eggs: Whites take too much credit for muscle building. It’s true that very few calories and more than half of the protein are found in the whites (57% of the entire egg), but yolks are important, too. The yolk contains essential fatty acids, folate, iron, calcium and fat-soluble vitamins — all for only about 55 calories! When you eat only the whites, you’re missing out on a lot of nutritional benefits, not to mention flavor!

Greek yogurt: Not only does Greek yogurt contain 19 grams protein per cup (6 grams more than regular yogurt), but it also comes packaged with 20% of your daily calcium needs. It’s full of probiotics, those healthy bacteria that are good for the gut, helping to increase nutrient absorption. Skip the protein powder, and add a few dollops of Greek yogurt to your morning smoothie instead.

About the Author

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
Sidney Fry, MS, RD

Sidney is a two-time James Beard Award-winning food and nutrition writer, editor and mom based out of Birmingham, Alabama. A registered dietitian with a passion for research and being proactive about health, she loves to eat, write, run and create simple, tasty meals with whole-food-based approach. Find out more from her website, Instagram or Twitter.

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7 responses to “5 Diet Tweaks to Help You Build Muscle”

  1. Lashona says:

    Excellent article

  2. Mdougenik says:

    so what does this mean for those trying to drastically reduce carbs? ketogenic diets? do they not stand a chance to build muscle in their transformation?

    • magusxxx says:

      Using the Keto Calculator, I was doing 40 g of carbs a month. Lost a bunch of weight. Started weight training and upped it to 72g. For the past two months the scale says I lost only a little weight but my body fat is leaving at a nice pace. My strength has consistently increased and I’m quite proud of the physical changes. I know, I thought upping the carbs was counter productive. But as long as the math equals out and you’ve got a decent workout plan you’ll do fine.

  3. Sue says:

    How about greek yogurt WITH protein powder?

    • Socratis Dim says:

      Yeap that’s what i always do for snack.And i eat it with rice cakes.I Dip the rice cakes in the yogurt(that has now become chocolate flavor thanks to protein…so good)and eat them like that.

  4. Christin S. says:

    Way before, years back, I fell into the category of “carbs are bad for you”. So I stayed away. It wasn’t until I started weight lifting when I started researching how to build muscle naturally.
    Lots of peeps do supps for muscle gain. But I’m wanting is something that will last my lifetime. And I’m not gonna be taking muscle building supps my entire life. So natural it is.
    I started feeling so much better since I started eating more carbs and my muscles swole.
    But since eating more carbs, my bad carbs have gone up. Still low and in the clear, but it’s still something I could work on so it doesn’t get high from my carb eating.
    Some foods to bring it down? Salads, fish and nuts. Still everything I need for muscle building among other foods.
    So it’s a win-win for me.

  5. Although I’m on Team Keto when it comes to fat loss season, these are some quality tips…of course, I can’t give blessing on the choices of carbs, but I digress. I stick very close to 20G of carbs in cut season, but have been know to bump up to 40G when bulking. Just don’t tell my training partner. 😉

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