While you may be following the perfect training routine when working towards accomplishing a new fitness feat or prepping for a race, exercise alone won’t be enough to achieve results. Nutrition also plays a crucial role in determining how well your body can perform during workouts, build strength, define muscle mass, and recover adequately so that you're ready to tackle the next challenge ahead.
And while you might build more muscle through strength training and weight-bearing exercise, malnutrition depletes the muscles of energy stores and fuel. So, if you don’t feed and hydrate those tired, taxed muscles within 30 minutes to an hour (max) after a workout, you risk losing the muscle you just worked so hard to increase.
How to Know What to Eat to Build Muscle
1. Prioritize Eating Throughout the Day
A good way to guarantee that you’re fueling properly and sufficiently is not only by eating within that ideal post-training session time frame — and of high quality, nutrient-dense foods — but also by eating regularly every few hours to keep your muscles satiated and strong all day long.
“If you start eating more energy and eating more regularly instead of going long periods between meals, you may feel stronger just due to having the appropriate amount of energy available for performance and recovery,” Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, says.
It’s important to give yourself time and patience, however. Results don’t happen overnight, despite implementing positive nutritional habits into your training and lifestyle.
“It's likely that you won't see a change in muscle mass or muscular strength, speed, or endurance for roughly a month, but will see more substantial change in muscle mass over the course of a few months,” Jones says.
In fact, overdoing it with “fast-dieting” to gain more muscle mass in a less healthy, shorter period of time can backfire.
“Attempting to make changes too quickly often results in large weight fluctuations, which can also harm your basal metabolism long term, as well as impact performance and increase injury risk,” she explains.
2. Load Up on Protein to Build Muscle Mass
While calorie needs may vary greatly depending on your training plan, your activity level outside of training sessions, and even your genetics and body type or needs, there’s a good general rule for average protein requirements to gain muscle.
“Protein recommendations for muscle gain range from 1.6 to 2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, with the higher end being appropriate for those with very high activity levels and energy needs, as well as those who have had trouble gaining weight in the past,” Jones says.
Good protein sources include soy, legumes and beans, avocado, quinoa, and nuts and seeds for plant protein, as well as eggs, fatty fish, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, lean beef, chicken breast, and turkey.
3. Eat Enough Daily Calories to Increase Muscle
To gain and retain muscle efficiently, focus solely on muscle gain, optimizing workouts, and protein intake and stores without trying to change your body composition in other ways simultaneously (i.e. to lose weight).
“Doing so leads people to under-eat, but in order for your body to feel comfortable gaining muscle, it needs to stay in an anabolic state, or a state consisting of favoring reactions, which build up muscle and store energy,” she explains.
And by eating enough complex carbohydrates and other nutrient-rich foods with good fats and other vitamins and minerals, you avoid wasting protein stored within the muscles (which muscles need to get stronger and increase in mass).
“Eating enough calories and carbohydrates not only means that you’ll have more efficient energy for your active lifestyle, but also that you won’t waste dietary protein by converting it to energy versus using it for muscle repair and growth,” Jones says.
4. Start the Day With Healthy Fuel
Regardless of whether or not you’re exercising in the a.m., put something in your stomach and drink fluids when you wake up to fuel those fatigued, dehydrated muscles.
“When you're looking to build muscle, ingesting enough energy and protein matters, but it’s also important to eat enough and get energy regularly so the body doesn’t spend much time in a catabolic state, or breakdown mode,” Jones says.
Fasting for too long can lead to a slower basal metabolism and decrease in muscle mass, as the body pulls from its sources for energy.
“In the morning, after a long night fast, eating helps to stabilize blood sugar and reduce excess release of cortisol, which is a stress hormone that alerts your body when it doesn’t have enough energy to burn, and it thereby slows your basal metabolism,” she says.
Plus, if you’re off to a training session or to the office for a productive day, you may break down muscle in order to convert it to energy to get you out the door, unless you’ve had something to eat for breakfast to use as fuel instead.
5. Choose Main Meals and Mini Meals Instead of Meals and Snacks
“When aiming for muscle gain, you also may want to set up your eating pattern for main meals and mini meals, rather than meals and snacks,” Jones says. “For some of my athletes with high training volume, they may have to eat up to eight times per day in order to eat enough to gain muscle while also feeling their best."
Could you eat the calories and protein you need in just three meals with no or very few snacks? Sure, but it’s not an efficient way to fuel when trying to build muscle.
“Research suggests splitting protein intake into four to five eating occasions per day for muscle growth,” she says.
So, meal prep and plan accordingly to fit this type of eating pattern.
6. Add in More Carbs When Training for Longer Durations
While protein is the star for increasing muscle mass, carbohydrates work in tandem, and are especially important when your training lasts for over an hour or is of a high intensity or a heavy lifting state.
“It’s best to invest in carbohydrates during activity to maintain intensity and blood sugar levels while also soaring muscle protein," she says. "Carbs will work more effectively than BCAAs or MCTs, despite clever marketing by supplement companies."
Per Jones recommendation, dried fruit, honey shots, and maple candy are all great options.
A Sample Meal Plan of the Best Foods to Eat to Build Muscle
If you’re unsure how to implement these muscle-building nutritional habits, Jones designed the perfect meal plan for one day of building and strengthening muscles.
Disclaimer: "Energy and protein needs — as well as food preferences — can vary greatly, so the following one-day meal plan is meant to provide suggestions only," Jones says. "It’s important to not eat the same exact thing everyday to avoid nutrient deficiency, and to instead optimize nutrient and antioxidant intake."
Breakfast Within an Hour of Waking Up
A bowl of oats made with chia seeds, milk (or soy milk, for a plant-based option that’s high in protein and fiber), protein, and healthy-fat-containing toppings like peanut butter, hemp hearts, and berries. You can also have a side latte with milk or soy milk. Stevia (or a diabetes- or keto-friendly sweetener that doesn’t affect blood sugar or add calories) is optional. Avoid sugary coffee drinks with syrups, sugar, and saturated fat (which you’ll find in whipped cream, as an example).
Late Morning Snack
For a snack, try a serving of crackers with hummus to spread, plus one or two hard boiled eggs and a serving of dried fruit. (A low-sugar option is best, or you can DIY your own trail mix of nuts, seeds, and dried fruit.)
Early Afternoon Lunch
A power bowl that’s high in protein, fiber, complex carbohydrates, and some good fats to fuel your muscles for longer is the perfect choice for a muscle-building lunch. The power bowl can have a base of mixed greens or kale as well as a grain like quinoa or farro, then a rich protein source.
A great combination to try is the greens and grain along with seasoned chicken breast or tempeh, pre-roasted vegetables, a serving of avocado, and a favorite full-fat dressing or sauce. Keep the fats clean though, with a creamy Greek yogurt and avocado green goddess dressing, a tzatziki, or a peanut sauce.
Pre-Workout or Late Afternoon Snack
You can keep this simple and convenient, especially since you’re headed off to a training session or are working towards getting over that afternoon slump at the end of the workday.
Go with a packaged food-based energy bar that has a clean ingredient list, a good source of fiber, complex carbs, and protein, or make a batch of homemade energy bites to keep throughout the week as easy, quick, and nutrient-dense snacks.
Post-Workout Dinner (or Dinner When You Get Back Home)
Eating fatty fish is good for your appetite suppression and satiety levels, your cardiovascular and brain health, and guaranteeing that you’re eating enough protein in a meal.
Grilled salmon with roasted sweet potatoes and a colorful vegetable — especially green vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts, or leafy greens — is an excellent dinner option. Jones also suggests including an optional side and a serving of 100% juice, depending on your personal energy needs or your workout prior.
Don’t fear eating before bed, especially if you’re hungry. A little snack will actually fuel your muscles before the long fast as you sleep, so choose something small that’s high in muscular health-promoting (and sleep-inducing) nutrients like protein, tryptophan, magnesium, and calcium.
A serving of Greek yogurt with pineapple and a low-sugar, less processed (or — even better — homemade) granola is a good choice.
“Evening snacks that are rich in protein are important to aid in overnight repair processes,” Jones says.