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Top 15 Muscle Building Foods

What many exercise enthusiasts forget is that similar to tailoring a training protocol to a goal (hypertrophy, fat loss, performance, etc), it is equally important to tailor a nutritional approach to a create a desired outcome.

For example, someone who wants to lose fat should not be eating like a marathoner, and likewise someone who wants to add lean muscle cannot be eating for fat loss.  A huge mistake is assuming that simply eating “healthy” food will facilitate all outcomes equally.

In order to add lean muscle mass, certain foods are more ideal than others.  The primary criteria of which includes the building blocks for muscle recovery, growth and essential metabolic chemicals to facilitate this process.  Equally important are protein, carbohydrates and calories.

Protein breaks down into the necessary amino acids needed to build muscle stronger and bigger as a result of training.  Specifically, the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs; leucine, isoleucine and valine) are mobilized upon consumption directly to muscles for storage and use.  Additionally, BCAAs elicit an insulin response even though they are low glycemic.  Insulin plays an important stimulatory role in the muscle synthesis pathway.  Glutamine is also a key amino acid essential for muscle growth and training recovery. Lean proteins will facilitate efficient muscle growth without added fat, while quickly-absorbed protein from whey varieties are most effective post-workout when muscles are primed for growth.

For hypertrophy, the 30-90 minutes immediately post-workout present a valuable opportunity.  Create an eating strategy that will effectively shut down the resulting catabolic environment of an intense workout.  It is important to consume fast-absorbing protein and higher glycemic carbohydrates during this window.

Carbohydrates are necessary for muscle growth and recovery for two reasons.  First, as with BCAAs, higher glycemic index carbs stimulate the release of insulin, a key hormone necessary for muscle synthesis.  Second, carbohydrate molecules chain together to generate glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrates in both the muscle and liver.  Glycogen stored in muscle is used locally for energy during exercise and full glycogen stores will fill out muscle belly volume.

Finally, calories are a big factor in the body’s potential to build muscle, and are arguably the most important criteria.  This is where foods higher in fat can play a role, by providing more calories per gram.  Ultimately, the body needs somewhat of a surplus of all macronutrients to orchestrate effective muscle building.

Here are the 15 muscle-building foods that will facilitate the hypertrophy process in a lean, effective way:

Whey and casein protein powders: Both powders are derived from milk, thus containing high amounts of BCAAs and will elicit a strong insulinemic effect.  Whey is a fast-absorbing variety best for post-weight training workouts, while casein is a slow-absorbing protein, best for bedtime to assure adequate nutrients for muscle recovery during sleep.

Dairy products like milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, etc: Dairy products, though low on the glycemic index because they contain fewer carbohydrates, produce a marked insulin response upon consumption, while contributing substantial protein.

Ground bison or grass-fed beef: Leaner than traditional beef, these natural alternatives consist of quality protein, with key amino acids more abundantly found in red meat: carnitine, carnosine and creatine, important in both energy metabolism and muscle synthesis.

Chicken (ground or breasts): Lean muscle-building protein.

Turkey (ground or breasts): Similar to chicken, turkey provides lean protein with little fat.

Eggs and egg whites: Great sources of protein, include the yolks to boost vitamin D, important for bone and immune health, while additional calories from fat aid hypertrophy.

Spinach: Popeye was onto something! Researchers at Rutgers University (2008) showed that the phytoecdysteroids contained in spinach can increase muscle growth up to 20% when 2 lbs of spinach was consumed each day.  Even smaller amounts will provide a muscle-boosting benefit.

Squash and zucchini: Two of the many starchy vegetables that provide fiber, along with clean carbohydrates for glycogen repletion (also try eggplant, carrots, peas and corn).

Beans: A vegetarian’s key source of protein, beans are also 75% starch (including a large amount of fiber)—a perfect combination for muscle building.

Potatoes (white, sweet, new and red): For hypertrophy, potatoes represent a clean, hypoallergenic carbohydrate source that is quickly absorbed and insulin-producing.

Bananas: This fruit along with other high GI fruits like grapes and pineapple contain more quickly-absorbed natural sugars than others and are beneficial for facilitating protein into muscles for growth, especially post-workout.

Cherries: A recent study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (Jan 2011) showed that supplementation with cherry juice concentrate before and after intense weight training hastened recovery time and performance over the course of a week.

Rice (brown rice, white rice, rice cakes): Key starchy carbohydrates for muscle growth, use white rice and rice cakes pre- and post-workout to provide fast-acting carb for energy and glyogen repletion, respectively.  Brown rice is higher fiber version, a good staple of any muscle-building nutrition plan.

Hot cereals (oatmeal, steel cut oats, grits, cream of wheat): A great source of complex carbs, more quickly-absorbed versions like cream of wheat or grits are best for muscle recovery and refilling glycogen stores.

Meat-lover’s pizza: Though not the healthiest of options, there is no denying the impact of a food containing carbohydrates from grain, dairy and animal protein to potentiate muscle hypertrophy.  Fat, carbs, protein and calories in abundance will certainly push muscle (and fat) growth. :) Perhaps a once in a while indulgence!

About the author

Jill Coleman

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