Building muscle takes hard work and determination. You need to train consistently, pushing your body and your mind to its limit. If you don’t, your progress will be slow, if not non-existent.
But, it’s not enough to be a boss in the gym; you also need to be a boss in the kitchen too, eating the foods that put back into your body what hard training takes out. That’s why you need to know the best food for building muscle.
Most bodybuilders know they need to eat a lot of protein, but that’s just one of the food groups you need to pay attention to if you want to get bigger and stronger. You need carbs and healthy fats too.
Carbs provide the energy you need to power through your workouts, while fats contain the building blocks of the hormones responsible for muscle growth – namely testosterone and growth hormone. So, with that in mind, here are 25 of the best foods for building muscle, all alphabetized for ease.
Build your diet around these foods to make sure you get the best possible results from your workouts.
Best Foods for Building Muscle
If you only eat one fruit, bananas should be it. Loaded with potassium, they can help ward off the cramps that could bring your workout to a crashing halt.
They also contain digestive system-friendly fiber, which bodybuilders need to ensure that they can make the most of the food they eat. Finally, bananas are a healthy, portable source of energizing carbohydrates. Ditch the candy bars and have a banana or two instead.
Beef is an excellent source of protein and iron. Unfortunately, beef and meat in general, often gets a bad rap because it’s high in fat and cholesterol. But, the reality is, both of these substances are important for the formation of the anabolic hormones testosterone and human growth hormone, or hGH for short.
Fat IS a dense source of calories, so you may want to limit your intake if you are trying to lose weight. But, for muscle building, you can’t go far wrong with a lean, grilled, free-range steak!
Beets are a sweet-tasting vegetable that’s typically thought of as a side dish rather than a main meal.
However, it has some qualities that mean it’s something you should eat more of if your goal is building muscle.
For starters, beets increase nitric oxide production, which relaxes your blood vessels for a better pump.
Beets can also help fight off fatigue.
These benefits mean eating beets could help you train harder, longer, and get a better pump too. That’s why so many pre-workout supplements contain this brightly-colored vegetable.
Broccoli is a cruciferous vegetable, which means it’s cross-shaped. Other cruciferous veggies include cabbage, cauliflower, and lettuce. Dark green broccoli is anti-estrogenic, which means it can help lower your estrogen levels. Lowering estrogen naturally increases your testosterone, and that’s your primary muscle-building hormone.
In addition, broccoli is full of antioxidants that can help ward off disease as well as the ravages of aging. And, like all vegetables, broccoli is high in fiber, and that’s something everyone needs to eat more of.
Chicken is one of the most versatile protein foods around. There are so many different ways to cook chicken.
You can stir-fry it, grill it, roast it, bake it, boil it, broil it, deep fry it, barbeque it – it’s hard to think of a way you can’t cook chicken! Chicken is high in protein, low in fat, cheap, and readily available.
6. Cottage cheese
Low fat cottage cheese is high in calcium caseinate, which is a protein that digests slowly. Because of this, eating it just before bedtime will provide your muscles with the amino acids they need to repair and grow while you sleep.
Cottage cheese is also high in calcium, a critical mineral for muscle contractions and bone health. If plain cottage cheese isn’t appealing, try stirring in a tablespoon of sugar-free jam to make a sweet-tasting pudding.
Eggs are (or should be) a cornerstone of your bodybuilding diet.
High in protein but free from carbs, they are the protein food to which all others are compared! Egg whites are pure protein, while the yolks contain most the fat.
But, don’t throw the yolks away because that’s where the nutrition is! Also, the fat in yolks makes the protein easier to digest and contain cholesterol.
Rather than being bad for you, cholesterol is the building block from which anabolic hormones are made.
8. Grass-fed butter
Butter consumption has declined in the last few decades, with more people using margarine instead. The bad news is that margarine is nothing more than a bunch of chemicals commonly found in the plastics and petroleum industries.
In contrast, butter is just milk and a bit of salt that’s been agitated to form a solid. Nothing else is added. Butter is high in CLA, which is a type of fat that helps you burn fat. Also, butter is rich in vitamins, minerals, and other healthy nutrients. Long story short, bodybuilders should eat butter, especially when it’s from grass-fed cows.
9. Greek yogurt
Plain Greek yogurt is a valuable source of slow-acting protein. It’s also high in calcium.
But the real reason that you should eat this Mediterranean dairy food is that it contains probiotics.
Probiotics are a type of live bacteria that are very good for your digestive system. If your digestive system is healthy, you’ll be able to process food more efficiently and extract more nutrients from what you eat.
You should also experience fewer digestive upsets and food allergies. Add it to your smoothies, or just eat it with a little honey for breakfast or dessert. It’s delicious AND good for you!
The humble lentil is a good source of protein if you don’t eat meat or just prefer to keep your food options open. Very cheap and easy to cook, you can add lentils to soups and stews to pump up the protein.
You can even use them to make things like cookies or crackers. Make lentils easier to cook and digest by soaking them for 12-24 hours before draining and rinsing. This will significantly reduce their cooking time and stop them from causing gas.
In years gone by, milk was a popular muscle-building food. In fact, there was an entire diet based on drinking milk – the Gallon of Milk Diet, or GOMAD for short.
Providing you have no issues with lactose, GOMAD is still an excellent way to increase your calorie and protein intake to build muscle and gain weight fast. You don’t need to GOMAD, but even a glass or two of milk after a hard workout will help speed up your recovery.
There are low-lactose and lactose-free varieties available for anyone who is lactose intolerant.
Nuts are high in protein, fat, and fiber. As muscle-building snack foods go, they are tough to beat. All nuts are good, but walnuts, brazil nuts, and almonds are amongst the best. Nuts are also high in vitamin E, a crucial substance for muscle building and hormone production.
Skip the roasted nuts as heat can reduce the potency of these nutritional powerhouses. Instead, stick with raw, unflavored nuts as they’re better for your health and your waistline too.
13. Oats and Oatmeal
Oats and oatmeal are two of the best carbs for bodybuilders. They digest slowly, making you feel full for longer, and are loaded with fiber, which is good for your digestive health.
Best of all, oats and oatmeal aren’t laden with sugar, trans fat, and salt, like almost every other type of breakfast food.
This makes them a much better choice for your morning meal.
Soak one cup of oats in one cup of water and one cup of milk overnight and then warm them through for a few minutes the next morning. Easy!
14. Olives and olive oil
Olives and olive oil are a rich source of monounsaturated fat. This type of fat is good for your heart and also has powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Training hard can take its toll on your muscles and joints – and aches and pains come with the territory.
A regular dose of olives or olive oil can help reduce that inflammation. Olive oil may also raise your testosterone levels for faster muscle building.
15. Peanut butter
A lot of bodybuilders train hard and still can’t gain weight. Why? Because they don’t eat enough calories.
If you’ve got a fast metabolism, eating enough can be a real struggle. The solution is peanut butter.
Peanut butter is high in calories and protein, and just a tablespoon or two will add a lot of calories to your daily intake. Smooth or crunchy? It doesn’t matter.
However, for health reasons, you should avoid any products that contain anything other than peanuts and salt. Low-fat peanut butter is especially unhealthy.
The humble pickle might seem like an odd choice for a list of muscle-building foods, but it’s actually very useful. Pickles are high in probiotics, which means they are good for your digestive health. Eating pickles will repopulate your intestinal flora and fauna, allowing you to extract more nutrients from the food you eat.
The healthier your digestive system is, the healthier you will be, and that will have a positive impact on your rate of muscle growth.
Potatoes are often labeled as unhealthy, but it’s what we do to them that makes them this way! French fries and potatoes chips are undeniably fattening, but baked, boiled, and mashed spuds are a rich source of vitamin C, fiber, and complex carbohydrates.
If you want to gain muscle, you need to fuel your workouts with carbs, and potatoes are as good a vegetable as any for this purpose.
They’re also cheap, and very easy to cook. As for the whole white vs. sweet potato argument – eat them both as all varieties have benefits.
Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is a seed that thinks it’s a grain. From the amaranth family, quinoa is cooked and even tastes a little like rice, but it’s much higher in protein. It’s one of the few plant foods that contain an abundance of all the essential amino acids.
You can eat it hot, and it’s delicious in savory meals. But you can also make sweet dishes from it too, such as quinoa porridge with fruit. Cook it in almond milk to sweeten and pump up the protein content even more.
Carbs are vital for building muscle.
They provide you with the energy you need to power through your workouts.
All types of rice contain carbs, but white rice digests that fastest and is perfect for kickstarting the recovery process.
Brown rice contains more fiber, and so it digests more slowly, making it better for those times you need sustained energy instead.
Rice is cheap, easy to cook, and you can prepare it in bulk, providing an easy-to-add source of carbs for any meal.
Salmon is an oily fish that is high in omega-three fatty acids, what a lot of people called essential fatty acids, or EFAs for short. EFAs are anti-inflammatory, so they can help reduce the joint and muscle pain that usually accompanies hard workouts. It’s also a rich source of protein.
Finally, salmon contains calcium, especially when you eat the bones. Tuna might be most people’s go-to source of fish, but salmon also deserves to be part of your diet.
There is a reason that Popeye used to eat spinach – it’s a bonafide superfood! Spinach is very high in antioxidants and iron, and it also contains an abundance of fiber.
It’s also very low in calories despite being so high in nutrients. In comparison, lettuce is a bit of a nutritional lightweight! Cook your spinach or eat it raw. Either way, it’s peppery, delicious, and good for you too.
Tofu is made from soybeans, and it’s a vegetarian protein food. It can be used in savory or sweet dishes and is readily available in a variety of textures. Because it doesn’t have a strong flavor, it takes on the taste of whatever else you cook with it. In this regard, it’s a lot like chicken. And, like chicken, it’s very low in fat too.
Tuna is a muscle-building staple. Almost every bodybuilder will have, at some time, had a few cans of tuna in their gym bag, so they can grab a quick protein fix on the go. As well as being high in protein, tuna is a good source of EFAs and calcium.
Whether you eat tuna from cans or foil pouches, fresh tuna steaks, or even tuna jerky, this high-protein fish deserves to be part of your muscle-building diet, providing it’s dolphin-friendly, of course!
Turkey contains slightly more protein and fat than chicken, but other than that, it’s nutritionally comparable. However, turkey is also a rich source of tryptophan, an amino acid that can help you relax and fall asleep more easily.
As sleep is such a big part of the muscle-building process, you may want to try eating a turkey sandwich before going to bed. The longer and deeper you sleep, the better you’ll recover from your workouts.
25. Whey protein
Whey protein is a byproduct of cheese manufacture.
It’s a complete protein that’s high in essential amino acids and the main ingredient in most protein powder supplements.
Whey protein digests very quickly and, when consumed after exercise, can help you recover faster from your workouts also paired with creatine it’s very beneficial.
Because whey protein doesn’t have much taste, it’s usually flavored and sweetened to make it more palatable. In fact, whey protein is available in every flavor imaginable! Using a whey protein supplement makes getting enough protein a whole lot easier, as most products provide 20-30 grams per serving.
You are what you eat. Every food either directly affects you or becomes part of you. So, if you want to be strong and lean, you need to eat the foods that make that possible. Fatty, sugary junk food won’t do it. For a lot of exercises, diet is the hardest part of building muscle.
Because you train 4-6 times a week but eat as many as 42 meals and snacks, and that means you need to put more time into your diet than you do your workouts. For many, this is a significant obstacle to overcome.
But, eating for muscle size doesn’t have to be time-consuming. If you bulk cook your meals, prepare food in advance, use handy kitchen tools like slow cookers, soup makers, rice cookers, and the timer on your oven, it can actually be pretty easy. You just need to get organized.
If you are serious about building muscle, you MUST get serious about your diet too. And your first step should be to include these 25 foods in your meals.