From competitive weightlifters and other professional athletes to those who simply enjoy hitting the dumbbells at the gym, cultivating stronger muscles and increasing muscle mass is a health goal many can relate to. No matter where you might start on your own muscle-building journey, it’s important to stick to your routine, which means remaining committed to not only your workouts but also the quality of your diet. What you eat plays just as much of a significant role as how you train, and striking the right balance is what will help you achieve your goal.
But when deciding on what to include in your daily meal plans, how do you know what eating habits will best position you to make the greatest strides in your pursuit of stronger muscles? Jen Bruning, MS, RDN, LDN, and spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, believes that the most crucial eating habit for building stronger muscles is to consume a balance of nutrients.
“A combination of foods containing lean protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats should do a similarly good job of supporting and maintaining muscle mass,” Bruning says. “Give your body carbs to work your muscles more rigorously, protein to build them, and healthy fats to support body movements and recovery.”
Stronger muscles through the power of protein
Amino acids are what Cleveland Clinic calls “the building blocks of protein.” According to Bruning, our body absorbs amino acids and then puts them to work for your body in a variety of ways, including building and maintaining muscles. She also notes that protein even helps your body recover post-workout when eaten within two hours of your exercise session.
“Day by day, using our muscles and eating plenty of protein-rich foods can build muscle,” Bruning says.
If muscle gains are your aim, certain high-protein foods may help with muscle synthesis and cultivating mass. If muscle gains are your aim, some high-protein foods that may help with muscle synthesis. But this doesn’t mean you can go ahead and eat bacon all day, every day, under the assumption that it’s providing you with the quality protein intake you need to increase your strength and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
How the right carbohydrates can help you develop stronger muscles
“Animal and plant-based high protein foods can both facilitate the building of lean muscle,” Bruning advises. “There may be a slight benefit to using animal sources, but plant-based sources will also help muscles to build. Lean animal-based protein has the most protein per [ounce] of food, generally.”
She also notes that it’s important that you eat lean proteins low in saturated fat when trying to build up your muscle strength. Examples of quality lean proteins include fish, poultry, and plant-based proteins like tofu and tempeh. You can also have some lean cuts of pork and beef, as well—but always, of course, in moderation.
The role of healthy fats and antioxidants in increasing muscle strength
Lean proteins may seem like the star of the show when it comes to building muscle and strength training. , But a common misconception is that this nutrient is all you need to eat to gain muscle mass and increase strength. To support the whole body while building muscle, Bruning claims that balanced diets need just enough protein rather than excessive amounts of this nutrient.
“It’s important to keep in mind that while protein is essential to build muscle, other nutrients are important for supporting the body, as it does the work that helps build muscle,” Bruning explains.
Depending on protein alone could potentially set you up for a dead end, but a well-balanced diet can provide your body with all the nutrients it needs to function effectively. So when trying to build muscle, don’t forget to also include carbs and healthy fats.
As much as we may spite carbs with the mentality that they are all bad for you, it’s essential to eat them for proper muscle development and add them to a balanced diet.
“While protein should be consumed as part of a balanced diet, allow nutrients like carbohydrates to help provide fuel during a workout,” Bruning says.
Carbs are among the quickest sources of fuel for strength development and weight training. According to the Mayo Clinic, “During a workout, carbohydrates fuel your brain and muscles. […] If you are in good shape and want to fuel a daily, light-intensity workout, eat about 3 to 5 grams of carbohydrates for every kilogram of body weight.”