If putting on muscle were easy, there would be jacked guys everywhere. But there are obstacles and roadblocks everywhere in the pursuit of lean mass, especially with regard to nutrition.
Although you’re most likely familiar with the basic principles of a bodybuilding diet, we’ve compiled a list that includes some overlooked staples as well as some more novel muscle-building foods (algae, anyone?) to assist you in your get-big endeavor. Divided into three levels, each builds upon the prior, ensuring you’ll get the most each food has to offer. Level One focuses on solid choices for macronutrients, Level Two centers on muscle stamina and recovery and Level Three highlights foods that exert specific and specialized influences over anabolism.
The foods in this category are all about supplying your body with adequate macronutrients: Protein is a no-brainer for muscle growth and repair; healthy fat is required for hormone production, which is linked to muscle growth; and carbohydrates provide energy for intense training and to keep the body from breaking down muscle protein as fuel. Along with adequate amounts of animal protein (chicken, fish, turkey and lean cuts of beef), these are the foundational foods upon which the rest of your diet should be built.
Sweet potatoes are packed with vitamin C, contain 25 percent of the RDA of potassium and are a fantastic source of sustained energy. What’s more, thanks to their B6 content, amino acid and protein metabolism get a boost, which means muscles receive more of what they need faster in order to grow. This versatile root supports both your work in the gym and recovery afterward.
Bonus Tip: For maximum nutritional value, eat the skin, too.
Low in fat and loaded with protein, this nearly perfect muscle-building food is mostly comprised of casein, a slow-digesting protein that keeps your muscles supplied with essential amino acids necessary for hypertrophy and recovery. Eat before bedtime to keep your muscles fed all night long.
Bonus Tip: Jazz it up with nutrient-rich options such as pineapple, tomatoes or avocado for a quick midday meal.
Boasting more leucine than many other protein sources, eggs are a natural addition to a bodybuilding diet. Fairly rapid digestion pumps amino acids into the blood quickly. Eggs also keep you full and provide a healthy dose of iron, vitamin A and calcium in addition to all the essential amino acids.
Bonus Tip: Be aware that free-range and cage-free are different from organic eggs, which are laid by hens that are free of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides. All have the same protein content.
The type of polyphenols — natural compounds in plant foods — found in apples have a special affinity for muscle. One study found that apple polyphenols actually increase muscle-fiber density. Another study, performed at the University of Iowa, suggests that a substance found in apple skins, called ursolic acid, enhances muscle-building hormone activity.
Bonus Tip: Eat an apple preworkout and go the distance with this slow-digesting carb, thanks to its high-fiber content.
Full of protein, fiber and vitamins A, C, B and K, black beans are one of the best sources of vegetarian muscle-building nutrients. A 2003 study found that they’re packed with antioxidant flavonoids that help protect against cancer, heart disease and premature aging.
Bonus Tip:Canned beans have the same nutrient profile as home-cooked beans but are more convenient.
A great source of the B vitamin complex, vitamins K and C and potassium, avocado’s fiber and healthy fat content provide energy for training, antioxidants for muscle recovery and growth and healthy monounsaturated fatty acids for optimal hormone production.
Bonus Tip: Add it to egg scrambles and salads or use in place of mayo and oil-based spreads on sandwiches.
The foods in this category are fairly common yet often overlooked due to their unusual tastes and textures. They provide your muscles with nutrients and natural compounds that help speed recovery and reduce inflammation and soreness so you can get back to the gym sooner and train harder.
A solid choice to support your gym efforts, Greek yogurt is a protein bomb, with twice the amount of the macronutrient as traditional yogurt. Like cottage cheese, it’s also abundant in casein, making it a go-to when your muscles require plenty of protein for the long haul. The probiotics found in Greek yogurt (and most brands contain more than one strain) can improve digestion, nutrient absorption and ease gastrointestinal inflammation.
Bonus Tip: Stick to the plain unflavored versions, which won’t contain any added sugar.
Commonly mistaken for a grain, quinoa is actually a seed that packs a powerful, nutritious punch. A complete protein, this rice alternative contains lysine, an important amino acid not commonly found in vegetarian sources and which plays an important role in muscle growth and repair. And the B2 and manganese content of quinoa assists with cell metabolism and provides protection against free radicals.
Bonus Tip: Add it to oatmeal or a pancake recipe, toss it in salads and mix it into ground beef for variety.
Just one cup of cooked lentils offers up 18 grams of protein and 16 grams of fiber. An alternative to starchy sides such as rice or corn, lentils supply your working muscles with slow-digesting carbs and plenty of amino acids for intense training. Lentils are also a significant source of iron and B vitamins.
Bonus Tip: You can find lentils in three main varieties: red, green and brown. When short on time, reach for the red, which cook faster.
Some of the muscle-building benefits of this leafy green are well known, but perhaps you didn’t know that spinach contains a phytochemical called 20-beta-ecdysterone, which increases protein synthesis. Spinach also contains tons of antioxidants and iron, both of which play a role in muscle support, growth and recovery. It’s also loaded with nitrates, which improve mitochondrial efficiency during exercise.
Bonus Tip:Eat it both ways, since raw spinach contains more vitamin C and folate, but cooking it frees up more vitamin K, A, B6 and riboflavin.
Buffalo meat’s benefits include higher protein values, more amino acids and less fat than beef, plus a greater concentration of iron and some fatty acids. Many studies have found buffalo to be a superior protein source for bodybuilders thanks to its valuable nutrients: iron for red blood cell production, zinc for muscle growth, B12 for metabolism and conjugated linoleic acid for increasing insulin sensitivity and improving body composition.
Bonus Tip: Use medium to low heat when stove-cooking and shoot for rare or medium rare when grilling.
Often described as a superfood, spirulina is an edible algae that is a complete protein. It aids muscle growth not only through its protein content, but a load of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Its unique nutritional profile can help keep inflammation at bay, support immune health, stabilize blood sugar levels and delay fatigue during workouts.
Bonus Tip: Look for organic spirulina without any additives or fillers. Mix it in a smoothie, a bowl of oatmeal or anything else you can stir or shake.
Building upon the previous two levels, this last section highlights the final round of foods you should add to your nutrition repertoire. These foods are somewhat esoteric in nature — some provide valuable nutrients not typically found together in such abundance, while others are highly specific in their muscle-building properties and favorable effects on the body.
A 2009 study published in the journal Nutrition brought to light the anti-catabolic powers of this spice, noting that curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) may enhance recovery of damaged muscle tissue. Turmeric is also a potent antioxidant, aids in fat metabolism, works as an anti-inflammatory and helps reduce the risk for many types of cancers.
Bonus Tip: Use as a rub on your grilled protein. A study done at Kansas State University found that seasoning meat with turmeric reduces heterocyclic amines (cancer-causing chemicals that form in foods cooked at high temps) by up to 40 percent.
Hemp seeds are a complete protein, a significant source of chlorophyll and fiber and contain both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Whole-hemp seeds contain albumin and edestin (both proteins, the latter found only in hemp seeds), which quickly get to hungry muscles. Hemp seeds also contain minerals, most notably zinc for your immune system and phosphorus and magnesium for bone health.
Bonus Tip: Add hemp seeds to Greek yogurt, sprinkle on a salad or toss them into a midday protein shake.
It’s amazing that freshwater algae can pack so much into such a small package. Chlorella is loaded with protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Chlorella also contains the highest level of chlorophyll of any plant, which improves oxygen concentration in the body and speeds tissue repair and growth. This single-celled food also boasts high concentrations of DNA and RNA, both of which are known to promote healthy cell growth and slow the aging process.
Bonus Tip: Follow instructions on the label of the product you purchase, since there are currently no guidelines on consumption of chlorella.
Beet juice contains vitamin C, iron, potassium and copper, and it increases stamina and power output. Want a better pump? Beets are one of the richest sources of those same nitrates found in spinach that benefit mitochondria. A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology showed an increase of skeletal muscle protein synthesis with the supplementation of betaine, a chemical compound originally discovered in sugar beets. Another benefit is its detoxifying effect: Beet consumption has shown to improve liver function.
Bonus Tip: When possible, eat beets and drink beet juice rather than consume a supplement, due to its higher rate of bioavailability. Roasted beets have a sweetness to them that works well in green salads.
This gluten-free fruit seed, related to rhubarb, contains all eight essential amino acids. You also get coverage in the areas of immune health with its antioxidant content, improved digestion and hunger management thanks to its high fiber content and blood glucose management due to a compound called d-chiro-inositol (a natural metabolite that is part of the vitamin B family), which increases insulin sensitivity. Several studies have shown that buckwheat effectively slows the rate of sarcopenia, the natural age-related decline of muscle strength and mass.
Bonus Tip: This versatile food can be cooked up like a grain, eaten like oatmeal, ground into flour for healthy pancakes and added to burgers and salads.
A study published in the British Medical Journal reported that the consumption of cocoa increases nitric oxide production, while another study confirmed that its rich flavanol content is responsible for these impressive effects. Vasodilation occurs through an increase in nitric oxide stimulated by the flavanols, carrying more oxygen to your muscles to provide a bigger pump during training. A third study found that a specific phenol, called epicatechins, helps reverse muscle wasting. Cocoa’s impressive antioxidant content, as well as its ability to reduce inflammation and increase insulin sensitivity should seal the deal.
Bonus Tip:Add unsweetened cocoa powder to protein shakes, oatmeal and homemade pancakes.
A study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that goji berries are responsible for increased focus and mental acuity, plus improved quality of sleep, energy and athletic performance. This little fruit touts high levels of antioxidants, amino acids and potassium, the latter two of which help build muscle. It also contains fatty acids for optimal enzymatic and hormonal functions of the body. Some evidence suggests that gojis support muscle growth via the combination of amino acids and potassium, which helps keep the pituitary gland healthy and stimulates it to produce more HGH.
Bonus Tip: Use them like you would raisins, adding them to oatmeal, salads, tuna, trail mix and granola.