Eating for Muscle Growth: When, How, and How Much to Eat for Adding Lean Mass

The three cornerstones of building muscle mass are training, rest, and diet. And genetics, of course. However, you can’t do much about that. Let’s ignore genetics for the moment and focus on what you can improve.

Everyone likes to eat. This article is all about what you should eat to give your muscles what they need to grow bigger and stronger. Let’s assume that you already follow a good training program tailored to your individual needs, and that you get enough high-quality sleep and recovery from your workouts. What and how much should you put into your mouth to ensure that it goes straight into your biceps? Read on!

Strength Training + Enough Food = Muscle Growth

Strength training makes you bigger and stronger. When you lift weights, you start complicated signaling mechanisms in your muscles. These signals tell your body to start making new muscle protein. After every workout, your muscle protein synthesis increases a bit to the point where it exceeds muscle protein breakdown. Over time, this translates into a noticeably larger muscle mass.

While your training makes your muscles bigger, it can’t do so all on it’s own. You can’t build muscle from thin air. If you don’t provide enough energy and nutrients from the food you eat, or your efforts will be for naught. 

You might have come across claims that the result of your efforts in the gym is 80 percent diet and 20 percent exercise. This is, or course, nonsense, at least if we’re talking about building muscle. You can gain muscle as long as you train hard, even if your diet is so-so. As long as you eat enough. What you can’t do is eat yourself to a muscular physique without putting in the effort in the gym. Your diet is the most important factor if you are trying to lose weight and body fat. In that case, changing your diet, as in eating less, is much more effective than trying to lose the weight through exercise alone.

When it comes to gaining muscle mass, your training is the most important factor, at least of the ones you can control. Diet definitely plays a significant role, but the most important thing is simply that you eat enough. As long as your diet is reasonably well put together, details like grams this and minutes that play a very minor, if any, role.

If you look at various YouTube-videos or read certain fitness blogs, you quickly realize that information about how to eat to build muscle isn’t exactly hard to find. The problem is that what someone claims is the superior dietary approach, might be the opposite of what someone else says elsewhere. Quite often, the person making the claims is convinced that he or she has found the holy grail of building muscle. Or that person might have financial reason to make certain claims and to promote a certain product.

This isn’t applicable to everyone and to all articles, of course. There are some great ones out there. The point is that, as a reader or a viewer, it can be quite difficult to decide which source of information to trust. They all say such wildly different things. Especially if you are new to this yourself. If you read studies or textbooks in nutrition, you will probably be overwhelmed instead. Overwhelmed by information that, while probably correct, might only add to the confusion, not being written for the average person. Or it might not be relevant in practice. All you want to do is to take the information and use it in the gym and in the kitchen to build muscle.

Fortunately, things aren’t as complicated as they might seem at first glance. There are a few really important things to keep in mind, things that will make or break your progress. For the most part, details are just that: details. Minor details that you don’t really need to micro-manage, at least not until you have reached advanced levels in your training.

The Most Important Factors for Gaining Muscle Mass: Calories and Protein

There you have it: the two most important dietary factors if you want to gain muscle. Everything else pales in comparison.

Why You Need to Eat Enough Calories

Protein might be the first thing that comes to mind when you rank dietary components important for muscle growth. Protein is certainly important, but your daily calorie intake is at least as important. Your body is staunchly against adding muscle mass in an energy deficit. You can trick it by training hard and smart, and by timing your protein intake properly. However, there is little doubt that a caloric surplus, or at least a balance between the calories you eat and the calories you expend, provides the superior potential to add muscle. All the anabolic processes in your body like to have plentiful access to energy. In addition, you perform better in the gym if you have enough energy to fuel your workouts. That way, you dont have to break down your body’s own tissue to get that fuel.

More than 100 years ago, scientists demonstrated that athletes can increase their strength and muscle mass with a relatively low protein intake, as long as they eat enough calories.1

Following a workout, your body adds muscle at a faster rate than usual for around 24 hours. Your muscle protein synthesis is elevated. This increase in muscle protein synthesis is amino acid dependent, not energy dependent. This means that eating or drinking some form of protein after a workout results in similarly increased rates of muscle protein synthesis regardless of your calorie intake.

But wait! I thought you said calorie intake was crucial for building muscle? It is. You constantly synthesize new muscle protein, 24/7, day in and day out, around the clock, whether you train or not. When you reach adult age, you build and break down similar amounts of muscle tissue, as long as your body weight is stable.

This constant, basal muscle protein synthesis depends at least as much on your calorie intake as your protein intake. If you eat too little, you build less muscle, all throughout the day. Even a moderate energy deficit reduces your muscle protein synthesis in a little as 10 days.2 In other words, even if it is quite possible to gain muscle mass during an energy deficit, you want to eat at least as many calories as you expend, if you want to optimize your potential for muscle growth.

A Big Energy Surplus is More Suited for Beginners

Eating a lot more calories than you burn up might be useful if you are naturally skinny and new to strength training. This will give you the best possible conditions for adding muscle. If you are thin with naturally low body fat levels, overfeeding in this way adds mostly fat free mass, not fat, at least initially. Even without weight training. If you DO add weight training to the equation, you create a powerfully anabolic environment for your muscles to grow.

However, your body can’t grow at an unlimited rate. There is a limit to how much muscle protein your body can synthesize per day, week, or whatever measuring period you use. The longer you have trained and the more muscle mass you have already acquired, the lower that limit is. As a beginner with decent genes, you can add a couple of lbs of fat free mass per month. If you are already an advanced athlete with plenty of muscle mass, adding that amount of muscle in a year is reason to celebrate.

You simply can’t add muscle very fast any more after years of training. Therefore, there is no reason for a massive energy surplus. The only thing synthesized under such conditions is excess body fat.

It’s not always easy to guesstimate how many calories you need. There are methods that can measure it quite accurately. They are elaborate and expensive, and not intended for home use. Instead, you can use any of a number of equations designed for this very purpose. You simply enter your weight, height, age and sex, plus your activity level and training, and the equation will do the guesstimating for you. These equations are not exact by any means, but will give you a decently accurate number to start with. You can use an online calculator the estimate your caloric needs. This one is based on a scientifically validated equation and is as accurate as these types of equations come. Be sure to use it only to calculate your energy requrements. As a strength-training athlete who wants to gain muscle mass, your protein requirements, for example, will differ from those of the general population.

Protein

The protein you eat gives you the building materials you need to gain muscle. If you eat too little protein, you will have a much harder time to increase your muscle mass.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein ranges from 0.8 to 0.83 grams per kilogram of body weight and day for both men and women in the EU and the US.3 4 These recommendations ensure enough protein for health and basic needs for the majority of the population, including people who exercise. However, building large muscles is not considered a basic need. If you want to get bigger and stronger, it’s definitely a good idea to eat more protein than that.

Studies and meta-analyses show that you reach a limit around 1.6 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day. Adding even more protein does not result in more muscle growth.5

If you eat more protein than this amount, nothing bad will happen. But don’t expect any extra muscle mass from doing so. You will still absorb and use the additional protein, but not for building muscle. Instead, your body will use it mostly for energy. Nothing wrong with that per se, but it’s an expensive energy source, and not the most efficient either.

Even More Protein: Useful for a Few

How efficiently you can utilize the protein you eat varies from person to person. This means that there are some who can use more than the previously mentioned 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day for muscle-building purposes. We are probably talking about just a few percent of the population. Even for those genetically gifted individuals, it’s a matter of diminishing returns. If you really want to make sure you eat enough protein to maximize your potential for muscle growth, you can aim for 2 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day.6

However, chances are that you are simply adding more calories that you could have spent on better or better tasting sources of energy.

You Need More Protein During a Calorie Deficit

Everything mentioned above applies to energy balance or above. During an energy deficit, the rules change. If you eat less calories than you take in, during a weight-loss diet, your protein requirements increase. You no longer enjoy the anabolic effects of an energy surplus. The bigger the deficit, the more protein you need to be able to maintain or increase your muscle mass.

During periods of calorie restriction, you might need up to 2.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day.7 That is just in order to maintain your fat free mass. Maybe even 3 gram of protein per kilogram, if your body fat levels are already low or if you want to gain muscle mass while dieting. Of course, a calorie deficit is not optimal for muscle growth in the first place. You can gain muscle mass and lose fat at the same time, but it is quite a bit more challenging.

How Much Protein from a Single Meal Can Your Body Use to Build Muscle Mass?

Is there an upper limit to how much protein you can absorb or utilize for muscle-building purposes per meal? Or can you pound your entire daily protein intake in one meal and expect the same results?

There is no practical limit in how much you can absorb. You just won’t use all of it to synthesize more muscle protein. There is a limit where more protein in one sitting does not equal any further increase in muscle protein synthesis. This limit is, in fact, not that hard to reach. At rest, it is somewhere between 30 and 40 grams of protein per meal.8 Following a strength training session, the amount of protein that maximally stimulates muscle protein synthesis is between 20 and 40 grams.9 10

Wait, do you need less protein after working out to maximize muscle growth? Yes, probably because your muscles become more sensitive to amino acids after strength training. This allows them to utilize the protein you provide more efficiently.

If you train a single muscle group, 20 grams of high-quality protein maximize muscle protein synthesis. If you train several muscle groups or a whole body workout, you get 20–25% higher rates of muscle protein synthesis if you double that amount.11

In order to maximize the potential for muscle growth, you should, according to current recommendations, spread your protein intake out over the day and eat every third hour or so.12

However, any differences such minutiae might offer probably won’t be significant. Don’t feel that you have to keep nibbling all day long to build muscle mass. It might very well offer some slight advantages. It won’t be the factor that determines if you gain muscle or not. If you prefer to eat fewer but larger meals, it’s not like your efforts in the gym are wasted. Even if muscle protein synthesis does not increase proportionately after a larger meal, you reduce protein breakdown more and for a longer time instead.13 This means that larger meals improve the balance between protein synthesis and protein breakdown as well. It is not clear how much of the decreased protein breakdown is muscle protein and how much is protein breakdown in other tissues, though.

A meta-analysis could not find any differences in body composition depending on meal frequency.14 In addition, there are many real-life examples of athletes building muscle and improving body composition using an intermittent fasting diet plan. As we said earlier: the most important thing for muscle growth is your training.

Best: a high protein intake spread out over multiple meals.

Good: a high protein intake divided into a few meals. Your total protein intake is more important than your meal frequency.

Read more: How Much Protein from a Single Meal Can Your Body Use to Build Muscle Mass?

All Protein Counts

It’s easy to assume that you should only count protein from “clean” protein sources like meat, fish, poultry, protein powder, and so on. That is not the case.

When you see recommendations like “2 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight and day”, they include all the protein you eat and drink during a day. This means that you should include the protein from foods you might normally not think of as protein sources, like bread, grains, and so on, in your total protein count. It also means that you will have a much easier time reaching your protein goal for the day than you might think. If you aim for, say, 180 grams of protein per day, it is not all that hard to reach that amount if you count the protein in everything you eat, not just the pure protein sources in your diet.

Do You Need More Protein as You Get Older?

When you reach a certain age, your muscles start responding less to a protein-rich feeding. This phenomenon is called amino acid resistance. Your muscles no longer react as strongly to amino acids in your blood.15 The signals for muscle protein synthesis diminish, and you need more protein than before to elicit the same response. When this reduced response to protein feeding occurs is not clear, and it probably happens at a very individual rate. In the beginning, it’s likely not noticable. Somewhere around the 60-year mark, maybe. A qualified guess.

Instead of the regular 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day, elderly individuals need 1 to 1.3 grams per kilogram and day for health and performance.16 However, nothing indicates that elderly athletes who engage in strength training need a higher total protein intake than their younger counterparts. The previously mentioned amounts of 1.6 to 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight and day should cover the requirements for maximal muscle growth, regardless of age.

The age-related amino acid resistance happens both for the general population as a whole and for veteran athletes who drink a protein shake after a training session.

After a workout, elderly individuals should consume 40 grams of protein for maximal anabolic response, regardless of the number of muscle groups trained. Younger athletes don’t need more than 20 grams of protein after training a single muscle group, but older athletes should aim for 40 grams of post-exercise protein every workout.17

Protein Quality: Do Your Protein Sources Matter?

Protein quality indicates how well a food protein contributes to the amino acid requirements for growth or maintenance. In other words, how efficiently you can use it to build muscle and other tissue. Protein quality is highly dependent on the amount and ratio of the essential amino acids the food protein contains. Essential amino acids are the amino acids your body can’t make on it’s own, the ones you have to provide through your diet. Only the essential amino acids are necessary to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.18 19 Too little of one or more of the essential amino acids results in sub-optimal muscle protein synthesis the hours after a meal. If a protein provides enough of all the essential amino acids, it is considered a complete protein.

All proteins from animal sources are complete and provide you with all the essential amino acids, in the proper ratios, that you need for muscle protein synthesis. The exceptions are collagen and gelatin protein, which provide limiting amounts of several amino acids needed for muscle protein synthesis.

In theory, you could pick a single animal protein and meet your entire protein requirement with that single source.

If you eat a mixed diet containing protein from both animal and vegetable sources, you don’t have to keep track of the protein quality of your meals. It takes care of itself. You don’t have to include meat in your diet. Eggs or dairy work just as well or even better in this regard.

A diet without any animal products, a vegan diet, does not provide the same amount of high quality protein, if you look at individual protein sources. All vegetable proteins also provide all essential amino acids, but a little less of the ones used to build muscle. This means that you either have to eat more of the vegetable proteins to get the same amount of amino acids from them, or combine different vegetable protein sources for a more complete amino acid profile.

Fortunately, your body can combine amino acids from different proteins on it’s own. It can take amino acids from a protein that has an excess of a certain amino acid and combine it with another protein which is deficient of said amino acid. This way, the anabolic effect of the combined vegetable protein sources becomes comparable to any animal protein source like meat or eggs.

In the past, a widely held belief said that you need to combine vegetable protein sources in the same meal to get a complete and fully usable protein source. Today, we know that our protein metabolism is efficient enough to make this practice unnecessary. It is enough to vary vegetable protein sources throughout the day as a whole. Your body can combine amino acids from different meals spread out over the day.20

However, this has only been measured in untrained individuals. Whether or not the same holds true for a strength athlete looking to gain a maximum amount of muscle is currently not known. To ensure you get enough high quality protein for this purpose, it might be prudent to either combine several vegetable protein sources in the same meal or at least shoot for the high end of the recommendations for protein intake, 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight and day.21 This way, you get more essential amino acids, even if the individual protein sources don’t contain the same amount as a mixed diet.

In summary, you most likely don’t have to calculate protein quality on a spreadsheet before eating, even if your diet contains no animal protein at all.22 If you follow a vegan diet, consider using more than a single protein source in each meal, preferably something like legumes and grains, which complement each other, or eat more protein total. If you eat a mixed diet containing at least some animal protein, whether we’re talking about meat, eggs or dairy products, your body will take care of things on its own.

Do You Need Protein Immediately Following a Training Session?

No, but consuming some form of protein within a reasonable time following a workout might be beneficial.

The hours after a training session, muscle protein synthesis is elevated above normal levels to the point where it exceeds muscle protein breakdown. For this to happen, you need to make the necessary amino acids available for your muscles to use. If the amino acids levels in your blood aren’t high enough after a workout, muscle protein synthesis can’t exceed muscle protein breakdown. It’s up to you to make sure you provide the building blocks your muscles need, by eating or drinking protein in some form.

Ingesting some form of protein immediately before a strength training session provides the same anabolic stimulus as the same amount of protein post-exercise.23 24 In other words, if you eat or drink protein right before a strength training session, you get the same muscle-building effect as from chugging a shake after the workout. It doesn’t seem to make any difference in the long run, either.25 The important thing is that you have sufficient amounts of amino acids in your blood when muscle protein synthesis starts to take off into the stratosphere, which happens around an hour after a workout.26

You can’t chow down a can of tuna as an evening snack and utilize that protein after your morning workout the next day, however. By that time, your plasma amino acid levels have dropped back to normal.

Following a workout, your amino acid sensitivity is increased above normal levels for up to 24 hours.27 What this means for you is that any protein you eat or drink during this time will be used more efficiently to build muscle than if you hadn’t trained. This also means that it is not crucial that you grab your shaker the moment you finish your last set. Your amino acid sensitivity is likely the highest the hours closest following the workout, after which it slowly returns to normal. However, studies show that you get the same anabolic effect of ingesting amino acids or protein for at least three hours after a training session.28

The fact that it is not super-important to drink a protein shake the minute you’re done with your workout doesn’t mean that protein timing in relation to strength training is completely unimportant. If you train completely fasted and neglect your protein intake for many hours after the workout, you will lose out on time you could have been building muscle. In the fasted state, muscle protein breakdown always exceeds muscle protein synthesis.29 Fasted strength training improves the balance between synthesis and breakdown, but it can’t turn positive until you provide the building blocks, the protein. So, if you haven’t eaten any form of protein before working out, it’s a good idea to make sure you do so afterwards instead. If you did provide the building blocks your muscles need prior to your workouts you are in much less of a hurry to do so again when you are done training.30

Good Protein Sources, Loosely Ranked for Muscle Building Potential

  • Milk and dairy products (milk, yoghurt, cheese, cottage cheese, quark, casein- and whey protein powder)
  • Eggs
  • Red meat (beef, pork, lamb, game, ostrich)
  • White meat (chicken, turkey)
  • Fish and seafood
  • Soy-based foods (tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy protein powder)
  • Quinoa
  • Beans, lentils
  • Nuts, almonds, seeds
  • Grains

Source: 31

Most of the food you eat, in addition to the ones listed above, also contain protein, albeit in smaller amounts. That protein might not always be of the highest quality. However, it does contribute to your daily protein intake and can be utilized for building muscle, and you should count it.

Carbohydrates and Fats: Do They Build Muscle?

Neither carbohydrate or fat have any muscle building properties right after you eat them. They don’t stimulate muscle protein synthesis. They are, on the other hand, important sources of energy for everything from essential processes in your body to your daily activities and your training.

Fat is essential, carbohydrates are not. You need to eat at least some fat to live and be healthy, but you can go your entire life without eating a single gram of carbs. That does not mean that carbs are bad. On the contrary, especially if you train hard. Carbohydrates are stored in your muscles and can fuel your intense workouts.

How you should allocate the fat and carbohydrate you take in is almost completely up to you. All kinds of diets, from low-fat diets with a lot of carbohydrates to ketogenic diets almost devoid of carbohydrate, work fine for muscle-building purposes. This means that you have great flexibility in how you eat. You can simply base your choice of foods on the way you like to eat. There is no convincing evidence that one or the other, high carb or low carb, high fat or low fat, or anything in between, are superior to any other choice.32 Not as long as your protein intake and your total calorie intake are the same.

How Much Fat and Carbohydrate Should You Eat?

An easy way to figure out how much fat and carbohydrate you should eat is to start with your total calorie intake and subtract the number of calories your protein intake provides from that number. Whatever number you come up with is how many calories you have left to spend on fat and carbohydrate.

This is how you do it:

  • Estimate the number of calories you need every day. You can use a good online calculator for this purpose.
  • Calculate how much protein you need per day. A good and even number is 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. It is scientifically accurate and easy to multiply your body weight with. For example, if you weigh 80 kilograms, you need 160 grams of protein a day, counting the protein in everything you eat and drink.
  • Subtract the protein calories from your daily calorie intake. It’s a simple equation. Each gram of protein provides 4 calories, rounded off. If you eat those 160 grams of protein, you get 640 calories. Let’s assume you found out that you need 2,500 calories per day to be in caloric balance. Add 200 calories to that number to make sure you have a slight energy surplus for optimal hypertrophic potential. 2,700 minus 640 is 2,060 calories. There you have it! The number of calories you have left to play with and spend on carbohydrates and fats.

Carbohydrates also provide 4 calories per gram, just like protein. Fat, on the other hand, provides a whopping 9 calories per gram. How you allocate these calories is almost entirely up to you and your own preferences. You cannot and should not completely eliminate fat, but a fat intake as low as 20% of your total calorie intake is not a problem for a bodybuilder.33 A lower fat intake than that might not be the best of ideas, as it could compromise your health and your hormones in the long run.

 A great interval for your daily fat intake is 0.5 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight. After that, you fill up with carbohydrate energy until you reach your intended daily calorie intake. This leaves a lot of room for flexibility. You can adjust your balance between fat and carbs in other ways, too, but these are great guidelines for anyone wanting to build muscle while eating a balanced diet.

You don’t have to compose your individual meals in any particular way or measure your carbs and your fats on a meal-to-meal basis. The important thing is getting enough over a longer period of time. The only firm guideline for each meal is that it should provide enough protein, in the amounts discussed earlier in the article. You don’t need to eat X grams of carbs or Y grams of fat each meal. You can mix and match to your heart’s content. As long you end up in the ballpark of your intended total daily intake, it’s all good.. In the end, that’s the important thing.

Fat and Carbohydrate Quality

Unlike protein, fats and carbs don’t have different anabolic properties depending on their source the hours after you eat them. In addition, there is no immediate difference between fat- and carbohydrate-rich foods generally considered “healthy” or “unhealthy” in this regard. You won’t build less muscle after a meal consisting of gingerbread cookies compared to a meal of rice and olive oil, if they both provide the same amount of fat and carbohydrate and the same number of calories.

Does this mean that you can base your diet on junk food how much you want without any negative effect on your training results? No, not in the long run.

Different types of carbohydrates, like starch and sugars, and foods with different fatty acid composition, do not have the same effect on your body. We’re not talking dramatic differences the hours after you eat them, but over time. A diet based on “junk”, consisting mostly of sugary foods and an unfavorable fatty acid composition, will negatively affect your health in the long run. Things like inflammations and blood lipids eventually take a turn for the worse, at least on a calorie surplus. Sooner or later, this will, in turn, negatively affect your training and your results. In addition, you will struggle to get all the vitamins, minerals and trace elements you need on a junk food diet.

If you want the best results possible from your efforts in the gym, you need to give your muscles good nutrients and fuel. You should base your diet on unrefined foods, not refined and processed so-called “junk”.

That being said, you don’t have to follow a pre-contest diet during the off-season. You don’t have to exclude anything. You can eat anything, but not all the time. This saying is particularly useful when you want to lose weight, but it applies here as well. The difference is that you have a lot more room to eat what you want when you are not dieting to lose weight.

The important thing to keep in mind is BASING your diet on unrefined and healthy food. A limited amount of “junk” can be a part of any diet, including the one you use to fuel your gym sessions and build muscle. It won’t harm anything. In fact, if you are a “hardgainer”, someone who finds it hard to eat enough to gain weight and muscle, or if you have a physically demanding job outside of training, it might even be beneficial to include a certain amount of refined foods that are easier to eat.

In summary, you definitely don’t have to exclude treats like ice cream and candy or fast food like pizza and burgers. The last two examples aren’t even as bad as people often think. They provide pretty much everything your muscles need to grow after an intense workout, although you probably shouldn’t plan your entire diet around them.

Here is a list of excellent basic, staple foods and carbohydrate sources:

  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Grains
  • Rice
  • Potatoes, both regular and sweet potatoes
  • Bulgur
  • Quinoa
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Fruits
  • Berries
  • Vegetables

The optimal fatty acid composition for health and performance is up for debate. Literally up for debate, all the time. How much unsaturated fat should you eat, and is saturated fat the devil? If you base your diet on natural, unrefined foods rather than refined and processed choices, you probably don’t have to give it a lot of thought.

Saturated fat has a bad reputation, but if you are healthy and exercise regularly, you likely don’t have to worry overmuch about it or try to avoid things like butter or red meat, foods that contain a lot of saturated fatty acids. A high intake of processed meats are correlated with health issues, and it is prudent to limit your intake of those, but not because of the fat content.

What About Vitamins, Minerals and Trace Elements?

Unlike the macronutrients, meaning protein, fat and carbohydrate, these nutrients do not provide any calories. On the other hand, they are very important, essential even, for your health and physical function. Many of them have direct or indirect effects on your muscles, your strength, and your potential for muscle growth.

However, they do not possess any acute anabolic effects following ingestion. You just need to eat a reasonably varied diet to cover your vitamin, mineral, and trace element needs in general. Timing your micronutrient intake in relation to your workouts isn’t important at all. You don’t have to optimize your intake of every nutrient every day for health or hypertrophy reasons. The important thing is to make sure you get enough of them over time so you don’t develop any deficiencies.

A reasonably varied diet that covers your energy needs also covers your vitamin and mineral requirements, as a general rule, regardless of whether you engage in strength training or not. A few exceptions can be vitamin D during the winter half of the year and vitamin B12 if you don’t eat any animal products.

A very common belief is that fruits and vegetables are the richest sources of vitamins and minerals. Contrary to this belief, foods from animal sources are actually often the most micronutrient-dense foods you can eat, with the exception of vitamin C. Still, a varied intake of fruits and vegetables, and preferably a plentiful one, too, is a good idea if your goal is gaining muscle mass. Even if you could cover your vitamin requirements completely without them, they also provide phytochemicals and other chemicals that have many functions in your body. We don’t even know exactly how these chemicals work in conjunction with each other, and it is not far-fetched to imagine that they are also involved in processes regulating muscle mass.

Conclusion

Eat enough calories. Building muscle during an energy deficit is possible, but far from optimal. Aiming for at least calorie balance is a good idea, and a slight surplus can offer additional benefits.

Eat enough protein. This entails eating at least 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day. You can increase that amount to 2–2.2 grams per kilogram if you want to be 100% on the safe side.

When you have ensured that you get enough protein, you can allocate your fat and carbohydrate calories according to your personal preferences. You can gain muscle mass with all kinds of diets, including high-carbohydrate plans with low to moderate amounts of fat, and ketogenic diets devoid of carbohydrates, to mention the two extremes.

Spreading your protein intake out over the day is most likely beneficial. Thirty to forty grams of protein every third or fourth hour during your waking time seems optimal. However, it is not essential. If you prefer a more infrequent meal plan, eating larger but less frequent meals, that will work fine as well.

You don’t have to eat super-healthy all the time. When you are on a contest diet, you rarely have the luxury of indulging just because you crave something. However, “junk food” does not build less muscle than “clean” food, as long as you cover your calorie- and protein requirements anyway. You should base your diet on healthy and mostly unrefined foods, for the sake of your long-term health and in order to get enough micronutrients. When that’s taken care of, your results won’t suffer if you have a bowl of ice cream instead of even more broccoli and tilapia.

What you do in the gym is the most important factor to grow bigger and stronger, but without a sound diet your efforts can more or less go to waste.

You don’t have to count and measure everything you eat down to the smallest detail, as long as you keep a decent track of your calories and your protein intake. It’s neither difficult or time-consuming to eat enough and well enough to build muscle. A few easy choices and a little planning are all you need to give your muscles what they need. Hopefully, this article has provided you with the information you need to make the informed choices in the kitchen that give you the results you want in the gym.

References

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  6. J Nutr. 2017 May;147(5):850-857. Indicator Amino Acid-Derived Estimate of Dietary Protein Requirement for Male Bodybuilders on a Nontraining Day Is Several-Fold Greater than the Current Recommended Dietary Allowance.
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