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Best Foods to Eat to Gain Muscle Mass and Strength

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

foods for muscle gain

Story at-a-glance -

  • Although some use carbohydrates to fuel muscle during endurance races, to gain muscle mass and lose fat, use healthy high-fat foods and intermittent fasting together with strategic meal planning and preparation
  • Intermittent fasting helps reduce inflammation, improves insulin and leptin sensitivity and your body’s ability to burn fat for fuel
  • Muscle growth and definition also requires exercise and optimal amounts of vitamins A, C, D and B complex for protein synthesis, muscle repair and stress reduction
  • Muscle growth and strength are also important as you age to maintain independence and your ability to easily do activities of daily living, such as climbing stairs and carrying groceries

If you're interested in muscle growth and definition, there's no getting past the fact you need to exercise. However, while exercise helps to build muscles, you cannot exercise your way out of a poor diet. One of the common beliefs about building muscle definition is you need to eat a lot of protein and carbohydrates.

However, nutritional concepts are just not that simple. For example, even when deprived of food, your body has a mechanism to build muscle. Additionally, amino acids and proteins are not just building blocks for tissue and muscle.

Some amino acids also signal genes to build protein during times of food deprivation — most notably branched chain amino acids like leucine — as long as you have them circulating in your bloodstream.

While carbohydrates do fuel muscle, high-carb diets are a disaster as they promote insulin and leptin resistance, which promotes chronic disease. Similarly, eating more protein than your body uses may promote elevated blood sugar and kidney stress, and even stimulate the growth of cancer cells.

On average, peak muscle mass occurs sometime during your early 40s. As you age, muscle mass begins to gradually decline, eventually leading to negative changes in mobility, strength and independence. However, muscle mass loss has other implications as it may also lead to an overall decline in metabolic function and play a role in your risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Without intervention, you can lose an average of nearly 7 pounds of muscle per decade.1 Research data show that after age 50, strength loss of 1.5 percent to 5 percent a year may occur.2 However, such losses are not inevitable. Exercise, in the presence of balanced nutrition, is a powerful intervention to address muscle loss at any time in life.

Balance Your Meal Planning for the Greatest Gains

Scientists have been trying to answer the question of what constitutes the ideal and most practical diet for athletes to improve performance. In a recent review in Sports Nutrition, the authors provide an overview about how athletes should eat, commenting:3

“Despite an enduring belief in a single, superior ‘athletic diet,’ diversity in sports nutrition practices among successful athletes arises from the specificity of the metabolic demands of different sports and the periodization of training and competition goals.”

In other words, the researchers found the type of diet best utilized by elite athletes was dependent on the sport they performed, their specific goals and their training routine. However, the number who train for the Olympics is a small percentage compared to those who seek the best nutritional base for optimal health and muscle growth.

In an interview, Louise Burke, sports dietitian and professor at Australian Catholic University, advises the use of 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates each hour during endurance events lasting several hours. While some athletes find it difficult to consume during an event, she also advises to practice during training. When asked if athletes should steer clear of high-fat diets she replied:4

“I wouldn’t say that at all. Some athletes love them. And we know that high-fat diets stimulate different molecular changes in the muscles than high-carb diets, some of which could be beneficial for performance.”

When your goals are to add weight and muscle, your nutritional plan may be simpler and easier to adhere to than when you’re seeking to shave off less than a second from your time, or lift another 10 pounds. However, no matter your goals, the following strategies will help improve muscle definition, and improve your chances of success.

Up Your Vitamin Intake

It may have been easy to overlook vitamins necessary to improve muscle growth and definition if you consigned vitamins only to helping lengthen your life, or to avoid the common cold.

Vitamin A — One of the most potent vitamins necessary to utilize proteins to repair and build muscle is vitamin A. It is also necessary for the utilization and production of testosterone and human growth hormone, both of which are necessary to grow strong muscle.5

In one human study,6 researchers found the administration of vitamin A and iron had results equivalent to taking testosterone. While protein is necessary, diets high in protein deplete vitamin A reserves in the liver and increase the reserves in non-liver tissue. Researchers theorize it results as vitamin A is necessary for the transport of protein molecules to the muscles.

High-protein diets deplete vitamin A reserves necessary for the synthesis of new protein.7 In an animal study, researchers found rats deficient in vitamin A had reduced testosterone production until the organ atrophied, indicating the vitamin was essential to production.8

In another study9 with 102 participating teenage boys, the researchers found the results suggested delayed growth issues could have been avoided with an increased consumption of foods high in vitamin A and iron.

The researchers theorize that with similar hard work and dedication, body builders may be able to achieve good results taking cod liver oil and eating foods rich in vitamin A on a regular basis, rather than the practice of supplementing with testosterone precursors.

Liver is very high in vitamin A and a healthy addition to your nutrition plan. Although many find it distasteful, consider cooking the liver, cutting it into pill-sized shapes, freezing it on a tray and storing it in your freezer.

These homemade liver supplements may now be swallowed frozen as you would a pill, without the taste.

Keep in mind that men and non-menstruating women should not take iron supplements but get their daily requirements from food, as I discuss in my previous article, "Why Managing Your Iron Level Is Crucial to Your Health," as their risk for elevated iron is already high. Discover more about the benefits of organ meat in my previous article, “Are Organ Meats Good For You?

Vitamins B6, B9, B12 — These B vitamins play a direct role in protein metabolism. B6 is used to support the absorption of vitamin B12 and together are essential in the production of red blood cells and the support of your immune system.

Vitamin B9, in combination with B6 and B12, helps to reduce homocysteine levels and improve nitric oxide production, the end result of which is improved blood flow and delivery of nutrients to your working muscles.10

Vitamin B complex deficiency affects muscle growth and development, and also may lead to dementia, respiratory conditions and psychiatric symptoms. Discover more about this vitamin complex in my previous article, “What Are the Signs of B Complex Deficiency?

Vitamin C — This precursor to the manufacturer of testosterone is deficient in the dietary intake of 43 percent of adults, according to the Environmental Working Group.11 Although not low enough to trigger scurvy, the endpoint of vitamin C deficiency, vitamin C plays an important role in many aspects of physiology, including the production of steroids.

There is also a direct connection between low vitamin C and high levels of cortisol,12 released when you are under stress. Vitamin C has a suppressive action on cortisol, helping to reduce the impact cortisol has on the body.

Cortisol also inhibits the action of testosterone,13 so even if circulating levels of testosterone are high, the effect is negated with high levels of cortisol, impacting muscle growth and development. Vitamin C-rich foods, such as papaya, kiwi, strawberries, broccoli and Brussel sprouts, may also help your skin, and may even prove to be a powerful adjunct treatment for cancer and support your heart.

Vitamin D — Arguably one of the more important nutrients, vitamin D is a fat-soluble steroid hormone produced in your skin in response to sun exposure. Vitamin D is also necessary in the production of testosterone.

One study found a close relationship between vitamin D deficiency and low levels of testosterone which reversed when participants spent more time in the sun.14 Another demonstrated supplementation increased levels of testosterone in middle-aged men.15

Include the Best Foods to Gain Muscle Mass and Definition

Healthy nutrition, including fats and proteins, is essential to building lean muscle. Fats are a necessary part of your diet, but not all fats are created equal. It is important to seek out healthy saturated fats from real, unprocessed foods and avoid polyunsaturated fats, such as vegetable oils and margarine. Avocados, coconut oil and walnuts are high in healthy fats, as is the meat discussed below.

Similarly, protein is a necessary structural component for muscle repair, enzymes, signaling molecules and cellular receptors. It is especially important to consume enough protein as your age increases, to ward off age-induced muscle loss or sarcopenia.

If your goal is to increase muscle mass, you will need to increase your protein intake. The important point here though is to not increase it continuously. Ideally you should have 80 to 150 grams of protein, depending on your lean body mass, on days that you are engaged in strength training. Protein like whey concentrate that is high in branched chain amino acids will help stimulate muscle building.

However, it is important that you reduce your protein intake on days you are not training as continuous high protein can overstimulate mTOR, which will inhibit autophagy and your body’s ability to ward off cancer.

As important as quantity is the quality of protein. As a general rule, the only meat I recommend eating is grass fed, grass-finished, organically raised meats, eggs and dairy. This is far superior to factory farmed meats, which are likely to be contaminated with herbicides, hormones, antibiotics and other drugs.

A key strategy to improving your food quality is cooking most of your meals at home using real food. See my previous article, “18 Foods That Promote Muscle Growth and Definition,” for a list of healthy, nutrient-dense, muscle-building foods to include in your meal planning.

Plan and Prepare Your Meals in Advance

Making changes to your nutrition plan takes a little bit of effort, especially when you're incorporating foods you haven't used before. Consider preparing your meals ahead of time in batches or making menus for the week so you aren't faced with the question of what to make and tempted to order out when you come home from work.

Planning also allows you more time to incorporate your workout during the day. Cooking in batches is not as difficult as you might imagine; check out my recipe section for ideas of healthy, nutrient-dense meals you can cook ahead. Consider cooking with a friend, sharing the results of your efforts. This helps to make the work lighter and a friend or two can turn the event into a party.

Remember to label everything you make. You might think you'll remember what's in the freezer and the date it was made, but you'll be surprised how quickly you forget. Think about prepping your vegetables for the week. By cleaning, slicing and dicing and then storing in glass containers in your refrigerator, you'll have the vegetables you need for a large tossed salad, a stew or casserole ready at a moment's notice.

Homemade salad dressings can be made up to a week in advance and stored in the refrigerator, and vegetable and beef stock can be made in advance and kept in the refrigerator for up to four days or frozen first in ice cube trays and then bagged for up to three months.

It’s important to choose your protein sources wisely. Most meat at the grocery store today, unless otherwise labeled, is raised on a processed diet in confined quarters and injected with antibiotics — producing low-quality nutrition. To learn your best choices see my previous article, “Study Shows Link Between Strong Muscles and a Strong Brain.”

Intermittent Fasting Builds Muscle and Improves Insulin Sensitivity

Intermittent fasting is not only excellent for your metabolism and overall health but also has a profound effect on your muscle mass. Using this type of eating plan means you restrict your normal eating into a six- to eight-hour window without cutting any of your calories. This helps increase your insulin and leptin sensitivity, driving more nutrients into your muscles.

Intermittent fasting reduces inflammation and free radical damage and increases your ability to burn fat. If restricting the hours during which you can eat seems overwhelming at first, consider adding grass-fed butter and coconut oil into your morning coffee, giving you calories to burn until you're scheduled meal.

Working out first thing in the morning may help reduce any feelings of hunger when you go to sleep at night, and increasing your water intake both helps you to feel full and maintains your hydration status throughout the day.16

Gaining Muscle as You Age Critical to Performance and Independence

Maintaining your muscle as you age is critical to maintaining your independence. Seniors who exercise more had lower levels of heart disease related biomarkers, including C-reactive protein, Interleukin-6 and leptin.

Overall, participants in this study who undertook more activity had lower levels of negative biomarkers, translating into less sedentary time and associated with more favorable cardiovascular profiles.17

The best way to maintain your independence as you age is to develop a strong foundation of muscle growth and definition before you need it. While it may be easier to maintain muscle mass than to start from scratch, it is never too late to start developing muscle strength and improving your potential for remaining independent as you age.

In a study18 by Mayo Clinic to determine the type of exercise which works better to protect aging muscles, the researchers tested high intensity interval training (HIIT) on stationary bikes, vigorous resistance training or combination of both.

They found those who did the interval workouts had a higher increases in the number and health of their mitochondria, particularly among older cyclists. Data have also linked strong muscles to improve brain health for many years, including memory, reaction speed and logical problem-solving.19

If you've been following the trends in exercise, you know there is no shortage of conflicting and confusing advice. It can be a struggle to separate fitness fact from fiction. I share my opinion on eight misconceptions in my previous article, “8 Fitness ‘Tips’ That Are Doing More Harm Than Good.”

If you’ve been eating the wrong foods, you may have struggled to make inroads in your goals to gain muscle mass and definition, whether to improve sports performance, maintain your independence or to live healthier. You'll find the combination of healthy nutrition and exercise helps achieve your goals no matter what your age.