The Best Muscle-Building Diet: Eat Your Way to Alpha Status

Two boys comparing their arm strength, and prepare for a life of muscle building workouts

Two boys comparing their arm strength to prepare for a life of muscle-building workouts | D. Hess/Fox Photos/Getty Images

You’ve heard it before: Getting in shape is 80% diet and 20% exercise, or something to that effect. Essentially, the idea is that what you’re eating is more important than spending hour after hour in the gym. This is where the saying “you are what you eat” comes in. If you aren’t providing your body with the resources it needs for building muscle or achieving weight loss, you’re not going to hit your goals.

Weight loss is one thing — if you’re trying to burn fat and drop weight, you need to restrict your diet and kick up the calorie-burning workouts. This will break down your body’s reserves, and you’ll lose weight. But what happens if you want to add mass? You’ll still need to exercise, but your eating habits will be vastly different than if you’re trying to lose weight.

For building muscle, the most important thing you need to know — as it relates to your diet — is that you need to consume more calories than you’re burning off. You’re adding mass and weight, and your body needs resources (calories) to work with.

But not just any calories will do. You can sit around, eat macaroni and cheese and garlic bread all day and take in an enormous amount of calories, but you’re going to feel gross. If you’re trying to build muscle, you probably won’t get the results you’re looking for. So, what do you need to eat?

The cornerstones of a muscle-building diet

A man performs a bench press lift

To build muscle, you have to make sure that your diet is on point | iStock.com

Though we’re all told to add plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains into our diets, a one-size-fits-all diet for everyone doesn’t really apply, unfortunately. People have different dietary restrictions (vegans, pescetarians, etc.) or food allergies. Some simply don’t have access to the foods they need, be it because of financial constraints or geographic limitations. Food deserts exist, and that can lead to some serious public health problems.

All of those concerns aside, if we were to try and make the best diet for muscle building, it would probably break down to this: healthy amounts of lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, and a moderate amount of carbohydrates and fats. This, of course, should be paired with a dedicated strength-training regimen — meaning that you’re hitting the gym, lifting weights, and building muscle tissue.

As for lean proteins? You can start with chicken, turkey, and fish. These are all packed with protein but are far less fatty than beef or pork. Stay away from the deep fried stuff, though. Learn to use a grill and to use seasonings like a pro. Protein powders are also effective if you find you’re not eating enough protein from other natural sources, and they come in all kinds of flavors to suit your tastebuds.

For carbs and fats, stick with brown rice, whole grains, and even nuts and seeds. These contain a good amount of fiber too, which is good for your system. You’ll want to steer clear of foods like pasta and white rice, which are generally calorie-heavy and don’t offer much in the way of actual nutrients.

Finally, make sure you’re eating plenty of fruits and vegetables. These should actually be the bedrock of your diet, along with your proteins. They supply your body with vitamins and minerals which are incredibly important resources that your body needs to gain mass.

Keep it simple

Fish, a source of lean protein, which should be a staple of your diet

Fish, a source of lean protein, should be a staple in your diet | iStock.com

Again, there isn’t a single diet that is going to work for everyone, and there are a wide variety of foods that you can include that will help you build muscle. You’ll also want to make sure you’re working out. The only way your body is going to build muscle and strength is through resistance training — the actual process of breaking down old tissues and fibers and replacing them with new, stronger material.

There are a million different workouts out there that you can use to get started, but you’ll need to figure out what your goals are beforehand and make sure you follow through. Back to the diet, though. There are a handful of things that you’ll want to keep in mind:

1. Remember your caloric balance — consume more calories than you’re burning off.

2. Stick to the basics — plan your meals to include the staples: lean proteins, plants, and some carbs.

3. Stay hydrated — we didn’t touch on this, but you should be constantly drinking water.

4. Take notes — keep track of what you’re eating. That means eating enough carbs and fats in addition to protein.

5. Training — your diet will only get you so far. Strength training and weight lifting are essential to build muscle.