It’s interesting how much time and attention people looking to gain muscle mass spend on their workouts. Of course, there are specific workout designs that are better suited to stimulate hypertrophy (gains in muscle mass), but the truth is that if your diet isn’t right those workouts aren’t gone to deliver any real, noticeable gains.
As you exercise, your muscles are being damaged – on a very small level. This damage, though, is exactly what you want. In response, your body rebuilds the muscle tissue so that it’s bigger, stronger, faster and just generally more prepared for the next challenge. But, just like any other building work, this project can’t be successfully completed if the raw materials aren’t present. Guess where those raw materials come from? Right, your diet.
So, how do you provide what’s needed? What foods do you need to eat to gain lean muscle?
Picking the Right Protein
Chances are pretty good that protein is the first thing that came to your mind when you read that question. And you’re absolutely correct. But, it’s important to be clear that not all protein is created equal, and, in order to really make some progress in building muscle, you need to choose your protein wisely.
For one thing, thinking about “protein” as one, singular thing is a pretty misleading oversimplification. There are, in fact, many different proteins – consisting of different amino acids, in varying amounts, connected in varying structures. These proteins each serve different purposes in your body and can be broken down so that their amino acids can be repurposed. To ensure that you’re able to build some impressive muscle, however, you need an assortment of amino acids – which are delivered in the form of complete proteins.
Technically, the term “complete protein” refers to a protein that contain all of the amino acids that your body isn’t capable of making itself – called essential amino acids. Very often, though, people refer to proteins that contain every single amino acids as “complete,” a practice that isn’t actually incorrect.
In addition to making sure that your body has all the amino acids it needs to build some solid muscle fibers, you also need to make sure that that protein isn’t coming bundled with a lot of other unnecessary things. For processed foods or protein supplements, this can mean dyes, flavorings, preservatives and other additives. If you decide to use a protein powder – which can be an extremely useful way to meet your protein needs – opt for a clean, grass-fed whey like Gnarly Whey.
Even in the case of whole foods like meat, protein can often come paired with a lot of fat. While fat isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can simply be adding unneeded calories. To avoid that pitfall, stick to lean meats like chicken and options that contain healthy fats like salmon. For vegans check out these healthy sources of fat for vegans.
Careful with the Carbs
Despite being listed as a necessary macronutrient and fuel for your body, carbohydrates have been picked on a lot over the years. In large part, this is because they have been consistently misunderstood and misused.
As mentioned, carbohydrates are – along with fat – the primary fuel for everything that happens in your body. Specifically, carbs are used to power brief periods of intense effort, like weightlifting. But carbohydrates also have a powerful influence on numerous biological systems, including your hormones. Among these is the hormone insulin, which controls how nutrients are disbursed throughout your body, your energy levels, and even your appetite.
Carbohydrates that are quickly absorbed cause a rapid spike of insulin, followed by a sharp decline in blood sugar levels. This leaves you feeling hungry, cranky and tired. Slow carbs, though, have a much more gentle, gradual effect. These carbs should be your focus if you’re looking to stay fueled while working to build lean muscle.
That doesn’t make fast carbs, useless, however. A quick jolt of carbs can be extremely helpful in recovering from a particularly challenging workout and can even help to stimulate the absorption of protein.