To build muscle effectively takes more than just working out with weights. You need to eat the right foods too. In fact, what you eat is just as important as how you train (if not more so). So what exactly should the ideal muscle building diet plan consist of? In this article I’ll answer that question.
But first, it’s important to note that if you are over 15% body fat (22% for women) you should really go on a fat loss program first. If you attempt to follow a diet designed to build muscle while you are carrying too much fat, it’s likely that you will put on far more fat than muscle due to the fact that your insulin sensitivity will be very poor. So shed the excess fat first, and then you can start your muscle building program.
But if you are ready to get started, the best diet plan to follow in order to build muscle as fast as possible (whilst staying lean) is as follows:
Eat a Calorie Surplus
In order to gain muscle mass, you need to consume more calories than you expend. But not a lot more, as (with the possible exception of skinny teenagers who have never lifted before) you can’t force feed muscle growth. So if you eat too much, you will only end up getting fat.
You need to eat enough to have some calories left over to build muscle, but not so much that you gain fat.
So, if you take your body weight (in pounds) and multiply it by 16, that should give you a good idea of how many calories you need each day. But everyone is different, so you’ll need to fine tune this. So weigh yourself once per week, first thing in the morning before you eat or drink anything, and monitor the results you are getting for 2–3 weeks. Then, if you find you are not gaining as well as you’d like, increase your intake by about 300 calories per day. And if you still don’t gain, increase it some more.
On the other hand, if you find you are gaining too much fat, decrease your intake by 300 calories per day.
Then, simply continue to monitor your progress week by week, adjusting your calorie intake up or down in 300 calorie increments, until you are getting the results you want.
However, if you don’t want to track your exact calorie intake, that’s fine. Just eat more if you are not gaining very well, and eat less if you are gaining too much fat.
Eat Plenty of Protein
Protein is required to build the muscle fibers, so you need to eat a good amount of it each day. But you don’t need the excessive amounts that some people recommend. Protein, like calorie intake, is permissive. You need sufficient to grow, but you can’t force extra growth by consuming more.
So aim for about 0.8–1g of protein per pound of body weight per day. That amount will be plenty to stimulate maximum muscle growth in most people.
The best sources of protein are meat, fish, eggs and whey protein. Milk and cheese are also great in moderation. And beans and nuts also provide some protein, though the quality is not as good as that derived from the animal sources mentioned.
Carbs are Crucial
Although relatively low carb diets can be useful for sedentary people, or those who wish to lose weight, if you are trying to build muscle you need plenty of carbs.
Carbs supply the fuel required to ensure optimal performance in your workouts. They also plump out the muscles, making them full and hard. And on top of that, they help you recover from your workouts, they keep your testosterone levels high, and they help maintain optimal brain and immune system function.
So if you try to train without carbs, you’ll be tired and unfocused, and you’ll get very poor results too.
It is a good idea to cycle your carbs though, eating more of them on your training days (when you need more energy) than on your off days. And proper timing of your carbs is important as well, as this will help to ensure you don’t get fat.
So, have a decent amount an hour or two before training, and then have some more within half an hour of finishing your workout – perhaps a large ripe banana with your post-workout protein shake. Then, have the rest of your starchy carbs an hour or two later as part of your main meal.
And on your off days, simply eat most of your carbs with your main meal of the day, and eat much less with your other meals.
Good sources of healthy carbs include rice, oats and other whole grains (provided you can tolerate grains well), potatoes, sweet potatoes, quinoa and beans, as well as fruits and vegetables of course. But avoid refined white flour products and sugary foods as much as possible.
Don’t Neglect Healthy Fats
Fats are also a vital part of a healthy and effective muscle building diet, and your body needs them for all sorts of functions, including production of the steroid hormones that are required for muscle growth.
But don’t go overboard with them, as fats are very calorie dense. A gram of fat contains nine calories, whereas a gram of protein or carbohydrate contains four calories. So you won’t stay lean if your fat intake is too high.
As a rough guide, about 25–30% of your daily calorie intake should come from fats, and some good, healthy sources of fat include oily fish, nuts, seeds, avocados, extra virgin olive oil and virgin coconut oil. Eggs, butter and fatty meats (preferably grass fed) are also fine, but try to avoid refined vegetable oils and margarines.
And Eat Plenty of Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are not only packed with vitamins, minerals and trace elements; they also contain hundreds of health promoting phytonutrient compounds. So you should be eating plenty of them every day. You’ll not only be healthier, but you’ll feel better and your performance will improve too.
Despite what you may have heard, it doesn’t really matter how many meals you eat per day, as long as you get your calories and nutrients in. But 4–5 meals is usually regarded as ideal for muscle building purposes. However, it’s best to do what’s right for you personally, so if you only have a small appetite, and get hungry quickly, you may want to eat more often. But if you can eat a lot, and you tend to stay full for some time, eat less frequently.
Apart from the above, it should go without saying that most of your calories should come from higher quality, nutrient dense foods. Some junk food is ok, but keep it to a very small part of your overall diet.
So that’s my guide to the best muscle building diet plan. Follow the advice given here, and you’ll be giving your body everything it needs to ensure you are able to get the best results possible from your training efforts.
Photo credit: jakeprzespo, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr