The Best Muscle-Building Diet: How to Eat to Build Muscle Fast

Updated on August 16, 2018
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David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.

A great muscle building meal
A great muscle building meal | Source

The Best Diet to Build Muscle

If you want to build muscle effectively, it takes more than just working out with weights. You need to eat the right foods too. But just what is the best muscle building diet? In this article I’ll answer that question.

Before I start, however, it’s important to point out that if you are over 15% body fat (22% for women) you really need a fat loss program first. If you attempt to build muscle when you are carrying too much fat, you will only put on far more fat than muscle due to the fact that your insulin sensitivity will be very poor. So shed the excess body fat first, and then you can start a muscle building program.

But if you are ready to get started, the very best diet to build muscle as quickly as possible (whilst staying lean) is as follows.

Eat a Calorie Surplus

The first thing you need to do is to get your calorie intake right as you can't build muscle unless you are consuming more calories than you are expending. For optimum lean muscle gain a figure of 16 times your bodyweight in pounds will be about right for most people. So if you weigh 170lbs you will need to consume around 2700 calories per day.

Use this as a starting point and monitor your progress for two or three weeks. Then, if you find you are gaining too much fat reduce your intake by about 300 calories per day. On the other hand, if you aren’t gaining as well as you’d like, increase it by 300 calories per day. And if you still don’t gain, increase it some more. Extremely skinny hardgainers may need to go up to 20 times their bodyweight or even higher in order to make good gains.

However if you don’t want to calculate your daily calorie intake, that’s fine. Just eat more and then increase or decrease as required until you are getting the results you want.

Eat Plenty of Protein

Protein is required to build the muscle fibers, so make sure you have a good amount of it at each meal. However, you don’t need to eat the excessive amounts that some people recommend. One gram per pound of bodyweight per day is plenty to stimulate maximum muscle growth; and eating more than this will not result in additional gains.

The best sources of protein are meat, fish and eggs, but milk and cheese are also good. And whey protein is excellent too - especially for use as a post-workout shake.

When you eat eggs, eat the whole egg. Never throw the yolk away, as this is by far the most nutritious part. You don’t need to worry about the cholesterol in eggs, as eggs also contain a phospholipid called lecithin which reduces the absorption of cholesterol. Besides which, your body can usually self regulate cholesterol levels well enough anyway. So when you eat more of it, you simply produce less of it yourself.

How much protein do you need to build muscle?

How much protein do you eat per day?

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Load up on Carbohydrates

If you are overweight you do need to keep your carb intake fairly low in order to lose the excess fat. Or you can cycle your carbs, so you eat more of them on your training days than on your off days. But if you are skinny and lean you will need to eat a lot more carbs in order to grow.

Carbs are muscle sparing, and they help to plump out the muscles, making them full and hard. They also supply the fuel required to ensure optimum performance in your workouts.

As a rough guide, if you are looking for moderate muscle growth whilst losing a little fat at the same time, eat about 0.5g of carbs per pound of bodyweight on your off days and one gram per pound of bodyweight on your training days.

For faster muscle growth eat one gram of carbs per pound of bodyweight on off days and 2 grams per pound on training days.

And if you are an extreme hardgainer who finds it really hard to gain any weight at all, eat 2 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight on off days and 3 – 4 grams per pound on training days.

Carbs should mostly come from healthy foods such as rice, oats and other whole grains (provided you can tolerate grains well), potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, squash, buckwheat, millet and quinoa. But try to avoid white flour products and sugary foods as much as possible.

And Don’t Neglect Healthy Fats

When you have worked out your protein and carbohydrate requirements, make up the extra calories you need with healthy fats. Don’t worry about eating fat as low fat diets are not healthy. Your body needs fats for all sorts of functions, including the production of steroid hormones (which are required for muscle growth). And apart from this, if you are trying to gain muscle whilst limiting your carb consumption (especially on off days) you will need extra fat to ensure you get sufficient calories.

Good sources of fat include oily fish, fatty meats (preferably grass fed), nuts, seeds, avocados, butter, extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil. But avoid refined vegetable and seed oils, trans fats and margarine.

Apart from the above you should also eat plenty of fruit and vegetables for optimum health. Although if you are having trouble meeting your calorie requirements, you may find you’ll have to eat less vegetables so that you can eat more carbs, protein and fat.

Meal Frequency

Despite what you may have heard, it doesn't really matter whether you eat three meals per day or six, as long as you get your calories and nutrients in. But if you have a small appetite and a fast metabolism (so you get hungry quickly) you may find it better to eat more often. Conversely if you can eat a lot and you stay full for some time, eat less frequently.

For health reasons it’s better to eat less frequently however, as this gives your digestive system a rest, so it will work better when you do eat.

And although the timing of your meals is not too critical on your off days, on training days you should be looking to consume most of your calories after your workout.

So ideally you should have a post workout protein shake, with some carbs (e.g. a ripe banana), within 30 minutes of finishing your workout. And then have a large meal containing plenty of protein and carbohydrate about an hour or two later. Your body is able to absorb and utilize nutrients far more effectively than normal for about 4 – 6 hours after training, so make the most of this.

So now you know what the best muscle building diet is. Follow the advice given here and you'll be giving your body everything it needs to ensure you are able to get the results you are looking for.

How many meals do you eat per day?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

  • Can a person with diabetes gain muscle? Since the limits of food are low.

    Yes, diabetics can certainly gain muscle, but it will be more difficult. You will need a calorie surplus of course (assuming you are not carrying too much fat at the moment), but it doesn't need to be a big one. Spread this out over five smaller meals per day instead of three larger ones. These should all contain a good amount of protein and some complex carbs (from whole grain products, sweet potatos or legumes). Eat a meal like this about an hour before training, and another (larger) one soon after finishing your workout. This should be your largest meal of the day. Make sure the food you eat is nutrient dense, avoiding refined carbs and sugary products.

    If you are not used to training, start out light and monitor how you feel. Then build up gradually over time. Lifting weights can cause your blood sugar to drop, so make sure you keep an eye on that. Weight training can, however, improve diabetes, so is well worth doing for that reason alone. Best of luck.


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