Use these ten foods in your diet to support protein synthesis and build muscle in conjunction with a resistance training program. Building muscle is not about bulking up by adding useless non-contractile fat tissue. Rather, it is about applying the right training stimulus and providing the body with adequate nutrients to support the following processes:
• Protein synthesis and tissue repair
• Anabolic hormone response to training
• Post-workout clearance and overall management of cortisol
• Enhanced insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake
• Accelerate the removal of waste products for a more alkaline pH
• Boost the immune system and improve gut health
• Support the entire detoxification process and counter inflammation by enhancing the antioxidant cascade
Muscle building is a highly complex process, but eating for it doesn’t have to be. Naturally, the best approach to putting on muscle mass will use a wide variety of high-protein foods since amino acids are used as the building blocks to build muscle and repair tissue. In addition, the vast majority of proteins provide critical muscle building nutrients such as glutamine, glycine, creatine, carnitine, carnosine, and the super important omega-3 fats.
Any discussion of muscle building foods requires a spotlight on meat. Sure, all ten foods could be derived from animals (beef, buffalo, bison, elk, venison, lamb, ostrich, turkey, fish, and eggs) but that would be boring and unpractical for many of you who aren’t avid wild game hunters. Still, there is abundant evidence that meat provides a better quality protein for the body to use for muscle building and optimal anabolic hormone function.
Animal proteins provide a greater array of amino acids than vegetable proteins, and eating them allows you to achieve the threshold dose of protein that is necessary for optimal muscle development. For example, a review of studies that tested various protein doses in conjunction with resistance training on muscle development found that a minimal dose of 2.38 g/kg/day of protein is the amount that reliably produced the most muscle development. That’s 178 grams of protein for a 75 kg person—an amount that is reasonably achieved if you eat meat and take a whey protein supplement or BCAA capsules post-workout.
The primacy of meat for muscle building goes further: There’s evidence that there is something about “the meat itself” that yields maximal muscle gains. A classic study that compared muscle development from a hypertrophy-style training program in omnivores and vegetarians who ate the same macronutrient ratios showed that the meat eaters gained 4 percent muscle mass and lost 6 percent fat mass, while increasing Type II fiber area by 9 percent. The vegetarian group experienced no noticeable changes in muscle mass or body fat percentage.
Now that you know the benefit of meat for muscle building, here’s the list you’ve been waiting for:
#1: Pastured, Organic Bison
Bison, or buffalo, that is pasture-raised and organic is a superior muscle building food. Bison is high in omega-3 fats (enhance anabolic signaling after training), provides creatine (the anaerobic energy source), carnitine (the nutrient that aids in fat for use as fuel), glutamine (known as a muscle builder and immune booster by body builders), glycine and glutathione (immune boosters), and CLA (anti-inflammatory and immune enhancing).
Bison is also delicious, is filling, contains a superior blend of amino acids, equaled only by other wild meats, and healthy fats. Don’t be afraid of the fat. Yes, some of it is saturated, but as long as you are being smart about carb intake and managing your insulin appropriately, saturated fat is benign. Moderate fat intake, of which a reasonable dose is saturated, has repeatedly been found to correlate with free testosterone and muscle development.
Bonus: Bison has 21.6 grams of protein per 100 grams versus 19.6 grams for beef.
#2: Cold Water Fish
Salmon is probably the best fish for muscle, but it’s only worth it if it is wild since farm-raised is fed grain, animal byproducts, and who knows what else. Go for a variety of cold-water fish because they are high in omega-3 fats for insulin health, high in protein, and contain those muscle building nutrients like creatine and carnitine. Try to avoid anything that comes in a can if it’s not BPA free, and only eat wild fish from places you trust.
A popular drink in Europe that contains probiotics to improve the health of your gut, Kefir, is made by fermenting milk by adding the kefir grain to it. The fermentation process eliminates the lactose found in the milk, making it suitable for most people intolerant of dairy.
Kefir is a perfect muscle food: Research shows that taking a probiotic in conjunction with resistance training can lead to a better body composition outcome and more strength grains.
Bonus: Whole Fat Greek Yogurt is hard to find, but guard your source if you’ve got one. It provides a nice dose of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which boosts the immune system and has been shown to fight cancer. Getting more CLA applies directly to increasing muscle mass—a 7-week study found that men who took CLA while training gained 1.4 kg muscle, and lost a kilo of fat more than a placebo group. Researchers think CLA enhances the anabolic response and boosts the metabolism during sleep.
Avoid non-fat yogurt because in removing the fat you get a much higher insulin response, whereas the fat in yogurt modulates insulin.
#4: Coconut Oil
A medium chain fatty acid that is rapidly absorbed in the intestines and carried to the liver where it is used for energy, coconut oil is an excellent fat source for anyone building muscle. It is anti-inflammatory, and though it is feared by many due to the saturated fat content, it does NOT enter the cholesterol cycle.
Research shows that eating coconut oil can actually improve cholesterol health and support fat loss. No studies have tested its use for muscle building, but it is being used to treat high blood sugar and enhance insulin sensitivity. Use it in conjunction with olive oil as your primary cooking oils.
Bonus: For those who have a hard getting enough calories, coconut oil provides tasty, easy to take, high-value calories. Whenever I lose weight from too much traveling, I use coconut to accelerate putting the weight back on.
The only “carbohydrate” on the list, quinoa is included because it’s not a grain but a seed that is a relative of spinach and Swiss chard. It contains a superior amino acid profile of all plant-based foods, containing the 9 essential amino acids. It’s also high in magnesium, the mineral of insulin sensitivity.
Quinoa is fairly high glycemic (not like white bread or pasta, but much higher than animal protein) at 53. Muscle building is all about managing insulin and blood sugar so that you elevate insulin at the right time with the right nutrients available for protein synthesis. Therefore, quinoa probably shouldn’t be eaten at every meal but is an ideal addition to a post-workout meal. Eat it with fruits, vegetables, or spices that enhance glucose uptake and insulin sensitivity.
Bonus: Quinoa has the unique property of raising levels of the anabolic hormone IGF-1.
#6: Nuts: Brazil, Almonds & Walnuts
Nuts are high in protein, fiber, smart fats, and antioxidants. Studies repeatedly show better body composition, overall health, and longevity in people who eat nuts regularly.
A few things you might not know about nuts for gaining muscle: Brazil nuts are high in selenium (an antioxidant that may enhance androgen production and enables enzymes needed for glutathione, the immune regulator, to function), almonds are high in vitamins B and E, while walnuts may be the healthiest nut because they are eaten raw with the skin on.
#7: Purple & Blue Fruit: Blueberry, Bilberry, Cherry, Raspberry
Not typically thought of as muscle foods, dark fruits are essential to any muscle building program, especially if you care about your long-term health. Continually causing muscle damage and rebuilding it for mass gains and strength take a toll on the body, which is where these delicious fruits play a role.
High in antioxidants, berries can help accelerate recovery by helping to remove the waste products or “garbage” produced by very intense training. Once the waste products are gone, the body is better able repair tissue. In addition, raspberries have been found to aid in suppressing hunger, whereas all the berries enhance insulin sensitivity and blood sugar management. Assuming you are lean enough AND insulin sensitive, drinking berry juice in conjunction with a high-quality carbohydrate powder post-workout will produce the insulin spike you need for muscle building and recovery.
Bonus: Kiwi, Mango, Peach, and other high antioxidant fruits will offset the oxidative stress produced by eating protein, leading to greater muscle gains. Did you know that every time you eat protein, grain-based carbs, and certain unhealthy fats, your blood antioxidant level is reduced? It’s true. Researchers suggest that the average 500 calorie meal requires about 1.5 servings of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables in order to prevent oxidative stress.
#8: Green Tea: Traditional & Yerba Mate
This could just as easily be coffee since both enhance insulin sensitivity, metabolism, and work capacity when training. But for building muscle, green tea is a must-have, even if you take it in supplement form, because It’s been shown to shuttle glucose into muscle cells rather than store it as fat. The antioxidants in tea can accelerate recovery from training and minimize liver damage from toxins like alcohol. In addition, both green tea and yerba mate (a different but just as healthful plant from South America) have been called “anti-obesity” beverages by scientists.
Bonus: Kombucha Tea is actually a probiotic beverage that is typically brewed by placing a bacteria culture into tea to ferment. It boosts the immune system and is steeped in history (it may have originated in Asia over 2,000 years ago), making it a nice beverage functional hypertrophy.
Nutritionally rich (folate, vitamins A,C,E, and K), asparagus provides chromium, which enhances the ability of insulin to transport glucose into the cells. Asparagus also contains high levels of glutathione—that super antioxidant that is at the core of the immune system—and we know muscle gains from training often correlate with the strength of the immune system.
A nutrient partitioner—it diverts carbs to be stored in muscle rather than as fat—cinnamon’s main benefit is that it significantly improves insulin sensitivity. It has specific implication for muscle gaining: One study showed that pre-diabetics who took cinnamon extract with meals had a 1 percent increase in muscle mass and a 0.7 percent loss of body fat—not huge, but should catch your attention since the subjects weren’t lifting.
Put cinnamon in tea, coffee, yogurt, cook with it (put it on veggies in conjunction with other spices), or take it as a supplement.
Bonus: Turmeric contains the anti-inflammatory, pain killing compound called curcumin. Although you may want a more concentrated dose of curcumin in capsule form to accelerate recovery from hard training or injury, cooking with turmeric will help modulate insulin for muscle building and body composition.