The Best Foods for Building Muscle

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Muscle building requires commitment in the gym and in the kitchen. What you eat won't actually turn into muscle, but it can make your strength-training efforts more effective. Protein is a must for muscle building, but you don't have to live on steak alone. Quality protein can be acquired from a variety of sources, and you also need healthy fats in the form of omega-3 fatty acids and carbohydrates to support your workouts and help your body recover after tough sessions.

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Protein Needs

Athletes training for strength and power should consume between 0.77 and 0.90 gram of protein per pound of body weight daily, recommends the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Intense workouts increase your muscles' amino acids demands, and amino acids are the building blocks of protein. If you're a 180-pound guy looking to consume 164 grams of protein per day, you won't do yourself any favors downing it all in one or two sittings, though. Spread your protein intake out over five to six meals eaten throughout the day. Your body can't store excess amino acids for later use -- they're either broken down and used for energy, excreted from the body or stored as fat.

Man lifting weights in gym.
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Proteins: Type and Timing

Immediately following a workout, you want to consume about 20 grams of a fast-digesting, complete protein to deliver the nutrients to muscles during their repair and recovery window. Although whole foods are usually the best option when choosing protein sources, whey protein powder ensures amino acids get delivered quickly to your muscles when you consume it right after a strength-training workout.

Beef, chicken, eggs and white fish are whole food, complete proteins that could also serve as post-workout fuel as well as meet your protein needs at other meals. Cottage cheese is valuable because it's rich in another milk protein known as casein. Casein digests more slowly and delivers amino acids in a steady stream so it's especially valuable before a workout or as a bedtime snack.

Fermented dairy products, such as unsweetened yogurt or kefir, are other quality sources of protein that contain beneficial bacteria known as probiotics that can help with nutrient and amino acid absorption.

Small bowl of cottage cheese.
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Carbohydrates for Energy

You should also aim to eat some carbohydrate-containing foods pre- and post-workout to support muscle growth. Before a workout, the carbohydrates provide you with energy, and afterward, they help refill your glycogen, or energy, stores, notes a paper published in a 2003 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. When you have energy restored promptly, you recover faster and can get back to training more quickly -- meaning greater muscle gains.

Post-workout carbs also stimulate a release of the hormone insulin, which helps shuttle nutrients to muscles to expedite repair and growth. Good carbohydrate choices right after a workout include fruits, particularly bananas and cantaloupe. At other meals, whole grains, such as brown rice and quinoa, provide you with energy to complete workouts. Legumes and beans, including lentils and chickpeas, provide carbohydrates for energy as well as a number of essential amino acids to help boost muscle growth.

Halved cantaloupe.
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Getting Fat

Fat isn't anathema to muscle building; certain types actually promote a stronger, fitter body. In a 2011 issue of Clinical Science, a small study showed that supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids enhanced the muscle-building effects of amino acids and insulin.

Whole food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include oily fish, particularly salmon and mackerel, which serve double duty as quality protein sources. Ground flaxseeds, hemp seeds and walnuts are vegetarian sources of this quality protein. If you have a lithe frame that resists muscle gain, consider nuts as a high-calorie source of protein to snack on between meals.

Walnuts on table top.
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Antioxidant-Rich Fruits and Vegetables

Although fruits and vegetables aren't a rich source of protein, they contain vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that promote a healthy body. A healthy body recovers faster and responds more favorably to weight training. Whole foods, such as berries, cocoa, cherries, spinach, oranges, tea and even dark chocolate, are quality sources of antioxidants, which fight against disease-causing free radicals. A diet rich in colorful fruits and veggies supports a healthy immune system so you can maintain a strong lifting schedule.

Cherries on table top.
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