Putting on lean muscle mass happens in the kitchen as well as the gym. In addition to strength training regularly, it’s important to follow a balanced diet, avoid restricting calories and focus on including high-quality protein in your meals and snacks. While supplements can be convenient, most people can meet their protein needs through whole foods, which offer better quality nutrition.
The “building blocks” of muscle mass are amino acids, the components that make up dietary protein. There are nine essential amino acids, which are present in all animal proteins and dairy products as well as soy foods. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine jointly recommend getting about 0.5 to 0.8 gram of protein per pound of your body weight per day. Very active individuals likely need to follow the upper range of that recommendation to effectively build muscle.
Rather than packing in all your protein at once, spread it out during the day. According to the results of a study published in 2014 in The Journal of Nutrition, eating about 30 grams of protein at each main meal stimulates greater muscle protein synthesis than eating most of your protein in a single meal.
High-Protein Breakfasts • Oatmeal with nuts and low-fat milk • Nonfat Greek yogurt parfait • Egg omelet with a small amount of cheese or meat
High-Protein Lunches • Bean burrito with meat or eggs, brown rice and veggies • Turkey sandwich on whole grain bread • Hummus wrap with feta and a hard-boiled egg
High-Protein Dinners • Tofu stir-fry with eggs, veggies and brown rice • Grilled fish with veggies • Chili with cheese and cornbread
To build muscle, your body needs calories as well as protein. That means eating healthy snacks between meals when you feel hungry. Especially if you're an athlete, restricting calories or eliminating certain food groups from your diet can have detrimental effects. Exercise physiologist Jim Stoppani, Ph.D., recommends eating a total of about 20 calories per pound of your body weight per day.
Healthy, High-Protein Snacks Plain, nonfat Greek yogurt: One 6-ounce serving has an impressive 18 grams of protein in only 100 calories. Hard-boiled eggs: Eggs are sometimes called “the perfect protein” because they have the highest biological value of any food. Two eggs provide 12 grams of protein in fewer than 200 calories. Cottage cheese: Low-fat cottage cheese has 28 grams of protein and 160 calories per cup.
Space your snacks out so you're eating some protein every two to three hours.
If you don’t have much time to prepare or plan meals and snacks, it might be a challenge to eat the amount of protein you need to put on muscle. Stoppani recommends whole, unprocessed foods over supplements but acknowledges that protein powders and shakes are valuable for their convenience and quick digestability. Whey, casein and soy protein powders have all essential amino acids and typically offer at least 20 grams of protein per serving.
There are important differences between following a diet that has enough protein to gain muscle and a diet that has excess protein. On a long-term basis, high-protein diets may increase your risk of nutrient deficiencies, diabetes, stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure or cancer. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, diets high in animal protein may also raise the risk of kidney problems and osteoporosis. Before making any major changes to your current diet, speak with your doctor.