When it comes to building muscle, diet is just as, if not more, important as working out. Without proper consumption of the necessary macronutrients, your potential to gain muscle can be delayed, stunted, or even nonexistent.
The macros you should be consuming daily include:
- Lean protein sources such as lean beef, lean pork, tuna, chicken breast, or non-fat Greek yogurt
- Complex carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes or brown rice
- Mono and polyunsaturated fats such as avocado or chia seeds
Some food sources combine multiple of these macronutrients. For example, salmon and peanut butter are excellent protein and healthy fat sources.
While there are TONS of amazing foods out there that can boost your muscle growth, there are also TONS of not-so-amazing foods that can limit or diminish your results. Here are some of the worst foods for building muscle.
Foods To Avoid
Diet is about variety as much as it is about moderation. While you don’t have to completely cut out the foods you most enjoy, such as ice cream and cheeseburgers, you don’t want to limit them.
Not only can such foods negatively affect your fitness journey, but they can also increase your cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels, resulting in a stroke, heart disease, and diabetes. Here are some general food groups that you should limit your intake of:
- Simple carbohydrates, also known as refined, are high in calories and lack the nutrients of complex carbohydrates
- Alcohol can suppress your muscles ability to recover, adapt, and perform
- Deep-fried foods are high in saturated and trans fats, promoting inflammation and arterial complications
- Added sugars contribute excessive amounts of calories and nothing else
- High-fat foods
- Red meat
These foods contain what’s known as empty calories. By eating empty calories, which contain little of the nutrients you need to perform and see results, you are filling yourself with nutritionless food. To gain muscle, you need to consume calories wisely. Here is a list of foods to avoid when you’re building muscle:
Apologies to our friends in New York, but you may want to hold back on the schmear. A single bagel will contain roughly 400 calories of simple carbohydrates. Adding cream cheese will provide little else but saturated fat.
Instead, throw a slice of whole-grain bread in the toaster and top it with a tablespoon of peanut butter. This will provide calories powered by protein, healthy fats, and fiber-rich carbohydrates.
Believe it or not, ice cream is not good for you. Half a cup packs 137 calories filled with saturated fat and refined sugar. Plus, if we’re being honest with ourselves, who eats just half a cup of ice cream? By the time you finish the pint, you’ve consumed nearly half of your daily calories, double your saturated fat and just a fraction of your protein.
Instead, opt for greek yogurt topped with nuts and berries. This tasty treatment is high in protein and contains BCAAs for muscle growth.
Reduced Fat Peanut Butter
Peanut butter is one of our favorite body-building foods, so reduced-fat peanut butter should be even better, right? Wrong. Reduced-fat peanut butter is often filled with sugar, additives, and preservatives. Furthermore, peanut butter is filled with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats––the good fats. Always opt for natural peanut butter with no added ingredients.
For the most part, dairy, in general, is quite high in saturated fat. However, it is also a good source of protein and calcium––two essential nutrients for athletes. Therefore, dairy is fine in moderation. When it comes to cheese, though, stay away from processed cheese. In addition to being filled with unnatural ingredients that can be detrimental to your health, processed cheese is also slightly lower in protein.
One of our favorite cheeses for muscle growth is cottage cheese, jam-packed with protein and probiotics.
We love oats, and we love nuts, so what’s the deal? Unfortunately, most of the granola bars at your local grocery store are essentially candy bars. Filled with chocolate chips and drizzled with fudge, these “granola bars” are high in sugar and calories.
Furthermore, they often contain hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, and other unnatural ingredients.
Stick to granola bars that contain 200 or fewer calories. These bars will be filled with nuts, seeds, and fiber while forgoing the unnecessary sugar.
If you think muffins are a healthy alternative to cupcakes, you are sorely mistaken. Even the “healthy” varieties, such as bran, can pack up to 500 calories. In addition to sugar, these muffins are mostly made of refined flour and butter.
If you’re a muffin addict, consider making your own with flax, whole grain flour, and nuts. You can even add whey protein to make high-protein muffins.
Most home cooks know that oil is a key ingredient in most recipes. Oil is very high in calories, though, so it is important to choose your oil wisely.
Coconut oil has various health benefits; however, just one tablespoon provides over 100 calories filled with little else than saturated fats. Palm oil and soybean oil, common ingredients in many store-bought, tell a similar story.
The best oils to cook with include avocado oil, olive oil, and grapeseed oil. While they are high in calories like any other oil, their caloric contents are almost completely composed of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. These oils are an excellent alternative to butter (which we don’t need to tell you is unhealthy).
Sugar water, otherwise known as soda or pop, is one of the leading contributors to obesity worldwide. Just one bottle of soda will give you 200 calories filled with nothing but sugar. In fact, that single bottle contains more than your daily value for sugar.
Of course, there are many zero-calorie, zero-sugar options out there. However, these aren’t much better. Because these beverages use artificial sweeteners rather than sugar, your brain will eventually stop associating sweetness with sugar. As a result, your insulin response may not be triggered when you actually consume sugar, putting you at greater risk of diabetes.
Instead of soda, drink water. If you must have a soda, opt for one made with natural cane sugar rather than refined sugar or chemicals.
You may think that a premade smoothie will offer a healthy snack; however, that is often not the case. Many premade smoothies at your local grocery store can contain over 250 calories due to their high sugar contents. Furthermore, a smoothie at your local smoothie joint is not much better. These smoothies often contain ice cream or high-fat yogurt, resulting in calorie contents of up to 1000.
Make your own smoothie instead. Combine half a cup of fruit with almond milk and leafy greens like spinach or kale (you won’t taste it, we promise). You can even add Greek yogurt or whey protein to make the perfect post-workout shake.
(Too Many) Protein Shakes
Protein shakes have their place in the bodybuilder’s diet. While it is ideal to derive your nutrients from whole food sources, it can be challenging when your protein needs are quite high. This is where protein shakes come into play, as they can supplement your diet by adding the protein that you can’t consume via your regular diet—emphasis on supplements. Protein shakes should not replace meals.
A common rookie mistake in bodybuilding is to associate protein with muscle growth and promptly set out to drink as many protein shakes as possible. Consuming too much protein is actually detrimental, as your body will convert the excess into fat. Continue reading to find out how much protein you should consume.
Like protein drinks, sports drinks also have their place in an athlete’s diet. You lose fluids and minerals (potassium, magnesium, sodium) via sweat when working out hard. It is important to replace those minerals; however, how you go about it is just as important.
Many sports drinks are very high in refined sugars. Opt for a sports drink with few added sugars and derives its electrolytes from such natural sources as coconut water. In fact, coconut water on its own is usually a better option than most sports drinks.
Rice is a staple in the diets of bodybuilders across the world. However, the rice you choose is of the utmost importance. Athletes and dieticians alike agree that brown rice is the way to go.
White rice is created when a brown rice grain is stripped of its bran and germ. This is problematic because the bran and germ are where most nutrients are. As a result, almost all of the calories in white rice are composed of simple carbohydrates. Like any empty calorie, white rice will spike your blood sugar levels and subsequently drop, leaving you lethargic and hungry for more.
Meanwhile, brown rice is packed with filling fiber and healthy antioxidants. The same goes for pasta, flour, and bread. Always choose the brown, whole-grain varieties.
Caffeine is a common pre-workout supplement, and coffee is full of it. Whether you’re using it to wake yourself up or provide an energy boost before your gym session, coffee, in moderation, can be a healthy, low-calorie drink. Creamer, though, changes that.
Coffee creamer, half and half, and milk all add sugar and saturated fat-filled calories to your coffee. If you drink two or more cups a day, the creamer can account for over 500 empty calories. Beware of the nutrition facts on the labels, as they specify very small serving sizes that the average person is at least doubling.
While black coffee is the healthiest option, it doesn’t appeal to everyone’s taste. Oat milk is an excellent alternative that can provide as much creaminess as any dairy source.
Most cereal these days is filled with sugar, providing about as much nutritional value as a bowl of ice cream. On top of the crazy amounts of refined sugar, these cereals are usually made of simple carbohydrates and filled with chemicals like hydrogenated oils. In other words, they’re big bowls of empty calories that will leave you lethargic and unsatiated.
As an alternative, opt for low-sugar granola with greek yogurt or a milk alternative. This will provide more protein and fiber-packed carbs.
Not Eating Enough
While you should make sure that you are eating the right foods and avoiding the wrong ones, you also need to make sure that you are eating enough.
The most common culprit for lack of muscle gains is not an inadequate exercise but rather an insufficient diet. If you are not eating the proper macronutrients, you will likely not experience muscle growth.
A well-structured diet for muscle growth and fat loss can roughly reflect a calorie breakdown of 60 percent carbs, 30 percent protein, and 20 percent fat. For example, a 3.5-ounce serving of chicken breast contains 31 grams of protein and 3.6 grams of fat. That means that 80 percent of its 165 calories come from protein, accounting for 17 percent of your daily protein intake (based on a 2,500 calorie diet).
Pretty complicated, right? Unless you’re a competitive athlete, it’s primarily unnecessary to abide by such strict calculations. After all, food is also supposed to bring you joy. The easiest way to make sure you’re hitting the right macros is to keep track of your protein and calorie intake.
Calculating Your Protein and Calorie Intake
Your protein intake should be between 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight to gain muscle. Therefore, if you are 170 pounds, you should eat between 85 and 136 grams of protein per day. While some will argue that it should be more, most experts agree that this intake is adequate for regular lifters.
You should be in a calorie surplus of roughly 500 calories as far as calories. This means you are eating 500 more calories than your maintenance level. To calculate your maintenance caloric intake, you can use the following formula. Spoiler alert: It is probably much higher than 2,000.
- Adult Male: 66 + (6.3 x bodyweight in lb) + (12.9 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years) = BMR
- Adult Female: 655 + (4.3 x weight in lb) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years) = BMR
Once you have your BMR, plug it into one of the below formulas based on your activity level to calculate your maintenance caloric need:
- Sedentary (little or no exercise) = BMR x 1.2
- Minimally active (1–3 days per week of exercise or activity) = BMR x 1.375
- Moderately active (3–5 days per week of moderate exercise) = BMR x 1.55
- Very active (6–7 days per week of hard exercise) = BMR x 1.725
- Extra active (athletes who train twice per day, for example) = BMR x 1.9
Once you have that number, add 500 to it to get your recommended caloric intake for muscle gain. If you’re not a math person, you can use this calculator instead.
Putting It All Together
Diet is a crucial factor when you’re putting on muscle. Without proper consumption of macronutrients and an adequate caloric intake, results will be few and far between. While you need to be in a caloric surplus to gain weight, don’t go chasing calories in the wrong places.
Simple carbohydrates, deep-fried foods, and added sugars have high-calorie contents known as empty calories. You want the calories you consume to be full of the nutrients you need, not completely void of them.
By sticking to a substantial, nutritious diet, you set yourself for success. To streamline your fitness journey, check out the Ski-Row Air and Ski-Row Air + PWR machines by EnergyFit. If you want to combine muscle-building resistance training with calorie-burning high-intensity interval training (HIIT), EnergyFit is your one-stop-shop. Find out how we can help you achieve your goals.