Muscle growth occurs through a process called hypertrophy. We need to challenge our muscles to carry more weight and increase resistance. This is done by exercising, when we workout the muscle fibers break, and the body needs to repair them; over time, the muscle cells adapt to the exercise and become bigger, causing hypertrophy, which translates into harder and more defined muscles. So, what foods are the best and worst for building muscle?
The muscle structure building blocks are amino acids; small molecules that arrange with each other to form proteins. Imagine building proteins like baking a recipe where you need all the ingredients for the recipe to turn out good. In the same way, each protein calls for a different sequence of amino acids to be formed. There is many different amino acids; they classified in two different categories
- Essential amino acids: these are the amino acids that we can only obtain from external sources. Meaning that our bodies are not able to sintetize them, therefore we need to ingest them
- Non-essential amino acids: the human body is capable to produce them on its own
Knowing this, it is easy to infer that the best foods are the ones that contain the most amount of essential amino acids, because in order to grow muscle we need protein.
Popular myths state that chicken and eggs are the highest sources of proteins, and bodybuilders are often portrayed as athletes that eat 15 eggs per day; however, protein can be obtained by many sources, including plant-based foods too.
Simply being high in protein is not enough for a food to be considered good for building muscle. We also need to consider if our bodies easily absorb the protein present in it, and how much of it gets lost through the metabolism.
To simplify this, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) adopted a scale called Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score or PDCAAS. This scale compares the amount of protein in foods, the quality of it, the type of amino acids (essential versus non-essential), and the ability to digest and absorb the protein from it. PDCAAS provides a scale that we can use to identify protein sources and determine the best ones for building muscle. Keep in mind that PDCAAS gives every food item a score. A high score means the food is high in protein, has all essential amino acids, and is absorbed properly by our bodies.
The last factor we need to consider is how much protein we actually need to eat to build muscle? When combined with consistent exercise, the recommended daily protein intake is 0.7-1.gr per pound of weight (1.6-2.2gr per kg of weight). This number can be quite high, this is why it is important to choose food items that are high in protein, and relatively low in fat or carbohydrates.
The Best Foods For Building Muscle
- Eggs, soy protein, and whey protein. All of these have a perfect PDCAAS score of one. They are easy to digest, include all essential amino acids, and have relatively low caloric value.
- Chicken, beef, potato, soymilk. Animal meats are known sources of protein, with a PDCAAS score of 0.9. The protein content fluctuates depending on the cut of meat, but overall animal meat is a safe source of proteins. Soymilk and soybeans are very high in proteins with a PDCAAS score of 0.85, making it a great source for people that prefer plant based options. Vegetables like potatoes and legumes are also high in protein.
- Beans are a great source of protein with relatively low caloric value, besides they are very cheap. Chickpeas and black beans have the highest protein content, with a PDCAAS of 0.8.
Even though these foods are great sources of protein, remember to eat only the amount that you need. Overindulging in protein dense foods can make you gain weight.
On the other hand, foods that you should avoid if you wanna build muscle, are foods with high caloric value, little to no protein content, and foods that compromise the repairing process of the muscles after exercise.
Foods To Avoid When Strength Training
- Alcohol: there are no recommended safe levels of alcohol intake. Alcohol is known to be a risk factor for many diseases and medical conditions. Studies show that alcohol lowers the capacity of building muscle and losing fat.
- Sugars and carbohydrates: you probably already know that in order to lose fat we need to reduce the intake of sugars. Be mindful of the excess content of carbohydrates in products branded as protein sources, such as protein bars. In addition, fat free products are very high in sugars. Always read the label of the products before eating them.
- Fried and high in saturated fats foods: again this is pretty intuitive, but avoid preparing your food with lots of oils. Also be careful if you eat outside of your house because of the way that food is cooked in restaurants.
Building muscle takes time and dedication, but the results are worth it; from not only an aesthetic point of view, but building muscle has great benefits to overall health like controlling weight, and preventing metabolic diseases. Exercise is key to building muscle, but understanding nutrition is what is going to guarantee your success.