Building muscle mass requires a combined approach of training, nutrition, and rest. And while increased calories and protein intake are key, are there certain muscle building foods that can offer additional benefits? In reality, there isn't one food that will make or break your diet, and it's your total diet approach that makes the most significant difference
Weight Gain Foods 101
Just as losing weight requires calorie control, weight gain is no different. In order to put on mass, you'll need to eat more calories than you burn. However, the trick is to get the right amount of calories and macro ratios so that you end up gaining more muscle than body fat.
So, exactly how many calories do you need to build muscle?
It takes approximately 2,800 extra calories to produce one pound of lean mass - compared to the 3,500 calories it takes to add a pound of fat (1). This would equal about 400 additional calories per day. However, of course, this depends on individual factors, like how well trained you are, individual metabolism, and your starting body composition. Depending on the person 100 to 1,000 extra calories is sufficient to promote muscle gain or a 5 to 10% calorie increase overall. It is also important to understand that increasing 2,800 calories alone isn't guaranteed to only result in muscle; some fat gain will always occur.
High-Calorie Foods for Weight Gain
For beginners and naturally skinny individuals, higher calories are typically needed. Also, including more calorie dense foods is a great way to increase your energy intake without adding a lot of volume to your plate.
Fat is the most energy dense macro - providing more than twice as many calories per gram as the other macros (except alcohol which is a close second at 7 calories per gram and not recommended as an effective way to promote lean mass). Thus choosing more high-fat foods can be an effective approach to increasing your calories.
- Fat = 9 calories per gram
- Carbs = 4 calories per gram
- Protein = 4 calories per gram
That being said, in terms of muscle building, excess fat doesn't provide many additional benefits beyond calories alone. And depending on the person and overall macro balance, high fat intake may lead to more fat storage in a calorie surplus (2). Protein and carbs, on the other hand, have additional benefits beyond energy intake. Protein is crucial for muscle protein synthesis and recovery (3). And carbs can promote increases in glycogen storage, support training and may even help with improved muscle recovery (4). Both protein and carbs also generate an insulin response which is beneficial to put on weight (5).
So instead of just loading up on fat, other strategies may be needed to achieve high-calorie amounts. Consider eating more frequently or opting for more liquid calories like protein shakes to rack up extra calories. For those that only need a couple of hundred extra calories, an additional snack or small meal each day, coupled with consistent calorie intake can be enough.
Macros for Building Muscle
You macro balance plays a major role in gaining the right type of weight. Getting enough protein is essential for building lean mass - since amino acids are the building blocks of your muscle. The other macros cannot replace protein when it comes to synthesizing muscle, so getting enough protein is mandatory.
Fat and carbs will help fill in the gap of remaining calories to ensure you are also getting adequate calorie intake. The right amounts of carbohydrates and fat tailored to your fitness level and individual needs can help ensure you are supporting your training and recovering properly. The right amounts of fat and carbs might also help reduce the amount of body fat you gain during the process.
Your perfect macros for muscle growth are dependent on your starting body composition, fitness level, genetics, hormones, and training, so this can look different for everyone. In general, the following approach tends to work well for promoting healthy weight gain:
- Protein = 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight
- Fat = 30% of your total calorie intake
- Carbs = remaining calories
For example, a 180-pound individual who needs 2,800 calories a day to promote weight gain, would need the following macros:
- Protein = 180 x 1.25 = 225 grams of protein per day
- Fat = (2,800 x 0.30)/9 calories per gram = 93 grams of fat per day
- Carbs = (2,800 - fat and carb calories)/4 calories per gram = 433 grams of carbs per day
Healthy Foods to Gain Weight
Calories determine the quantity you need to gain weight, and macro balance dictates the quality of those calories, but basic nutrition is also key. Micronutrients, aka vitamins and minerals, also support muscle growth and can help with better recovery. In addition, choosing more nutrient dense, high-quality fats, carbs and protein can reduce potential fat gain and support improved energy, appetite, and mood during the weight gain process.
20 High Protein Foods
Increasing your intake of high protein foods is a no brainer on a muscle building diet, but not all proteins are created equal. Here are the top sources to include in your meal plan.
Lean proteins are lower fat options with high amounts of protein, making them protein dense. Lean proteins also tend to be lower in saturated fat.
The best lean proteins include:
- Egg whites
- Chicken breast and other poultry
- Whitefish like tuna, cod, basa, and mahi-mahi
- Shrimp and other shellfish
- Grass-fed beef and steak
- Wild game meats like elk, venison, and bison
- Low-fat yogurt, cottage cheese, milk and cheese
Vegan protein can be tricky since they also tend to be a significant source of plant-based fats or carbs, making them naturally less protein dense than animal-based options. The best high protein vegan foods, providing the most amount of protein per calorie, include:
- Veggie Burgers/Meat Alternatives
While not technically food, protein supplements can be an easy way to add an additional protein boost to your day. Powders also work great as a quickly absorbed source of protein post workout. Opting for complete proteins, especially animal-based options, might offer an additional edge since they supply all the amino acids needed (6,7,8).
The best complete protein powders include:
- Whey protein
- Casein protein
- Soy protein
- Rice and pea protein blend
10 Healthy Fats
Some research suggests that unsaturated fats are less likely to be stored as body fat on a higher calorie diet (9). These healthy fats include omega-3s and heart-healthy plant-based fats. In addition, fats from whole food sources - like avocados, nuts, and seeds, tend to be packaged with additional nutrients compared to extracted fats like oils and butter.
The best healthy fat sources include:
- Salmon and other fatty fish
- Peanut butter and other nut butter
- Extra virgin olive oil and other unrefined oils
- Coconut milk
30 High-Quality Carbs
Carbs are found in a vast number of food options. Essentially everything that grows out of the ground contains some carbs. Carbs can also be found in dairy. In addition, carbs are technically a sugar so added sugar and many processed unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened beverages can be a significant source of carbs.
Most carb sources can fit into a healthy muscle building meal plan. The trick is to choose more nutrient dense options most of the time and include higher carb/higher sugar options around the time you use the energy more efficiently - like before and after your training.
Choosing more fiber-rich carbs from whole foods during the day may promote better blood sugar control, supporting improved energy, mood, and appetite (10). And including some healthy simple carbs and sugary foods pre and post workout might help deliver energy faster to your muscles which can further support your muscle building efforts (11,12).
Whole grains offer complex carbs, fiber, and key nutrients, and the best sources include:
- Brown rice
- Red rice
- Black rice
- Sprouted Grains
- Whole grain bread
- Whole grain pasta
- Corn tortillas
Starchy Vegetables and Fruit
Starchy veggies can also supply a decent amount of carbohydrates and tend to also be high in micronutrients and fiber. These include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Root vegetables
- Brussel sprouts
- Lima beans
- All other fruit
15 Low Carb Veggies
While low carb veggies do not provide a significant source of calories or carbs, they tend to be very high in key nutrients that can help improve your overall nutrition and recovery. These include:
- Leafy greens
- Summer squash
Weight Gain Meal Plans
The truth is, a good muscle building diet doesn't look much different than a generally healthy diet, with the exception of increased focus on protein and calories. There is no single food, magic pill, or special diet that changes this - nor do supplements counteract this fact. The real challenge comes from trying to consistently hit your daily calorie and macro goals.
Are you having trouble balancing your nutrition goals and food choices? Check out our a la carte plan that allows you to curate your perfect bulking diet.