If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times; muscles aren’t built in the gym, they’re built in the kitchen.
You might be lifting more weight than ever, but unless you’ve got your muscle-building diet nailed down, those all-important gains will elude you.
We asked some expert nutritionists for help and they duly delivered. Here are their 10 essential tips on how to create the perfect muscle-gain diet.
1) Use your freezer immediately!
A lot of people hold the misguided view that once food is frozen it loses many of its nutrients.
This isn’t always true. The goodness of fresh veg, for example, is only lost if it is processed prior to freezing.
As this guide from the University of Minnesota suggests, it’s important to blanch vegetables before freezing them, as this stops the enzyme that causes loss of flavour, colour and texture dead in its tracks.
For meat - a crucial source of protein for many - you don’t need to worry about pre-preparing before putting it in the freezer. While you might lose a certain amount of vitamin E, meat generally keeps hold of the vast majority of its nutrients during the freezing process.
Emma Williams, a qualified nutritionist since 2011, said that your freezer is your biggest ally when building muscle.
“Bulk cook meals three to four days ahead and refrigerate/freeze them in portions. This should only take an hour or so (do this twice per week). Cook a couple of different food items to allow a variation of meals. You will then have meals ready each day, saving loads of time,” she commented.
Most people cite a lack of time as their biggest downfall when attempting to stick to a muscle-building diet plan, but you can get around this problem if you make sensible use of your freezer.
2) Diversify your “good fats”
The Public Health Collaboration and National Obesity Forum put all kinds of cats amongst the pigeons last month when they suggested that we should eat more fat and cut down on carbs.
Although Public Health England has since dismissed the opinion piece as “irresponsible and misleading”, the fact remains that “good fats” are indeed an integral part of a healthy diet. They’re also essential for long-term muscle growth.
Here’s a simple formula:
Monosaturated fats = Testosterone = Muscle growth
Emma commented: “Include a variation of calorie-dense foods [in your diet] to increase intake without having to feel full. Foods such as eggs, butter, avocado, full-fat milk and nut butters.”
3) DON’T omit carbs from your diet
Eddy Diget - a natural bodybuilding champion - told us what he eats after a workout.
“I eat carbs to replace the glycogen lost when training so that the body does not burn my muscle I have worked hard to get. About 40 minutes later, I consume at least 30/40g of protein, which induces peptides and the formation of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, thus making sure that all the protein that I have ingested is sent to the areas where it’s needed (the muscles),” he commented.
From a scientific standpoint, it’s still a little unclear whether or not carbs help to stimulate muscle growth when eaten alongside protein post-workout. This study in particular shows that further research is needed.
It is widely believed, however, that carbs play an invaluable role in helping you to recover after a session in the gym - just make sure you get your ratios right. This is another area that stimulates debate, with many sources stating that you should go for a 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein (in that order), whereas others advocate a 3:1 or even 4:1 breakdown.
Everyone is different and much will depend on what you’re trying to achieve. The best course of action is to speak with your personal trainer or a nutritionist.
4) Be cheeky in restaurants - ask for substitutions!
Restaurants can be nightmarish places for disciplined gym-goers who like to have complete control over their own meals.
You’re entitled to the occasional cheat meal, but what if you work away from home a lot, or you have a job that requires you to take regular business lunches? You don’t want to be “that guy” who awkwardly grills the waiter about the origins of today’s chicken & mushroom risotto special.
It is possible, however, to make healthy choices without looking like a killjoy. Asking for a few subtle substitutions is never a bad idea.
Emma remarked: “If you are eating out, ask the establishment if they mind swapping food items, e.g. chips for salad or rice, and learn to recognise which healthy options are available. Some dishes can be deceiving and the sauces are the most calorific part. Pack healthy snacks as a back-up when travelling in case you struggle to eat.”
5) Don’t assume the best muscle-building foods are expensive
“How much is all of this meat and protein powder going to cost me?!”
This is a question that is routinely asked by those who are trying to make killer gains but don’t want to make a huge dent into their bank balance.
While the cost of diet supplements can quickly mount up, the truth is that a lot of muscle-building foods are dirt cheap. There’s also a strong chance that many of them are already lurking in your fridge or cupboards.
“Eggs, oats and milk are all good sources of protein, while frozen meat is cheaper than fresh meat (we’ve already explained the benefits of freezing your food). Also, tinned foods are great to add to meals for little cost,” Emma added.
Personal trainer Carly Tierney highlighted another cupboard staple that can help you to build mass.
“A humble can of sardines contains 25g of protein per 120g can and is packed full of vitamin D and Omega 3,” she remarked.
The US Department of Agriculture’s choosemyplate.gov website stated that eating eight ounces of seafood a week can help to prevent heart disease.
6) Make sure you’re full of beans
Carly has a secret weapon in her muscle-building arsenal - beans.
We told you that a diet for muscle gain doesn’t have to cost the earth!
“Beans are absolute powerhouses of body-boosting nutrients, especially protein. They're low in fat, cholesterol-free and there is a huge range of them to satisfy even the most discerning of diners,” she told us.
7) Know your cuts of meat - swap your ribeye for rump
People always ask us how to gain weight without putting on a load of fat. The trick is to build up your own knowledge about the foods that you put in your body.
Carly said it’s particularly important that you understand the nutritional value of different cuts of meat.
“Steak is an awesome source of protein but not all cuts are created equally. Ensure that you choose the leaner varieties. Avoid the ribeye and opt for the rump,” she added.
The New Health Guide shows that a grilled ribeye contains 77 calories per ounce of meat, along with 5g of protein.
If we compare this to rump steak - courtesy of data provided by weightlossresources.co.uk - we can see that the latter is a far better option. Indeed, rump steak contains 35 calories per ounce and offers a sleeve-busting 6.2g of protein.
While we need to consider that these nutritional statistics have come from two different sources (both credible ones), it’s clear that Carly was right in her assertion that not all steaks are equal.
8) Variety is the spice of life - don’t resent your meal plan!
The worst thing you can do is create a muscle-building meal plan that you resent. If it becomes a chore, you’ll find it much harder to stick to it.
To get you started, Carly has given you a few ideas for meals and snacks throughout the day:
• Oats made with water and a splash of almond milk, a handful of berries and a protein shake
• Salmon, brown rice, asparagus, a tub of Greek yoghurt with a sprinkling of chia seeds
• White bagel, squeeze of honey and an apple
• Protein shake, banana and a handful of almonds
• Rump steak, king prawns, sweet potato and broccoli
• Cottage cheese, chicken and a teaspoon of almond butter
As we’ve already found, there’s an abundance of muscle-building foods that can be added to your diet, so if the list above doesn’t get you excited, then switch things up.
Carly explained: “A lot of people don't eat enough when trying to build muscle. If you aren't getting bigger and stronger, chances are you're not consuming enough calories or training hard enough to make serious gains. The fact is that you may not feel hungry, but as with a weight-loss diet, you have to push through your hunger thresholds to get the results that you desire.”
9) Get your pre and post-workout meal timing right
There are many people in the fitness world who believe that the timing of your food and drink intake is the biggest difference-maker when building muscle.
Have you heard people talking about the “anabolic window” or the “window of opportunity”? The theory is that there’s an ideal period - usually within an hour of finishing your workout - where you should eat in order to maximise your gains.
In reality, things aren’t quite this black and white.
This piece of research from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition looked at “nutrient timing” in great depth. It concluded that much depends on how long you went without eating before your session.
This excerpt from the journal was probably the most eye-catching takeaway and the closest we can get to an accurate guideline on nutrient timing:
“Due to the transient anabolic impact of a protein-rich meal and its potential synergy with the trained state, pre and post-exercise meals should not be separated by more than approximately three to four hours, given a typical resistance training bout lasting 45 to 90 minutes.”
This demonstrates that it’s important to get the timing of BOTH your pre-gym and post-gym meals right.
10) Stick to your new muscle-building meal plan for at least 3 weeks
You need to bide your time when adopting a new mass-building diet. Unfortunately, a plan that works for your friend or favourite celebrity might not do the job for you.
There’s a bit of trial and error involved, and Eddy Diget believes that you need to try your new diet for three weeks before you re-evaluate.
“Keep trying different foods until you find a schedule that works for YOU,” he continued.
“Your shape will tell you what is working and what isn’t. Stay with each eating plan for at least three weeks and adjust accordingly. Note your mood swings too, as I promise you these will change as you tweak your diet.”
Carly explained how she sets her own clients on to the right muscle-building path.
“It might take some time to figure out how much more you need to eat while gaining as little body fat as possible, but it’s worth it,” she added.
“When I prepare nutrition plans for clients I work hard to understand and closely monitor what works well for them as an individual. In my opinion there's no need to be completely obsessed about your calorie intake to gain muscle.”