Diet plays a key role in muscle hypertrophy. Of course, you probably knew that already! Your body needs sufficient protein to repair muscle damage due to training and to help the muscles you work to rebuild. You can get protein from a variety of sources, both animal and plant-based. In fact, it’s a good idea to diversify your protein sources. Plant-based sources also contain fiber, which most people don’t get enough of. According to some studies, certain foods may offer additional muscle-building perks. Here are six muscle building foods you should know about.
Muscle Building Foods #1: Buckwheat
Not only is buckwheat a good source of protein, but research in rodents also suggests that it has muscle-building benefits that dairy proteins do not. A study in rats found that buckwheat protein extract with a 65.8% protein content boosted muscle hypertrophy more than dietary casein. The rats that feasted on buckwheat also lost more tummy fat than those who consumed casein.
Why might buckwheat be beneficial for muscle hypertrophy? It contains 3-times more arginine than casein protein does. Arginine turns on the mTOR pathway, one of the most important pathways for building new muscle tissue. A half-cup of buckwheat has just over 13 grams of protein, enough to help you build new muscle tissue.
Muscle Building Foods #2: Spinach
Who can forget the image of Popeye flexing his biceps after eating a can of spinach? Popeye may have been right. Spinach is good muscle building food. Researchers at Rutgers University discovered that this leafy green is rich in chemicals called phytoecdysteroids that help build muscle size. In one study, researchers cultivated human muscle cells with phytoecdysteroids and these compounds boosted muscle growth by 20%. Rats that received injections of these chemicals showed increased strength. That’s not the only reason to it spinach! It’s a good source of certain vitamins, particularly vitamins A, C, and K. It’s also a good plant-based source of some minerals, including potassium, magnesium, and iron.
On the downside, you’d have to eat a fair amount of spinach to get the full benefits of the phytoecdysteroids, around 2.2 pounds. Spinach also contains compounds called oxalates that can trigger calcium oxalate kidney stones in susceptible individuals. So, don’t overdo the spinach if you have a history of kidney stones.
Muscle Building Foods #3: Apples
Apples for building muscle? It seems farfetched since apples don’t contain substantial quantities of protein. However, they do contain ursolic acid, a chemical that turns off genes involved in muscle breakdown and wasting. In fact, a study carried out by Korean researchers found that ursolic acid supplements in conjunction with resistance training boosted muscle strength and size more than resistance training alone.
Ursolic acid may have another fitness benefit. Some studies show it activates metabolically inefficient brown adipose tissue. When brown fat is turned on, you get a boost in thermogenesis or the rate at which your body burns calories. That can theoretically lead to greater weight loss.
Muscle Building Foods #4: Cottage Cheese
Somewhere along the way, cottage cheese fell out of favor. Once a common food among dieters, it doesn’t enjoy the popularity it did in its heyday, but it’s still around! Cottage cheese is an excellent source of protein with about 28 grams in a single cup. The predominant protein in cottage cheese is casein protein, a dairy protein that your body absorbs slowly. Therefore, it’s a good form of protein to consume in the evening to ensure there’s plenty of amino acids available for muscle repair while you sleep.
Muscle Building Foods #5: Salmon
Salmon is an excellent source of protein, and it also contains long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, the type that’s healthy for your heart and brain. As it turns out, this fatty fish may have surprising benefits for your muscles as well. As we age, anabolic resistance becomes a problem. Anabolic resistance is a state where muscle cells become resistant to the signaling properties of protein. When a younger person consumes protein, it triggers a cascade of events that ramps up the synthesis of new muscle proteins. But after the age of 60, you don’t get the same robust anabolic response to weight training.
The good news? Some studies suggest that omega-3’s may help restore the sensitivity of muscle cells to the anabolic signals that tell them to grow. It’s not clear how omega-3’s helps restore anabolic sensitivity. One theory is that they reduce inflammation. So, salmon is beneficial because of its high protein content. A 3-ounce piece of salmon has a whopping 22 grams of protein. Other high-protein fish that are also high in omega-3’s include sardines, herring, tuna, anchovies, and mackerel.
Muscle Building Foods #6: Chocolate Milk
Chocolate milk is high in protein. In fact, it contains around 7.5 grams of protein per glass. After a strength-training routine, your muscles need amino acids from protein to repair and build up to become larger and stronger. Chocolate milk also contains around 30 grams of carbohydrates. That’s important too! Intense workouts deplete glycogen stores and the carbs you get from chocolate milk helps to replenish those stores. The ratio of carbs to protein that appears to be optimal for muscle recovery is around 4 to 1, so chocolate milk nails it.
The carbohydrates in the milk cause a rise in insulin, but after a workout that’s favorable as insulin helps to get amino acids into muscle cells where they can be used for muscle repair. Some experts even call chocolate milk a sports drink. Plus, it contains no artificial flavorings, food colorings, or added sugar. In addition, it contains electrolytes and calcium.
The Bottom Line
Make sure you’re getting enough protein and considering adding some of these six muscle building foods to your diet. They’re whole (or minimally processed), foods that may give your muscles the additional boost they need to grow. Why not enjoy a diversity of protein sources?
Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals. Springer. Rotimi E. Aluko.|
Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2018; 2018: 7569127.
The Telegraph. “Spinach Really Does Help Build Muscles”
Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Feb; 93(2): 402–412.
Clin Sci (Lond). 2011 Sep; 121(6): 267–278.
Korean J Physiol Pharmacol. 2017 Nov; 21(6): 651–656.
New England Dairy and Food Council. “Exercise Recovery: White or Chocolate Milk?”