The common misconception when we talk about muscle building is that most folks think that a very high protein diet is needed to help your body gain muscle faster. The fact is that consuming too much protein – more than 30% of your total daily caloric intake – could harm your body, reports WebMD. According to the protein expert Dr. Gail Butterfield quoted in the report, adding more protein but not more calories or exercise won’t help you build more muscle mass. It may put your other bodily systems under stress instead. And if you eat more protein and increase your total caloric intake at the same time while maintaining the same exercise level, you will end up building an equal amount of additional fat and muscle.
That is why we always advocate doing things in moderation. So what is the recommended diet to build muscle mass and how much is enough?
It is preferable to build muscles the natural way by getting vital nutrition from natural foods instead of supplements or ergogenic aids such as sports drinks. Price aside, one of the advantages of getting nutrients such as protein from the source itself is that natural foods contain protein that has molecular structures similar to our human body’s biological matrices. Some studies show that this may well be better for muscle growth. Based on this, why depend on engineered supplements and protein shakes for most or all of your protein requirements when you can get them from natural foods?
The three vital nutrients needed for building muscles are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. It is also important to be getting the sufficient number of calories needed through the day.
Build muscles with carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are in fact the most important fuel for building muscles. Carbohydrates are partially converted and stored as glycogen in your muscles (and liver) day in and out, and carbohydrates and stored glycogen are the preferred sources of fuel for muscles over proteins. Hence, the best diet for building muscles is actually a carbohydrate-based diet comprising lean sources of protein. Adult men and women who are strength training to build muscles need at least half of their daily calories from carbohydrates. Where possible, choose good quality carbohydrates that are low in fat and nutrient-dense, such as whole-grain wholemeal bread, cereals, and oats. These give you that extra boost of dietary fibre, vitamins, and minerals that you can definitely do with when working out.
Build muscles with protein
Protein should make up about 10 to 35 percent of total calories for adults. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein for adults is 0.8 grams protein per kilogram body weight per day for the average adult. This recommendation excludes women who are pregnant (protein requirement of 1.1 grams per kilogram body weight per day) or lactating women (protein requirement of 1.3 grams per kilogram body weight per day). Research studies now suggest that protein needs of athletes such as bodybuilders are higher than that of sedentary people. The recommendations of protein requirements for muscle-builders can be anywhere in the range of 1.0 to 2.0 gram(s) protein per kilogram body weight.
The general rule of thumb is that the greater the intensity and more hours spent in training, the higher the protein requirements. For example, an average adult weighing 68 kg who wants to build muscles and who works out about once or twice a week, he or she will need about 68 g protein. A general guideline to ensure muscle-builders are getting adequate and not excessive protein in your daily diet is to consume a serving of protein-rich foods at every meal, plus four cups of dairy (or soy) products such as milk or yogurt for calcium-rich protein throughout the day. You may take the dairy or soy beverages as post-exercise recovery beverages to give you the extra boost of energy and nutrients after your workouts. These, together with the small amounts of protein in your grains and vegetables, will more likely than not help fulfil your daily protein requirement.
Table 1.0 Protein content in common foods
Grams of protein per standard serving
|Egg white||1 large white||3|
|Egg||1 large egg||6|
|Cheddar cheese||1 pc (30g)||7|
|Milk||1 glass (250ml)||8|
|Yoghurt||1 tub (230g)||11|
|Fish||~1.5 palm-sizes (120g)||23|
|Chicken breast||~1.5 palm-sizes (120g)||35|
Grams of protein per standard serving
|Almonds||1 handful (~12 nuts)||3|
|Peanut butter||1 tablespoon||4|
|Baked beans||1 cup||12|
|Tofu||1 square (~105g)||11g|
Source: USDA National Nutrient Database
You may be thinking: If a little more protein is good, won’t a lot more protein be even better? Well, to date, studies suggest that protein intake exceeding 2.0 grams protein per kilogram body weight per day does not help build bigger or stronger muscles. Also, if you are going to fill your tummy with so many protein-rich foods, chances are you will not be able to stomach enough carbohydrates needed to fuel the muscles.
Also, do remember to go lean with protein. Some foods with protein such as meat can be rather high in saturated fat. Eating too much saturated fat can increase one’s risk of heart diseases and/or stroke. To reduce intake of saturated fat, choose lean protein foods such as lean cuts of beef like loin and sirloin. Also, be sure to remove skin and visible fats from meat before eating. Lastly, choose healthier cooking options such as broiling, grilling, microwaving instead of deep-frying where possible.
We need some fat to build muscles
Contrary to thinking that fat is all evil, all of us do need fats in our daily diet. In times of needs, our body relies on fat to supply energy to muscles during activities such as muscles-building. In general, fat should make up 20 to 35 percent of your total daily calories. Go for good heart-healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) such olive oil, unsalted baked nuts, avocados, and fatty fishes such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines. However, do take note that fat contains more than twice the calories as compared to carbohydrates and proteins. Hence, it is important to have these in moderation.
Strength training exercises
Nutrition aside, bodybuilders actually get their muscular physique mainly from their intense strength training exercises. Muscle builders should engage in muscle strengthening activities that work the major muscle groups such as the abdomen, legs, back, hips, chest, shoulders, and arms at least twice weekly. Examples of strength training workouts include weight-lifting, using resistance bands, and doing push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups. Leisure activities such as carrying groceries and gardening also go a long way in helping to strengthen muscles.
Now that you know that it is the extra exercises and not the extra protein that is key to building muscles, you are all set to bulking up your muscles the right way!
By Jean Tong
Nutritionist and Weight Management Programme Manager
Halley Medical Aesthetics