What and When to Eat to Build Muscle

By Richard Asa @RickAsa
January 05, 2016

Knowing the best times to consume protein and carbs will help you get the most out of muscle training.

If you’re trying to build muscle, you have to consider nutrition. 

The resistance training you do with weights will actually break down the protein in your muscles, but also cause them to build back up faster. The key is simple arithmetic. You want more protein in your muscles after your workout than before. 


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One study on building muscle mass says “the main belief behind the large quantities of dietary protein consumption in resistance-trained athletes is that it is needed to generate more muscle protein.”

“Athletes may require protein for more than just alleviation of the risk for deficiency, inherent in the dietary guidelines, but also to aid in an elevated level of functioning and possibly adaptation to the exercise stimulus.”

The study adds that more protein should be consumed during periods of high frequency and intensity training. The two components of that consumption are what and when. 

Trainer and professor Jacob Wilson, PhD, says on that the what is nutrient-dense foods that are high in minerals, vitamins, and fiber. 

When it comes specifically to protein, most muscle builders consider how much to consume in one day, but Wilson says the key is “how much protein (you should) have at each meal, and how frequently (you) should eat meals.” 

“For a 180-pound guy, 30 to 40 grams of protein per meal has been shown to be the amount that will optimize the muscle-building response” Wilson says. “That amount obviously will go up or down depending on if you're, say, a 250-pound guy or 130-pound woman.”

High protein can come from a variety of foods and it starts with dairy, Wilson says. But you may not handle dairy well, or may be lactose intolerant. But if you can consume dairy, it’s tailor-made to fit your diet. Dairy has all the macronutrients – protein, carbs, and fats. How much you get of each depends on how your body processes it. 

Beyond dairy, high protein sources include eggs, lean meats, and fish. If you eat salmon, you also get a high level of nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, which are going to help you stay lean and healthy.

Experienced body builders will eat protein high in leucine, an amino acid that is considered the most important of the 20 amino acids for building muscle. It takes an estimated 2 to 3 grams of leucine to get the maximum anabolic effect from a meal, says an article in Men’s Health

Soy has the most leucine among plant foods. 

Another recommendation is whey protein, the most widely used supplement in bodybuilding because it's a fast and convenient source of protein, and you can buy a lot for relatively little. 

Bodybuilders normally use whey supplements when they wake up, right after their workout, and mixed with some of their meals. “However, for those of us non-bodybuilders, simply using it right after our workouts can be very effective for muscle mass gains,” says trainer Wayner Griffiths on “Breaking Muscle.” 

“Do not rely on it completely though. It’s more important to get high quality protein from whole foods, and use whey protein as a boost.”

Most muscle builders believe that plentiful protein is all you need in your diet to grow muscle, but trainers caution that carbs and fats also are essential. 

As our fuel, carbs, and fats are necessary for the energy you need for workouts and just to function at top level. The amount you need “ultimately depends on how hard you train,” Wilson says. 

“Someone training three days per week, for example, won't need as much energy as someone training twice every day. That person's carb needs are going to increase accordingly.”

What you’re after are low- to moderate-glycemic carbs that don’t create sudden, high spikes in your blood sugar that cause you to crash. Those include oatmeal and sweet potatoes.

Wilson credits Don Layman, PhD, with a good recommendation for selecting carb sources; always keep the ratio of carbohydrates to fiber at 5:1 or lower. A sweet potato is about 4:1. 

As to the when, look at protein synthesis like a lamp, says Men’s Health nutrition advisor Mike Rousell, PhD. He says it’s either on or off.

“With 20 to 25 grams of high-quality protein, it’s on,” Men’s Health says. “More protein won’t improve the response, just as applying more force to a light switch can’t make the room brighter.”

That concept is important for you to remember because 

a 2014 study found that “consumption of a moderate amount of protein at each meal stimulated 24-hour muscle protein synthesis more effectively than skewing protein intake toward the evening.”

The authors said 24-hour muscle protein synthesis was more than 25 percent greater when 30 grams of protein intake distributed over three meals per day when compared to eating the same amount but mostly at dinner, or what’s called “backloading.” 

Another study found that people who ingested at least 20 grams of protein six times a day reduced their total and abdominal fat whether they worked out or not. 

“Nutrition sometimes feels like a totally different animal than training, since it is so much more integrated with our personal and social lives,” Wilson says. “But just like training, once we make the commitment to systematic nutrition, the most important thing is simple consistency.” 


April 09, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN