By Michael Martin
When you’re thinking about building muscle, it’s easy to assume you need to start carting around massive tubs of whey supplements (perhaps while wearing a mesh tank top).
Don’t get distracted by this protein powder propaganda. You can get plenty of muscle-building nutrients by adding the right foods to your diet. These 11 basics are foundational elements for every meal of the day, ideal for boosting energy and speeding muscle recovery before and after the gym. (What you wear there is still up to you.)
Packed with muscle-nourishing nutrients, Greek yogurt is the ideal workout partner. “It’s a good source of protein, calcium and vitamin D, which are good for muscles, ” says Ilyse Schapiro, a registered dietitian with practices in New York and Connecticut. “Vitamin D is definitely important for your bones—you need strong and healthy bones to sustain muscles—and it impacts protein synthesis. People with low vitamin D levels have been shown to have decreased strength and greater muscle wasting.” Skip the varieties with added fruit; they have too much sugar. Go for the plain, full-fat variety (it’s higher in nutrients than skim). Use our guide to finding a healthy yogurt to make sure you're getting the best for your body.
The simple bean is actually an advanced fat-burning, muscle-building machine. “Beans are a great source of protein that includes fiber, ” says Leah Kaufman, a New York City based registered dietitian. “That’s going to ensure your blood sugar doesn’t spike and will give you energy to build the muscle you want.” One cup of black beans has 12 grams of protein and 9 grams of fiber; they’re also rich in folate, a B vitamin that stokes muscle growth, and copper, which strengthens tendons. On top of that, a Spanish study showed that consuming four weekly servings of beans or legumes accelerates weight loss.
Turns out that the diet staple of 1970s housewives deserves a place on a musclehead’s plate. “It’s very rich in protein, and it’s perfect for muscle building and maintenance because it also contains calcium and vitamin B12, ” says Schapiro, who advises you pick up the low-fat variety. Doubting this long time diet staple? A cup of lowfat CC has 163 calories and 28 grams of protein, as much as four eggs.
Add the kiddie concoction to your essential pre- and post-workout snacks. In a study published in The International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, subjects given chocolate milkhigh before riding stationary bikes were able to pedal 49 percent longer than cyclists given another carb-replacement beverage. Chocolate milk’s naturally occurring electrolytes keep you hydrated, and its sweetness speeds energy into muscles, which makes it equally good after your workout. “Chocolate milk is good for muscle recovery because you get protein, vitamin D and calcium from the milk, and that little bit of sugar from the chocolate to help refuel, ” notes Schapiro.
Bananas are an ideal source of fuel. They’re rich in glucose, a highly digestible sugar, which provides quick energy, and their high potassium content helps prevent muscle cramping during your workout. Each medium banana contains about 36 grams of good carbs: Their low glycemic index means carbs are slowly released into your body, preventing sugar crashes and spurring the process of muscle recovery. If you think you need something more substantial, get good fuel ideas from our guide to the best pre-workout snack for every workout.
Yep, beets. A number of studies have shown that consuming beets can improve your athletic performance. Subjects who drank beet juice experienced a 38 percent increase in blood flow to muscles, particularly “fast twitch” muscles that affect bursts of speed and strength, a study conducted at Kansas State University showed. Another study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that runners who ate baked beets before a 5k ran five percent faster, a result attributed to the beets’ nitrates, a natural chemical that increases endurance and lowers blood pressure. Spinach and carrots are also high in the muscle-building compound.