You've worked hard in the gym, but choosing the proper food to fuel your goals is just as important. Here's what belongs in your grocery cart to really see improvements in muscle strength and definition.
First Things First
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If you're going to follow any food rules, let it be this one: Don't skimp on calories. When you're trying to gain muscle, you're typically busting butt in the gym, lifting heavy weights. (Oh, and ICYWW, here are 5 Reasons Lifting Heavy *Won't* Make You Bulk Up.) So you're burning calories both during and after your workout, when your body rebuilds muscle fibers that were torn or broken down. (Don't worry, it's a good thing.) For your bod to make the most of that process, it needs fuel—and plenty of it. While exactly how many calories you should aim for every day depends on your age, height, and weight, Frida Harju, in-house nutritionist at Lifesum, says getting at least 2,000 calories per day, with a focus on protein, is a solid benchmark for most people. "Getting in enough protein, especially after a workout, can help with muscle gain and preservation, improve your metabolism, and help control cravings later in the day," says Harju. About 30 percent of your macronutrients should be coming from protein, she says, with the remaining 50 percent coming from carbs and 20 percent from fat.
Now that we've got that covered, here's a healthy mix of food options to help you hit those macro—and muscle-building—goals.
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Making the most of your muscle gains means knowing how to fuel up before your workout—not just after it. If you prefer something on the lighter side, opt for Greek yogurt. Harju says it's easy on your stomach and, when paired with a trail mix for healthy fats (those nuts and seeds are great), you have a healthy snack that can maintain energy throughout your workout. Add a few pieces of dried fruit and you've also got a dose of healthy sugars for when you need an extra boost to get through those last few reps.
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If you need a quick hit of protein added to your meals, try canned tuna. Harju says it's a great choice because it's inexpensive and convenient, plus a 3-oz serving of chunk light tuna has about 16 grams of protein with less than a gram of fat. If you're watching your calories, opt for tuna packed in water instead of oil, as the latter will boost the overall calories to more than 150, while the former clocks in around 75. Limit this option to once every three days, though, per the Natural Resources Defense Council recommendations for people weighing 150 pounds or more, and opt for white albacore tuna only once every nine days to limit the exposure to mercury.
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Bring on more seafood: Shrimp is loaded with omega-3 fats, and research shows they can help regulate muscle growth. The crustaceans are also packed with protein, and arginine, the amino acid found in shrimp, helps your body produce nitric oxide to improve blood flow to your heart, muscles, and brain. (Speaking of brain food, check out these other top foods to fuel your brain.)
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Brown rice is a high-fiber complex carb—meaning it gives you the exact energy boost your body needs to pump up the muscle-building power, says Harju. Add it to the side of a high-protein main dish, like shrimp or grilled white meat chicken, and you've got yourself a match made in foodie heaven.
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You already know eggs are a top protein source, not to mention they help with muscle recovery and growth, but make sure you're choosing the right kind. Free-range, organic eggs are not only more humane, according to Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) standards, but the yolks also contain more nutrition. Research shows that they can have higher levels of vitamin A and E (important nutrients your body needs daily), omega-3 fatty acids, and beta-carotene. Scramble eggs with a serving of veggies and top it off with a few slices of avocado for a dish that's high in fiber and monounsaturated fats. Fiber helps keep your digestive system flowing, while those healthy fats will help your body better absorb those nutrients from the vegetables so your muscles get exactly what they need to grow.
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When your body shifts into recovery mode after a workout, it needs a nutrient-heavy meal. Enter chicken: The lean protein also contains carbohydrates to help fill you up so you don't feel the urge to binge-eat later. Add some veggies on the side and you're looking at a perfectly balanced post-workout meal. (Tired of the same boring ways to cook chicken? These chicken recipes will rescue your dinner ASAP.)
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Your favorite trail mix nuts get a lot of love, but don't leave out pine nuts. The little guys are filled with antioxidants that help combat any free radicals that were produced during exercise or picked up from pollutants during an outdoor workout. Since your body doesn't want free radicals floating around—they could potentially attack DNA and lead to cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute—you want to load up on antioxidant-heavy foods (other examples: dark berries and leafy greens). Harju says pine nuts also have monounsaturated fatty acids to help those muscles build back up post-sweat. (Thanks to their energy-boosting magnesium, pine nuts are also among the healthy choices for midday snacks.)
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Your favorite orange spud is a real muscle-building winner: It contains 65 percent of your daily need for vitamin C, which your body uses to grow and repair tissue. It also sits pretty low on the glycemic index at 17—meaning it won't cause your blood sugar to spike and crash, but rather it provides you with a steady flow of energy to help you knock reps out left and right. Harju says it's best to leave the skin on your sweet potato, as that's where you'll find most of the vitamin A, beta-carotene, and potassium your body needs. Try oven baking one with some olive oil and sea salt for a simple, clean side dish.
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Consider avocados your go-to healthy spread, as they are yet another smart food choice filled with omega-3 fatty acids. Swap it in for mayo when making sandwiches, and pair it with some protein (like chicken or turkey) for a well-balanced meal. (These genius 8 new ways to eat avocado will help you switch things up, too.)
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You know beans are full of good-for-you fiber, but when it comes to gaining muscle, that's especially important. Why? Eating a protein-heavy diet can clog things up, so to speak, and you need fiber to keep things flowing smoothly, says Harju. So add 'em to your salad, soups, and stews and your ripped muscles (and well-functioning digestive system) will thank you later.
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Quinoa, another high-fiber food, has the bonus of also being a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine of the essential amino acids your body needs, some of which it cannot produce on its own so it needs to come from food. It's rare for one food to check all the boxes, so reach for quinoa post-workout. These 10 quinoa recipes can help get you started.