Lean protein, berries, leafy greens, whole grains are shown.
Lean protein, berries, leafy greens, whole grains. A diet made of these essentials may just help you build muscle. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Want to add muscle, but don’t know where to start?

Here’s a hint: It’s not only about hitting the gym.

Eating the right foods–and avoiding the wrong drinks–will not only let others see the muscles developed by all those sit-ups and squats, it will also help them grow much faster.

“If this isn’t a lifestyle change for you, if you’re not eating better, if you’re not staying hydrated, you’re not going to see the gains as quickly,” said Philip Adler, manager of the Spectrum Health Medical Group Sports Medicine program.

The most important change?

“Eating food, not processed food,” says Gregory Stacey, a Spectrum Health dietitian.

Americans get nearly 60 percent of their calories from “ultra-processed” food. These are foods that contain ingredients such as colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers, hydrogenated oils and other additives that you wouldn’t cook with at home.

There are about 5,000 additives allowed into American foods by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but in reality, the number might be much higher.

Eating whole foods—foods that haven’t been processed and contain little or no additives–will not only help you lose weight, but will also feed those muscles the proper nutrients, allowing them to grow bigger more quickly, Stacey said.

Among those proper nutrients: Protein. Proteins contain amino acids that are the building blocks of muscles.

And if we’re choosing whole foods, some of the best foods within each group (vegetables, dairy, fats), they all contain protein,” Stacey said. “So as long as you’re eating enough throughout the day, the protein is just going to fall in line.

“Don’t think in terms of food, think in terms of eating whole meals,” Stacey said. “You need to be eating whole meals: Two sources of complex carbs, one to two servings of vegetables, one serving of fruit, one serving of dairy, and two good sources of protein.”

If you’re weight training and trying to build muscle, you should be eating three meals per day, and one or two snacks per day, Stacey said. Snacks should be one-third to one-half the size of a meal.

With exercise and proper eating habits, “You should start seeing noticeable changes in your body within the first month,” Stacey said.

6 good foods to live by

1. Vegetables

Greens, greens, greens. Almost all vegetables provide a mix of fiber, vitamins, complex carbohydrates and minerals, but leafy greens–spinach, kale, collards, arugula– also provide a lot of protein. “Everyone who is trying to build muscle should eat at least two cups of leafy greens per day,” Stacey said.

2. Fruits

Fruits are good for many of the same reasons as vegetables. They have carbohydrates, fiber, nutrients and antioxidants. Stacey recommends one cup of berries per day. Raspberries, strawberries, apples, oranges and bananas all have high amounts fiber (raspberries have 8 grams per cup), which will keep you full longer.

3. Complex carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates–like those in whole grains–are sugars that are strung together in long, complex chains, so it takes much longer to break them down. Because of this, they keep you feeling full for a longer period of time. Simple carbohydrates like table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup–as well as processed grains like white flour–have had most of the fiber and nutrients stripped out of them. Because of that, your body can process them very quickly, leaving you feeling hungry again shortly after eating.

Good examples of complex carbohydrates are “100 percent whole grains” and unrefined starches like brown rice, sweet potatoes or squash with skins on, ½ cup beans, ½ cup quinoa, or one cup of pasta per serving. You should eat two to four servings depending on your body size. Stacey recommends using ChooseMyPlate.Gov to help set up meals.

4. Dairy

You’re going to want to get two to three servings of dairy in each day,” Stacey said. “But you have to be careful with dairy because it can push up your saturated fats.” One cup of milk, Greek yogurt, and 1-2 oz. of cheese per day are all excellent sources of protein for those looking to build muscle. 

“You should also (focus on) white milk and plain yogurt: Stop adding sugars or flavorings,” Stacey said. “If you’re lactose intolerant, plant milks are good: Soy milk is an excellent source of protein.” 

If you forgo dairy, you’re likely to be calcium deficient, so double your daily intake of leafy greens, Stacey added.

5. Oils and fats

Not all fats are created equal. Extra virgin olive oil–an unsaturated fat–can lower cholesterol and has a lot of antioxidants, which are very beneficial but still won’t get you the vitamins, minerals and protein you want.

“You should focus on nuts or peanut butters or nut butters,” Stacey said. “Those will give you all of the above, plus healthy fats. You can knock out all your requirements in one shot.”

Peanuts, walnuts, almonds and avocado are other great sources of fat. Stacy said he recommends two to three servings of oils and fats per day, with one of those being olive oil.

6. Healthy protein

Stacy recommends eating one or two servings of meat per day, which is about 3 oz. or the size of a deck of cards. “Chicken, fish, pork, beef, they all have about 20 grams of protein,” he said. “And all the protein from all the other foods adds up.

“Also, eggs have about 6 grams of protein per day, but the more eggs you eat, the more cholesterol you’ll be taking in. If you’re going to eat eggs, do a swap with meat, just to make sure your cholesterol and saturated fats stay low.”

Also, soy products–tofu, tempeh–provide a lot of protein. For vegetarians, they’re a good substitute for meat, and for non-vegetarians, “a good way to add new foods and provide health benefits you haven’t been getting before,” Stacey said.

Lastly, avoid processed meats like bacon, ham, jerky and hot dogs–they have been linked to cancer.