Solving the 8 Mysteries of Eating to Build Muscle

Bodybuilders might make it look so easy, but building muscle can actually be quite the challenge and, believe it or not, much of the mystery lies in how you're feeding your body. There's the protein intake, finding the right eating plan for your needs, calorie counting, fitting in carbohydrates and on and on. It can be enough to want to throw your food journal out the kitchen window.
Unfortunately, pumping iron alone won't yield the sculpted muscles you've been dreaming of, so understanding exactly how to fuel your body for optimal gains is important. To take some of the guesswork out of the equation, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine, the top three leading authorities on the topic, reviewed a number of studies to pinpoint evidence-based practice guidelines for athletic nutrition. Uncover the secret behind eight of the most perplexing muscle mysteries today and you'll be that much closer to the strong body you're after.
Keep in mind that the guidelines and calculations listed below are intended for adults who are either already at their desired weight or are within about 20 pounds of that weight. Also, remember that for any muscle development to occur, it is important to have a quality strength training program in place. Without the proper program, food modifications or nutrition supplements won't make a difference, so be sure your program is forcing your body to work hard. Ready to flex?
Mystery #1:  How many calories do I need?
An appropriate calorie, or energy, intake is the cornerstone of any healthy eating plan, but especially so when your aim is to build muscle. Not only do you need the right amount of calories to support your body’s functions, but the right calorie intake also assists in manipulating your body composition.
Solution: Reset your SparkPeople program to indicate that your goals is weight maintenance while using your strength training exercise plan. Use this recommended daily calorie range for two to three weeks. Weigh all of your food and beverage portions, and accurately and consistently track food intake while staying within the calorie range. This will help to initially determine that the range is truly bringing about weight maintenance.
Factors that can impact your energy needs include things like: daily activity, body composition, exposure to cold or heat, stress, high altitude, certain medications, your menstrual cycle and fidgeting. If needed, adjust the calorie range slightly to meet your individualized needs.
  • If your goal is muscle and weight maintenance: Use the determined calorie amount.
  • If your goal is muscle plus weight loss: Subtract 250 calories from the determined weight maintenance calorie amount. This will result in a half pound weekly weight loss. New research indicates that this slow, gradual weight loss will not decrease performance or strength building capabilities. The weekly weight loss should be less than one percent of total body weight.
Mystery #2:  What are my carbohydrate needs?
To meet the energy demands of your intense strength training program, you need to make sure that you are providing your body with the correct amount of carbohydrates, which are the preferred fuel for preventing fatigue and sluggishness.
Solution: Using the chart below, determine your exercise intensity and the amount of time you are performing the exercise daily. Then, calculate your daily carbohydrate needs. Calculations featured at listed in pounds and kilograms, for convenience. To convert pounds to kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2.
Carbohydrate Guidelines
Type of Training Daily Carbohydrate Need Based on Body Weight
Low-intensity exercise 1.4-2.3 grams carbohydrate/pound body weight
3-5 grams carbohydrate/kilogram body weight
Moderate exercise
(1 hour/day)
2.3-3.2 grams carbohydrate/pound body weight
5-7 grams carbohydrate/kilogram body weight
Moderate to high-intensity exercise
(1 to 3 hours/day)
2.7-4.5 grams carbohydrate/pound body weight
6-10 grams carbohydrate/kilogram body weight
High-intensity exercise
(4 to 5 hours/day)
3.6-5.5 grams carbohydrate/pound body weight
8-12 grams carbohydrate/kilogram body weight
Once you have your carb number set, work to incorporate nutrient-packed foods that are rich in carbohydrates into your diet. Whole-grain bread, pasta, cereal and oatmeal; fresh, frozen or canned fruits; starchy vegetables, including potatoes, sweet peas, lima beans and corn; lentils; kidney, pinto, black, garbanzo and great northern beans; and yogurt are all great foods to add to the grocery list. 
Mystery #3:  When are the optimal times to include carbohydrate in my daily meal plan?
After determining your carbohydrate needs based on both your body size and training schedule, your intake can be divided evenly among three meals and two to three snacks daily. It is important to experiment with foods and timing of food during training to determine your tolerance to avoid any abdominal pain and discomfort during workouts.
Solution: This chart can assist with your meal and snack planning.
Timing of Carbohydrate Intake
Timing Criteria Gram Amount Notes
the day
  Amount based on daily need Use carb-rich meals and snacks throughout the day to meet total carbohydrate need.
Before Exercise 1-4 hours before exercise .45-1.4 g/pound body weight
1-3 g/kg body weight
Use carb-rich sources that are low in fiber, protein and fat for gut comfort.
During Exercise <45 minutes None needed  
45-75 minutes 15-30 g Use carb-rich foods, beverages, sports drinks ( and specialized sports products as appropriate for workout. Experiment to discover what is well-tolerated.
1-2.5 hours 30-60 g/hour
>2.5 hours 60- 90 g/hour
Mystery #4:  How much protein do I need?
Once calorie and carbohydrate needs are met, protein can do its job properly. The amino acids found in protein will be spared and used to build and repair your muscle tissue, an extremely important process since protein is the only nutrient that provide this function to your body.
Solution: Using the chart below, determine your exercise category and calculate your protein needs.
Protein Guidelines
Type of Training Daily Protein Need Based on Body Weight
Recreational exercise .55-.59 grams protein/pound body weight
1.2 – 1.3 grams protein/kilogram body weight
Endurance training .55-.68 grams protein/pound body weight
1.2 – 1.5 grams protein/kilogram body weight
Strength training .63-.82 grams protein/pound body weight
1.4 – 1.8 grams protein/kilogram body weight
Mystery #5:  When are the optimal times to include protein in my daily meal plan?
Optimal protein synthesis occurs when protein-rich foods are consumed in the early recovery phase following exercise, ideally immediately after exercise or no more than two hours after you complete your cooldown.
Solution:  Have a protein-rich meal or snack within the first two hours of completing every workout. Focus on high-quality, protein-rich foods, such as lean meats, soy, eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese beans, lentils and legumes. These foods are essential for the repair and synthesis of muscle protein. Each post-workout meal or snack should contain about 15 to 25 grams of protein or .11 to .14 grams of protein per pound of body weight (.25 to .3 grams of protein/kg body weight). Spread the rest of your protein into meals and snacks throughout the remainder of the day.
Mystery #6:  Are protein supplement drinks and bars necessary?
While protein drinks and protein bars are not necessary, they may be a convenient way to obtain the desired protein amount within the aforementioned two-hour window.
Solution: If you plan to use protein drinks, bars or homemade protein powder recipes, select those containing dairy-based protein. Current research indicates that dairy-based protein—such as whey and casein—seem to be superior due to the leucine content and the digestion and absorption of amino acids. Meaning that in those times when high-quality, whole-food protein sources are not readily available, it's beneficial to reach for a protein bar or shake containing whey and casein to ensure optimal protein utilization by the body. Further studies are needed to assess other protein supplement options, but it's a great thing to keep in mind.
Mystery #7:  What about the role of fat?
Healthy fat is a necessary component of any healthy diet and will help you to reach your desired calorie amount, meaning it does have a place in your muscle-building nutrition plan. Not only does fat help the body use protein and carbohydrates more efficiently, but it is also serves as a concentrated source of energy.
Solution: Total fat intake will make up about 20 to 35 percent of your total calories. Select healthy fat sources high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. Examples include olive oil, canola oil, other vegetable oils, fatty fish, avocados and the fat found in nuts, seeds and peanuts. Limit saturated fats such as meat and dairy fat, butter, lard, coconut oil and tropical oils to no more than 10 percent of your total calories.
Mystery #8: Can I meet my nutritional needs if I restrict certain groups of foods, such as following a vegetarian or vegan meal plan?
Yes, nutrition needs can be met, but there are nutritional concerns depending on the extent of the dietary limitations. Possible concerns include energy, protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B-12, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. 
Solution: Obtain a complete nutrition assessment and meal planning education from a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist to ensure your diet supports your strength training demands.
When fueling your body, also remember that hydrating the body effectively with either water or sports drinks is key to your success and health.
The field of nutrition and athletic performance is rapidly advancing with many assessments, calculations and expectations. If you feel you are not adequately reaching your strength training goals, consider working with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who has additional training in sports nutrition to better meet your individualized needs.  
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Member Comments

I wish it were more simplified... Report
Great article I just bumped up my protein and potassium. Report
Probably one of the better Spark blogs I have seen. I am within 10lbs of my goal but would like to start toning/light build. Good to know the macro breakdowns so they can be tweaked as needed.
Thanks for sharing. Report
Thank you Report
Interesting. Report
interesting information. Time for me to adjust things a little. Report
thanks Report
interesting...but still wonder why some people can eat mostly junk foods but still be normal weight and have lean muscled body..just doesnt seem fair Report
This is interesting even if its a little complicated. And I do believe that the writer has the facts. Not geared towards athletes. All levels of acivity are in the charts. Report
Did anyone bother to check out the links for the source of this information? If you had you would know this is gearded towards athletes. What if I told you that NOT everyone here at SparkPeople is trying to lose weight? Sure the majority may be. But I've seen plenty of others with different goals. To those knocking this article, makes me think of that Carly Simon song. You're so vain.... probably thought this article was about you. Report
Thank you for sharing! Report
Great information SparkPeople! I may or may not eat quite that many carbs, but I needed this article to put it all together for me. Good job! Report
Everyone 's body is different - for me I have a rare genetic Disease that requires specific guidelines for food.
Big Pharma does not dictate to me what is best for my body . Report
I agree with other posters. This goes against all I have read / been taught about growing muscles.

How much protein one should be eating is based on your lean muscle mass not your total weight (feeding fat lbs protein will just create extra calories and more fat).

I have read a lot of serious web pages with scientific quotes of studies that cover carbs and none are at the level being promoted here when the goal is to build muscles. Again, the level depends on what you are doing, someone who has very low fat % and is lifting very heavy weights hours a day would have very different carb needs and maybe they need the level listed, but that is not the typical person on sparkpeople.

It would have been a lot better for the article writer to clarify what information was gotten from where and give the specifics of the situation (e.g. for someone at their goal weight who is lifting with this type of exercise program, they need X grams of carbs/protein, where as someone who is 50 lbs overweight and doing that type of exercise program needs ...
Not some generic information that from my reading applies to 275 lb men with extremely low body fat that lift weights for many hours a day (not the typical sparkperson).

Instead we should all be reading the studies that give valuable information about how to keep and increase our muscles mass while losing fat (the goal of most people on sparkpeople). Report


About The Author

Becky Hand
Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.
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