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 make you want to throw your food journal out the 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 you need?

An appropriate calorie, or energy, intake is the cornerstone of any healthy eating plan, but especially 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 nutrition program to indicate that your goal 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 of 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 1 percent of total body weight. 

Mystery #2:  What are your carbohydrate needs?

To meet the energy demands of your intense strength training program, you need to make sure 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 are 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 carbohydrates in your 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 you need?

Once calorie and carbohydrate needs are met, protein can do its job properly. The amino acids found in protein will be 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 your 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 provide 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. 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 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 you meet your nutritional needs if you 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.