Picking the right food to make progress is key for fitness. Whether the goal is to lose fat or gain muscle, you need to make sure you’re fueling the body with the right nutrients. This list will be more than your typical “douse your food in extra virgin olive oil.”
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Before we start, I want to make a few statements.
Gaining muscle and losing body fat at the same time is only possible if you’re a beginner or if you’re a professional bodybuilder (using professional bodybuilder “supplements”).
Furthermore, I can’t cover all the dietary restrictions of everyone on the planet. I’ll be courteous of the most common ones, but have some empathy.
1. Lean Red Meat
Stan Efferding, a world-famous powerlifter and fitness coach, is a big fan of giving his clients lean red meat. The reason for this is that it has more minerals and vitamins. Plus, it would seem that red meat has more amino acids (that are also more readily available) than the standard chicken breast.
Of course, which red meats will depend on which ones are available to you? Beef is obviously the one that springs to mind, being produced worldwide.
However, don’t count out game meat…
Game meat might have a pronounced taste, sure. Yet, the game is also one of the healthiest meats you can get your hands on. It’s exceptionally lean and usually has less saturated fat and farming chemicals.
The one thing to watch out for with meat is, of course, saturation. These types of fats are needed for testosterone production. However, too much has also been linked to cholesterol.
Oats? Not exactly the first thing you think about when hearing the term “fat loss.” right? Well, you might be surprised to learn that oats are actually a really good option for a calorie deficit or surplus.
The reasons are plentiful.
It has a decent amount of carbs per 100g — around 55g. It’s filled with fiber, which can help with gut health and remaining full.
It has some healthy fats and actually has around 8 grams of protein per 100g. Sure, this might not be enough protein in the meal (alone) to make a difference, but every bit counts.
If you want to bulk, simply add some whey protein, a fat source, and some milk, blend it all up, and boom! Mass gainer shake made with real food. If you’re trying to lose weight, then you can cook your oats to a thick consistency and add your whey along with some blueberries. Job done!
Some might argue that for optimal muscle growth, you would need a faster-digesting carb, but this is where the greatest attribute of oats shines — it’s cheap. You can go to a baking store and buy an 11-pound bag of oats for, like, $10. That’s going to last you weeks!
3. Whey Protein
It was always going to make this list. Don’t lie to yourself. (Hey, we’re just here to teach you the way the body will react and use your muscle-building diet, and if it contains whey, you’re (perhaps) going to be doing a lot better.)
Whey protein is a natural product made from derivatives of the cheesemaking process. Essentially, you’re eating something they would have thrown away (so why is it so expensive?!).
Many (moms) falsely believe this humble product has negative effects associated with steroid use. However, this is a myth and could not be further from the truth. Not only is protein intake perfectly safe, but whey, in particular, has also been linked to more muscle growth.
The logical question most people ask is how much they can take or drink per day. Well, the limit doesn’t exist, technically. The main concern with protein sources is the amino acids and — in particular — the amino acid leucine.
If your source doesn’t have enough of those, you run the risk of not seeing a change in body composition. Luckily, whey has plenty of all the amino acids, including leucine. Thus, you can technically get all your protein from the whey.
In fact, IFBB Pro Bodybuilder Hunter Labrada does…
But even if plain whey isn’t your thing, protein powder, in general, can help you build lean mass. Mix it with water or milk, add it to your cereal, bake a cookie with it, or fry a pancake with it inside. The possibilities are endless.
If you really want to spend some cash, opt for hydroisolate for fast-digesting protein or a casein protein for slow-digesting dairy proteins. For those of you who are vegan, you might want to look into potato isolate protein.
Yes, it exists, and it is amazing. One serving has 40 calories and 10 grams of protein. Sprinkle some math on that, and you calculate that there are 0g of carbs and 0g of fats. Zero. Nothing.
I haven’t found it, and the only Amazon product available has been sold out for 18 months. But if you can find it, power to you.
Plus, it’s got all the amino acids and a full profile…
Blanket statement, am I right?
Sure, fish might not be everyone’s… cup of tea… (an odd way to phrase that, buddy). But it sure has its place in a weight loss scenario. Some, myself included, even believe it can be part of the phase where the goals are limited to building muscle.
Fish usually doesn’t contain a lot of fat, especially those like cod, tuna, hake, etc. This makes it ideal for helping you reduce body fat, as it’ll promote muscle growth (due to protein) but not add too many calories.
So, how does that pertain to gaining muscle?
Well, some fish do have a lot of fats, such as salmon and mackerel. This has the benefit of giving you a bunch of protein and increasing your calorie intake! That said, there’s a place for low-fat fish in a muscle growth phase.
When you’re bulking and eating to gain, you’ll often find yourself feeling full and bloated, and because your body weight is high, you’ll probably have high blood pressure as well.
A lighter fish will digest a lot faster than any fatty fish, especially before or after training. This means you can eat your protein and digest it without running into issues like nausea.
Just be sure to check that your fish is sourced from a reputable supplier. Also, keep an eye out for fish known to have more mercury in them.
5. Eggs and Whole Fat Dairy
If you remember the old food pyramid, these were often lumped together. I never really understood this, as I grew up on a farm and knew that cows and chickens don’t really vibe with one another.
As far as muscle-building foods go, these are some of the best bang-for-your-buck ones you can get.
Eggs are nature’s little protein balls, and while the protein balls made of dates and protein powder seem great, they’re full of sugar. And unnecessary fats — sometimes.
With an egg, you can separate the yolk and ONLY get the protein. It’s probably the most protein-dense food on the planet (egg whites).
Whole dairy, on the other hand, will help you tremendously if your goal is hitting that caloric surplus. Full-fat dairy gets a bad rating for being fatty, but that’s the point.
Fats are dense in calories than carbs, so you can get more calories this way. Dairy is also something you can add to a lot of meals without messing with flavor.
One of my favorite ones was using cottage cheese (full-fat or fat-free) and mixing it with protein powder. It becomes a protein-loaded treat on the go. Also, spread on some warm toast, it’s just the business!
When looking to improve your body composition, either by gaining muscle or losing body fat, make sure you understand your protein, fat, carb, and overall calorie intake needs.
6. Whole Turkey and Chicken
Have you been struggling with your caloric intake? Anyone older than 40 will tell you that a healthy diet must consist of at least one whole chicken and two turkeys per week!
That might be an exaggeration, but we’ve all bought rotisserie chicken in a pinch, and when you Googled the calories, it wasn’t so bad…
Will it cause you to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time? No, very much not.
Whole poultry will contain a whole lot of fat. However, it’s one of the most reliable protein-rich foods fitness enthusiasts have been eating for centuries. And it’s effective! A whole chicken contains approximately 3,000 calories…
I definitely don’t recommend you eat it in one sitting.
First, RIP digestion. Secondly, the body’s ability to process and use protein is capped at 0.3 – 0.4 grams per kilogram of body weight per meal.
Sure, if you’re as big as Fouad Abiad, the “Hoss,” a professional bodybuilder, you might need to eat a full chicken in one sitting.
Watch this video. It’s hilarious.
But for the rest of us that just wanna build lean muscle at a regular pace, split that chicken up into various meals, and you’re good to go.
If you’re looking to go lower on fats, white meat typically has less fat (obviously, remove the skin as well).
You may not have heard of these if you live in North America, but they’re pretty popular all over the planet. These creatures look a lot similar to shrimp, but they’re a tad bigger and can also be found in freshwater.
So, what makes them so good for fat loss or building muscle?
Let’s list the nutrition facts per 100g cooked, shall we…
- Calories: 99
- Total Fat: 0.3g
- Total Carbs: 0.2g
- Total Protein: 24g
Go back and read that again.
This might damn well be the cleanest source of protein on the planet, isolate whey be damned! These can be used to lose fat and build muscle. They’re also easy to cook and taste amazing if you match them with lemon and other seafood pairings.
There’s only one problem with prawns, and it’s going to be a hard pill to swallow for those muscle gains… They’re bloody expensive. Prawns are some of the most expensive kinds of seafood you can find, probably due to expensive fishing methods.
If you can afford them, they should be a part of your healthy eating habits since they contain fewer calories than pretty much every other kind of protein on the market.
When trying to build muscle mass, you’ll meet all kinds of people. Keto lovers, meat enthusiasts, and vegans. But you’ll rarely ever find true gym folk who eat a lot of fruit, and that’s a problem.
See, fruits are extremely healthy.
Fruits contain a wide variety of minerals and vitamins. They also contain fiber and calories. How many calories they contain will depend on the type of fruit. For example, bananas are typically packed with carbs, but watermelon is quite light.
But their great taste and few carbs are not why they’re on this list. No, they’re on the list because they are extremely versatile and accessible.
For the most part, fruit is quite cheap, especially when you buy it from the right supplier. Fruit can be moved without the need for a container or refrigeration.
You don’t need to pair fruits with other flavors, either. You typically eat fruit on their own, so they don’t need to match a protein source… unless you use your fruits in a smoothie. This can be done and then frozen and kept outside for hours before consumption.
“But fruits make you fat!” Studies upon studies have shown that fruit intake doesn’t directly lead to fat gain. The only thing that might make you fat is eating too many calories. Fruits can be part of any diet with the aim of losing body fat.
9. Carbs (All of Them)
We’re going to end this list with a banger. And it’s a big group of foods, so I might be cheating slightly — sue me. (Don’t sue me, please.)
Anyways, CARBS! They’re amazing, the most delicious word in the dictionary, and if you really want to build muscle (and lose fat), you wanna be eating these.
Why? Well, first, anecdotally, the most successful athletes on the planet all follow a diet that’s richer in carbs compared to fats. Strength athletes consume gummies while training, bike riders consume glycogen jellies while cycling and bodybuilders sip on carb powders while in the gym.
This might seem like a coincidence, but it probably isn’t. The fact is that carbs are just a more ready source of energy compared to fats, which take a longer time to break down. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need fats OR that fats don’t work.
Why we prefer carbs, overall, for athletes are as follows:
- Carbs are cheap and can be stored for long periods of time. That might sound like a moot point, but it’ll matter in the long run if the goal is lifelong muscle growth.
- Carbs cause more insulin release, which is an extremely anabolic compound. This allows for more carbs and amino acids to enter the muscle, although the science isn’t concrete on this (more like bro science).
- Carbs contain a lot of minerals, vitamins, and fiber, while fats typically do not.
- Carbs can aid recovery if you take them correctly.
And this last point is just a throwaway point, but carbs taste damn good. People will differ on this opinion, and you’re allowed to like whatever you want to.
There you have it: what to eat to gain muscle and lose fat, almost. Again, you most likely cannot gain muscle and achieve fat loss at the same time.
However, you can use these (odd) foods to achieve one and then the other:
- Lean red meat
- Whey and other protein powders
- Eggs and whole-fat dairy
- Whole turkey and chicken (poultry)
- Prawns and other seafood
- Most carbs (but maybe not pure sugar or maltodextrin)
The biggest things to remember with weight loss or muscle gain are calories, training, and sleep. Nail those three things, and you’re off to the races.