When it comes to boosting metabolism, sculpting a fit physique, and improving quality of life (especially as we age), the most important goal you can make is to build lean muscle.
While resistance training reigns supreme for growing muscle fibers, nutrition plays a powerful supporting role. In combination with strength training, nutrition can take your results to the next level – muscle gain, fat loss, and overall body change are all easier when nutrition is dialed in.
In today’s blog post, I’m exploring the five key food habits that build lean muscle, which I often find that my newer clients need to work on…
#1 Eating 30+ grams of protein at every meal and 10+ grams at every snack
There have certainly been exceptions, but most of my incoming clients are under-eating protein.
Protein helps to stimulate a process called “muscle protein synthesis” each time we eat it.
To support this process, we need a certain amount of protein not just per day, but per meal, about every 3-5 hours, to facilitate an optimal nutrition profile to build lean muscle.
Aiming for 30+ grams of protein per meal and 10+ grams of protein per snack (i.e., distributing your protein intake evenly throughout the day) will get most women where they need to be in terms of protein intake and muscle protein synthesis.
This is because we need to hit a certain threshold of protein intake per “dose” for our bodies to respond to it effectively and undergo muscle protein synthesis. The individualized size of the dose that’s needed depends primarily on three factors:
- Your own lean body mass
- Your level of activity and resistance training
- Your age
Lean body mass is the amount of weight that we carry that is not fat – muscle, bones, water, etc. You can calculate your lean body mass by taking weight and measurements and using a calculator like this one, but you can also make some rough estimates that are fairly accurate. If you are smaller (i.e., under 150 pounds), less active, and/or younger, your protein needs can be on the lower end of the spectrum (maybe more like 80-100 grams per day). If you are taller or more muscular, very active, and/or older, your protein intake needs to be higher. This is very common as women progress through their 40’s and 50’s – what once worked for protein intake simply isn’t enough anymore to help with muscle preservation.
For example, I am 5’4″ and I only have about 100 pounds of lean body mass. That means that I don’t really need to eat much more than 100 grams of protein per day, unless I were in a very hard training cycle. But as I get older, it’s possible that I will need to increase my protein intake to help my body “pick up” and use the protein more easily to build lean muscle.
The problem is that consistently dropping below these thresholds often causes women to unintentionally lose muscle mass over time. This is called sarcopenia, and this contributes significantly to the change in body composition that women see during perimenopause and menopause (and also has serious implications for frailty and falls later in life).
So for most women, 100 grams of protein per day is a reasonable number to shoot for, and breaking it up into 30-gram meals helps to hit the muscle protein synthesis threshold each time. While some women will need more than 100 grams a day, my experience is that many of my new clients are in the 60-80 gram range, and need to start somewhere.
So what foods (or combinations of foods) translate into these 30-gram doses every 3-5 hours?
If you eat meat and fish, it tends to be easier to hit protein targets. One 4-ounce serving of any meat or fish is about 30 grams of protein. So if you eat meat at lunch and dinner, you just need to make sure that you’re eating enough protein at breakfast and at your snacks.
Whether you’re omnivorous or plant-based, I also suggest you check out one of my most popular past blog posts on this topic: “How to Hit 100 Grams of Protein Without Meat.” This post can give you more ideas for how to combine things to hit 30 grams of protein, using convenient foods like Greek yogurt, roasted beans, protein pastas, and more.
But protein is only one piece of the puzzle. There’s another macronutrient that most people think is “bad” for you, but is actually extremely important for energy and for muscle gain, and that’s carbohydrates.
#2 Not fearing carbohydrates
It’s very important here to distinguish that by “carbohydrates” I mean high-fiber foods like:
- Whole grains like rice or oatmeal or quinoa
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Lentils, edamame, and other beans, peas, and legumes
- Complex, low-sugar carbohydrate products like bread, tortillas, cereals and whole-grain pastas
- Fruit and berries
And I’m not really referring to:
- … and other high-fat, high-calorie foods that are easy to overeat
I have nothing against pizza – in fact, I love it. But for the sake of this conversation, let’s focus on high-fiber whole foods that are more “purely” carbohydrate (vs. carbohydrates mixed with fat), which should be part of your daily diet.
I bring up carbohydrates because they are the current boogeyman in most people’s diet plans. When most of my clients start working with me, they erroneously think that they need to go low-carb, and try to live on nothing but salads and hardboiled eggs.
But if we want to build lean muscle and see progressions with strength training, it’s essential that we ditch our carb-phobia and eat sufficient carbohydrates to energize our muscles, fuel workouts, and then recover and repair the muscles.
It’s hard to be precisely prescriptive with carbohydrates in terms of grams – it’s a bigger variable than protein. Certainly 30-60 grams per hour of intense endurance exercise is required. Similarly, it’s recommended to consume about 30-40 grams of carbohydrates (combined with 20-30 grams of protein) after a workout.
But beyond that, it’s difficult to be overly specific, because people’s activity needs are different. But I can confidently say that eating 30-50 grams of carbohydrates per meal isn’t “high carb.”
So what could a carbohydrate-rich day look like for an active, strength-training woman?
- Pre-workout: banana
- Breakfast: 1 cup of cooked oatmeal at breakfast with 1 cup of blueberries
- Lunch: 1/2 cup chickpeas with 1/2 cup cooked rice
- Snack: apple with 1/4 cup roasted edamame
- Dinner: 1 medium sweet potato
In other words, for muscle gain, you don’t want your eating day to look like hardboiled eggs for breakfast, salad with chicken for lunch, and fish with broccoli for dinner. Instead, it’s ideal for carbohydrates to be represented at each meal. If blood sugar is a concern, you can discuss your plans with a dietitian, progress your carbohydrate intake slowly, and experiment with high-fiber sources.
But don’t fear carbs! It is crucial for muscle gain!
#3 Eating on a regular schedule, and not skipping meals
This is a callback to point #1 – when it comes to stimulating muscle protein synthesis, we’re only as good as our last meal. To build lean muscle, I highly recommend not skipping meals or leaving long stretches of time between meals (i.e., 5+ hours).
There is no benefit to skipping meals in terms of improving body composition. Skipping or delaying meals either intentionally or unintentionally can backfire. Often, this habit leads to increased cravings and overeating, which tends to create more problems with body composition.
Plus, the less often you eat, the more difficulty you have hitting those nutritional benchmarks that lead to muscle gain (not to mention health). If you’re trying to hit 100 grams of protein, it’s far more beneficial to spread out those doses than to try to (ineffectively) cram them into just a few huge meals.
The magic interval seems to be 3-5 hours between meals, with a cluster of snacks/meals close to a workout. An ideal eating schedule could look like:
- 7 AM – pre-workout snack
- 8 AM – breakfast
- 12 PM – lunch
- 4 PM – snack
- 7 PM – dinner
A food “rhythm” like this is very supportive to muscle gain.
#4 Not constantly dieting to lose weight
This point is a natural outgrowth from all of the previous suggestions.
It might seem obvious, but if you increase your protein and your carbohydrates, your calories might increase. And that’s okay. In conjunction with strength training, you will build lean muscle as a result.
(That being said, your net calories might not increase significantly if your eating habits also happen to improve.)
But it’s important to be clear that muscle gain works best at a caloric surplus, or at the very least, calorie maintenance. It is trickier to build lean muscle if you are in a calorie deficit, and this is especially true for lighter people.
Many (or most) of my clients come to me with the explicit focus of losing weight. But for certain women, I recommend a slightly different strategy, knowing that for the body composition changes they want to see, increasing calories and not stressing about weight is the right way to create transformation through strength training.
This is because once your net calories move into a negative balance, your body has to work harder to distribute the calories in a way that promotes health and quality of life. The reality is that building muscle is not necessary for survival, so your body might not prioritize it if it doesn’t have enough resources to go around. While strength training will somewhat preserve muscle during weight loss, it’s not so easy to build muscle in that state, especially if you are already on the leaner side.
While creating a caloric surplus – and possibly gaining a little weight – can be scary, just remember that…
- restoring a healthy level of calories is not the same as overeating
- a surplus can be very, very small – just a little more food
- it doesn’t need to be forever
- weight gain tends to level off (in other words, it’s not dramatic, runaway weight gain)
Again, in my experience, for some clients, attempting to create a surplus is a very healthy step on the path of weight loss. It can help to regulate metabolism and someone’s relationship with food.
I find this to be especially true for my active female clients who are over 60 – chasing that last 5-10 pounds of fat loss can be incredibly counterproductive, since age causes muscle breakdown (sarcopenia) to accelerate. Keeping calories high enough – especially from protein and carbohydrates – helps active women to stave off sarcopenia and remain leaner, even if the scale reads “heavier.”
Keep in mind that not all progress is seen on the scale. There are both invisible markers of improvement, like increased bone density, and visible results, like what you see in the mirror!
#5 Eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day
Finally, we’ve talked a lot about protein and carbohydrates, but fruit and vegetables are also key – especially the non-starchy ones like leafy greens and broccoli.
Fruits and vegetables not only keep you full and help your digestion (both of which discourage overeating) – they also contain vital nutrients, phytochemicals, and polyphenols that support the proper function of your cells.
This is key because muscle gain (which includes muscle repair) is a cellular process that works best when your body is healthy and working efficiently.
I highly recommend that you create habits that emphasize convenient ways to eat more fruits and vegetables, like having a salad daily at lunch, having fruit for snacks a few times a day, and having roasted or steamed vegetables at dinner.
The 5-a-day challenge is one that I frequently give to newer clients, since most people under-eat colorful fruits and vegetables.
It’s not just muscle, though – eating five servings of fruit and vegetables per day (with a slight bias toward the veggies) is associated with lower mortality rates.
Do it for your health, and do it for your muscles!
Need Meal Ideas?
There are truly so many amazing food blogs out there – in a lifetime, you could not try all of the smart, creative recipes on the internet. But what these recipes often lack is a sense of structure – how to put everything together to create a satisfying rhythm of eating throughout the day.
To fill that gap, I created my 28-Day Meal Prep Guide. This free download contains recipes that are higher-protein, based on a rich variety of whole foods, and easy to cook. It also includes shopping lists, charts to help you plan your weekly meals, and more. Click here to download it!