Fusing Food and Fitness for Building Lean Muscle: How to build muscle tone effectively and safely
Adding visible muscle tone is a common goal for most individuals who exercise regularly. For some, this means adding muscle without gaining fat or “bulking up,” whereas for others it means gaining lots of visible tone (think of body builders’ physique). Whether your goal is a look that is more subtle or one that will get you noticed, it’s important to have a good grasp on the science behind eating and exercising properly to gain muscle.
Previously, body image ideals focused on achieving thinness based on magazine portrayals (Harper & Tiggemann, 2007). As a result, women were discouraged from having a more athletic look for fear of looking “bulky” (Markula, 2016). However, those ideals have since changed, and people have embraced and accepted a more toned look for women over time. For men, a muscular look has always been portrayed in the media as the ideal (Grogan & Richards, 2002) – even if building muscle quick can be dangerous. Regardless of how the media portray body image, weight training and eating right (key components of building muscle) have many health benefits that go beyond looking good.
Individuals who weight train at least three to five times per week have the best outcomes. Consistent weight training leads to weight loss, more strength, stronger bones, and increased confidence (Chai, 2017). Eating right can help you feel more energetic, less bloated, and improve your gut health, which can in turn improve your mood (Huang et al., 2019).
In this article, I will introduce ways to build muscle safely and effectively, how to choose the right foods, exercises, and what to avoid when trying to increase muscle definition.
How Much Protein do I Need?
Every person’s protein needs are different, based on a few factors such as their age, gender, weight, activity level, and goals. Men need more protein than women in general. In addition, people who are more physically active, growing children and teenagers, the elderly, dieters, vegetarians, and people with muscle disease weakness need more protein (Lemon, 2000).
The American College of Sports Medicine suggests athletes consume 0.54 to 0.77 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For moderately active people on a 2,000-calorie diet, the amount of protein is 0.36 per pound. For the average sedentary man, 56 grams of protein per day is sufficient. For the average sedentary woman, 46 grams of protein is sufficient (Gunnars, 2020).
How do I Choose the Right Foods?
To build muscle effectively, you will need to pair the right foods with the right workouts. Certain foods contain more protein, which can aid in muscle growth. Think of protein like the building blocks of muscles. Lean meats like salmon, chicken breast, lean beef, shrimp, and tuna also contain a great deal of protein. These can be prepared in different ways such as baking, grilling, pan-frying, steaming, in a slow cooker or Instant Pot, or even dehydrated to eat as jerky. However, the healthiest way to prepare lean proteins is through steaming, baking, and grilling. This is because you are not adding in lots of extra oils or condiments that can be high in fat, sugar, and salt. A simple but tasty way to prepare a lean protein like fish would be to let it marinate in a concoction of your choice (olive oil, lemon juice, minced garlic, salt, and pepper is my favorite) and bake it. You can do this with any type of seafood. Pairing seafood with creamy, yogurt-based sauces can also be a delicious choice—and a way to get more protein from dairy sources. For example, pairing baked salmon with yogurt dill sauce is one way. For meats like chicken, beef and pork, there are many versions of healthy marinades that can help add flavor to your meal without a lot of oils and salt. For more ideas on how to cook lean proteins, click here (Magee, 2020).
Dairy products like eggs, Greek yogurt, and cottage cheese have high levels of protein and are portable and easy to integrate into your daily routine. For example, one hard-boiled egg contains around 70 calories and six grams of protein. Boiled eggs can be eaten for breakfast or as a mid-day or post-workout snack. Better yet, they can be prepared in bulk in advance and stay in the fridge for up to a week. Store unpeeled, boiled eggs in a plastic bag or airtight container to ensure they stay fresh for up to a week.
On-the-go items like string cheese, packaged yogurt cups or pouches, and nuts can also be healthy, high- protein choices. These items can be easily tossed into a purse, gym bag, diaper bag, or lunchbox. Making your own trail mix can help you reach your daily protein goals, too. In addition, it’s often cheaper than what you can purchase in the store—and you can customize it as you wish. Including a variety of items in your trail mix such as nuts, granola, and dried fruit can help you get other key nutrients such as fiber, potassium, and vitamin K (Bjarnadottir, 2017).
Vegetarian and Vegan Protein Options
For individuals who do not eat meat and/or dairy, there are still plenty of delicious and high protein options. Legumes—such as beans, edamame, and lentils—can also be a great choice for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. For example, a cup of black beans contains about 15 grams of protein. To take things up a notch, pairing legumes with a healthy carb such as quinoa helps you refuel and obtain more protein at the same time. A cup of cooked quinoa contains about 40 grams of carbohydrates, eight grams of protein, and five grams of fiber (Tinsley, 2018).
“If I have a client who is vegetarian or vegan and they are concerned they aren’t getting enough protein, then we’ll take a look at whether they are getting sufficient protein from legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and soy,” said Amy Camenisch, MS, RDN, LD, CLT, Registered Dietitian and owner of Amy Lorraine Nutrition. “If they can’t tolerate some of these foods, I usually recommend adding in a protein powder, such as green pea or hemp.”
Other than beans, items like tofu, seitan and tempeh can help you reach protein goals. Tofu contains about 10 grams of protein for half a cup’s worth. Tofu can be marinated and prepared in a variety of ways such as baking, scrambling, pan frying, and more. Tempeh is another soy-based food product but unlike tofu, it has a meaty, firm texture. Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans and formed into a block. Some store-bought versions contain grains and seeds. Tempeh is versatile and can be used in sandwiches, salads and stir fries. In addition, one cup of tempeh contains 31 grams of protein.
Protein Sources for Vegetarians and Non-Vegetarians
Grains, seeds, and nuts can be healthy, protein-filled choices. Whole grains tend to be higher in protein, so think about incorporating items like oatmeal, grits, millet, buckwheat, wild rice, couscous, whole-grain breads, cereals, and pastas into your diet. The grain with the highest level of protein is oats with over 26 grams of protein per cup (The Beet, 2021), whereas the lowest is white rice with 1.6 grams of protein (University of Washington PKU Clinic, n.d.).
“Eating foods from a variety of food groups, in the setting of adequate energy intake, is another important step toward adequacy of protein and all other nutrients,” said Elizabeth Kirk, PhD, RDN, Associate Teaching Professor in the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington. “An additional consideration for vegetarians and vegans in assuring adequate protein intake is to be sure to include excellent sources of protein such as beans, whole grains, nuts, nut butters, and seeds throughout the day, and dairy and eggs for lacto-ovo vegetarians.”
Choices are plenty when it comes to seeds. Just one tablespoon of superfood star item flaxseed contains over one gram of protein. Flaxseed mixes well into smoothies, shakes, acai bowls and more. You might also be surprised to know you can sneak some flaxseed into baked goods, and you won’t taste a change in flavor. Flaxseed can be ground up and used as a replacement for oil in baked goods. For more information on how to do that, click here (Peterson, 2019). Most seeds are high in fiber, and omega 3’s which are beneficial for brain. Pumpkin seeds are also high-protein and can be eaten on their own or easily integrated into salads.
Finally, nuts are also great protein sources and can easily be added to salads, snack boxes, pasta and eaten on their own. Pine nuts are a great addition to pasta sauces, and walnuts can dress up any salad. Other nut-related options include almonds. A cup of almonds is a healthy snack that contain 29 grams of protein. For additional guidance on high-protein foods for vegans, click here.
Protein Powders: Friend or Foe?
Protein powders and protein bars can be viable ways to add additional protein into your diet outside of the food options provided above. In general, nutritionists recommend obtaining nutrients through whole foods and not synthetic sources because they may contain artificial colors and flavors, added sugar, thickeners, and other not-so-great ingredients.
“I usually don’t encourage my clients to use protein supplements or powders unless their protein options are limited, such as if they are vegetarian, vegan, are allergic to common protein sources, or simply don’t prefer most animal proteins,” added Camenisch.
There are two types of proteins—those that contain protein from dairy such as milk and eggs, and those that contain protein from plant sources like soybeans, hemp, and others. However, the average protein powder that you can buy at a big-box store or supplement/nutrition store contains ingredients like sugars, thickeners, and artificial ingredients (Harvard Health Publishing, 2020). Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the supplement market, leaving it up to the product manufacturers to make claims about the safety and effects of the products.
What else is in protein powder? A group of researchers at the Clean Label Project investigated the ingredients of 134 powders on the market and found that some contained heavy metals, BPA, pesticides or other toxins (Harvard Health Publishing, 2020). The heavy metals they screened for and found in some of the protein powders included arsenic, lead, and mercury. BPA stands for bisphenol-A and is used to make plastic—a known endocrine disrupter, it can lead to high blood pressure and affect the brains of developing fetuses, infants, and children (Bauer, 2021).
So, how exactly does this happen? Because some protein powders are derived from plants, it turns out that plants absorb these toxins from the soil. If you are going to include a protein powder in your routine, it is worth double-checking to ensure your product is not on the list to be sure that you’re avoiding unnecessary and potentially harmful chemicals.
For some people, adding a scoop of protein powder to their post-workout smoothie or shake leads to an upset stomach. This is because many people are lactose intolerant or have issues digesting dairy. In fact, researchers estimate that 75 percent of people in the world (and 25 percent of Americans) are not able to digest lactose, which is the main sugar found in cow’s milk (Northwestern Medicine, n.d.). If you can tolerate lactose, the American Heart Association recommends including two or three servings of low-fat dairy products every day. Low-fat dairy products include items like reduced-fat cheeses, cream cheese, yogurt, and the like (Magee, 2020).
Protein Bars and their Role in Building Muscle
When it comes to protein bars, it helps to know what to look for. There are so many choices on the market these days, it can be downright overwhelming. First off, for those with specific dietary considerations, decide if you are seeking a protein bar option that is low in calories or sugar; gluten, nut or dairy-free, or something else entirely (Panoff, 2020). Some protein bars are made with dried fruits and nuts, while some contain oats or quinoa. Some bars have casein and whey, egg whites, soy, pea protein, and more. That is why consulting the nutrition label and ingredient list is crucial.
The main benefit of protein bars is that they are convenient options for a pre- or post-workout snack.
“My preference is for athletes to meet their protein needs by eating foods. However, there can certainly be a time and place for the use of protein in supplemental form,” Kirk said. “For instance, traveling somewhere where there might be uncertainty about foods available; assurance of intake even when an athlete is uninterested in eating, but needs the intake; and recovery from injury.”
In addition, some bars contain a high level of dietary fiber and other nutrients like iron, calcium, potassium, and more (Panoff, 2020). Some people eat protein bars to control their caloric intake and lose weight—or conversely, to add more calories into their daily diet if they are trying to go into a caloric surplus. This can be useful for weight and muscle gaining purposes.
How do I Bulk up without Gaining Fat?
Many people want to add more muscle tone but not gain fat – and understandably so. This represents a quandary because to gain muscle, you must ingest more calories, which can lead to weight gain. To avoid gaining fat, you need to be mindful of a few tips: weight training three to four times per week; eat properly to add lean tissue; and monitor your gains monthly (Yeung, 2018).
Effective weight training involves targeting multiple muscle groups with the types of exercises you do— squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, and presses (Yeung, 2018). Repetitions also matter. Focus on eight to twelve repetitions per exercise, and five or more sets. This type of training makes it easier to achieve muscle growth without gaining fat. To keep things interesting, try to mix up your routine and lift heavier weights as you are able.
In terms of how you fuel your body, it’s important to get enough lean protein from high-quality sources as mentioned above. You will also want to spread out your protein intake throughout the day instead of taking it in all at once as people do when “carb loading” (Yeung, 2018).
Finally, you can use technology to help you keep track of your calories and protein intake. Smartphone apps like MyFitnessPal, MyPlate, Protein Tracker, and FitPlan. You’ll want to assess your diet monthly to see if you are getting the protein and nutrients you need, and if your body is responding in the way you want. If you find that at-home methods are not appropriate, consider working with a nutritionist or personal trainer.
Should I Use Steroids?
Some people may be under the impression that “easy fixes” to gaining muscle may be the way to go, especially when looking to make quick changes to their bodies. However, this is a mistake. First off, steroids are dangerous substances that can have many side effects that can be permanent or semi-permanent, including high blood pressure, blood clots, heart attack, and stroke. They can also cause decreased sperm production, shrinking of the testicles and enlarged breasts in men (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2018). In women, side effects can include deepening of the voice, decreased breast size, excessive body hair growth, and male pattern baldness (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2018). Due to the serious nature of steroids and their side effects, it’s best to avoid them completely. Furthermore, possession of steroids without a prescription carries a penalty up to one year in prison and $1,000 fine (U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration, 2004).
Overall, using substances such as steroids are not worth the dangerous side effects and potential legal implications. Although it may take more time and active effort to get the muscle-building results you are seeking, unfortunately there is no way around hard work, effective training, and healthy eating.
Building muscle is beneficial not only for aesthetic reasons, but for overall health and longevity too. Choosing the right foods and exercises can help you build lasting muscle, and there are so many options for protein-packed foods to include in your diet. It’s best opt to integrate whole, natural foods into your eating plan for your protein needs instead of relying on bars, supplements and powders. These can be used in moderation but should not be used as a replacement. With consistent weight training and choosing the right foods, you will notice a change in your muscle tone and overall physique.
Author Bio: Nicki Karimpour, PHD
Contributor and Health Advisor
Dr. Nicki Karimipour is a communications expert and experienced researcher. She obtained her master’s degree and Ph.D. in Health Communications from the University of Florida. She has previous experience in writing and editing for both print and online publications, and almost a decade of experience in teaching health writing, public health, and public relations at the undergraduate and graduate level. She is based in Los Angeles, California and currently works at the University of Southern California as a director of communications and clinical research. Follow her on Twitter: @NickiKPhD
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