How to Eat to Gain Muscle in a Healthy Way

Do you feel like you live in a parallel universe, surrounded by people constantly complaining and struggling to lose weight, while you would actually love to put on a few pounds? Whether you’re tired of being told you’re too skinny or you’d just like to bulk up, gaining muscle can be empowering. But for some people, it can also seem virtually impossible. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be! If you stick to a smart exercise and nutrition strategy, you’ll prove you have brains, and the brawn will follow.

What Matters for Size: Genetics, Exercise & Nutrition

The concept is simple: If you want to gain weight, you need to eat more calories! But to make sure you build healthy muscle tissue, not a muffin top, you also need a progressive strength-training program. (In the Fitbit app, check out Fitstar Personal Trainer under the “Guidance” tab for personalized workouts.) Genetics play a big role in how easy or hard it is to change your body size and bulk up, so start with realistic expectations, and know it won’t happen overnight. In the beginning, you might be able to gain around 0.5 to 1 pound (0.25 to 0.5 kg) per week.

How to Eat to Gain Weight

Beef up, bulk out, get ripped—whatever you want to call building more muscle mass, simply follow these nutrition tips, apply the same dedication to your eating as you do to your training, and your hard work at the gym can lead to big gains.

Eat More … of Everything, Not Just Protein

Start by figuring out how much you need to eat. You can use an equation that will work out your your calorie needs based on your current weight, factor in your exercise, and add the extra calories needed to gain weight. Or, if you’re already logging your food, simply add about 500 calories a day to what you normally eat. Don’t overdo it—by starting slowly, you’ll increase your chances of gaining mostly muscle, not fat.

Pills, potions, and powders seem like easy options, but they can be expensive, and not all live up to their promises. Real food should always make up the majority of your food. You don’t get a free pass to binge on junk—healthy eating principles still apply.

Also, if you’ve been gulping gallons of protein shakes, it’s important to note that protein alone will not do the job. Sure, you need protein to provide the amino acid building blocks for muscle, but carbohydrates are an essential part of muscle gain and maintenance, too. Not only do carbs help fuel your workouts, so you can train harder, but afterwards, they stimulate insulin, which helps push the amino acids into the muscle cells. Then continuing to eat enough throughout the day helps you hang onto that new muscle.

Eat More Often

Sometimes the mountain of food you need to eat may seem daunting. So rather than increasing the size of your meals, try adding more high-calorie snacks into your day. Plan to eat 6 to 8 meals and snacks, spaced 2 to 3 hours apart to prevent your body from burning the precious calories from your last meal. Your body can only absorb small amounts of protein at one time, so by spreading your calories and protein throughout the day, you’ll maximize muscle growth.

Pay particular attention to the snacks before and after your training—eat a pre-workout snack, and always have a recovery snack that delivers “fast” whey protein along with carbs to take advantage of the one-hour window of opportunity when your muscles are the most “hungry.” Just before bedtime, a high-protein snack or shake that provides “slow” casein protein can also help to ensure your muscles continue to grow overnight.

Eat More Efficiently

Another way to eat more, without feeling stuffed, is to make every mouthful count by focusing on foods loaded with healthy calories. Add honey and maple syrup to pancakes and toast, milk and 100-percent whey protein to your smoothies, fruit and yogurt, or even eggs, to your oatmeal. Snack on fruit, dried fruit, and nuts. Make your liquids count, too—instead of water, drink low-fat milk or juice with meals, and sip sports drinks during your workouts.

Eat More Consistently

Some people seem to burn through food like highly efficient, calorie-crunching machines—even just a few skipped snacks can set them back quickly. If that sounds like you, it’s a good idea to invest a few minutes each week in meal planning, grocery list making, and shopping. This will make knowing what to eat next easy, which can help to prevent missed meals and improve the odds of you making a healthy choice. Get organized and keep snacks in your gym bag, work bag, desk drawer, and car. That way, you won’t be caught without anything to eat, and can keep munching toward your goals.

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