Deciding how to approach your diet for optimal muscle growth can be a challenging and frustrating experience. Fortunately, there is a way to make it easier and less complex.
The best diet for lean muscle building includes enough protein but also provides carbs that support performance and fats, which are crucial for overall health, well-being, and hormone balance. You must also consume the right amount of calories, which will depend on your gender, activity level, and other factors.
Of course, there are several essential things you must consider for an effective lean muscle-building diet that helps you reach your goals without just gaining a bunch of fat.
The Basics Of a Lean Muscle-Building Diet
1. Adequate Calorie Intake
Building muscle while eating at maintenance or even in a slight calorie deficit is possible. The latter is known as a body recomposition.
However, these options work primarily for beginners, de-trained lifters, and those taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). The average trainee looking to build muscle will get the best results by staying in a slight calorie surplus and gaining weight steadily.
The optimal rate of weight gain will depend on several factors, including the trainee’s experience. Here are some guidelines for monthly weight gain:
- Beginner - 2 to 2.5 percent of body weight
- Early intermediate - 1.5 to 2 percent of body weight
- Intermediate - 1 to 1.5 percent of body weight
- Advanced - 0.5 to 1 percent of body weight
The average trainee will do best on a slight surplus of 150 to 250 calories. For example, if your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is 3,000 calories (click for calculator), aim for 3,150-3,250 calories daily.
2. Enough Protein
Protein provides the building blocks (amino acids) your body needs to build muscle. Not eating enough of the nutrient would mean your body lacks the raw materials to build and maintain muscle.
According to research, a good protein intake is 0.8 to 1 gram per pound of body weight (1.6 to 2.2 grams per kilo). For example, someone who weighs 180 lbs should consume 144 to 180 grams of protein daily. We’ll go over some great protein sources in the following points.
3. Balance Between Carbs and Fats
You need an adequate carb and dietary fat intake for different reasons.
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for your body. They support your gym performance, replenish lost glycogen, and contribute to overall recovery because of their impact on muscle protein synthesis. Carbs also affect your energy levels, well-being, and cognition.
Fats don’t have the same acute impact on performance or recovery, but they are necessary for healthy hormone levels, brain health, the absorption of certain nutrients (such as vitamin A), and more.
Plus, fats are more energy dense (nine calories per gram as opposed to four calories from protein and carbs) and improve food’s taste and texture.
I recommend shooting for 0.35 to 0.45 grams of fats per pound of body weight. For example, if you weigh 180 lbs, aim for 63 to 81 grams daily. As for carbs, get your remaining calories from the nutrient.
In other words, track your protein, fats, and carbs. So long as you’re within range, your carbs will sort themselves out automatically.
4. A Healthy Approach to Eating
The final piece of the lean muscle-building diet puzzle is one most people don’t consider: food choices.
One common approach is the if it fits your macros (IIFYM) model, where trainees solely focus on hitting their macronutrient goals without thinking about their food choices.
The problem is that this kind of thinking often leads people to consume too many processed foods and rely too much on supplements like whey protein powder.
Just because you’re trying to build muscle doesn’t mean you should disregard common sense and not think about your diet and its impact on your health. Because of that, I urge you to eat mostly whole and minimally-processed foods.
Treat yourself to cookies, ice cream, potato chips, and similar foods occasionally, but get at least 80 percent of your daily calories from lean meats, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, etc.
Click here to get a FREE quick start guide on flexible dieting.
Healthy Foods You Should Eat For Muscle Gain
Now that we’ve gone over the basics of a lean muscle-building diet, let’s review some food suggestions.
I’ve divided these based on the primary nutrient you would get. For example, meats are under protein, but they also typically provide some dietary fat, so keep that in mind. The same goes for grains. While many are rich in carbs, they also supply small amounts of protein.
- Meat (beef, pork, lamb, elk, etc.)
- Poultry (chicken, turkey, duck, etc.)
- Fish and seafood (salmon, tilapia, cod, herring, tuna, shrimp, octopus, lobster, crab, etc.)
- Dairy (Greek yogurt, skyr, milk, cottage cheese, cheese, etc.)
Beans, seeds, and nuts can also provide protein and boost your daily intake. Additionally, consider a protein powder supplement, such as whey, casein, beef, or plant-based, to get some extra protein if you struggle to cover the bare minimum of 0.7-0.8 grams per pound of body weight.
When picking protein sources, be mindful of the fat content because it can vary significantly between seemingly identical foods. For example, a 3-ounce serving of lean beef has around 170 calories, whereas the same amount of fatty beef can have 210-240 calories.
The same goes for other meat (e.g., chicken breast vs. thigh), dairy (e.g., full-fat vs. skim), fish (e.g., salmon vs. cod), and more.
- Grain products (rice, quinoa, oats, bread, pasta, cereal, etc.)
- Starchy vegetables (carrots, potatoes, corn, peas, etc.)
- Fruits (apples, bananas, pears, berries, melons, oranges, etc.)
- Legumes (beans, nuts, lentils, peas, etc.)
It’s best to stick to whole and minimally-processed foods. For example, when going for cereals, pick those with fewer ingredients and less sugar.
While all carbs essentially turn to glucose for the body, the source still matters. A candy bar and an oatmeal bowl might provide carbs, but the candy bar lacks nutritional value and causes a massive spike in blood sugar levels.
In contrast, oatmeal is rich in essential nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. On top of that, it digests more slowly, releasing glucose more steadily into the bloodstream.
- Fatty fish (tuna, salmon, herring, mackerel, trout, etc.)
- Nuts (peanuts, almonds, cashews, etc.)
- Seeds (sunflower, flaxseeds, chia, pumpkin, etc.)
- Nut and seed butter
- Natural oils (extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, etc.)
- Dark chocolate (at least 70 percent cocoa)
Like protein and carbs, it’s best to get your dietary fats from various sources and ensure an adequate intake of fatty fish. The reason is that fatty fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial to our health.
The Best Diet for Lean Muscle Building: A Full Day of Eating
Medium or large one
One to 1.5 cups
Calories: around 660
Protein: 43 grams
Carbs: 92 grams
Fats: 13 grams
Lean beef steak
Green salad mix
Calories: around 750
Protein: 55 grams
Carbs: 105 grams
Fats: 12 grams
Whole grain bread
Calories: around 1030
Protein: 31 grams
Carbs: 159 grams
Fats: 30 grams
Brown rice (cooked)
Ice cream (flavor of choice)
Protein: 78 grams
Carbs: 106 grams
Fats: 24 grams
Total for the day
Protein: 207 grams
Carbs: 462 grams
Fats: 79 grams
Tracking Your Diet And Making Adjustments When Necessary
1. Use MyFitnessPal
MyFitnessPal is a simple and elegant app that makes tracking your calories and macronutrients almost effortless. With its rich database of foods, you can log almost anything and use the barcode scanner when consuming packaged goods.
The app does all the calculations for you instead of you having to add up things manually.
For best results, use a kitchen scale to weigh your cooked food. You can eyeball food amounts but expect a degree of inaccuracy, depending on how experienced you are with tracking your food intake.
2. Track Weekly Weight Averages
Step on a scale at least four times per week, record the values down to 0.1 of an lb or kilogram and calculate the average for the week. Compare how your body weight changes weekly to determine if you’re on the right track.
It’s best to weigh yourself in the morning and on an empty stomach after going to the bathroom. Consistent weigh-ins will ensure greater accuracy.
3. Take Circumference Measures
Using a tape measure to determine the circumference of several body parts is another effective way to tell if you’re growing effectively.
It’s best to measure your:
- Chest - at the nipple line
- Upper arm - widest point; bicep peak
- Three finger-widths above the navel
- At navel
- Three finger-widths below the navel
- Thigh - the widest point when flexed
- Calves - the widest point when flexed (optional)
- Forearms - the widest point when flexed (optional)
Take these under the same conditions each time––ideally, in the morning and on an empty stomach. Measure yourself once every three to four weeks and compare the values.
4. Keep Track of Your Gym Performance
We all know that progressive overload, the act of doing increasingly more challenging training and subjecting your muscles to greater physical stress, is crucial for ongoing progress.
Doing the same workouts week after week is a good way to stay the same and not see the growth you desire.
So, it’s crucial to track your gym performance to ensure you’re making steady progress:
- Lifting more weight
- Doing more reps with the same weight
- Doing more total sets
- Doing more reps on bodyweight exercises while gaining weight
One option is to use an app. I’m a big fan of Hevy because of its simple interface and the ability to track my exercises, how many sets/reps I perform, and my RPE. It also has the option to track recovery periods and other neat features.
5. Make Adjustments When Necessary
The final step in the process is crucial. After all, we measure everything to know when changes are necessary.
First, it’s worth noting that you shouldn’t change your diet too frequently or too much. Make small changes only when you’re sure they are necessary.
For example, if you increase your calorie intake now, don’t bump it again next week. Instead, give your body at least two to three weeks to see if the new intake is enough or if you need more calories to continue gaining weight and, hopefully, building muscle.
Second, continue tracking your body weight, circumference measures, gym performance, and diet as you go along to ensure accuracy. Tracking more metrics provides more actionable data to know if you’re on the right track.
When tweaking your diet, I recommend adding or removing 100 to 200 calories at a time. They should primarily come from protein and carbs, but you can also enjoy more dietary fats (up to 0.45-0.5 grams per pound of body weight).
Frequently Asked Questions
What should I eat to gain lean muscle?
Here are the key pieces of a good lean muscle-building diet:
- Protein for growth and recovery (beef, pork, chicken, turkey, salmon, tilapia, herring, tuna, crab, eggs, cottage cheese, etc.)
- Carbs for energy and recovery (rice, quinoa, oats, bread, pasta, cereal, carrots, potatoes, corn, peas, apples, beans, nuts, lentils, peas, etc.)
- Fats for overall health and well-being (fatty fish, nuts, seeds, natural oils, avocado, eggs, etc.)
- A slight calorie surplus of 150 to 250 calories per day
- A meal frequency that fits your preferences and schedule
How much should I eat to build lean muscle?
The correct food intake for muscle gain will vary from person to person and depend on factors like gender, age, level of muscular development, physical activity, etc.
Ideally, you should aim for a slight surplus of 150 to 250 calories over your TDEE. You can use this calculator to determine your calorie needs for muscle gain.
What foods to avoid when building lean muscle?
Here is a list of foods and beverages to avoid when looking to build muscle and improve your health:
- Sugary beverages (sports and energy drinks, sodas, fruit juices, etc.)
- Store-bought baked goods (cinnamon rolls, croissants, cookies, muffins, etc.)
- Savory snacks (potato chips, sausage rolls, crisps, etc.)
- Frozen and microwave-ready meals
Treating yourself to some guilty pleasures from time to time isn’t the end of the world, but limit your intake of such foods.
How to eat to gain muscle and stay lean?
How well you build muscle while staying relatively lean depends on your genetics. The only thing you can do is to maintain a slight calorie surplus and aim for steady weight gain of no more than 1.5 percent of your body weight per week (if you’re intermediate).
There you have it:
Everything you need to know to put together an effective lean muscle-building diet. As you can see, the process isn’t that complex, and you certainly don’t need fancy supplements to see good results.
You must experiment with your approach and tweak your diet until you develop something that works for you, allowing you to stay consistent in the long run.
Building muscle takes time, which means consistency and dedication over multiple months will be necessary for you to see any results.
Click here to get a FREE quick start guide on flexible dieting.