Whether you undertake workout routines to aid weight loss, increase your fitness or improve your performance in sport, your muscles make this possible; they support your skeleton and allow movement. Taking part in regular exercise allows your muscle mass to increase, accompanied by an increase in muscle strength and power; not only does this provide you with greater endurance during activity and a reduced risk of injury, but metabolic rate increases which is beneficial to anyone wishing to lose weight. However, if one of the aims of your workout is to specifically increase your muscle mass, exercise alone will not ensure this; what you eat also plays an important role in aiding muscle gain and thanks to myths, the right balance of nutrients is not as obvious as you might think.

The question of protein intake

Ask anyone what you need to build muscle mass and the top answer given would usually be to eat extra protein. However, this is a misconception. While your body does need adequate protein to maintain muscle mass and aid muscle gain, eating more than your body can use will not increase the size of your muscles further. As a guide, a very active individual seeking to increase their muscle mass should aim for 0.8g of protein for every pound of their body weight. This compares to 0.4g of protein for an inactive individual, so most people taking part in activity should aim for a protein intake between these figures. Eating above 1g of protein per pound of body weight is excessive and will only force your kidneys to work harder to excrete the unused protein from the body; over time this can put a strain on the kidneys and lead to long-term damage.

Lean red meat, poultry, eggs and low fat dairy produce are all good sources of protein; avoid fatty meats such as burgers and sausage, pies and full fat dairy produce, as these are high in saturated fat, which raises cholesterol. However, protein need not come from animal sources. Strict vegetarians who choose to obtain their protein from pulses (peas, beans and lentils), soya products, grains, seeds and nuts can still obtain adequate protein. All that is needed in this case, is to ensure that a mix of different protein sources is included each day to make sure all the essential amino acids are received, which are the building blocks of proteins; soya contains all essential amino acids so is an ideal inclusion in an entirely plant-based diet. Whether protein is obtained from animal or plant sources, it should be included with each meal and if extra is required to meet the recommended intake above, snacks such as nuts, yogurt or a small bowl of muesli with milk can help provide the additional protein.

Adequate protein intake should be possible through a balanced diet, but if you struggle to achieve this, protein shakes and bars are available; if you do choose to use these check the labels for their protein content to avoid exceeding the suggested daily protein intake. A more economical option to a protein supplement is to add non-fat dried milk powder to food and drinks; it works well added to milky drinks, soups, sauces, cereals and milk-based desserts.

Carbohydrate and energy

In the knowledge that it isn’t extra protein that will see your muscle mass increase, you might be left wondering which additional dietary component is needed. The answer is carbohydrates, which provide the extra calories needed to increase muscle size. This group of nutrients is the body’s preferred energy source and our diet should provide around 50% of our calories from these. There are two types of carbohydrate – complex and simple. Complex carbohydrates should be included at each meal and include cereals, bread, pasta, rice and potatoes; higher fibre versions of these should be included where possible. Meanwhile simple carbohydrates include sugar, syrup, honey, candies and soft drinks, along with any other foods you would consider to be sweet. An extra 500 calories daily from carbohydrates would be required to build a pound of muscle each week, which might be the aim of an athlete or someone body building; including just 100 extra calories daily (equivalent to a slice of bread) when combined with activity would still see your muscle mass increase each month. Choose to increase your intake of complex carbohydrates and fruit rather than eating more sweet foods, as the latter tends to provide few nutrients beyond sugar. Remember that you are only aiming to increase your calorie intake by a small proportion of your daily intake, as without vigorous activity an excess beyond this will only be converted to and stored as fat; it therefore isn’t an excuse to eat what you like.

If muscle gain is an aim of your workouts, but you are not achieving the results you had hoped for, don’t be tempted to increase your repetitions further or use steroids. Instead, review your dietary intake of protein and carbohydrate to check you are receiving the right balance to increase muscle mass.

This guest post is provided by Christine Redpath