Protein is important for building muscle, but other nutrients play an important role as well.
If you were to ask most people what it takes to build muscle, they’d probably say that you just need to eat protein, protein and more protein. Protein is important, to be sure. After all, your muscles are made of protein, and your body requires adequate protein in the diet in order to have the building blocks it needs to build up muscle mass. But protein alone won’t do. You need to pay attention to the rest of your diet as well.
A lot of men who are trying to bulk up are also trying to lose body fat at the same time. But sometimes the approaches they use to meet those goals are at odds with each other. They’ll take in plenty of protein, which, when coupled with a strength training routine, should lead to more lean mass. But they may also cut their total calories back too far in an effort to get “shredded.”
That can be a problem. If you cut your calories too much, some of the protein that you eat is going to be burned for fuel, rather than being used to support muscle development. So, to effectively build muscle mass, you want to ensure that you have enough calories to support your activity, and the right balance of nutrients, too.
Many bodybuilders see carbs as the enemy, and that can be a mistake. Yes, highly refined carbohydrates and sweets hardly do the body good. But the right carbohydrates found in whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables help to fuel activity, including working muscles. Without adequate carbohydrate to fuel your exercise, some of the protein you’re eating might get burned for fuel. So, to avoid “burning the candle at both ends,” make sure to include enough high-quality carbs in your diet.
Dietary fat is sometimes underappreciated by some athletes. Like carbs, fats may have an undeserved bad reputation. Small amounts of the right kinds of fats are really important. That’s because certain fatty acids, the building blocks of dietary fats, are essential because the body can’t make them. Fatty acids are a vital structural component of every cell membrane, including muscle cells. The body relies on fat to fuel moderate intensity, longer-term exercise. That’s just the type of exercise that might be coupled with a strength-training regimen to build mass and lose body fat. Focus on the “good” sources, like nuts, seeds, fish, olive oil and avocado.
Eating the right amount of protein is important for stimulating muscle development, and so is the timing of protein intake. The process of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is stimulated by strength training activity. But it’s also stimulated when you eat protein. This is one reason that strength-training athletes should aim to spread their protein intake fairly evenly over meals and snacks throughout the day. MPS is greater under these conditions than it is under a more typical pattern in which little protein is consumed in the morning, a bit more at lunch and then a large amount at dinner. And a bedtime snack containing about 25g of protein can help to stimulate MPS during the night.
Both plant and animal sources provide the necessary building blocks for MPS. “Fast-digesting” proteins are high in the amino acid leucine, found in a range of both plant and animal proteins. This includes soy, poultry, fish, nuts, seeds and beans, all of which stimulate MPS. And more slowly digested proteins, such as egg and milk proteins, may help to prolong the MPS process.
At this point, there’s nothing to suggest that “fast” proteins are better than “slow” proteins, or vice versa. What’s more important to know is that protein needs can be met from both plant and animal sources. With careful planning and attention to total intake, even vegetarians or vegans can consume enough protein to support muscle development.