8 High Calorie Muscle-building Foods

Looking to gain lean muscle and carve an athletic physique? You should be doing all the resistance training you can fit in. But, remember, it’s not all about the right exercises.

You might not know this, but strength training without adequate nutrition, especially if you’re lacking in protein, can lead to loss of muscle tissue – the complete opposite of what you’re likely trying to achieve!

No matter how hard you train or what type of training routine you follow, it’s all a little unproductive if you don’t give your body what it needs to cultivate muscle tissue.

To optimally build muscle mass, it’s essential to create a calorie surplus – the process where you consume more calories than you burn1. It’s also important to give your body what it needs in terms of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats.

In this guide, we take a closer look at some of the best high calorie muscle-building foods you should add to your diet. High in protein and packed full of nutrients and minerals that your body needs to nurture healthy muscle growth, these foods should be a staple in any muscle-building fitness program.

First let’s explore some basics.

Why protein for muscle-building?

Protein is one of the most important nutrients for building muscle. It has a hand in maintaining all types of body tissue including muscle.

Research shows that eating an ample amount of protein can help boost muscle mass and strength2 3. What’s more, it can also help prevent muscle loss if you’re trying to lose weight4.

When you eat protein, your body breaks the protein down into amino acids. Those amino acids are then used to repair and grow new muscle5. Protein should be consumed throughout the day rather than at a single meal.

It’s not all about protein though.

Carbs for muscle growth

Protein generally gets the credit for its ability to help you build lean mass, but it’s important to not forget about your carb intake – your body’s main source of energy6.

Carbohydrates are equally important for fueling your muscles. When you eat carbs, they get converted into glycogen, a form of energy stored in your muscles, which helps you power through intense workouts that can result in bigger, stronger muscles.

Good quality carbs that provide dietary fiber are ones to focus on in your diet. Complex carbs like whole grains, beans and vegetables are slow to digest and can provide sustained energy levels for a longer period of time7.

Now that we’ve gone through the basics, here are 8 of the best high-calorie foods to help you gain muscle, the healthy way.

8 of the best muscle-building foods

  1. Milk

Milk provides a healthy balance of proteins, carbs and fats alongside calcium and vitamin B128. One cup of cow’s milk provides 146 calories, 8 grams of protein and 8 grams of fat9.

You’ll find two types of protein in milk – casein and whey, both of which are considered high-quality proteins.

Casein makes up the majority, at 70-80% of the total protein content. On the other hand, whey delivers around 20%10. Whey protein is packed with branched-chain amino acids, including leucine and valine which are significant when it comes to building muscle and preventing muscle loss11 12.

Consuming a good amount of milk has been evidenced to better overall physical performance in adults, as well as greater total-body muscle mass13.

Muscle-building Foods - Peanut butter

  1. Nuts and nut butter

If you’re looking to bulk up, nuts and butters are a great but healthy diet addition. Just ¼ cup of raw almonds contains 170 calories, 6 grams of protein, 15 grams of fat and 4 grams of fiber.

Nuts are incredibly nutritious too, with vitamins like zinc, vitamin E and selenium found in most14 15. They’re packed with antioxidants and flavonoids which can contribute to overall wellbeing and health16. Nuts and nut butters are also high in useful nutrients such as magnesium, which could help you max your muscle power during tough workouts. Magnesium is known for regulating muscle contractions and preventing muscle spasms and cramp17.

You’ll also find a good amount of iron in nuts, which is vital for producing myoglobin, the protein that carries and stores oxygen in muscle tissues18. Having healthy iron levels can equal stronger, harder workouts, muscles working to their full capacity and better growth.

Nuts are ideal if you’re constantly on-the-go or need a quick pick-me-up after a heavy weight session. You could snack on several different types and not go wrong.

3. Beef

Beef cuts provide a high-calorie, muscle-building combination of protein, essential amino acids, B-vitamins, and creatine19 20. 3 ounces of 85% lean ground beef provides 218 calories, 24 grams of protein and 13 grams of fat21.

Studies show that eating lean red meat can boost lean mass gains alongside weight training22. Red meats, like beef, are some of the best sources of natural dietary creatine, the number one muscle building supplement23.

You can get a good source of protein from both lean and fatty meats, though fatty meat is higher in calories and could help you bulk. If you’d like a fatty beef dish, choose brisket – it contains 300 calories per 3-ounce serving.

  1. Cottage cheese

This popular curd cheese is a common staple in many bodybuilder diets and is typically eaten before bed to help reduce muscle breakdown.

One cup of 1% fat cottage cheese provides 163 calories, 28 grams protein, 6.2 grams of carbs and 2.3 grams of fat. You’ll also find a selection of minerals like selenium, vitamin B12, riboflavin and calcium24.

Because of its protein content, cottage cheese is useful for helping to increase muscle mass. Casein makes up 80% of its protein amount and contributes towards muscle building by inhibiting muscle breakdown. Casein is absorbed slowly and releases amino acids at a steady rate to help with building mass25 26.

  1. Brown rice

Brown rice contains complex carbs and a multitude of minerals to support your health. One cup of brown rice delivers 216 calories, 5 grams protein, 44 grams carbohydrates and 3.5 grams fiber27.

You also get a number of vitamins and minerals from brown rice, including iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc. One particular mineral, manganese, is found in high quantities and is crucial for many body processes like muscle contraction metabolism, nerve function and blood sugar regulation28.

You’ll want to opt for brown rice over white rice when trying to build muscle because it has a much higher nutritional value. It has a complex carb content so it takes longer to break down and can provide longer lasting energy.

Brown rice can deliver sustained energy to help you dominate your workouts and push your muscles harder.

Muscle-building Foods - Eggs

6. Eggs

Packed with high-quality protein, healthy fats, B vitamins and choline, eggs should be an important part of your nutrition if you’re serious about bulking.  

One large egg provides 77 calories, 6 grams protein and 5 grams of healthy fats, alongside vitamin A, vitamin B12 and selenium29. Eggs also contain generous amounts of vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin K, vitamin B6, calcium and zinc.

Eggs contain all the essential amino acids, in particular leucine, in all the right ratios30. This means your body can make full use of the protein content in eggs and deliver it to the muscles that need it most.

7. Oily fish

Many people forget that fish is another high protein food source and, not only does it contribute to muscle growth, but it can protect your health too. Oily fish like salmon and sardines are some of the best and well-known and provide healthy fatty acids like omega-3.

One 6-ounce fillet of wild salmon provides 250 calories, 37 grams protein and 12 grams of healthy fats which all contribute to healthy muscle growth31.

Oily fish is known for its healthy fat content which can benefit bodybuilders and athletes. Omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA are found in high amounts in oily fish and can reduce muscle soreness, swelling and the onset of DOMS32. This means improved workout quality, performance and more chance of stronger, harder workouts. And stronger, harder workouts equal better muscle growth.

Research shows that men who supplement with fish oil too may even increase lower-body muscle strength33.

8. Avocados

This stone fruit is known for providing healthy fats, beneficial for skin health, heart health and even the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

When it comes to building muscle, avocadoes might surprise you. A single 3.5 ounce serving of avocado contains 160 calories, 2 grams protein, 15 grams of healthy fats and a selection of vitamins34.

Avocados are an excellent source of vitamins C, E, and K as well as riboflavin, magnesium and potassium. They also contain lutein, beta-carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids35.

Regularly eating avocadoes may improve the natural production of growth hormone and testosterone – a key component of muscle building. This is because of their healthy fat content. Research tells us that men who consume diets low in fat may have lower T levels than those who have a fat-plentiful diet36. Healthy fats may help to keep testosterone levels topped up37, ensuring optimal muscle is built.

The bottom line

Building muscle isn’t all about lifting the bar in the gym – you need to nail the nutrition to get it right. But it doesn’t need to be difficult or all about protein shakes.

There are many foods that can provide your body with exactly what it needs to gain lean mass. If you’re not sure where to start, try adding these 8 eight muscle-buidling foods to your diet to make real progress with your muscle building and cultivating your own pro athlete physique.

Remember to focus on a good mix of protein and carbohydrates, as well as enough essential vitamins and minerals for maximum performance, energy and recovery.

Hydration is also a critical factor when it comes to cutting fat, growing muscle and promoting recovery after intense workouts.