But that doesn't mean visiting the nearest fast-food drive-through. No, because you have to eat smart. You need protein, healthy fats, the right kinds of carbs, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antioxidants – and you need them in the proper amounts and in the right ratios. Fortunately, there are a select few whole, natural foods that, collectively, provide all of the above to help you gain the right kind of weight: lean muscle. The following 15 foods fall in this category. They’re the best of the best. Incorporate them into your diet, add a healthy dose of intense training and watch the muscle add up.


An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but it will also keep fat away while making you bigger and stronger. Apples not only supply a good source of slow-digesting carbs — which makes them great to eat before workouts — but they’re also a rich source of apple polyphenols. Research from Japan has shown that these specialized polyphenols increase muscle strength and endurance. One way they’re believed to boost endurance is by increasing the amount of fat the body burns, which spares muscle glycogen, helping you stay stronger for longer. The apple polyphenols appear to stimulate the activity of genes that increase fat burning so that you gain lean muscle, not bodyfat. The antioxidant properties of these polyphenols also have been shown to aid muscle recovery.

  • Serving Size: 1 apple
  • Nutrients: 110 calories, 0 g protein, 30 g carbs (slow-digesting), 0 g fat
  • Value Added: Approximately 200 milligrams apple polyphenols


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 BEEF (Organic) 

Beef is a great bodybuilding food because of its high protein, cholesterol and saturated fat content, all of which help increase testosterone levels. But red meat becomes even more of a superfood when you choose organic cuts, especially those from grass-fed cattle, which contain more conjugated linoleic acid than traditionally raised cattle. CLA, a healthy fat, helps you shed more bodyfat on top of providing a boost in size and strength. Going organic also provides more omega-3 fatty acids, which will further boost muscle mass and strength. (See the section on salmon for more information on omega-3 fats.) Is buying organic beef a bit more expensive? Yes, but it’s well worth the splurge.

Saturated fat and cholesterol can raise testosterone levels, but too much of these good things can produce size where you don’t want it: namely, around your gut. When you’re craving a nice, juicy steak, select a lean cut such as top sirloin instead of a fatty rib eye. Although it contains less fat, sirloin still provides enough saturated fat and cholesterol to sufficiently feed your muscles.

  • Serving Size: 8 oz 90% lean ground organic beef 
  • Nutrients: 392 calories, 48 g protein, 0 g carbs, 24 g fat 
  • Value Added: 8 oz serving of grass-fed beef provides 2½ g CLA, more than twice that of conventionally raised beef


This unlikely muscle food is just that for two simple reasons: betaine and nitrates. Beets are rich in both and can give you a significant boost in the gym. Betaine (a.k.a. trimethylglycine) not only enhances liver and joint function but also has been shown to bolster muscular strength and power. Nitrates contribute to the production of nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels to help widen them and allow more blood to flow through. Greater blood flow equals more amino acids, glucose and oxygen to the muscles, which equals more energy in the gym and better recovery. In other words, consuming beets and beetroot juice can make you bigger and stronger.

  • Serving Size: 1 cup beetroot juice 
  • Nutrients: 100 calories, 2 g protein, 23 g carbs, 0 g fat 
  • Value Added: betaine and NO production


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Free radicals will damage muscle cells and sidetrack your lifting progress in a hurry, so they need to be destroyed. And no fruit or vegetable is better at destroying them than blueberries. Blueberries are super at this task because they’re loaded with anthocyanidin, a potent antioxidant phytochemical that zaps free radicals and offers the bonus of boosting brain function. In a recent study published in the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, damaged muscle tissue was combined with different fruit extracts. The blueberry extract alleviated the damage better than the other fruits. This damage control equates to faster muscle recovery and thus greater growth potential. (Just don’t take blueberries with dairy products — they blunt the uptake of the fruit’s antioxidants.)

  • Serving Size: 1 cup blueberries 
  • Nutrients: 83 calories, 1 g protein, 21 g carbs, 0 g fat 
  • Value Added: 150 mg anthocyanidins


Even if your taste buds don’t like broccoli, the rest of your body does. First of all, broccoli is a great cancer fighter due to the chemical antioxidant sulforaphane that forms when you chew the veggie. Reducing cancer risk is reason enough to include it as a superfood, but broccoli is also a great bodybuilding food because it reduces the strength of estrogens in the body via the phytochemical indole-3-carbinol that gets converted in the body to 3,3’-diindolylmethane. But don’t worry — you don’t have to memorize these names. Keep it simple. High estrogen: bad. High testosterone: good. Regular consumption of broccoli: great!

  • Serving Size: 1 cup broccoli 
  • Nutrients: 31 calories, 3 g protein, 6 g carbs, 0 g fat 
  • Value Added: 100 mg I3C, 1,200-4,000 micrograms sulforaphane, more than 80 mg vitamin C, over 40 mg calcium



All cheese starts out the way cottage cheese does: as a big mash of milk and enzymes that cause the milk to curdle. Although other cheeses get drained, pressed and aged, cottage cheese remains in this nascent form. Much of the whey (the milky liquid that you’ll sometimes find at the bottom of the container) is removed, which means cottage cheese is a fantastic source of casein, the slow-digesting protein that will keep catabolism at bay during long periods between meals or overnight. This is why we recommend a nightly cup of cottage cheese. Another reason: it’s also high in glutamine, which can increase growth hormone levels. We suggest you spend your money on organic cottage cheese, as research shows it’s higher in omega-3 fats and the healthy fat CLA than the nonorganic variety. (CLA increases muscle mass and strength while simultaneously helping to drop bodyfat.) Also, do not choose fat-free cottage cheese. Stick with regular or low fat instead; the saturated fat present is important for keeping testosterone levels high.

  • Serving Size: 1 cup 2% cottage cheese 
  • Nutrients: 200 calories, 30 g protein, 8 g carbs, 5 g fat
  • Value Added: casein (slow-digesting protein) and 6 g glutamine


It’s not just the protein that makes the egg one of the most perfect foods a bodybuilder can eat. The cholesterol in the yolk — previously considered an evil ingredient — has positive benefits as well, such as maintaining muscle cell membranes and keeping testosterone levels high. And research shows that eating whole eggs provides a boost in both lean mass and strength. In one study, a low-cholesterol diet led to significantly less strength and muscle gains than a high-cholesterol diet. In another — from Texas A&M University in 2007 — those who ate three whole eggs a day while following a lifting regimen experienced double the mass and strength gains of those who ate one or no eggs daily. What’s more, University of Connecticut (Storrs) researchers found that subjects who took in 640 mg of extra cholesterol per day from eggs actually had a decrease in LDL (bad) cholesterol.

  • Serving Size: 3 whole eggs 
  • Nutrients: 222 calories, 18 g protein, 1 g carbs, 15 g fat 
  • Value Added: 640 mg of extra cholesterol per day from eggs can decrease LDL cholesterol



Candy is dandy, but only after training. If the carbs you consume immediately following workouts digest quickly, the better your recovery and muscle growth will be. When carbs digest rapidly, their sugar is immediately deposited into your bloodstream, which causes a huge spike in insulin. This anabolic hormone drives the sugar, not to mention the amino acids and creatine from your postworkout shake, into your muscles. Insulin also turns on protein synthesis inside the muscle fibers to boost muscle growth even further. Dextrose is the fastest sugar you can eat — it quickly gets absorbed and goes immediately into your bloodstream. Wonka Pixy Stix is among the few candies that use dextrose as its only sugar. Another good option is Wonka Sweet Tarts — this candy also uses mainly dextrose.

  • Serving Size: 7 (16 g) Pixy Stix straws 
  • Nutrients: 60 calories, 0 g protein, 15 g carbs, 0 g fat 
  • Value Added: 15 g simple (fast-digesting) sugar


This is a food similar to broccoli, although technically it’s more closely related to an onion. Garlic is known for its numerous health benefits — including fighting cancer, heart disease and the common cold — but it is also great for the muscle-minded community. Garlic helps stimulate testosterone production and inhibit the muscle-wasting hormone cortisol, making it a great preworkout fuel. On top of that, garlic also increases fat burning and muscle recovery.

  • Serving Size: 1 clove 
  • Nutrients: 4 calories, 0 g protein, 1 g carbs, 0 g fat  
  • Value Added: stimulates testosterone production and fat burning



Quinoa dominates over most other whole grain because it has something the others don’t: lysine, which is one of the nine essential amino acids you must get from your diet because your body can’t synthesize it. Although other grains have some lysine content, it’s not enough to count; quinoa’s content is sufficient to be considered a complete protein, which means if you make quinoa the side dish to your chicken breast, you’re not only getting all the benefits that a whole grain offers — reduced insulin levels, increased satiety, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, improved gastrointestinal health — but also an extra serving of high-quality protein. Research has even found that eating quinoa was associated with an increase in levels of insulin-like growth factor-1, which is critical for muscle growth.

  • Serving Size: 1 cup cooked quinoa 
  • Nutrients: 222 calories, 8 g protein, 39 g carbs, 4 g fat 
  • Value Added: boosts protein content of a meal, increases IGF-I and contains 5 g fiber


The fact that salmon is loaded with relatively quick-digesting protein makes it a great muscle food to begin with. But what truly sets salmon apart is its rich content of the essential omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, respectively). Let’s count the reasons these fats are must-haves in a bodybuilding diet. Research has shown that consuming higher levels of omega-3s will result in greater muscle strength; omega-3s have been shown to enhance insulin sensitivity, thereby enhancing protein synthesis and greater glucose and amino acid uptake by the muscles, which promotes growth; because these fats are readily burned for fuel, muscle glycogen is spared, as is muscle; omega-3s enhance muscle and joint recovery, thus leading to more growth and helping keep you injury free so your training can remain intense. Are those enough reasons to eat salmon?

When you’re at a restaurant, if the menu says “salmon,” you probably can’t go wrong. But when shopping at the grocery store, we recommend you spend a little extra cash to get wild (Pacific) salmon. This version has a more favorable ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.

  • Serving Size: 8 oz salmon 
  • Nutrients: 416 calories, 45 g protein, 0 g carbs, 24 g fat 
  • Value Added: almost 5 g omega-3s in 8 oz



Like other leafy greens, spinach has antioxidants, which are great for boosting health in all segments of the population, but bodybuilders will appreciate a couple other ingredients found in Popeye’s favorite food. Spinach contains glutamine, the popular amino acid that supports muscle growth, increases growth hormone levels and metabolic rate, and bolsters the immune system. Beta-ecdysterone, a phytochemical that stimulates protein synthesis, is also present in spinach.

  • Serving Size: 5 oz raw spinach 
  • Nutrients: 33 calories, 4 g protein, 5 g carbs, 0.5 g fat 
  • Value Added: 6 g fiber


Even when you’re looking to grow bigger and stronger, great things can come in small packages. Sunflower seeds are a good source of healthy fats and vitamin E, but they also provide a trio of bodybuilding allies: arginine, glutamine and betaine. The last is beneficial for those taking the creatine precursor glycocyamine, as betaine helps convert it to creatine. And, of course, for baseball players, it’s a much better dugout treat than tobacco.

  • Serving Size: ¼ cup shelled sunflower seeds 
  • Nutrients: 170 calories, 7 g protein, 5 g carbs, 15 g fat V
  • alue Added: 30 g fiber, almost 3 g glutamine, almost 1 g arginine



Nuts in general are healthy foods, but they’re not all created equal. The walnut is the only one that’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids. All others have good monounsaturated fat content, but, unfortunately, not omega-3s. These fats, as previously discussed, are major players when it comes to packing on muscle and boosting strength. Almonds and peanuts are good, but walnuts are truly a cut above.

  • Serving Size: 1 oz walnuts (about 14 walnut halves) 
  • Nutrients: 185 calories, 4 g protein, 4 g carbs, 18 g fat  
  • Value Added: almost 3 g omega-3 fats


Wheat germ is loaded with good stuff: zinc, iron, selenium, potassium, B vitamins, branched-chain amino acids, arginine, glutamine and fiber. Therefore, it’s a great source of slow-digesting carbohydrates and quality protein, especially before workouts. Wheat germ is also a good source of octacosanol, an alcohol that makes up the main component of wax in plants, such as wheat. Research suggests that octacosanol supplements can increase muscle strength and muscle endurance by boosting the efficiency of the central nervous system. This means that the nerves that control muscle contractions can fire more rapidly and more synchronously, which, in turn, means faster and stronger muscle contractions.

  • Serving Size: ½ cup wheat germ 
  • Nutrients: 216 calories, 16 g protein, 28 g carbs, 6 g fat 
  • Value Added: 9 g fiber, plus octacosanol