Everything we do—from walking to digesting our food—involves our muscles. Even our heart, which pumps blood, is a muscle.

Many people mistakenly believe eating a lot of protein builds big muscles. While muscles definitely need protein, it's resistance training that promotes muscle growth. However, according to Joseph Mercola, MD, 80 percent of the positive results of strength training are related to the foods you eat. And it's more than just protein. Besides, if you consume too much protein (which many Americans do), your body will simply burn it as a fuel source.

While eating right to support healthy muscles is important at any age, it's particularly important for growing children, athletes, and aging adults. There are several types of foods that are especially important to building and maintaining healthy muscles. Eating the right amount of protein—46 grams for women and 56 grams for men—per day will help your body run optimally, and along with exercise, will help you build muscle. Be sure to also include:


Carbohydrates are what fuel our muscles. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that we get about half of our calories each day from healthy carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.


Leucin is one of the eight essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein). We cannot produce essential amino acids and must obtain them from food sources. The elderly, in particular, may require greater amounts of leucin since muscle mass with aging (sarcopenia) is a major public health concern.

Good dietary sources of leucin include:

  • Legumes, such as soybeans, chickpeas, and lentils
  • Lean beef and chicken
  • Fish and shrimp
  • Eggs
  • Nuts, such as almonds and walnuts
  • Raw flax seed and other seeds
  • Asparagus and snap peas

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids (healthy fats) help your body use amino acids. A small study suggests it may also help prevent loss of muscle mass. Most of us do not get sufficient omega-3s, so you may want to consider supplementing with two grams of a high-quality omega-3 supplement daily.

Healthy fats

In addition to omega-3 fatty acids, other healthy fats are necessary to build muscles. Olive oil, almonds, walnuts, avocados, and canola oil are good choices. The Academy recommends a daily intake of 20 percent to 35 percent healthy fats.

For overall health, eat five or six small meals each day (instead of fewer, larger meals), including the foods listed above, and drink plenty of water.

Allison Massey, MS, RD, LDN, CDE reviewed this article.



Mercola, Joseph M.D., "How Whey Protein Can Help Build Toned Muscles." Mercola.com. Web. 20 July 2012.

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Meatless Muscles." Web. January 2013.

Churchward-Venne, Tyler A., Burd, Nicholas A., and Phillips, Stuart M. "Nutritional Regulation of Muscle Protein Synthesis with Resistance Exercise: Strategies to Enhance Anabolism." Nutrition & Metabolism 9:40 (2012). Web

Smith, Gordon I., Atherton, Philip, Reeds, Dominic N., Mohammed, B. Selma, Rankin, Debbie, Rennie, Michael J., and Mittendorfer, Bettina. "Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation Increases the Rate of Muscle Protein Synthesis in Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 93(2) (2011): 402-412. Web. 

Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. "Chapter 7: Protein To Build and Repair Muscles. Pages 126 - 130. Web.

DietaryFiberFood.com. "Leucine: Food Sources High in Amino Acid Leucine." Web. 5 April 2012.