When it comes to building muscle, most people are quick to fill their plates with protein. While this mighty macro is necessary for muscle growth and repair, carbohydrates also play a pivotal part in the process.
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"Carbs are mostly known for their role in providing energy, but they're also extremely important for recovery and muscle building," says Katie Salomone, RD, director of sports nutrition at Rutgers University Athletics.
Here's why: "Consuming carbs will help delay fatigue, increase time to exhaustion and refill energy stores so that your body is ready to build muscle and prepared for the next workout," Salomone explains.
So, you might be wondering, What carbs are best for supporting strong, lean muscles?
Before we get to that, let's be clear: There's no such thing as "good" or "bad" carbs. You can eat any carb you crave, as long as you do it in moderation. That said, certain kinds can promote your muscle-gaining goals better than others.
Here, Salomone shares which carb-rich foods are fantastic for helping you build muscle mass and which you might want to limit.
First Things First, Carb Timing Matters
While the quality of carbs matters for muscle growth, correct timing of your carb-based meal or snack is equally as important, Salomone says. To get the best muscle-building benefits, you need to schedule your carbs strategically.
For example, "foods that are high in fiber, such as whole grains, fruits, veggies, beans, legumes and quinoa are best had two to four hours before a workout or after activity as part of a balanced meal," Salomone says. "That way, the body has time to digest the food and limits the risk of an upset stomach during activity."
In fact, having complex carbs after your sweat session might be a smarter strategy. "Post-activity, your body is prepped to push more carbs to the muscle to refill those energy stores, allowing the protein to focus on the muscle repair," Salomone says.
The 5 Best Carbs for Building Muscle
1. Whole Grains
Things like oats, whole-wheat bread and barley are a great option when you're looking to build lean muscle and lose fat. For one, whole grains are full of fiber, which will help keep your blood sugar steady and your belly full until your next meal or snack, Salomone says.
"These foods are packed with vitamins and minerals that aid in the muscle-building process, reduce muscle soreness and promote overall health," she says. Indeed, a diet rich in whole foods is linked to a reduced risk of some chronic diseases, including heart disease, according to the USDA.
2. Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and veggies (which are classified as carbs) contain vital nutrients your body needs during the muscle-building process. For instance, vitamin C — found in bell peppers, broccoli, strawberries and citrus fruits — is fundamental for the growth and repair of body tissues, per the USDA.
Plus, piling your plate with plants is linked to lower rates of developing many diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and some cancers, according to the USDA.
3. Beans and Legumes
Beans and other legumes like chickpeas supply stellar starchy, slowly digested complex carbs (read: they'll keep you satiated and stabilize your blood sugar levels), according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Plus, they also provide a powerful punch of muscle-building plant protein.
Like whole grains, this super seed is a complex carb. But it's also one of the few plant-based foods that's considered a complete protein, meaning it contains all the nine essential amino acids.
Just 1 cup of cooked quinoa serves up 8 grams of protein, according to the USDA.
If your tummy can tolerate dairy, these milk-based foods (yes, lactose is a simple carbohydrate) can be majorly helpful for your muscles.
"Dairy is a great option post-workout as it has carbs, protein, vitamin D, calcium and magnesium," Salamone says. "Together, these nutrients support muscle building as well as bone health," she adds.
4 Carbs to Limit When You’re Building Muscle
1. Sugary Cereals
"If the goal is to build muscle and decrease fat mass, it may be beneficial to limit sugary foods throughout the day," Salomone says.
Many cereals masquerade as nutritious breakfasts, but they're often stuffed with sugar (and other additives).
"These are foods to have in moderation as they do not provide those vitamins and minerals that are necessary for overall health and muscle building," Salomone says.
2. Baked Goods
Similarly, sugar-stacked baked goods like cookies, doughnuts or muffins won't offer much in the muscle-building department. What's more, they're often made with shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which contain trans fats.
Diets high in trans fats can increase your bad cholesterol (while lowering your good cholesterol levels), plus they can raise your risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, according to the American Heart Association.
3. Certain Snack Bars
Some snack bars boast as much sugar as a candy bar. Here's why that matters: Simple carbohydrates (aka sugar) can affect your mood and lead to decreased energy levels and alertness, per an April 2019 meta-analysis in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. And you need energy and focus to crush your workouts.
Instead, opt for a low-sugar protein bar for a quick and convenient snack.
4. Fruit Juice
Many fruit juices are jammed with sugar. Not to mention, fruit juices lack belly-filling fiber, so they can send your blood sugar soaring (then crashing soon after).
Instead, choose an actual piece of fruit. For instance, an orange offers double the fiber and half the sugar compared to a 12-ounce glass of orange juice, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
A Final Note on Carbs
While it's wise to choose whole grains, legumes, fruits and veggies most of the time as these foods are full of essential nutrients (and promote good health overall), you don't need to completely cut out other carbs like white bread or sugary cereals, Salomone says.
As long as you eat them in moderation, they can be a yummy part of a balanced diet during your muscle-building journey. Plus, in a crunch, these kinds of carbs can deliver a quick energy burst right before a workout, Salomone adds.
All this to say, opt for complex carbs more often, but when your goal is to gain lean muscle, what's most important is focusing on sustainable strategies such as smart timing of your meal or snack and eating what you enjoy, Salomone says.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Grains”
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Fruits”
- USDA’s My Food Data: “Top 10 Foods Highest in Carbohydrates (To Limit or Avoid)”
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Carbohydrates”
- USDA's My Food Data: “Quinoa Cooked”
- American Heart Association: “Trans Fats”
- USDA’s My Food Data: “Nutrigrain Mixed Berry Cereal Bar”
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “The problem with potatoes”