When you're aiming to tailor your diet to gain muscle, your first thought will likely be protein. While protein is crucial for building muscles, you may be surprised that carbohydrates play an equally important role, as combining carbs and weight lifting can be effective for muscle gain.
While protein is necessary to provide your muscles with the building blocks they need to grow stronger, carbohydrates are equally important in helping you achieve muscle growth. The healthiest carbs for bodybuilding include whole grains like whole-wheat bread or pasta, good starches like sweet potatoes, as well as fruits, vegetables and quinoa.
Carbs and Weight Lifting
While many fad diets advertise a low-carb approach to losing weight, the reality for many elite athletes and bodybuilders is quite different. It turns out that carbs and weight lifting go hand in hand.
Athletes and bodybuilders wouldn't be able to sustain intense workouts long-term on an extremely low-carb diet. That's because carbohydrates are responsible for replenishing the body's stores of glycogen, which is used for energy and recovery.
Runners will often eat a big bowl of pasta the night before a marathon, and bodybuilders will stock up on oatmeal after a lifting session. A May 2018 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports found that eating enough before a workout boosted aerobic performance, helping athletes train, run and workout longer.
And carbs are surprisingly important for bodybuilders in particular, with weight lifters needing the bulk of their diet to come from carbs and protein, according to a May 2014 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
A January 2018 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that a higher carbohydrate intake could potentially benefit bodybuilders in reaching greater muscle mass during competition preparation.
Read more: The Effects of a Carbohydrate Deficiency
Choose Whole Grains
With the importance of carbs in mind, the next step is to find which carbs are the healthiest. If you've ever stepped foot in a grocery store or passed a vending machine, you're already aware that you're surrounded by carbs pretty much everywhere: Cookies, cakes, doughnuts, white bread, cereals and chips are a common part of the American diet.
It can be tough to resist the latest beer and doughnut bar or that salty bag of chips in front of the TV. But if you're embarking on a bodybuilding journey, you'll need to realize these aren't the best carbs for muscle gain. Instead, trade those in for whole grains, which are some of the best carbohydrates for bodybuilding.
There's a lot of talk about whole grains — but why are they healthier for you than other grains? According to the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, they're called whole grains because the grain kernel has remained whole and not been stripped of its natural state through processing.
Whole-grain kernels have the bran, germ and endosperm, each of which contains excellent nutrients like B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium and phytochemicals. The inner layer, known as the endosperm, contains carbohydrates and protein.
Whole grains are complex carbohydrates, which are healthier for you than simple carbohydrates. Keep in mind that the best carbohydrates for bodybuilding are the complex ones, and tailor your diet around that.
Whole grains are also high in fiber. Unlike sugar, which tends to cause a spike in energy, fiber helps maintain stable blood sugar over time. It also has been linked to lowering cholesterol and can move the digestive process along. In addition, some of the phytochemicals and minerals found in whole grains have been linked to protecting against certain types of cancers.
In the 19th century, industrialized milling began stripping away the bran and germ from whole-grain kernels, leaving only the endosperm, which is softer and lower in nutrition. This refining process takes away 90 percent of the grain's vitamin E and nearly all the fiber, according to the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
When you're weight-lifting, your goal is likely to cut fat and build lean muscle. Whole grains are some of the best carbs for muscle gain because they can provide you with healthy carbs, fiber and a small amount of protein, while being low in fat.
Wheat isn't the only grain, either; you can choose from a variety of whole grains, including barley, brown rice, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, spelt and oats. Quinoa is one of the best carbohydrates for bodybuilding because it's a plant-based source of protein, containing all nine essential amino acids, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Without animal fat, quinoa can be a great option for those building lean muscle.
Oats in particular are packed nutritionally, with beta-glucan soluble fiber, antioxidants and protein. Mixed with eggs, yogurt or salmon, oats can be an excellent meal after a lifting session, providing you with a punch of protein and healthy carbs. They may even help restore your muscles after a training session, making them one of the best carbs for muscle gain.
A September 2018 study published in Food & Function found that oat protein protected people against exercise-induced muscle or knee damage.
Read more: The Difference Between Carbs & Calories
Healthy Starches to Eat
Carbohydrates have often been labeled the "bad" part of your diet that you need to cut if you're hoping to lose weight. There are three types of carbohydrates — sugar, starch and fiber. But plain carbs aren't inherently unhealthy; rather, it's the added sugars, butter or saturated fats combined with carbs like pastries or pasta that tend to be the problem.
According to the British Nutrition Foundation, research has shown that diets high in starchy carbohydrates are not necessarily linked to weight gain.
While you may assume you should steer clear of starchy foods like potatoes or pastas, they can in fact be healthy for you. Healthy starches like potatoes, whole-grain pastas and legumes contain plenty of potassium, iron, magnesium and are low in fat.
To tailor your diet to getting enough starchy carbs to build muscle, once again aim for unrefined, whole-grain starches. Cut out the most processed or packaged foods and instead reach for the items with as much of their natural nutrients and fiber still inside. Choose brown rice over white rice: Brown rice is unrefined and whole-grain, containing more healthful benefits than white rice.
Beans and legumes are also starches that are excellent sources of protein and nutrition, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Black beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas provide you with protein as well as fiber, helping you stay full longer and giving your muscles the fuel they need to be restored after a weight-lifting session.
On top of that, legumes contain antioxidants, iron, magnesium and potassium, and they may protect against cancer, heart disease and arthritis. Just one-half a cup of beans will give you up to eight grams of protein, 20 grams of carbs and 8 grams of fiber, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Fruits and Vegetables
When it comes down to it, fruits and vegetables are still carbs as well, though they have lower caloric values than other types of carbs. While they may not be filling by themselves after a lifting session, the more fruits and vegetables you eat, the better. To balance out your carbs and weight lifting routine, be sure to add fruits and vegetables to your plate.
That's because dark green, leafy vegetables like spinach and kale — as well as veggies like green beans, bok choy, broccoli and Brussels sprouts — are packed with crucial nutrients and vitamins. Vegetables that are higher in starch and may be more filling include corn, pumpkins, yams and green peas.
Vegetables that are excellent for weight-lifting, both because they contain nutrients and can be filling, including artichokes, asparagus, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and eggplant.
You really can't go wrong with cucumbers, green beans, spinach, chard, mushrooms, tomatoes or summer squash as well. Getting a variety of these vegetables into your diet, paired with protein and complex carbohydrates, will help you reach your weight-training goals.
- Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports: "Effects of Fasted vs Fed-State Exercise on Performance and Post-Exercise Metabolism: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Evidence-Based Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Nutrition and Supplementation"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Nutritional Strategies of High Level Natural Bodybuilders During Competition Preparation"
- Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health: "Whole Grains"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Cutting Carbs? Don’t Say ‘No’ to These Starchy Foods"
- Food & Function: "Effects of Oat Protein Supplementation on Skeletal Muscle Damage, Inflammation and Performance Recovery Following Downhill Running in Untrained Collegiate Men"
- British Nutrition Foundation: "Starchy Foods (Carbs)"
- Medline Plus: Carbohydrates