What Food to Eat When Toning Muscle

You've set up your aerobic and weight training routine, so you can reach your goal of toning your muscles. But when looking to hone lean body mass, your diet can be just as important as your exercise routine, so focus on these muscle toning foods to help you get the results you want.

When building lean, toned muscles, you’ll want to consume a diet that’s well-balanced in protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. Credit: Anntua/iStock/GettyImages

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When building lean, toned muscles, you’ll want to consume a diet that’s well-balanced in protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. A diet rich in fresh seafood, eggs, lean poultry, whole grains, legumes, leafy greens, fruit and healthy fats like avocado will provide you with the high-protein, low-fat diet you’ll need to tone your muscles.

Muscle-Toning, High-Protein Foods

The first thing you'll need to focus on when you're embarking on a muscle toning diet is protein, one of the key components for building muscle. Protein is broken down by your body to repair muscles after they've suffered small tears during a workout and is in charge of regrowing muscle fibers into stronger tissue.

Protein is necessary in order to sustain lean body mass, according to a May 2014 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Without protein, you won't have the energy to complete workouts, and your body won't be able to grow stronger muscles.

For those hoping to cut extra weight or fat and become even leaner, protein may play an even bigger role by replacing the extra calories typically found in carbs or fats. The more lean protein you eat, the more full you'll be, and the less likely you are to fall back on unhealthy foods.

The American diet is filled with high-protein foods, with most Americans getting twice as much protein as they need, according to the Mayo Clinic. Much of that protein often comes from unhealthy sources, like fast food hamburgers, processed meats and cheeses, meat-heavy sauces and pizza.

The healthiest sources of protein, and the protein you should be focusing on in toning your body, are actually a lot more simple. When creating meals for muscle toning, concentrate on eggs, lean poultry like chicken and turkey, fresh seafood and low-fat dairy to get the protein you need in your diet — without all the fat.

Eggs: Filled with protein, healthy fats and B vitamins, eggs (yolk and all) are a common muscle-toning food for bodybuilders. Eating the entire egg can help you build muscle, as well. A small October 2017 study with 10 participants published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating whole eggs right after resistance training boosted protein synthesis and muscle gain more than eating egg whites.

Eggs can be cooked in a lot of different ways to avoid repetition. If you're looking for a quick and simple breakfast, hard-boiled eggs with salt and pepper are a great protein fix in the morning. You can use eggs to make an omelette with spinach and kale, or you can poach them and place them on top of avocado toast.

Fresh fish: Salmon contains a large amount of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, in addition to vitamins and nutrients, making it one of the best muscle toning foods. It's also incredibly filling, as a 4-ounce piece is packed with 26 grams of protein. While salmon is one of the best muscle toning foods, there's also plenty of other seafood to choose from with comparable benefits.

Tilapia, though it doesn't have as high levels of omega-3 fatty acids as salmon, is still a lean protein, providing 44 grams of protein in 6 ounces. Fresh shrimp and scallops are another excellent addition to a dinner for a protein serving.

Go for the seafood that's fresh; but don't shy away from canned salmon or tuna, either. Tuna is high in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, as well as vitamin A and vitamin B12.

Lean poultry: If you want meat without the fat or to lower your intake of red meats, get some lean chicken and turkey into your diet. A 3-ounce serving of chicken breast contains 25 grams of protein. Grilling chicken to go along with salads or a side of vegetables will certainly keep you lean — and satiated.

Grass-fed beef: Though red meat should be eaten less often than poultry or fish, you can make some exceptions for the high-quality stuff. Beef that is grass-fed is a huge source of creatine, which muscles use to gain mass. It's also rich in protein, iron, magnesium and B12. Because red meat takes longer to break down, it keeps you full longer.

It's important, however, to be aware of how much red meat you're eating. Because red meat contains cholesterol, it's not recommended that you eat more than two to three servings per week.

Cottage cheese: For a quick breakfast or snack, cottage cheese is an excellent source of casein, which is a dairy protein that takes a while to digest. Combine cottage cheese with some fruit, spread it on toast or use it to make protein-packed pancakes.

Read more: List of Good Carbohydrates to Eat

Healthy, Complex Carbohydrates

Surprisingly, some of the best foods for toning your body aren't protein-based; they're carbs. Carbohydrates are just as essential to building muscle as protein, as they are responsible for restoring your muscle's glycogen stores during a workout. Carbs provide energy; you need energy to lift heavier weights and exercise aerobically for longer.

But not all carbs are created equal. The foods to avoid when building muscle include empty carbs like donuts, bagels, slices of pizza or bowls of creamy pastas.

To build lean body mass, you'll need to choose complex carbohydrates over refined ones, as they contain more nutrients and are lower in fat. You'll also need to cut the heavy syrups, butters, sauces, creams and additives that often go into a bowl of pasta or a sugary cereal.

Whole wheat bread: Whole grains contain the entirety of the natural grain, including the bran, endosperm and germ. Refined grains, meanwhile, only consist of the softer, starchy endosperm. These refined grains are more likely to be empty carbs, and may be one of the foods to avoid when building muscle. The bran and germ of whole grains, meanwhile, are nutrient-dense, packed with fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E and phytochemicals.

Oats: Whole-grain oats contain a surprising amount of protein and are one of the best foods to create meals for muscle toning. A September 2018 study published in Food & Function found that oat protein supplementation helped athletes recover from muscle damage caused by exercise. Oats can not only provide you with protein before and after workouts but can be a tasty substitute for less protein-rich carbs like rice or pasta.

Beans and legumes: While animal sources of protein are considered the most effective, you can still supplement your meals with plant-based proteins like beans and legumes. One cup of cooked beans contains about 18 grams of protein.

Legumes are also low in fat, which will help you tone lean muscles. You can use black beans, chickpeas or lentils in stews and side dishes.

Read more: Define Lean Muscle

Vegetables, Fruits and Healthy Fats

Whether you're aiming to lose weight, trim fat, build lean muscles or really bulk up and gain weight, you should have some variety of fresh vegetables and fruit in your diet. At the same time, you shouldn't steer away from healthy fats like avocados or oils.

Kale: Like other dark, leafy greens (spinach, for example), kale remains a healthy staple for any diet. It's filled with vitamins K, C, A and B6, as well as folate, fiber and manganese, according to the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Make your meals for muscle toning more delicious by adding in some saut_é_ed kale or kale pesto.

Broccoli: Considering broccoli is a vegetable with not a lot of starch, it does contain a good amount of protein, making it another excellent addition to meals for muscle toning. It's also high in fiber, vitamin C and potassium.

Bananas: Bananas are filling compared to other fruit for a reason: A medium-sized banana contains 105 calories, with 1.3 grams of protein and 27 grams of carbs. Combining bananas with your pre-workout protein shake, or your post-workout meal, can be an excellent way to get more carbs and energy into your body for muscle gain.

Avocados: Avocados, the king of healthy fats, also contain small amounts of protein and can be more filling than other vegetables when you're on a muscle toning diet. Mash up some avocado on toast with eggs, eat it with salads or use it in guacamole.

Oils: Most animal-based oils, like lard or butter, contain high levels of saturated fats, and are some of the foods to avoid when building muscle. Other plant-based oils like palm oil or coconut oil are also high in saturated fats, so you may want to avoid these on your muscle toning diet. You can, however, focus on healthy oils like olive oil — which contains monounsaturated fat and has heart health benefits.

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