Which Is Better to Build Muscle Mass: Carbs or Protein?

Carbs, or carbohydrates, and protein are important macronutrients that the body requires to sustain energy and health. A balanced diet that includes the recommended daily intakes of these nutrients for your body type, in addition to strength training, improves your chances of building muscle mass. Because carbs and protein play different roles in muscle production, the most efficient gains occur when you have enough of both in your diet. Consult your physician before beginning any new nutrition regimen.

Gain muscle mass with a balanced diet, including carbs and protein. (Image: Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Carbohydrates for Muscle Energy

Carbohydrates play a crucial role in supplying your muscles with their main source of energy in the form of glucose. After you eat a carbohydrate-containing food, your digestive system breaks it down and distributes the resulting glucose, via the bloodstream, to your tissues, organs and muscles. You either use glucose quickly, based on your body's requirements, or store it in the liver and skeletal muscles as glycogen for later needs. During exercise your body is more likely to tap into the glycogen storage, but if your body doesn't need additional carbohydrate energy, it doesn't dip into the supply.

Role of Protein

Protein is a source of fuel to the muscles, but its more significant role is as the basic building block of cells, which build or repair tissue and muscle. Chains of small molecules, called amino acids, are the building blocks of protein. Your body creates non-essential amino acids but must get another form of these molecules, called essential amino acids, from animal-based foods that contain protein. Because of protein's primary role as a building block, it generally doesn't serve as a muscular energy source unless your body doesn't have enough carbohydrate, or glucose, readily available.

Building Muscle Mass

Although protein is key in building and maintaining muscle, ingesting more than your body can use doesn't lead to larger or stronger muscles, according to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. You can improve your chances of building muscle mass by eating a well-balanced diet including low-fat sources of carbs and protein. Consuming carbs two to four hours before exercise will optimize glycogen stores, or muscle energy. Iowa State University recommends that you consume a healthy protein source before and after exercise to promote muscle synthesis and repair.

Additional Considerations

Simply consuming a healthy diet with protein and carbs won't build muscle mass. Participating in muscle-strengthening activities is necessary for your muscles to use energy and to synthesize new muscle growth. Resistance training, weightlifting or a combination of weights and cardiovascular activities improves your body's ability to gain muscle mass. Additionally, it is important to round out your nutrition intake with healthy fats, including walnuts and fatty fish, to supply additional energy to your muscles during workouts.

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