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Bulking up is a complicated process, well bulking up correctly is complicated!
Most people are either way too enthusiastic in their calorie intakes or way too conservative.
But it’s not just about getting your calories right, it’s also important that you are eating the right foods.
In this article, we are going to look at what foods to eat while bulking up i.e. muscle building foods.
Establishing Your Calorie Target
Before embarking on a bulking diet you should first establish what your goals are.
How much muscle do you want to gain, what is an acceptable amount of body fat to accrue, and what time do you have available to complete this bulk in.
As you can imagine, a 50kg guy who has 12 weeks to gain 15kg is going to require a completely different calorie target to a 70kg guy who is looking to gain 3kg within 4 months.
A common bulking rule of thumb is to find your maintenance calorie target (how much calories you can consume without gaining or losing weight) and adding 500 calories to that.
But if you are looking for more accurate results (and you absolutely should be) then utilising the precision nutrition calorie calculator is a much more effective move .
Calculating Macronutrient Targets
The next thing that you need to decide is your macronutrient split. You want lots of protein to help build muscle, but carbs and fats also have their uses.
A low fat or low carb diet is not going to improve your bulking.
Your best bet would be to follow the guidelines created by Helms, Aragon, & Fitschen (2013) who looked at natural bodybuilding contest preparation .
They recommended 2.3-3.1g of protein per kg of lean body mass. This is a measure of all of your body weight minus the weight of body fat.
If you weigh 90kg and are currently 10% body fat you would have 81kg of lean body mass (LBM). So to get your protein target you would multiply 81 by any number between 2.3 and 3.1 (depending on personal preference and initial body weight).
If we use our 81kg LBM example again then their protein intake could be anywhere between 186.3g and 251.1g per day.
The study also recommends 15-30% of your calories should come from fat, and the rest to come from carbohydrates.
As you can probably see, there are no specific numbers here, the range of carbs, protein, and fats are all quite large. So you have a lot more freedom than you would have thought.
What Makes a Good Bulking Food?
There is no definitive bulking food, the diet requires a lot of diversity. But there are some characteristics that can help you pick a good bulking food.
Being calorie dense is usually a good feature. Calorie dense foods are ones that contain a lot of calories in very small amounts.
For example, olive oil can contain as many calories in just one tablespoon as 5 bags of spinach (citation needed for that, but you get the idea).
You want a lot of high protein foods, but be careful that the high protein foods that you choose aren’t also very high in fat.
You are looking for calorie-dense foods, but you still don’t want to be accidentally consuming double your calorie targets!
One misconception is that endless junk food is okay on a bulk, and it can be – provided you don’t mind how much body fat you gain by the end of the bulk.
You’ll do better if you think of yourself as on a diet, albeit a diet where you need to eat a LOT of food. Bulking does not give you carte blanche to eat whatever you want, you still need to track macros and calories.
Remember also that you still want to be consuming a lot of vitamins and minerals. You don’t want to become malnourished just because you are constantly chasing high calorie, high protein foods.
22 Foods To Eat While Bulking
While we’re not going to force you to read 4,000 acceptable foods for a bulking diet. It is a good idea to mention six examples of good foods to eat while bulking up so that you can understand what makes good bulking food.
Example #1: Eggs
A good source of protein, a good source of fats, calorie-dense, goes well with lots of meals, and even better they are ridiculously cheap.
Eggs are not only a great bulking food, but they are a great diet food full stop. One boiled egg contains 155 calories, 13g of protein, and 11g of fat.
You can also increase the protein to calorie ratio by mixing in some egg whites to regular eggs for meals such as scrambled eggs or omelettes.
Example #2: Steak
Like eggs, a good piece of steak can be high in fats, but they are even higher in protein.
Steak can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Tastes amazing is a source of creatine, and if you cut the fatty parts off you can increase the protein to calorie ratio (just like with eggs).
The only downside to steak is the cost. Definitely not for the bulker on a budget.
Example #3: Peanut Butter
This next food choice is an interesting one. On the one hand, peanut butter is cheap, calorie-dense, and a good source of protein. On the other hand, it is possibly too calorie-dense.
100g of peanut butter may contain 25g of protein, but it also contains 588 calories!
Even people on aggressive bulks may find that a large serving of peanut butter won’t fit into their calories without having to sacrifice other foods.
If you are struggling to hit your calorie targets though, there are few foods that compare. Just a tablespoon of peanut butter could help you hit your calories in the evening.
Example #4: Milk
Another cheap option, which is a decent source of protein. It is high in calcium and can be used to upgrade protein shakes into bulking protein shakes.
Try to go for the lower fat versions if possible. However, if you prefer full fat then just make sure that it fits into your macros.
Example #5: Avocados
Healthy, delicious, versatile, and avocados are great calorie-dense food. They also contain lots of nutrients.
Avocados contain around 320 calories per pear and have 29g of fat. They also contain 4g of protein and are a good source of vitamin K and fibre.
Example #6: Sweet Potato
A baked sweet potato is one of the easiest foods in the world to make, you can also easily roast, mash, or slice and sauté them.
Sweet potato even works when it’s cold or reheated in a microwave. Making them the perfect bro food (think Tupperware containers and the office microwave).
They are excellent sources of vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin B-6. You can also get 163 calories from a large sweet potato, as well as 3.6g of protein and 37g of carbohydrates.
Example #7: Salmon
When bulking up around 30% of your calories should be derived from protein, as this will ensure that your body is getting plenty of amino acids for muscle growth.
Fresh caught wild salmon is a great alternative to chicken and tinned tuna. Captive breed salmon is full of pesticides and is fed with soy and corn.
Freshly caught salmon just the way nature intended is a very tasty protein source that is high in omega-3.
Interestingly omega -3 help to fight the inflammation caused by training and will aid joint pain when your training intensifies.
Example #8: Quinoa
Quinoa is the daddy of all food sources; especially when compared to traditional carbs. Quinoa is a seed and not a grain. One small cup of quinoa contains 240 calories, 10 grams of protein, more zinc and almost three times as much fibre as brown rice.
Quinoa is a complete protein that contains all of the essential amino acids to build muscle and it also a slow-releasing carb which enables you to sustain your energy levels for longer when training.
It takes about 15 minutes to cook and next time you go the supermarket put this bad boy at the top of your shopping list.
Example #9: Lentils
Lentils are jammed packed with fibre, protein and slow-digesting carbs. One small cup of lentils contains about 250 calories, 20 grams of protein and 15 grams of fibre.
They are a great add on with other foods, take about 15 minutes to cook and why not spice it up with some chilli powder. Chilli powder contains capsaicin which is an excellent fat burner!
Example #10: Broccoli
Broccoli is a member of the cruciferous family which are high in antioxidants and help to reduce estrogen levels in the body.
It contains 2 unique compounds (Indole-3-carbinol & D glucaric acid) which block estrogen’s ability to work on your target tissues within the body and this helps to minimise its negative impact on building muscle.
Example #11: Almonds
A small handful of almonds contain around 150 calories and about 5-6 grams of protein.
They also contain a high level of vitamin E which is very effective at mopping up the free radicals caused by resistance training. Combine this with high levels of vitamin B which is an important catalyst for energy metabolism; then these bad boys should be near the top of your shopping list.
Example #12: Beets
The nutritional compounds that are found in beets can improve performance and enhance vasodilation.
Research has shown that beets can improve performance, reduce your perceived level of exertion and this function allows the muscle to perform more work at a higher given intensity. This elicits greater muscle gains, which is caused by increased mitochondrial activity within the muscle allowing the muscle to work harder.
Example #13: Coconut milk
Coconut milk is the magic bullet for building muscle and it can be added to many foods to boost their calorific content without feeling full. They are also full of medium-chain triglycerides which are absorbed and digested ready to be used as energy during your workouts.
Example #14: Extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil is very versatile and it can be added to many foods such as salads etc. It is full of healthy fats and polyphenols.
Polyphenols help to reduce the oxidative stress caused by a high-intensity resistance work out.
Example #15: Oysters
Do you want to enhance the production of hormones that bodybuilders actually want? Do a lot of lifts? Then what you need are oysters.
This particular seafood is super rich in zinc, something that can help with both lifts and hormone production.
According to ‘Biological Trace Element 2011’, an athlete given a zinc diet supplement for a month (30mg/day) prior to some exhausting exercising regimen, it was observed that the post-workout testosterone was higher than the placebo 12.
According to the findings, the androstenedione to testosterone conversion happens when zinc is present at higher levels.
Other foods that are rich in zinc are chicken liver and pumpkin seeds.
Example #16: Greek Yogurt
By straining excess liquid and carbs from regular yoghurt, you get Greek yoghurt. It has a high concentration of protein as well as casein.
Casein is a slow-digesting protein, meaning it releases amino acids after a finite amount of time in your bloodstream. Think of them as time-delayed enzymes.
In ‘Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise,’ a study carried out in 2012, it was observed that the consumption of casein before sleep can yield as much as a 22% increase in protein synthesis.
This can increase amino acids in the bloodstream throughout the night.
You can either opt for a full Greek yoghurt or even a half-serving when you are looking to enhance your muscle-building regimen.
It is recommended to go for the plain version which has less sugar.
Example #17: Oatmeal
When people train for building better bodies, they always seem to neglect fibre. This most underrated and undervalued of food groups provides water and the ‘bulk’ you associate with food residues.
Fibre has many advantages: it can ‘scrape’ on the cells in the gut wall and it can dilute the effect of harmful chemicals in your body. It can also aid in digestion by helping the body get rid of unwanted food residue.
Oatmeal is a great source of fibre. Just one serving of oatmeal is enough to give you a good helping of complex carbohydrates and 13% pure fibre.
Even the most trained athletes are found deficient in fibre. It is recommended for an adult man to consume about 40 g of fibre daily, a figure which goes down to 25 g for women. This is applicable for a diet that comprises of 2000-2500 calories. The more calories you consume, the more fibre you need to compensate for the increase.
Fibre is slow-digesting, which is why many trainers recommend not to eat too much of it before your training session starts. This advice is equally valid for the post-exercise time.
This is because this is the time when the body’s regenerative and restorative processes kick in, and fibre could only serve to slow the process of nutrient absorption as the regeneration process gets underway.
This is why a good rule of thumb is to eat high-fibre foods throughout the day.
Whole grains and items such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, legumes and beans are some of the best examples of fibre. They can also be replaced by soluble fibre-rich food items, such as carrots, beans, peas, apples, citrus fruits and oats.
Example #18: Grapefruit
Foods full of vitamin C, such as grapefruit, are perfect for a well-adjusted and performing metabolic system. This means vitamin C foods are great at burning fat too.
Just half a grapefruit contains a 40 mg serving of vitamin C.
They regulate the daily metabolism rate by reducing the levels of insulin. The energy in the body can be more efficiently processed when insulin levels are constant and steady.
A 12-week study undertaken by The Scripps Research Institute in California found that people who took half a grapefruit before their meals at least 3 times a day are likely to lose 3.5 pounds.
This is in sharp contrast to a paltry 0.5-pound loss without any grapefruit.
Example #19: Banana
Bananas have many benefits. They contain Vitamin B and riboflavin. They also possess bromelain that is great for treating indigestion and inflammation in the body.
Example #20: Grapes
Grapes are a great source of antioxidants. They contain resveratrol, a naturally occurring chemical that contains the anti-oxidising polyphenols.
These can help take care of the free radical molecules in the body, helping calm down these unstable molecules. They can also aid as an anti-bacterial.
Red wine is also a source of resveratrol and they can also be purchased as a dietary supplement if you like.
Resveratrol is also a known aromatase inhibitor. This way your testosterone won’t be converted to oestrogen by the aromatase enzyme, which can help you to increase your lean muscle mass.
Example #21: Spinach
This is definitely one of the most alkaline foods on the list and it is important for a variety of reasons.
The most important one is its ability to prevent muscle and bone loss. Weight loss techniques to shed those extra pounds can sometimes take a toll on the muscle mass. Spinach though ensures the sanctity of the latter.
Example #22: Turkey
Turkey, however, is one of the best sources of non-saturated fats.
Even the leanest of beef has around 4.5 g of saturated fats, while white turkey has 0 g of that. Eat a turkey with spinach and quinoa and you are in for one hell of a health bonanza.
When Should You Be Eating?
Knowing which foods you need to eat in order to gain more muscle is one thing, but it is just as important to have a good understanding of when to eat.
In order to build muscle mass, you need to ensure you are eating a high-calorie diet, and that your calorie intake exceeds the calories you're burning during your workouts.
This means eating moderate portions regularly during the day. Aim for a nutritious meal for breakfast, lunch, post-workout, and dinner, with healthy snacks in between.
Breakfast and post-workout are good times to give your body that much-needed glycogen energy boost, so ensure you eat complex carbs with these meals so you can sustain your body throughout the day.
We don’t tend to be as active after dinner. So try and avoid complex carbs for this meal and focus instead on a good protein kick.
There is quite a lot of controversy relating to the belief that eating late at night is detrimental to anyone looking to reduce body fat and increase muscle mass.
It's true that people tend to make poorer food choices, opting for a sweet treat or something greasy to quench a craving, but the important thing to think about is. Do I really need to eat?
If you have been eating nutritious meals of good portions, regularly throughout the day, then the answer is probably not.
If you have been quite active since you ate dinner, and you are hungry, then your body needs some sustenance. Choose wisely, things like mixed nuts and seeds or yoghurt are good options.
Ensure you are eating healthy, balanced meals, and drinking lots of water, regularly throughout the day and you will have yourself the ideal foundation for building muscle mass, and sculpting the body you desire!
While a bulk should not be seen as an excuse to eat all the junk food that you want. It is definitely an opportunity to enjoy some of the higher calorie options around.
The main question you should be asking though, is what are your reasons for bulking? Because many people who want to bulk are not in good enough condition to warrant a cut.
Most coaches will recommend that you get as lean as possible before beginning a bulk. If you feel that your physique is somewhere in between massive muscles and ripped, then it makes sense to train for ripped first.
There is also the option of not cutting OR bulking. Just hitting a specific calorie target while ensuring that your protein intake is high and that you train consistently.
The longer you stay at this the better your physique will get. Then you can slowly increase or decrease calories to make adjustments to your physique, rather than going all-in.
If you are still committed to bulking then remember to do it properly, lots of fruit and vegetable consumption. A lot of protein from a diverse range of sources, supplements, and good carbohydrates such as potatoes, rice, pulses, and sweet potatoes (to name a few).
Remind yourself that you are on a diet not attending an all-you-can-eat buffet. Your calorie tracking is as important (if not more) as it would be while on a cut.
The worse your bulk is. The longer you will need to spend in a deficit to lose that extra body fat.
This means that you are sacrificing an easy cut for junk food. That pendulum swing can be tough psychologically, which is why a lot of people struggle to recover from their bulks.
Remember, your diet is one of the most important aspects of building muscle, but it is certainly not the only aspect.
Working out intensely and getting plenty of rest between them is also essential. As is the use of supplementation.
Click here to discover which supplement to choose when bulking and looking to build muscle.