If you’re trying to build muscle, you’re probably already working out hard and doing resistance training to challenge your muscles.
But there’s another important consideration for maximizing your gains: your diet.
Here are seven common nutrition mistakes that can get in the way of your muscle growth, and what you should do instead to get the most out of every workout.
7 Nutrition Mistakes to Avoid So You Can Make Muscle Gains
1. Not eating enough high-quality protein
Muscle growth, also known as muscle hypertrophy, happens when you combine the right resistance training workout program with adequate protein.
Following a challenging resistance training workout, the proteins in your muscle fibers break down into smaller components called amino acids, as a response to the stress and damage they take during your exercise. This process is called muscle protein breakdown.
If you’re eating enough protein, though, your muscle fibers can recover and rebuild, through a process called muscle protein synthesis.
So, if you want to make gains, eating plenty of protein is a crucial piece of the puzzle.
Experts recommend eating between 1.3-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight daily to maximize muscle hypertrophy.
In addition, it’s also important to consider the kinds of protein that you’re eating to get closer to your goals.
For example, many plant-based protein sources are incomplete, which means that they don’t have all of the amino acids your body needs to build muscle.
If you’re trying to build muscle while following a plant-based diet, it’s a good idea to eat a variety of protein sources like nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes, which can help you get all of the amino acids you need to get in your very best shape.
2. Ignoring your overall calorie intake (or eating too few calories)
Protein isn’t the only nutrient that contributes to your muscle growth. You should also consider your total calorie intake.
Calories are units of energy that you get from your food, and they play a major role in your weight maintenance and body composition.
If you eat more calories than you burn, that extra energy is stored in your body as fat for future use. However, if you eat fewer calories than you burn (in other words, if you’re in a calorie deficit) your body has to burn through your stored fat for energy, which can help with weight loss.
As a result, many people believe that they should always prioritize a calorie deficit to reach their fitness goals, but this is not necessarily true if you’re trying to build muscle mass.
In fact, if your goal is specifically to build muscle, you should avoid being in a long-term calorie deficit altogether since your body needs energy to grow.
Meanwhile, if your goal is body recomposition (in other words, if you’re trying to lose body fat while also building muscle), a more moderate calorie deficit is more appropriate.
If you’re eating too few calories, it might result in muscle loss in addition to fat loss. Studies suggest that you shouldn’t have a calorie deficit of more than 500 calories per day if you’re trying to preserve your muscle mass during weight loss.
3. Loading up on calorie-dense but nutrient-poor foods
With this said, you don’t want to rely on unhealthy foods to meet your goals — in other words, “dirty bulking.”
Because you need so much energy and protein to build muscle, some people assume that the most logical course of action is simply to eat more, without paying too much attention to what the nutrient content of your diet is.
Unfortunately, eating foods that are high in carbohydrates and fats can lead to unwanted effects on your body composition like fat gain, which will ultimately throw off your progress.
On the other hand, studies have shown that people who ate a higher protein intake tended to gain more muscle than fat when compared to others who ate a similar energy surplus with less protein.
In addition, eating too much junk food is just unhealthy in general. It’s associated with an increased risk of many health issues, including obesity, higher waist circumferences, lower HDL cholesterol levels (aka the “good” kind of cholesterol), and metabolic syndrome.
Instead of loading up on energy-dense but nutrient-poor junk foods, try to eat high-protein whole foods that help you to meet the rest of your dietary requirements.
4. Not drinking enough water
Your food intake isn’t the only dietary consideration if you’re trying to gain muscle. You should also make sure you’re getting enough water, especially before you work out.
Water helps lubricate your joints, moves necessary nutrients throughout your body, and maintains your body temperature, preventing overheating. There’s also evidence that water can help you with your workouts themselves!
On the other hand, dehydration may negatively affect your strength, power, and endurance during your workouts, which can ultimately slow your muscle growth progress.
To combat this, keep a water bottle on hand throughout the day and especially during your workouts. By drinking water regularly throughout the day to give your body the hydration it needs, you can level up your long-term muscle gains.
Men should aim to drink about 3.7 liters per day and women should aim for 2.7 liters per day, though you should increase this amount if you are exercising and/or are experiencing hot, humid weather.
5. Overlooking your carbohydrate intake
Though eating a diet that’s high in simple sugars isn’t ideal for muscle growth, that doesn’t mean that carbohydrates are bad in general.
In fact, carbohydrates can act as an important source of energy that you’ll need when you’re giving it your all at the gym.
Your body stores some carbohydrates in a form called glycogen, which is found in your muscles and helps provide the power they need for high-intensity exercise. This is especially relevant if you’re an endurance athlete.
Carbohydrates may help improve your endurance during heavy, prolonged exercise that lasts for two hours or more since they can protect your muscle’s glycogen stores.
You don’t need to work out for longer periods to reap these rewards, either — there’s also evidence that eating small amounts of carbohydrates during exercise can help improve performance during short and intense workouts.
The key here is to look for healthy carb options rather than simple carbs, as these will maximize your performance and gains. Some good options include whole grains, starchy vegetables, fruits, and legumes.
6. Not paying attention to your meal timing
While your overall protein intake during the day ultimately matters the most, you should also pay attention to when you are eating your protein if you want to maximize your gains.
Eating a meal shortly after your workout ends may help boost your recovery. For example, studies suggest that your ability to replace your glycogen stores can drop by up to 50% two hours after your workout.
There’s also evidence that adding protein to that carbohydrate-rich post-workout meal can help improve your glycogen stores and reduce muscle protein breakdown.
So, for optimal muscle-building results, aim to eat a nutritious meal within a few hours of your workout to help your body recover with the right nutrients.
7. Relying too heavily on supplements
Because building muscle is such a common goal for so many people, there are plenty of supplements out there that are intended to make this process easier.
For example, protein powder is made from concentrated protein sources like whey or peas and can deliver large amounts of protein in just one serving.
Supplements are a useful tool for increasing your overall protein intake; however, you should still prioritize whole foods to be the majority of your protein intake.
Eating protein-rich whole foods may help with both growing muscle and your overall diet quality. They contain other essential nutrients that your body needs that may not be present in concentrated protein supplements like shakes and bars.
So, instead of relying solely on protein shakes and snacks, use them as they are intended: as supplements that bridge the gap between your dietary needs and the foods that you are typically eating.
It’s a good practice to track your protein intake and add protein supplements to your diet when necessary to make up for any missing protein that you aren’t getting from a healthy diet alone.
When it comes to fitness, half of the battle is choosing the right food to eat.
By picking lean proteins, eating high-quality whole foods, and diversifying your nutrient sources, you’ll give your muscles all of the fuel they need to conquer your toughest workouts and grow, grow, grow.