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The Relationship Between Nutrition and Muscle Growth

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

Source: INBODYUSA June 24, 2020

  • Protein: Protein is the foundation of muscle gain. This essential component is a necessity for all of your body’s daily functions and uses. Despite myths and misconceptions surrounding how much protein you should or should not eat, it’s important to balance one’s protein accrual with the rest of their nutritional intake.  

  • Carbs: Along with protein, carbs act as the body’s source of fuel. As the primary component in gaining energy, preventing muscle weakness and degradation, complex carbs should be a large daily element of everyone’s nutritional intake. 

  • Why You Should Consume: As with all relationships, it’s important to understand how true results only happen when both sides work together. By consuming protein and carbohydrates in a healthy way, muscle growth and sustainment is possible for all body types. 

When thinking about our overall health and wellness, it’s important to recognize the vital relationship between our nutritional intake and our activity levels. For long-lasting, healthy habits and results, one cannot exist without the other. In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at muscle growth and the power of protein and carbohydrates in sustaining muscle gain that works for each and every individual. 

Muscle Growth vs Lean Body Mass Growth

Before we get started, let’s clear up exactly what we mean by muscle growth, because people often use lean body mass and muscle mass interchangeably

Essentially, all muscle is “lean” meaning it is primarily composed of proteins, which are lean. Lean body mass (LBM), also known as lean mass, refers to your total weight minus all the weight composed of fat mass. This includes your organs, your skin, your bones, your body water, and your muscles.

On the other hand, skeletal muscle mass (SMM) is a part of your LBM, but it is the part that is referring to the specific muscles used that are controlled voluntarily to produce movement and maintain posture. When you’re thinking about gaining muscle, you are actually referring more specifically to your SMM. This is what we want to track and here’s why:

Apart from changes in your SMM, an increase in your LBM numbers can also be a result of water gain. Water gain can occur from bloating or eating salty foods but also from swelling from injury or disease. That’s why you cannot attribute an increase to LBM numbers completely to muscle gains.

You can learn more about the distinction between the two in Lean Body Mass and

Now that we cleared that up, let’s dig into the facts and findings of muscle gains through diet and nutrition.

The Nutrients of Protein Many people correctly associate protein with muscle mass, as well they should since protein and the amino acids that make it up constitute the building blocks of the muscle tissue in your body.  If your muscles are a house, protein is the bricks. The amino acids that makeup protein are the building blocks of muscle. Your body can manufacture many of those amino acids, but nine are known as essential amino acids (EAA) because they can’t be made in the body. Instead, you have to consume EAAs from food sources like meat, beans, nuts, and soy. A diet containing mixed amino acids can help maximize muscle protein synthesis.

The amino acid, leucine is responsible for many of the anabolic (muscle-building) processes. This is known as the “leucine trigger concept,” since sufficient quantities of leucine trigger muscle protein synthesis. Protein is extremely important in building muscle because the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) help repair and maintain muscle tissue. After a workout, protein helps you recover from workouts because muscles slightly tear during exercise.

When you want to build a healthy body, you have to get the right amount of protein. Protein is one of the most essential components of muscle development, bone density, muscle mass, and lean tissue—and that’s just the beginning. In truth, protein is necessary for all your body’s physiological functions. Today, while many people who care about health know protein matters, most don’t understand how or why. Part of that is because there are so many myths about this vital building block, especially in the fitness and weight loss worlds.

How Much Protein Is Enough Protein?  In a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, researchers compared the muscle development of three groups of athletes on the same exercise regimen, but different levels of protein intake.  One group was given less than the daily recommended amount (1.4g/kg of body weight), one group the recommended level (1.8g/kg of body weight), and one group over the daily recommended level (2.0kg/ of body weight).

The researchers found no recorded benefit in strength or body composition changes in the group that exceeded the recommended amount of protein needed for strength training.  They found that 0.8 – 0.9 grams per pound of bodyweight was sufficient to see favorable changes in body composition.

Let’s say you weigh 125 pounds, and you’re working to increase your Lean Body Mass.  You would need to set a target of about 100 grams.

100 grams might seem like a lot, but consider that 1 cup (140 grams) of chicken contains 43 grams of protein.  That’s just the protein in just one part of just one meal in your day.  A can of tuna can contain as much as 49 grams.  With a cup of chicken and a can of tuna, you’d almost entirely meet your protein needs.  Add in a glass of 2% milk (9-10 grams), and you’re well over 100 grams for the day.

If you want to build muscle, increase your dietary protein intake– but protein is not the only macronutrient responsible for muscle growth. Protein automatically gets the credit for building strong muscles, but let’s not forget about your carb intake.

The Roles of Carbs in Muscle Growth If protein is so essential to muscle growth, why put an emphasis on carbs? Well, carbohydrates don’t get enough credit when it comes to the important roles they play in muscle gains.

For one, carbohydrates help replace glycogen and aids in enhancing the role of insulin when it comes to transporting nutrients into the cells, including your muscles. Combining protein and carbs also has the added advantage of limiting post-exercise breakdown and promoting growth.

Think about it: building anything takes a lot of time, energy, and resources. Building muscle is no different. The body requires a lot of energy to power through workouts that result in bigger, stronger muscles. Where does the body get most of that energy? Usually from carbs.

What kind of carbohydrates should I eat? 

There are two types of carbohydrates: simple carbs and complex carbs.  Simple carbs are a quick, sporadic source of energy, while complex carbs are a good source of steady energy. 

Complex carbs may not be as readily available for immediate energy as simple carbs are, but they’re more efficient and healthier. Complex carbs provide sustainable energy, which means the energy is constant and there’s no “crash” like with simple carbs. Because of their slow-release properties, complex carbs should be the largest component of daily energy intake. What most people don’t know is the role that complex carbohydrates play when it comes to muscle gains.

1. Carbs prevent muscle weakness

By now, you understand the importance of glycogen stores. Some glycogen is even stored in our muscles. 

When you use those muscles during exercise, you tap into the glycogen stores in that particular muscle. When you lift weights with your arms, for example, you’re accessing the glycogen in your biceps.

Some athletes take advantage of glycogen by loading up on carbohydrates (by consuming carbs a day or more before a workout) to maximize the muscle glycogen stores. This can delay fatigue and even improve athletic performance, making for a better workout and stronger muscles.

2. Carbs prevent muscle degradation

One concern about low-carb diets is muscle loss.

A Netherlands study compared a low-carb diet to other diets and found that restricting carbs results in protein loss. This is because restricting carbs causes an increase in the amount of nitrogen that gets excreted by the body. Nitrogen is a component of amino acids (the stuff that forms muscle proteins), therefore nitrogen loss indicates that the muscles are breaking down.

3. Carbs help muscles recover from exercise

The role that carbs play in recovery goes back to glycogen stores. Immediately after exercise, athletes need to replenish their glycogen stores in order to prevent glycogen depletion.

Glycogen depletion, when glycogen stores have run out, causes gluconeogenesis. This is when the body forms glucose from new sources to compensate for the lack of glucose from carbohydrates. When this happens, the body turns to sources like fat and protein to fill this need. Protein acts as the last line of defense when energy is required, meaning that energy accessibility is running very low. 

When the body breaks down protein to make more glucose, it takes from the muscle, causing them to waste away. 

How to Balance Carb Consumption

The amount of complex carbs you eat depends on your body composition goals. Generally, very low carb consumption (<5%) is used for weight loss, while adequate carb consumption (55-60%) is used for muscle gain. 

Athletes may pile on the carbs as they are required to train day-in and day-out. So it makes sense that they should consume a higher carb diet than the average person because they have higher energy needs. For non-athletes, it’s generally suggested to adopt a more balanced diet. Even if you’re mostly sedentary, you should still consume some carbs to fuel your daily activities. 

How Your Timing Impacts Muscle Gain

For decades, the idea of nutrient timing (eating certain macronutrients at specific times like before, during, or after exercise) and meal scheduling has sparked a lot of interest, excitement, and confusion.

A good example of nutrient timing is the idea of the anabolic window, also known as a period of time after exercise, where our body is supposedly primed for nutrients to help recovery and growth.

However, a review of related literature revealed that while protein intake after a workout helps muscle growth, it may persist long after training.

If you’re going to ask the ISSN, meeting the total daily intake of protein, preferably with evenly spaced protein feedings (approximately every 3 h during the day), should be given more emphasis for exercising individuals.

They also state that ingesting a 20–40 g protein dose (0.25–0.40 g/kg body mass/dose) of a high-quality source every 3 to 4 hours appears to favorably affect MPS rates over other dietary patterns, which allows for improved body composition and performance outcomes.

When it comes to carbs, the time of consumption impacts athletic performance and muscle building. 

It’s important to consume complex carbs before an intense workout so that glycogen stores are full enough to fuel the training. Consuming complex carbs immediately before a workout could lead to digestive distress, so try to limit complex carb consumption to up to a few hours before an intense workout. If you’re short for energy before an event, lean towards simple carbs.

After exercise, it’s important to consume complex carbs to replenish those glycogen stores for later use.

Wrapping up  Before making any changes to your body, it’s a good idea to have the facts. When looking more closely at the codependent relationship between proteins and carbohydrates, we gain a clearer understanding of how these vital building blocks work in our bodies and lead to stronger makeup. With this knowledge, active individuals can more-clearly define their health goals and get themselves on the road to long-lasting success. 

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