Most guys think they’ve cracked the dietary code for larger, stronger muscles: protein with a side of protein. Well, new research—especially on the connective tissue that holds your muscles together and connects them to bone—suggests it’s not that simple. Not only is all protein not created equal, but not all carbs are evil, liquid egg whites are an unnecessary evil, oysters are amazingly good for you, and one fish held in high, healthy esteem may actually be terrible for you.
With help from Brian St. Pierre, M.S., R.D., a nutrition coach for Precision Nutrition, we offer the nine new guidelines for stocking a muscle-building fridge and eating away. (Just remember to keep working out.)
Rule 1: Fish carefully
Low in calories and price, tilapia is one of the best-selling fish in the country. But it’s usually farmed, and that may pose health risks—a recent Wake Forest University study found that farmed tilapia contains high levels of omega-6 fats, which trigger inflammation in the body. Instead, opt for salmon. Rich in protein and anti- inflammatory omega-3 fats—four grams per 1⁄2 fillet—it also provides high levels of more than a dozen different vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D and vitamin B12.
Rule 2: Eat beyond the breast
Skinless chicken breast meat is a staple among bodybuilders, but according to St. Pierre, most guys don’t realize that the whole bird is fair game. “It’s a great source of protein, goes with just about any other kind of food, and is reasonably priced.” Just keep in mind: The skin and dark meat contain fat, so adjust your portions accordingly.
Rule 3: Not all beef is created equal
Sure, top sirloin may be on the expensive side, but you get what you pay for (at least, in terms of health). It has a lot more protein (26 grams in a three- ounce serving) and far less fat than lesser, cheaper, more popular cuts such as chuck or round. But don’t worry: The good stuff retains “enough fat to keep it juicy and tasty, but not so much that it outweighs the protein,” says St. Pierre.
Rule 4: Save your yolks
Stop buying liquid egg whites—now. You’re wasting your time. “Whole eggs are some of the most nutrition- ally dense foods on the planet,” says St. Pierre, who argues that the real thing is far better for you than the watered-down stuff that comes in a milk carton. “Real eggs are loaded with brain-boosting choline, and zeaxanthin for eye health.” The saturated fat and cholesterol they contain doesn’t affect cholesterol levels in your blood.
Rule 5: Forget the full paleo, embrace the potato
Miles of research suggest that a low-carb diet won’t build muscle for long. The energy you need to train and recover from training comes from carbohydrates, and one large potato contains 63 grams’ worth—and seven grams of fiber. We recommend sweet potatoes, which are nutritionally dense and jammed with potassium, a mineral essential for muscle health.
Rule 6: Eat oats for breakfast
Pre-workout drinks and caffeine have their place, but eating the right carbs can provide consistent, lasting energy throughout the day with no crashing.
“One cup of oats provides 166 calories, four grams of fiber, six grams of protein, and eight vitamins and minerals,” says St. Pierre. “And it’s a slow-digesting carb,” meaning it won’t cause a big spike in blood sugar and send your energy crashing later.
Rule 7: Always have nuts to snack on
Avoiding fats entirely to save calories is costing you on a chemical level. “Consuming adequate fats is critical for maintaining testosterone levels,” says St. Pierre. And the more testosterone you have, the greater your potential to be big and strong. One serving of nuts or nut butter offers 16 grams of healthy fat, “as well as a powerful assortment of phytonutrients and antioxidants to boost your health and recovery.”
Rule 8: Get jiggly with it
Jell-O is great for building muscles. (Yes, you read that correctly. And no, we don’t think you’re 12.) It’s composed of gelatin, which is made directly from the connective tissue of animals (the slow-boiled tendons, ligaments, and sometimes bones of cows and pigs). Eating it will boost your own tendons and ligaments.
Rule 9: Mollusks for muscles
Oysters are a major source of copper, which not only helps build collagen for your connective tissue but also spurs production of lysyl oxidase, which in turn stimulates production of collagen and elastin.