How to Eat for Healthy Muscles

Popeye made eating for your muscles look so easy.

Whenever the cartoon sailor man got in trouble — like when a much bigger adversary was beating him up — Popeye would pop open a can of spinach and gobble the contents, and his biceps would quickly bulge, giving him the strength to pummel his opponent. While consuming spinach or any other vegetable is good, there are lots of other foods you should eat to boost your muscle health, says Erin Clifford, a wellness coach based in Chicago. “Popeye got it right when he boasted that he was ‘strong to the fin-ich ’cause I eats me spinach,'” she says. Research suggests that nitrate, a substance found in spinach, can help the body regulate blood pressure and improve blood flow. In one study, healthy people who ingested the nitrate equivalent of 200 to 300 grams of spinach or lettuce for three days performed better on a cycling task than they did after they’d taken a placebo.

“Having said that, spinach is not a miracle food,” Clifford explains. “You also need to consume an adequate amount of protein at every meal and snack because the amino acids in protein help promote healthy muscles and allow them to repair after a vigorous workout. Further, you need to include carbohydrates in your diet, as they are your muscles’ essential fuel source, in the form of non-starchy vegetables and tuberous vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and legumes.”

There’s nothing wrong with eating spinach, says Jenna Bell, a registered dietitian who’s based in St. Petersburg, Florida. She’s the author of the book “Energy to Burn: The Ultimate Food & Nutrition Guide to Fuel Your Active Lifestyle.” Bell advises that simply eating spinach, or any other food, won’t strengthen or maintain your muscles. But eating right, in tandem with weightlifting and other strength training, can help you build and maintain strong muscles.

[See: 7 Reasons to Choose a Plant-Based Diet.]

Eating a healthy, diverse diet is particularly important if you’re physically active, advises Autumn Calabrese, a celebrity trainer based in Los Angeles. She’s with Beachbody, a fitness, weight loss and muscle-building company and creator of the 21 Day Fix, an eating and exercise regimen. “When it comes to building and maintaining healthy muscle, it’s important to have a balance between lean proteins, carbohydrates and fats,” Calabrese says.

Different types of food contribute to muscle health in various ways, says Lise Gloede, a registered dietitian based in Arlington, Virginia. The proper amount of protein is needed to help repair and strengthen muscle tissue and keep your body’s fluid balance at healthy levels, she says. If you work out, eating enough healthy high-fiber, high-nutrient carbohydrates is a good way to replenish glycogen muscle fibers that are depleted after vigorous workouts.

To boost your body’s ability to develop and maintain strong muscles, in tandem with exercise, consider these strategies:

1. Power up with lean protein. “Consuming protein is essential when trying to build muscle because the amino acids in protein, in tandem with weightlifting or strength exercises, allow your muscles to grow and repair,” Clifford says. “Focus on eating lean protein sources, such as fish, poultry, lean meat, beans, eggs, legumes and low-fat dairy products.” The type of protein we eat can make a difference, Bell adds. Proteins that deliver all of the essential amino acids — the building blocks of protein — are considered “complete” and “high quality,” she says. These include meats, such as beef, pork and poultry; seafood, including fish and shellfish; and an array of dairy products: milk, yogurt, cheese and cottage cheese, as well as eggs.

[See: The 13 Best Diets for Your Heart.]

2. Get carbohydrates from healthy sources. Many diets virtually eliminate carbohydrates, but your body needs them to fuel exercise, Clifford says. “Now, that being said, consuming copious amounts of bread and cookies is not the answer,” she says. “Focus on eating fruits, non-starchy vegetables, leafy greens, tuberous root vegetables — such as sweet potatoes and yams — as well as whole grains, including quinoa and brown rice.” Whole grains are full of fiber and are slowly digested by your body, but white flour products — like cookies — are digested quickly, which can lead to quick spikes in your blood sugar if you’re diabetic or prediabetic.

3. Drink plenty of water. Your muscles need the proper amount of water to stay hydrated to keep functioning properly. Consuming enough water is particularly important before, during and after exercise, Gloede says. The amount of water a person needs varies depending on his or her size and activity level. People who exercise vigorously and perspire typically need more water than a sedentary person. “The vast majority of healthy people adequately meet their daily hydration needs by letting thirst be their guide,” according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Eating plenty of fresh whole fruits and vegetables — which are high in water content — can also contribute to meeting your body’s need for hydration, Gloede says.

4. Eat foods rich in magnesium. “Magnesium is the fourth most-abundant mineral in the body and is critical in the functioning of our muscular and cardiovascular systems,” Clifford says. “Specifically, magnesium aids in muscle contraction, including that of the heart’s, which in turn supports normal rhythm and blood pressure.” An array of foods contain magnesium, including whole grains, leafy green vegetables, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, tofu, avocados, beans, salmon, halibut and mackerel. The amount you need varies depending on your age and gender, according to the National Institutes of Health. For example, infants ages 7 to 12 months need 75 milligrams of magnesium a day; the recommended amount increases for children and teenagers. Men need 400 to 420 milligrams of magnesium daily, while women should get 310 to 320 milligrams, according to the NIH. Athletes need more: about 500 to 800 milligrams daily, Bell says.

5. Avoid foods that are bad for your heart. The heart is your most important muscle, and eating right can help keep it healthy so it can pump blood throughout your body. That means reducing consumption of foods that are high in saturated and trans-fat. Instead of fries or chips, eat fruit, vegetables or a salad, Gloede suggests. Cut back on fatty meats, such as burgers and sausage, and avoid whole-fat dairy products such as cheese, items with refined carbohydrates like white flour and sugary soft drinks, Clifford says. Limit your intake of processed snacks and fried food, which can increase your LDL cholesterol, also known as “bad” cholesterol. Load up on heart-healthy choices such as whole grains, beans, legumes, berries and green vegetables, including broccoli, kale and, of course, Popeye’s favorite: spinach.

[See: The 5 Best Plant-Based Diets.]

6. Vegetarians and vegans: Load up on plant-based products. While meat, poultry and fish are great sources of protein, there are lots of other options if you don’t eat any of these foods, Bell says. “If you’re a vegetarian and consume dairy products or eggs, your protein needs are easily met,” Bell says. “If you’re vegan, combine plant-based protein sources to achieve 100 percent of the essential amino acids.” Combine lentils, nuts, beans, whole grains and soy-based products such as tofu, tempeh and edamame to complete your protein intake, she advises.

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