It’s been a minute since I wrote a what I eat in a day style article and thought it would be fun to share a play-by-play of how my day-to-day eating habits have shaped up in 2022 (I think my last one was in 2020) to build lean mass, while also providing the science on how you too can alter your nutrition to assist in building muscle.
Before we dive into the good stuff (the food), I wanted to set the stage by classifying myself as an advanced trainee; that is, I’ve been following a consistent resistance training regimen for ~12 years now. It was only in the last 3 years, however, that I noticed dramatic changes in my body composition. By following some key principles with my nutrition and training, I was able to build lean muscle, increase vascularity, and lower my body fat percentage. I’m not going to deep dive and exhaust the principles of hypertrophy or body recomp, as I have articles here, here, and here that outline more of the science. Oh yeah, and I wrote an entire book on it called Find Your Stride: A Personalized Path to Sustainable Nutrition and Training. I will, however, outline a few training and nutrition fundamentals that are integral to incorporate into your plan as well to induce hypertrophy (muscle growth).
How to Build Muscle
First things first: you can’t just eat copious amounts of protein and expect to build muscle from sitting around on your bum. While this should seem obvious, you’d be surprised at how common this belief is held. From a training perspective, you’ll want to incorporate some sort of resistance training program; this doesn’t just need to be weight lifting, you can do body weight exercises, or try out some classes that incorporate some form of resistance training. The key is to follow the methodology of progressive overload—the most important training principle to build muscle. If you haven’t heard the term before, progressive overload means that you gradually make workouts harder by increasing the amount of weight you lift, the volume you do (sets/reps), the frequency (how many times you hit a body part per week), and playing with rest between sets, the tempo, etc. Progressive overload doesn’t just mean adding more weight each week (although this is good strategy for beginners who can follow a more linear progression with their training). You can play with the other variables in the equation by increasing our workload (volume, sets, reps, etc.). For the purposes of this article, I’m going to leave the training portion at that.
There’s a few ways to approach the eating aspect. While I try not to be dogmatic with any of my assertions, I would definitely say I fall more into the calorie manipulation camp when it comes to building muscle and losing body fat. That is, adjusting our maintenance calories in a surplus or deficit in order to change our body composition.
Determining Maintenance Calories
To save yourself a lot of time and energy down the road, the first step is to determine your maintenance calories; that is, how many calories you consume in an average day to keep your weight the same. There are a few methods on how to do this. The first and most accurate methodology is a more analog approach—taking your weight each morning and the number of calories you ate the day before, then applying a calculation, which you can learn more about in this video. The second, much quicker way to calculate maintenance, is the Harris-Benedict formula, which historically has proved to be much more accurate than calorie calculators. Here’s a link to a HB calculator that seems kinda reasonable. You just need to plug in your height, weight, age, and activity level, and voila! A very rough approximation of the calories you need to consume each day to maintain your existing weight will be spit out for you.
I roughly know now my maintenance calories (on average) since I went through the analog method at various points throughout my life. It’s around ~2,200 given the amount of cardio I do in a day. When I plugged in my age (33), weight (140lbs), height (5’5), and physical activity level (1.7), the calculator spit out 2,385. This number would put me in a surplus, but it is sort of close to my maintenance calories that I’ve calculated using the analog method—much closer than some of the other calculators I’ve used.
So with that being said, if you use the Harris-Benedict formula, take it with a grain of salt; if you’re tracking your calories and noticing that you’re either gaining or losing weight following your maintenance, adjust accordingly. While this process is kind of annoying, I highly recommend taking a pause and figuring this out—you’ll want to know this number while manipulating your calories for fat loss (putting yourself in a deficit) or to build muscle more quickly (as this article outlines). I promise, it will be well worth the effort—especially when you find yourself in a plateau.
If you’re newer to the weight training game, you can build muscle and lose fat at the same time (coined “body recomposition”) by eating at maintenance or even in a slight caloric deficit. As you progress by becoming more advanced in your training and adding lean muscle to your physique, it will likely become hard to add any more muscle in each of the aforementioned caloric states. This is when you may want to adjust your calories to a slight surplus. In a 2019 PubMed paper published by Iraki et al., researchers recommend a 10-20% increase above maintenance with the goal of adding ~0.25-0.5% of bodyweight/week on average for a novice. As you advance, you should try being a bit more conservative with the weekly weight gain. Many people think they need to “eat big to get big”—ugh, stop. The caloric increase is much more conservative than many people think. If you just eat whatever you want, in whatever quantities you want, you might not be very pleased with the outcome; that is, excessive fat gain. It will also be much harder to move from a muscle building phase to a cutting (fat loss) phase because you’re used to eating so much delicious food.
In my personal experience, I keep my surplus around 10% to start. If I go higher than that, I start to see a rapid increase in my body fat. The excess body fat, for me, negatively affects my performance at the gym and energy levels. Once again, this is subjective so it’s up to you to determine how much additional body fat you can tolerate.
So if my maintenance is 2,200, I would add 220 calories/ day (2,200 x 10%), bringing my daily caloric intake to 2,420/day. When you think about it, 220 cals isn’t all that much; it’s equivalent to a protein bar, a few tablespoons of nut butter, or an extra big bowl of popcorn (my favourite metric system). For many cisgender men, the 10% increase will likely be a lot higher and some men do struggle with getting the extra calories in if they’re already eating a lot.
I find increasing 10% works for me because it gives me more energy in the gym and helps me gain more mass, but at the same time, I don’t feel super heavy. When I go to 20%, I notice pretty substantial weight gain. This is based on your own personal preferences and body comp goals, so I’d suggest playing around with calorie manipulation by running your own experiment and seeing what’s the right fit for you. Try 10% for a week or two, then try increasing to 12-15%, etc.
Calculate Daily Protein Needs
If there’s one macronutrient you should focus on getting enough of while trying to build muscle, it’s protein. Real plot twist there, amiright? Protein is an essential nutrient to help stimulate hypertrophy. I get into more details surrounding protein calculations and various arguments surrounding how much protein you really need (and the popular scientific literature supposedly ‘supporting’ each) in my book Find Your Stride, but for now, the general consensus among fitness experts in the industry—and which I can personally say I adhere to—suggests 1.8-2.2g of protein per kg of body weight per day.
I like to calculate a protein target range vs. an exact figure, with the minimum being 2g of protein /kg of body weight, and the upper being 2.2g/kg. To calculate yourself, take your weight in kg x by the lower range, then repeat for the higher range. Here’s mine for your reference:
Lower = weight (64 kg) x 2 = 128g of protein
Higher = weight (64 kg) x 2.2 = 140g of protein
My daily protein target is between 128g – 140g of protein per day
One additional point to mention re: protein, is nutrition timing. The anabolic window (AKA the amount of time we need to consume protein after a workout in order to induce muscle protein synthesis), is much larger than the widely circulated “1 hour after a workout”. While there are no conclusive studies, most research suggests the real window is 4–6 hour surrounding when you train—inclusive of pre- and post-workout meals. If you’re working out fasted, however, it’s important to consume a high protein post-workout meal as soon as possible. Several studies have showed that anywhere between 25g-40g of protein after working out is sufficient to maximize muscle protein synthesis and help inhibit muscle protein breakdown.
I use myfitnesspal to track my daily caloric intake and my protein. I don’t focus on my carbs or fat consumption because they vary day-by-day and the breakdown doesn’t really matter from a body composition standpoint, so long as I’m a) hitting my caloric intake goals and b) within my protein target range. I used to be obsessed with tracking everything: I logged every single run for years through my NRC+ app, added every single meal into myfitnesspal, and used the food scale religiously. While this certainly helped keep me accountable at first, over time, this manual data entry became cumbersome and honestly, just interfered with living my life. Tracking my calories and protein intake was very helpful to begin with, but over time, I became proficient at eyeballing portion sizes, approximating calories in my meals, and it’s protein contents—it became tedious and annoying to log everything. Obsessively tracking every bit of food we put into our body can also lead to very unhealthy eating behaviours so my suggestion is this: track for a bit (if you feel up to it), maybe a month or two, or however long it takes for you to get into the habit of understanding portions, protein, etc., then I think it’s okay to let go and let intuition take over. For physique athletes, of course every calorie counts (and the macronutrient breakdown), but for everyone else who just wants to put on some lean muscle, I think it’s okay to be a bit looser with the tracking and still achieve your goals so long as you follow the fundamentals above.
What I Eat in a Day to Build Muscle (in a Caloric Surplus)
So now that we have the fundamentals and some basic grade school math out of the way, it’s time to get into the good stuff: the food. If you recall a few paragraphs back, I mentioned my maintenance calories are currently sitting at 2,200. By adding a 10% surplus, that brings my caloric intake goal to 2,420/day. My rule of eating is to squeeze in green veggies throughout my day by randomly incorporating them with my meals; I get chirped by my friends and mostly my sister, for eating raw broccoli at breakfast. I was going to omit the random veggies, but decided to be truthful and keep em’ in.
Meal 1: Protein Bar + Almond Milk Latte
- Quest chocolate chip cookie dough protein bar
- 1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
- 235 Calories | 22g protein | 22g carbs| 11g fat
Meal 2: Protein Pancakes & Random Bowl of Broccoli
- Pancakes: 1/2 cup cottage cheese, 1/2 cup egg whites, 1/3 cup oats, 1 scoop vegan Vanilla Cupcake Batter protein
Topped w/ 3 tbsps E.D. low sugar maple syrup + 1 tbsp Nut & Seed Butter
- 2 cups of raw broccoli
- 632 Calories | 66g protein | 52g carbs | 20g fat
Meal 3: Greek salad w/ chicken
- 5 cups iceberg lettuce
- 5 oz grilled chicken breast
- 2 oz feta
- 2 tbsp Greek dressing
- 479 Calories | 44g protein | 11g carbs | 28g fat
Meal 4: Popcorn + Green Protein Smoothie
- 2 servings of Skinny Pop (150 cals/serving)
- Protein Smoothie: 2 cups of spinach, 1 cup unsweetened almond milk, 1 scoop of Vanilla Cupcake Batter vegan protein, blended w/ ice.
- 449 Calories | 26g protein | 34g carbs| 25g fat
Meal 5: Salmon, Roasted Potatoes + Salad (Dins)
- 1 medium yukon gold potato roasted potato w/ lemon, garlic powder + 1 tbsp olive oil
- Salad w/ 2 tbsp wontons + sliced almonds, 2 tbsp sesame ginger dressing
- 4 oz baked salmon w/ low sugar maple syrup, soy sauce, sriracha marinade
- 619 Calories | 27g protein | 40g carbs | 39g fat
Tips on Eating in a Surplus
I’ve never really had a problem with eating in a surplus (I love food and love eating), but I do know quite a few people that struggle to hit their calorie goals to build muscle. I’ve included a few tips below to be able to eat more if you’re one of the many who struggle to get that calorie count up:
- Add more calorie dense foods to your meals: nut butters, oils, avocado
- Cut down the veggie/high volume foods (a bit). I’m not saying to not eat your vegetables at all. I don’t want your nutritionist to come after me for blood. But rather, if you’re eating massive salads every day which are making you quite full, maybe cut down on the lettuce base a bit and try adding some more nuts and oil.
- Reduce your cardio and focus more on strength training
This blog post was much longer than I thought it was going to be…My intent was not to bog you down with the science and grade 3 math, but I think it’s an often neglected (but important) step in building muscle. It’s not about what you eat (specific foods), but rather, the daily protein intake as a whole and your daily caloric intake that really matters. I hope this article was helpful for you in some way, shape or form, but like I always say, this worked for me. you can only discover what works for you, through self-experimentation.