Muscles- you've got 'em! About 640 of them, to be exact. Maintaining strong healthy muscles is not just for the dedicated bodybuilders out there; muscle growth and strength is crucial to everyone's overall health.
Muscles help us to move, allowing us to run, jump, and exercise. This can help keep our body weight at healthy levels, staving off a host of chronic diseases and illnesses. Strong muscles can support our joints, preventing them from painful injuries. Most importantly, our heart is a muscle that needs to be healthy and strong, and taking care of this particular muscle can help us reduce our risk of stroke, heart attack, and other potentially life-threatening cardiovascular conditions.
Bodybuilders and athletes know that muscles grow through a process of intentional damage, recovery, and repair. Exercising, including weight or resistance training, breaks down muscle tissues. The damaged muscle then builds up stronger, thicker, and more able to handle future stresses. When done correctly, this process leads to larger, stronger muscles.
In addition to participating in regular exercise to maintain muscle strength, the foods we eat can also play a role in our muscle health.
Foods that Grow Healthy Muscles
Eggs are a good source of protein and amino acids. Amino acids and protein are the building blocks for muscles, needed to develop, repair, and grow new muscle tissue. Eggs contain leucine, one of the branched chain amino acids that makes up 1/3 of muscle protein. Leucine stimulates muscle growth and repair, and assists in the storage of a muscle energy source called glycogen. In addition to leucine, eggs also are a source of the amino acids methionine, isoleucine, lysine, and tryptophan.
Eggs are an abundant natural source of Vitamin E, an antioxidant that can help reduce the effects of exercise-induced free radical damage (oxidation).
A variety of nuts can offer more than just a tasty source of protein and good fats to your diet. Nuts like walnuts, cashews, almonds, and brazil nuts are rich in L-arginine, an amino acid that assists in muscle mass, and isoleucine, an amino acid that increases our energy production. If we are deficient in amino acids, our bodies will break down existing proteins from our muscles, leading to muscle loss.
Nuts are another natural source of Vitamin E, and a great source of B Complex vitamins as well. B Complex Vitamins are responsible for an array of functions in our body, including protein metabolism and energy production. Almonds contain magnesium, a mineral crucial for muscle function, and walnuts are a great source of beneficial omega-3 essential fatty acids.
When muscle growth is the end goal, then
protein, like that found in lean meats and poultry, is the means to the end. Studies have shown that increasing protein above current guidelines benefits muscles. In an article published by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the role of protein is explained. "Both muscle mass and strength are improved by increased availability of amino acids, even in the complete absence of activity in healthy young subjects confined to bed rest."
Red meat can be a good source of nutrients such as B vitamins and iron. Iron can improve muscle strength by carrying oxygen in red blood cells throughout the body. Vitamin B12 is a nutrient only found in meat that is important for red blood cell production in athletes and non-athletes alike.
Look for lean cuts of meats, USDA-certified organic, and pasture fed to get the most health-promoting nutrition out of your protein.
Dairy products like milk, yogurt, kefir, and cottage cheese can contribute to healthy muscle function and growth. The proteins found in dairy, casein and whey, were studied to see if one better benefitted muscle protein balance after exercise. Although both proteins had different blood amino acid responses, they both resulted in similar increases in muscle protein net balance. What does this mean to you? Instead of deliberating over a whey protein powder or a casein protein powder, you can rest assured that consuming a whole food dairy product with both casein and whey proteins will benefit muscle growth.
Dairy products like milk and kefir have another very important benefit, as they are rich sources of calcium. Calcium and magnesium work hand-in-hand to keep muscles functioning. Calcium gives muscles the cue to contract, allowing for muscle growth. Calcium is just as important for healthy muscles as it is for healthy bones.
Fish could be included under lean proteins, but fish has so many muscle benefitting factors that it deserves to stand alone as a muscle promoting food. Fish are abundant in amino acids such as isoleucine, lysine, and methionine.
Halibut is a great source of magnesium. Magnesium keeps muscles going, including our heart muscle pumping. Adequate levels of magnesium can alleviate muscle cramps, and reduce post workout muscle soreness. Magnesium is a muscle supporting superstar.
Tuna, salmon, trout, and sardines are an abundant source of beneficial omega-3 essential fatty acids. Omega-3s can increase blood flow to muscles, reduce muscle protein breakdown, and decrease inflammation for faster muscle recovery.
When it comes to vegetables, eat the rainbow for overall health. When it comes to muscle health, be sure to include plenty of dark, leafy green vegetables on your plate. Dark leafy greens, like spinach and kale, are full of antioxidant phytonutrients (to reduce exercise induced oxidation), and a host of beneficial nutrients such as B Complex vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and antioxidant Vitamin E.
Dark leafy greens like kale and mustard greens also contain high levels of Vitamin C, another nutrient that can benefit muscles. Vitamin C is responsible for the health of blood vessels that deliver oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. Vitamin C is a building block for collagen, used by the body to build muscles and bones, and acts as an antioxidant, as well. Vitamin C is particularly high in vegetables like bell peppers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and in fruits such as strawberries, kiwis, and papayas.
Vegan and Vegetarian Options
There are good options available for vegans and vegetarians who are looking to build muscle as well. Lentils are a great source of protein and slow digesting carbohydrates, and soy is a protein source that contains the amino acids isoleucine, lysine, methionine, tryptophan, and valine. Walnuts and algae are two vegetarian sources of omega-3 essential fatty acids. A quality, whole-food multivitamin may help round out any nutrient deficiencies for those eating a vegan diet as well.
Melissa Zimmerman, Healthy Goods
The Amerian Journal of Clinical Nutrition; The underappreciated role of muscle in health and disease; http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/84/3/475.full
University of Maryland Medical Center; Vitamin E; http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/vitamin-e
PubMed; Effects of dietary supplementation with vitamins C and E on muscle function during and after eccentric contractions in humans.; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15309547
PubMed; Ingestion of casein and whey proteins result in muscle anabolism after resistance exercise.; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15570142
PubMed; Exercise, protein metabolism, and muscle growth.; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11255140
Bastyr Center for Natural Health; Iron Improves Muscle Strength; http://www.bastyrcenter.org/content/view/814/