Can You Eat Clean and Build Muscle?

Are you a clean eater struggling to put on mass?

Is this an inherent limitation with this diet or is there something else going on?  What should you eat to build muscle? There are pretty clear answers to all of those questions, so let’s dive into the research and find out.

What is Clean Eating?

First, what is clean eating?  You’ve got everyone from Paleo dieters to Vegans claiming to be “clean eaters.”

I don’t think I need to tell you but, these are dramatically different diets.  So, before we figure out if it’s possible to build muscle and eat cleanly, we need to establish a working definition of a clean eating diet.

Rather than reason through this though, I’m just going to propose a definition that I think covers the largest subset of people that associate with the diet, which is a focus on: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, full-fat dairy and meat.  That’s it. That’s your clean eating food list.

If your definition is different, that’s totally fine.  Just keep those differences in mind as we dive into each topic below.

Alright.  So, nutritionally, what do we need to do to build muscle mass and how does that line up with clean eating?

Energy Balance

Well, the first and probably most important thing to consider is a concept known as energy balance.  Basically, this is the amount of calories you consume vs. the amount you burn. Now, research has shown us that when those two numbers are equal, meaning you’re eating as much as you burn each day, conditions are not great for building muscle.

But, when you have a positive energy balance, meaning you’re eating more than you’re burning each day, you’re creating a potent anabolic effect.  Increased anabolism means that you’re priming your body to grow, so this absolutely something to focus on if you’re struggling to add muscle.

It is important to note however, that when you’re eating more than you’re burning a large percentage of your weight gain can come from fat, but through lifting it’s possible to shift that balance so that as much as 100% of the weight you put on comes from muscle.

So, how does clean eating factor into energy balance?

Well, researchers have measured the impact of the paleo diet (which is pretty similar to our list of clean foods with the exception of full-fat dairy) vs. a Mediterranean-like diet (which differs by including grains and low-fat dairy) and found that the paleo group ate much less on a daily basis.  Their conclusion? Paleo is a more satiating diet. The results from this study are listed in the table below. The Paleo group ended up eating only about 76% of the amount the Mediterranean group consumed.

 Paleo DietMediterranean Diet
Average Cals / Day (kcal)1,3881,823
Average Protein / Day (g)9288
Average Carbs / Day (g)129211
Average Fats / Day (g)4659

What does that mean for energy balance?  Well, a more satiating diet is a diet that makes eating more and thus achieving a positive energy balance more challenging.  So, if you’re eating clean, and struggling to put on mass, it makes a lot of sense for you to track your caloric intake and measure if you’re eating enough.

What About Macronutrients?

Now, energy balance is super important, but the macronutrient breakdown of those calories also plays a huge role in anabolism and muscle growth.  So, let’s take a look at how each macro affects your muscle building capacity as well as how clean eating fits into this picture. This discussion will help us create a list of foods to focus on to promote muscle growth.

Protein

For muscle building, protein is King Macro.

The protein that you eat is really just a collection of amino acids bound together and one of the primary ways your body builds muscle is by incorporating those amino acids into your bodily tissues.  The more aminos in your tissues, the bigger your muscle gains.

But not all protein sources are created equally.

The amino acid profile of the proteins you eat differ dramatically from food to food, with some being more beneficial to anabolism than others.  There are basically two classes of amino acids, essential and nonessential. The difference being that your body can create nonessential amino acids on its own, but essential amino acids must come from the foods you eat.

If you deprive your body of even a single amino acid type, it’s possible that you are inhibiting your body’s ability to build muscle.  So, when it comes to protein sources, prioritizing foods that contain complete proteins (packed with all the essential amino acids) is a must.  This ensures that you’re not depriving your body of any specific amino acid and diminishing your muscle building capacity.

Another factor that differentiates protein sources is bioavailability.  This is a fancy way of classifying the amount of protein you actually absorb.  That’s right. If you eat 30g of protein from eggs and 30g of protein from beef, your body will absorb a different amount from each of those foods.  Depending on the source, this difference can be quite large too.

So, what protein sources are most beneficial for building muscle?  Complete proteins sources that are highly bioavailable. Now, there are many different systems for classifying these values in foods.  The chart below provides a snapshot from three different rating systems.

SourcePDCAASBVPER
Casein1.00772.5
Whey1.001043.2
Egg1.001003.9
Soy1.00742.2
Beef0.92802.9
Black Beans0.75--
Peanuts0.52-1.8
Wheat0.25640.8

The takeaway?  Animal sources of protein are superior for building muscle.  With the exception of gelatin, all animal sources are complete proteins with relatively high bioavailability.  Vegetable sources on the other hand, are often missing some of the essential aminos and typically aren’t absorbed as well.  

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not saying that vegetables are unimportant, just that, if you want to build muscle, you probably shouldn’t rely on them as your primary source of protein.  But, if you’re regularly eating animal proteins, including both meat and dairy, you’re likely leveraging protein to the best of your ability for building muscle.

Carbs

As a clean eater, if a carb isn’t broccoli or kale, you probably aren’t eating much of it.  How does that affect your muscle growth?

Well, it’s probably best to lead with the fact that, at this point in time, I believe there is insufficient evidence to come down definitively on specific guidelines for carbs to support muscle growth.  However, there are a few points worth mentioning.

First, clean sources of carbohydrate tend to be higher in fiber and fiber is very filling.  The more full you are, the less you eat, which brings us back to energy balance. So, a diet that is very high in fiber, may make it challenging for you to eat a caloric excess and optimize muscle growth.

Second, lifting weights regularly and with increasing volume is one of the best ways to stimulate muscle growth.  But, a low carb diet may work against you on this one. In one study, participants on a lower carb diet reached exhaustion quicker during anaerobic exercise than the control group on a moderate carbohydrate diet.  Ultimately, the low carb group put in 19% less work.  Over the long haul, less work means less muscle (since volume is a primary driver of muscle gains in training).

Finally, hormones play a central role in muscle development and some studies have noted as much as a 26% increase in serum testosterone concentrations in males following moderate and higher carb consumption when compared to low carb.

Again, I’m not aware of any direct evidence that low carb diets inhibit muscle growth, but some of the indirect research highlighted above seems to indicate you’re better off with at least a moderate carb consumption to stimulate muscle growth.  

Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t continue to eat clean, it just means that if you want to build muscle, you need to prioritize dense carb sources in your diet and probably aim for a minimum of ⅓ of your calories from carbs.  So, in addition to your broccoli and kale, make sure you’re downing foods like potatoes, quinoa and white rice on the regular.

Fats

As was the case with carbs, the research on fats is a little murky.  However, it’s important to note that fats are essential to many bodily processes including hormone production.  Similar to the low carb research shared above, some studies have shown that low fat diets are associated with testosterone dips of as much as 12%.

More fat doesn’t necessarily mean more testosterone though, other studies have demonstrated that very high fat meals may actually suppress testosterone.  So, with fat, you’re probably best off looking for that Goldilocks quantity, “not too much, not too little.”  As a guideline, most individuals can avoid a disruption in hormone production by consuming a minimum of 1g of fat per kg of body weight.  As an example, I weigh 170lbs, so I strive for a minimum of 77g of fat every day (170 / 2.2 = 77).

What about specific types of fats though?

You may remember that proteins are made up of a variety of amino acids, well fats are similar in that they’re made up of different fatty acids.  One class of these that you’ve probably heard of is Omega-3s, these are what you’re getting when you supplement with fish oil. They’re an essential fatty acid, meaning you can only get them through the foods you eat.

Now, there is some compelling research that seems to indicate prioritizing Omega 3 fatty acids in your diet enhances muscle growth.  What’s the mechanism?  Well, the best guess as of now is that Omega 3 fatty acids make your cells more permeable, facilitating greater uptake of amino acids.  More efficient amino acid uptake, more gains! Though Omega 3s also seems to support a decrease in the catabolic hormone cortisol, which may play a significant role too.

So, how does a clean diet factor into all of this?

Well, if you’re eating meat, full fat dairy, healthy oils, etc. you should definitely be hitting your fat intake target so as to not interfere with hormone production.  But, what about Omega 3s? It turns out the best sources of Omega 3s are fatty fish. Are you consuming fish regularly? They totally fit within the constructs of clean eating – so, do your best to eat fish a couple times a week, and you’ll have your fat / muscle-building bases covered.  

Let’s Wrap It Up

You can definitely build muscle while eating clean, you just need to understand the variables.

  • Energy balance.  In general, a clean diet is a more satiating diet, so make sure you’re eating enough calories to put your body in an energy surplus.  If you don’t, it’s going to be really tough to build muscle.
  • Protein is king.  Protein and muscles go hand in hand and on a clean diet you are very likely prioritizing complete proteins that are highly bioavailable.  To be sure, scroll up and review the chart rating the quality of different protein sources.
  • Dense carbs probably help.  On a clean diet you’re probably focused on high fiber carb sources, which often lead to an overall lower carb approach.  Now, there is no direct evidence that low carb inhibits muscle growth, but it appears as if it may actually limit how hard you can go in your training sessions and may actually decrease testosterone concentrations.  So, to play it safe, make sure you’re getting adequate carbs – target around 33% of calories from carbs.
  • Fatten up those muscles.  Hormone production requires fat, but both low and high fat diets may reduce serum testosterone concentrations.  Also, one specific type of fat, Omega 3s, appears to directly benefit muscle mass creation. So, it’s best to ensure you’re consuming at least 1g of fat / kg of bodyweight each day along with plenty of Omega 3s.

Are You Doing Everything You Can To Build Muscle?

Our FREE Max Muscle Checklist walks you through the most important, science-backed steps for promoting muscle growth.  These include training, nutrition and lifestyle.  If you’ve been struggling to add lean mass or if you’re just looking to maximize your muscle development, click the link below to download the checklist.

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