In bodybuilding, there are two main parts to the hypertrophy equation: training and eating. The former breaks down muscle while the latter supplies the necessary macronutrients, vitamins and minerals to build it back up again, and then some. Sure, eating a wide variety of healthy foods is the best way to ensure you give your body the nutrients it needs to grow, but a handful of edibles go above and beyond the call of duty with respect to helping you chisel out the physique you yearn for. Here’s MuscleMag’s shortlist of foods you should always have in your pantry or fridge.
Why you need it: Sometimes called black cod, the sablefish’s buttery, pearly white meat is becoming increasingly popular. Ounce for ounce, its protein content is marginally lower than other bodybuilding-friendly fish such as salmon and halibut (sablefish contains about 26 grams of protein in a 6-ounce serving). But the best reason to reel in this slightly sweet-tasting swimmer is its soaring levels of omega-3 fatty acids — about 2.8 grams in a 6-ounce serving. Researchers from Gettysburg College (Pennsylvania) found that subjects who consumed high amounts of fish oil each day for six weeks shed bodyfat while simultaneously gaining muscle. This fish fat appears to reduce levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that can break down muscle and interfere with testosterone. Omega-3s may also rev up genes responsible for burning fat. What’s more, a British Journal of Nutrition study reported that higher intakes of fish omegas can improve how efficiently exercising muscle uses oxygen, helping to delay the onset of muscular fatigue.
Extra credit: This protein-packed catch of the day is also rich in selenium, a potent antioxidant that may help reduce the oxidative muscular damage that occurs with hardcore training.
Eat up: For a simple and tasty way to prepare sablefish post-workout, season fillets with salt, pepper and smoked paprika. Bake at 375 degrees F until opaque throughout, about 15 minutes.
Why you need it: In recent years, the yogurt aisle at the supermarket has experienced something of a cultural revolution. Made by straining away liquid, Greek yogurts are packed with twice as much muscle-friendly protein and fewer carbohydrates as regular versions. One key amino acid that Greek yogurt has in spades is leucine, a branched-chain amino that appears to be an anabolic activator and a vital part of muscle protein synthesis. Choose lower-fat plain varieties (which are just as creamy and thick) for a better protein-to-fat ratio, and less gut-busting sugar and calories than flavored yogurts. Expect to pay a little extra for Greek versions because of the labor required to make them, but this must-have item is worth the dough.
Extra credit: Dairy products such as Greek yogurt are among the best sources of calcium, a mineral shown to help boost fat oxidation, and research shows its fat-burning prowess is more potent when consumed via whole-food dairy vs. supplements. Case in point: A 2011 Journal of Nutrition study reported that subjects eating a high-protein, high-dairy diet gained more muscle and shed more belly fat than subjects on a low-dairy plan.
Eat up: For a muscle-building snack, combine Greek yogurt with omega-rich walnuts and antioxidant-rich blueberries. You can also use it to replace mayonnaise and sour cream in recipes.
Why you need it: There are plenty of reasons to hoof it over to your butcher for this game meat. Bison — buffalo in layman’s terms — delivers a hefty 42 grams of protein per 6-ounce serving and is generally leaner than beef, with only about 6 grams of fat in the same-size portion of lean cuts such as rib eye and top round. As a red meat, it’s also among the best dietary sources of creatine, which is well-documented in helping bodybuilders heave more iron and paving the way for muscle growth. As more people warm up to bison as one of the healthiest and most sustainable red meats you can sink your teeth into, it’s becoming easier to locate at grocery stores, butchers, farmers’ markets and on restaurant menus. Try it and you’ll quickly realize why its rich flavor with lingering sweetness won’t leave you pondering: “Where’s the beef?”
Extra credit: This all-star meat is also abundant in zinc, a mineral purported to boost testosterone production.
Eat up: Since bison is naturally lean, don’t cook steaks past medium-rare or you’ll risk biting into something that tastes more like shoe leather. Use ground bison for making meat sauces and burgers.
Why you need it: Bodybuilders are notorious for being cautious about carbs. So when you do eat them, make sure you choose only the most nutritionally charged of the bunch like whole-grain quinoa. Native to South America and historically noted to have been the main power food for the ancient Incan armies, quinoa contains a full complement of essential amino acids, making it a rare complete-protein source for vegetarians. Its nutritionally rich résumé includes impressive amounts of folate, fat-fighting fiber and magnesium, a mineral shown to improve insulin sensitivity, which can reduce fat gain and keep diabetes at bay. Compared to refined grains such as white pasta or white rice, quinoa digests slower, providing more sustained energy and less risk of fat storage.
Extra credit: Quinoa cooks up in less than half the time as brown rice, making it an ideal edible when you need a meal fast. Most large supermarkets now carry this grain, or try your local bulk store for some cost savings.
Eat up: To prepare quinoa, place 1 cup of the grain in a medium-sized saucepan along with 2 cups of water or reduced-sodium broth; bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer covered for 12 minutes, or until the liquid has absorbed. Serve as a side dish to bison or sablefish.
Dark Leafy Greens
Why you need them: Whether it’s kale, Swiss chard, collard greens or spinach, dark leafy greens are some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. For the few calories they contain, they have an encyclopedic vitamin, mineral and/or antioxidant profile. The process of rebuilding spent muscles requires a huge number of these micronutrients and antioxidants, making it all the more important to live and eat as green as possible. Leafy greens are also stellar sources of natural nitrites, which increase levels of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide helps deliver more oxygen and nutrients to working muscles and, in turn, makes balls-out training seem less taxing.
Extra credit: Leafy greens are a leading source of vitamin C, an antioxidant involved in the production of carnitine. Carnitine is required for proper fat oxidation.
Eat up: To create the perfect bodybuilding meal, serve 6 ounces of sablefish or bison, 1 cup cooked quinoa and 2 cups lightly steamed dark leafy greens. Add a little healthy fat such as extra-virgin olive oil or avocado to the greens to help your body absorb their fat-soluble antioxidants.