Best food for bulking: Our top picks for building muscle

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Choosing the right diet to bulk up isn't always easy because it can be difficult to strike the right balance between calories and protein; however, our list of the best food for bulking should help you get started.

Of course, protein is something we've used to inform our selection as it's essential to the building, maintaining, and growth of muscle. However, unlike our list of the best food for powerlifting, it's perhaps not our number one priority for putting on mass.

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The key to bulking is in fact calories as you simply need to consume more than you need to maintain your body weight in order to increase your size.

Therefore, while protein comes into our selection, we've made sure to pick nutritious foods that are packed with calories to help you successfully bulk.

That said, there are a ton of supplements available, including protein powders and protein bars, which can help you increase both your protein and calorie intake. However, it's still important to consume most of your calories through whole foods to maintain a balanced diet.

With all this in mind, we've put together a selection of calorie-dense foods that contain complete proteins, complex carbohydrates, and/or unsaturated fats to ensure you're getting the right nutrients as part of your bulking diet.

We've also answered some of the most commonly asked questions surrounding bulking, like how many calories you need to consume, to help you reach your weight goal. Before that though, let's get into our list...

Best food for bulking

Eggs

A collection of white and brown eggs in a carton.
Credit: Kelly Neil

Nutrition from Nutritionix (per 100g):

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  • Calories - 143
  • Protein - 13g
  • Fat - 9.5g
  • Carbs - 0.7g

We're kicking things off with eggs which, as mentioned in our list of the best foods for protein, are one of the most nutrient-rich foods available if you're looking to build muscle.

For instance, eggs contain vitamin B12 which, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, plays a vital role in the creation of new red blood cells. These cells are important as they carry oxygen to your muscles and so should help improve your physical performance whilst working out.

Eggs also contain calcium. This is important as the Harvard School of Public Health has linked calcium to improving bone density.

Building stronger bones will likely help your body adapt to your increase in weight as you bulk and should help it cope with the huge amount of stress placed on your muscles and tendons whilst weightlifting.

Sirloin steak

Sirloin steak cut up with broccoli.
Credit: Loija Nguyen

Nutrition from Nutritionix (per 100g):

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  • Calories - 243
  • Protein - 27g
  • Fat - 14g
  • Carbs - 0g

As far as meat goes, sirloin steak is up there as one of the best for bulking as it's fairly dense in calories but also contains 27g of protein per 100g serving to aid muscular repair.

Sirloin steak also contains iron which is a major component of haemoglobin, a type of protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, you're likely to fatigue quicker whilst exercising without enough iron as your body simply won't have the red blood cells to carry oxygen to your muscles.

However, sirloin steak isn't cheap, and you do have to be careful with how much red meat you consume as the National Institute of Health has linked red meat to an increased risk of heart disease. The NHS advises around 70g of red meat a day should be fine for most adults.

Read More: Best beef liver supplements

Salmon

Cooked salmon on a bed of rice and vegetables.
Credit: Sebastian Coman Photography

Nutrition from Nutritionix (per 100g):

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  • Calories - 206
  • Protein - 22g
  • Fat - 12g
  • Carbs - 0g

Seafood-wise, salmon is definitely a food worth considering adding to your bulking diet as it contains 22g of protein per 100g serving and a fairly impressive 206 calories as well. However, the big advantage of salmon is that it contains omega-3 fatty acids.

As touched on in our guide on whether tuna is good for muscle growth, we mention that omega-3 fatty acids are associated with numerous potential health benefits.

For instance, one meta-analysis by Montori et al. found a statistically significant effect of omega-3 supplementation on lowering a type of fat in your blood known as triglycerides. This is vital when bulking as it's likely you'll be consuming more fat than usual as part of your diet.

Moreover, omega-3 has been linked with anti-inflammatory properties. A study by Lalia et al. found a significant increase in muscle growth after exercise following daily supplementation of omega-3. This may have been due to the supplements enhancing participants' muscle sensitivity to protein and resistance training, two elements you'll likely be increasing during your bulk.

Cottage cheese

Cottage cheese with ham, soy sauce, and diced peppers in a bowl.
Credit: Pavel Subbotin

Nutrition from Nutritionix (per 100g):

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  • Calories - 98
  • Protein - 11g
  • Fat - 4.3g
  • Carbs - 3.4g

Cottage cheese is a common addition to any bulking diet as it's packed with protein as well as several other key nutrients which have been linked to increased muscle-building capacity.

The high protein content in cottage cheese mostly comes from casein which your body absorbs relatively slowly and, in turn, may inhibit muscular breakdown.

This may also prolong how long it takes your body to absorb the amino acids, which is why cottage cheese is often recommended as a last meal before going to bed to help your body repair whilst you sleep.

Read More: Best taurine supplements

Edamame

Edamame in a white bowl.
Credit: Fudio

Nutrition from Nutritionix (per 100g):

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  • Calories - 121
  • Protein - 12g
  • Fat - 5.2g
  • Carbs - 8.9g

When it comes to vegetables, you won't find many that contain as much protein as edamame. However, edamame isn't just great for its protein content.

Edamame also contains folate, vitamin K, and fibre, with the latter playing an important role in digestion. Moreover, a cohort analysis study by Pereira et al. found dietary fibre to be inversely associated with the risk of coronary heart disease due to improving participants' blood lipid profiles.

Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is also linked to several health benefits. One study by Asbaghi et al., for example, found a connection between folate and reducing inflammation which, in turn, may aid your recovery post-training as well as the fighting of diseases.

Peanut butter

Peanut butter surrounded by peanuts on a black spoon.
Credit: Corleto Peanut Butter

Nutrition from Nutritionix (per 100g):

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  • Calories - 588
  • Protein - 22g
  • Fat - 50g
  • Carbs - 24g

Peanut butter is another common addition to a bulking diet and one we'd recommend as long as you're not allergic. One of the reasons behind this is because it contains all three major macronutrients - protein, carbs, and fat.

You do have to consume peanut butter in moderation though as the fat content is pretty high. However, a large part of this fat is made up of oleic acid which, in one study by López-Gómez et al., was linked to improved insulin sensitivity.

Peanut butter is also fairly rich in vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin B3 (niacin). Niacin is interesting as it has been linked to reducing blood pressure. A study by Zhang et al. supports this as the researchers found that each 1mg increase in niacin intake was associated with a 2% decrease in the risk of high blood pressure.

Read More: Best bitter orange supplements

Avocado

Picture of three avocados, one of which is cut in half.
Credit: Gil Ndjouwou

Nutrition from Nutritionix (per 100g):

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  • Calories - 160
  • Protein - 2g
  • Fat - 15g
  • Carbs - 8.5g

We conclude our list with avocados known for their high levels of unsaturated fat, specifically monounsaturated fats.

According to Heart.org, monounsaturated fat can reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood and, therefore, may lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Dietary fat is also an important factor in bulking as it's packed full of calories so should help you gain size and reach your daily intake quicker.

Avocados are also rich in nutrients that can be hard to come by in your average diet. For example, avocados contain magnesium and vitamins B6, C, E, and folate. Magnesium is particularly important as it's involved in over 600 reactions in your body, including the conversion of food into energy and the creation of new proteins from amino acids to aid muscular development.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Selecting the right food to fuel your body correctly whilst also increasing your size can be extremely tricky and often leads to a ton of questions. Don't worry though because we've answered some of the most common queries right here.

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How many calories do you need to eat when bulking?

There's not really a definitive answer to this question as it will depend on your current size, your metabolism, and how quickly you're looking to put on weight.

That said, one review by Iraki et al. recommends consuming 10–20% above your daily maintenance calories for an average weight gain of 0.25–0.5% per week. So, if you require 2000 calories a day to maintain weight, you should be consuming between 2200-2400 instead during a bulk phase.

However, these figures aren't set in stone. Another review by Spendlove et al. found, at a competitive level in bodybuilding, participants would eat an average of 3,800 calories per day for men and 3,200 for women whilst bulking, but would drop to as low as 2,400 and 1,200 calories during the cutting phase, respectively.

So, how many calories you consume appears to come down to your own judgment really. Our only recommendation would be to try not to eat significantly more calories than your current maintenance level as you may end up gaining weight too quickly and reach a point where your body can't adjust accordingly.

What foods are bad to eat when bulking?

While bulking is a good opportunity to consume foods you may not otherwise get to enjoy as much while trying to stay lean, there are several types of food we'd advise you limit as they won't necessarily help you make progress in the right direction.

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Firstly, any food that contains an excess amount of sugar isn't great for bulking. They may be high in calories, but more often than not these calories are empty as they offer zero protein and, therefore, next to no benefit for building muscle. Consuming too much sugar is also linked to several negative health effects such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Fried foods are another one to be wary of when bulking as they tend to contain a lot of fat, specifically trans fat. Trans fats are something to consume in moderation as they're linked to numerous health issues. A study by Mensink et al., for example, found trans fats to increase LDL cholesterol levels (bad cholesterol) more so than other diets.

This extends to junk food as well which in many cases is also fried, so comes with similar health side effects. Fast/junk food also tends to lack nutrients and protein, two elements that are essential to maintain whilst bulking despite the temptation to just eat loads of junk food because it's easy calories.

How long should you bulk for before you begin to cut?

Once again, there's not really a clear answer to this question as it all depends on your current body status in relation to your goals as well as the type of bulk you're doing.

One general recommendation is that once you hit around 20% body fat then you should switch to a cut or at least drop down to your maintenance calories.

However, you may prefer to bulk for a strict time frame of around four to six months, for example, to give yourself more of a routine and plan.

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That said, if you opt for something known as a 'dirty' bulk, aka trying to consume as many calories without too much care for how much fat you're consuming, then it's unlikely you'll be able to sustain your bulking phase for longer than a few months.

We wouldn't advise this either due to the negative health effects it can have on your body.

Realistically, how long you bulk for comes down to your personal preference and should be something you adapt over time in response to how your body reacts.

Read More: Best protein bars available now