Building muscle isn’t easy.
Not only do you need to dedicate time and effort to resistance training and lifting weights but your rest/recovery and diet are just as important – if not more important.
While there are countless lists for foods that are great for building muscle or bulking (we’ve got some lists at the end of this article) there are also foods to avoid when building muscle.
They won’t necessarily lead to muscle loss but there are certain foods that can impact hormones, nutrient balance, and ultimately your ability to build lean muscle mass.
In this article we’ll cover these foods.
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In researching this topic I came across some interesting recommendations that I can’t fully agree with.
Before seeing the foods to avoid, it’s worth noting that anything done in moderation won’t be completely detrimental to your goals.
If you have a solid training plan, progressively overload the muscles, consume a calorie surplus, and have ideal macro splits that facilitate muscle growth then in general, you can follow an 80/20 principle.
This basically means 80% of your food is coming from whole, unprocessed food sources with 20% being a bit more flexible.
This isn’t a recommendation, I’m just saying one “unhealthy” food choice won’t ruin your progress if everything else is in place. It’s only if you prioritize the poor food choices that you’ll see stagnation in muscle growth or even fat gain as a result.
The reason I mention this is because some sources claim to remove food options like white rice, bread, bagels and other food items that can actually be used to fuel muscle growth when combined with favorable food options.
- Lean meat
- Red meat
- Green leafy veg
- Coconut and olive oil
- Nut butters
Combining foods is one of the most optimal methods you can take to build muscle.
To counter that, if you only eat refined carbs, high fat foods, or any other “bad” foods then yes, it’s more likely you’ll be gaining body fat and prevent muscle growth.
With that said, let’s get into the foods that you really should avoid when trying to build muscle.
Even in moderation, any benefits to the food below are far outweighed by the negative impacts on performance in the gym, recovery, and muscle growth.
Foods to Avoid When Building Muscle
Not necessarily food but alcohol is one of the biggest no-go things you can consume when it comes to building muscle.
Alcohol is a toxic substance to the human body. It’s both fat and water soluble which means it can pass directly into the cells in our body and act as a genuine toxic to us.
Now, I’m not here to judge anyone – I drink in moderation…
However, if you want to maximize muscle growth then there isn’t really something that can derail progress more than alcohol.
Firstly, alcohol contains empty calories and I really mean empty calories. There is no macronutrient value to alcohol and we can’t process it to use as energy or for any muscle building activity like muscle glycogen, etc…
Alcohol adds calories to your daily total but has no macro or micronutrient benefit.
Then you also need to factor in hangovers, the impact on muscle recovery and also the impact it has on decision making.
I live in the UK and the amount of drinking sessions that are immediately followed by an unhealthy, greasy takeaway is too common to ignore.
Like I say, I will drink from time to time but not only does alcohol provide zero benefit to muscle growth, the negative impacts it has are so numerous that it really doesn’t make sense whatsoever to consume alcohol if your primary goal is to build muscle.
Disclaimer – You can drink in moderation and some alcohol won’t ruin your progress. Just note that it’s definitely not beneficial and the more you consume, the more negative impacts you’ll have in terms of performance, recovery, and muscle growth…
There’ll be some backlash to this suggestion but if your primary focus is on building muscle, it would be a good suggestion to avoid soy-based products.
The reason for this is that studies are ongoing regarding the effect of soy on estrogen levels.
Soy is shown to raise estrogen levels which would be the adverse hormone you’d want to raise if building muscle mass – which would be testosterone.
What people don’t quite understand (because of clickbait) is that healthy estrogen levels are needed to maximize testosterone levels.
There needs to be a balance.
Finding that balance is tricky though…
In Western society, we have an abundance of estrogenic raising compounds that are impacting people (mainly males) without us really knowing.
Plastics, toothpaste, treated tap water, body wash, there’s actually an endless list of items with chemicals that are indirectly impacting our estrogen and testosterone levels.
I’ll admit to not grasping the full science behind this topic as it’s ongoing but I do have an opinion on soy…
If there’s a chance that we already have an imbalance of estrogen and testosterone for muscle building purposes, why risk making it worse by consuming soy?
Like most things, it won’t do any harm to have moderation but if you want maximal muscle growth, it would make more sense to go for proven testosterone boosting protein sources like red meat, animal based protein sources, eggs, and whey.
There are also other plant-based protein sources you can have like chickpeas or pea protein so it’s not like there aren’t good alternatives.
3) Low Carb Foods
The keto diet and other low-carb diets are growing increasingly popular in Western society.
As a defence, these diets are good for creating a balanced diet and promoting fat/weight loss.
Western diets are quite bad in terms of the high carb, sugar, fried, and processed foods which is leading to an epidemic in terms of obesity and diabetes so for this section, low carb foods aren’t bad.
For muscle building purposes though, it’s best to avoid this approach – in the short term.
Health and longevity are incredibly important but if you want to build muscle, carbs are incredibly efficient and really should be included in your diet.
The energy source for training is carbohydrates (broken down by the body and stored as muscle glycogen).
Not only do carbs provide energy for resistance training and muscular contractions but they kickstart other muscle building processes like the anabolic hormone insulin.
Fat can also be broken down and used as a source of energy for muscles but it’s a much more complicated process and is one of the reasons that bodybuilders would have chicken and rice long before our modern studies started to take place.
Having low carb foods like cauliflower rice, zucchini, or other plant-based alternatives are not only low in carbs but low in calories so you’ll make it harder to maintain a calorie surplus and build muscle if you follow this route.
4) Processed Cheese
Dairy in general is quite good for building muscle.
The closer you get to the source when it comes to dairy (think whole milk, full fat cheese) then the better it is for building, or supporting muscle growth.
As soon as the dairy becomes more processed though, it not only loses vital nutrients that can be used for building muscle but it usually ends up with a higher trans fat or alternative content.
Studies even show that full fat dairy products stimulate an increase in growth hormone and insulin like growth factor.
This can help explain why old school strength training focused around meat, potatoes, rice, and a lot of milk. These foods help build muscle.
The same is true for processed meats. Whenever you make something processed you usually end up removing some of the good nutrients and replacing them with negative compounds.
This is how you preserve food so it’s good for convenience but if you really want to build muscle, skip the processed foods and choose those that are as close to the source (organic) as possible.
The person eating organic, grass fed beef and drinking full fat milk will be stronger and look better than the person eating sandwich meat and cream cheese!
Bodybuilders had it right a long time ago. They ate a lot of whole food sources as close to the organic source as possible. Before the information age and product overload, keeping it basic really did work for building muscle.
We just over complicate it now.
Soda (sugar water) is secretly – maybe not so secret these days – one of the worst foods that impact body composition.
The impact is also negative in that excessive soda consumption has been shown to be a leading cause of diabetes and obesity.
Soda is incredibly high in sugar with one bottle often containing the average recommended daily serving of sugar.
The recommended daily serving is just for the average person as well. If you’re reading this and care about your physique and overall health then this “recommendation” is even less relevant.
Such a high sugar content will spike blood glucose levels at the wrong time (ideal timing is around a workout) causing sharp spikes and crashes in energy and mood.
Not only that but nutrient timing is beneficial for muscle growth and these blood sugar spikes throughout the day will lead to insulin resistance.
This is not good for someone building muscle.
Not only is it bad from a hormonal perspective but these random spikes will also lead to your body storing the excess sugar as body fat instead of muscle glycogen.
Athletes have sport drinks during activity because the rapid absorption can be utilized for energy but casually drinking sugared water throughout the day is going to quickly lead to someone gaining body fat.
I do try to be impartial but there isn’t any known benefit to drinking soda. Even outside of a muscle building food article I’d struggle to recommend drinking soda even in small quantities.
There are just better options with water, milk, or milk alternatives being better for you on almost every conceivable level.
6) Deep Fried Food
At the base, deep fried foods usually use what you’d consider to be a good muscle building food source.
Chicken, beef, potatoes, fish are all good for building muscle but as soon as you deep fry them the benefit from the protein or carb content is quickly negated by the downsides of trans fats.
Research shows that trans fats raise cholesterol, increase the risk of heart and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Source – (1)
While I preach balance and having something in moderation, fried and processed foods just don’t have much benefit to building muscle and the negative impact they have on our body just far outweighs any benefit.
These are usually also cooked in processed vegetable oil which is cheap. Certain oils like olive oil and coconut oil can actually help promote muscle growth because they are considered “good” fats.
Processed vegetable oil however is high in trans fats which can’t be properly utilized by the human body so ends up being stored as excess body fat or impeding hormone function and other bodily functions.
You may notice that on this list I’ve not included some of the key suspects. Donuts, candy bars, muffins… Basically all the treat or cheat foods.
The reason for this is that these foods aren’t ideal for building muscle but they are also not as detrimental as others on the list. One donut will not be as damaging as a bucket of fried chicken. Moderation is key.
The best method to see if a food is beneficial for muscle growth or not is by looking at the nutritional content of the individual food item and the meal as a whole.
If you are having more sugar or trans fat in grams than protein or carbs (not from sugar) then you are likely not building muscle and will instead be gaining fat.
That’s the quick hack I use anyway as it’s easy to look at a food and if it provides 50g carbs, 45g of which is sugar then that’s just not a good ratio.
If protein is lower than that and you’re not having a protein source then you’re basically looking at the average Western diet and you should know this does not result in a load of people walking around built like machines…