What are the best foods for faster, leaner, and healthier muscle growth? It might seem like a simple question, and it is, but if we want to build a great bulking diet, we can go pretty deep with it.
For example, junk food is high in calories and easy to digest. Great for gaining weight, right? Absolutely. But it’s also full of empty calories, it’s low in protein, and it may make our digestive systems weaker over time. New research is even showing that foods that are higher in saturated fats and fructose—which is common with junk food—are more likely to be stored as visceral body fat instead of as muscle (study).
Fortunately, there are quite a few great bulking foods that make it easier to eat more calories, are great for stimulating muscle growth, are great for our health, and that can improve our digestion over time.
Furthermore, building a good bulking diet isn’t as simple as just eating a lot of healthy food. For example, the best bulking diets tend to be quite high in foods that break down into glucose. Lower-fibre starches, such as white rice and pasta, are great for this. That’s not common in most other pop-culture diets, such as ketogenic diets, low-carb diets, or paleo diets. This makes bulking diets unique.
Without further ado, here are the very best bulking foods.
- What Makes a Food Good for Bulking?
- The Best Bulking Foods
- Whole Milk (And All Milk)
- Olive Oil (And Other Oils)
- Nuts (and Nut Butters)
- Dried fruits
- Trail Mix
- Muesli cereal (trail mix + milk)
- Dark Chocolate
- Protein Shakes
- White Rice
- Full-Fat Yogurt
- Kefir (Made from Milk)
- Raw Eggs
- Ground Meat
- Salmon (and Other Fatty Fish)
- Spinach, Beets, and Leafy Greens
- Key Takeaways
What Makes a Food Good for Bulking?
The best foods for bulking up are going to have a few characteristics:
- Rich in calories (high energy density).
- Good for stimulating muscle growth.
- Good for our general health.
- Unlikely to be stored as fat.
Now, not every single food that we eat needs to satisfy all of these requirements. For example, spinach isn’t rich in calories or easy to digest, but it does have some unique health and muscle-building benefits. Among those benefits are its high nitrate content, which improves weight training performance and speeds up muscle growth.
For a rather opposite example, consider something like white rice. White rice is almost totally devoid of micronutrients, but it’s also rich in easily digestible calories. Those calories, which come entirely from glucose, are easy to store in our muscles and yet almost impossible to store as body fat. This can make white rice a great bulking food in some circumstances.
By combining a bunch of different foods together, both low and high in fibre, we can wind up with a diet that’s great for bulking overall.
The Best Bulking Foods
Skinny guys tend to have faster metabolisms and smaller stomachs, which can it incredibly hard to eat enough calories to gain weight. If you’re struggling with that, here’s our guide on eating more calories.
In this article, we’re just going to give you some examples of the best bulking foods. My hope is that this will give you some ideas about how to improve your bulking diet.
Whole Milk (And All Milk)
Milk is one of the most famous bulking foods of all time. The main reasons that milk is so great for building muscle is that it’s an easy source of calories and protein, it’s not very filling, and it passes out of our stomachs fairly quickly.
A litre of whole milk contains:
- 630 calories
- 34 grams of fat
- 49 grams of carbohydrates
- 32 grams of protein
If you added a litre of milk into your diet, you could expect to gain about a pound per week on the scale. You’d also be getting more protein than you’d get from a standard scoop of protein powder. Not bad!
The benefits of milk go beyond it being a good source of calories and protein, though. It contains a number of properties that help with building muscle:
- It’s rich in zinc, selenium, and magnesium.
- It has a balanced amino acid profile.
- It’s often fortified with vitamin D
- It’s rich in calcium, which improves bone density
- It’s full of casein protein, which digests quite steadily
Milk is also mysteriously anabolic, with researchers noting accelerated rates of muscle growth from milk (study), and yet having no idea which property of milk is creating that extra muscle growth (study).
We’ve written a full article about how to bulk up with milk, including a breakdown of both GOMAD and LOMAD.
Olive Oil (And Other Oils)
A single tablespoon of olive oil contains 120 calories, making it the most calorically dense food on the menu. 250 calories behind schedule? No problem. Pour a shot of olive oil.
When we realized how rich a source of calories oil was, we started taking shots of olive oil before going to bed, which was a simple way of getting into the calorie surplus that we needed to bulk up. It was healthy, too. Olive oil has a number of health benefits, largely stemming from its high antioxidant content (study).
However, taking shots of olive oil was also a rough time, and I’d rather not do it again. These days I much prefer drizzling olive oil on my veggies or mixing a tablespoon of it into my stews and soups.
Similar benefits apply to a wide variety of oils:
- Olive oil
- Flaxseed oil
- Avocado oil
- Walnut oil
- Fish oil
- Krill oil
Speaking of which, fish and krill oil have some unique bulking benefits, too. There’s some preliminary research showing that up to a tablespoon of fish oil per day can help us build muscle more leanly.
As a rule of thumb, the trick is to choose minimally processed oils that are higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ever consume any saturated oils, such as coconut oil or butter. However, since those are best consumed in moderation, they may not make the best “bulking” oils.
Now, that doesn’t mean that saturated fat is bad. It’s just that most health organizations recommend limiting saturated fat to around 10% of our total calories, and many common bulking foods (such as ground meat), as well as other oils (such as olive oil), already contain some saturated fat. That will often bring us quite close to that 10% threshold without our needing to intentionally consume any extra. Going much beyond that may increase our risk of gaining visceral fat (study).
Nuts (and Nut Butters)
Nuts have an incredibly high energy density, making them a great source of calories while bulking up. They’re one of the healthiest sources of fats, they often contain some fibre, and the minerals found in nuts (such as magnesium) tend to be great for testosterone production and muscle growth. As a bonus, you’ll usually get a few grams of protein.
- Macadamia nuts
- Brazil nuts
Regarding peanuts, yes, they’re technically a legume, but they’re still a great source of calories, fat, protein, and minerals.
Some nuts are hyped up for having particular muscle-building benefits. For example, almonds are often said to be the most nutrient-rich food of all time. For another example, Tim Ferriss claims that eating brazil nuts tripled his testosterone production. These claims may even be true, but most whole foods have a laundry list of comparable benefits. That’s simply because real food tends to be good for us. And the best bulking diets tend to be made up of a wide variety of those real foods.
As a rule of thumb, try to eat a wide variety of nuts. Mixed nuts will give you a greater variety of nutrients, and their varied flavours will help to prevent flavour fatigue (where you get sick of the foods that you’re overeating).
Dried fruits are a fraction the size of regular fruits, yet they have just as many vitamins, minerals and fibre. In fact, if you compare dried fruit against fresh fruit by weight, dried fruit contains about 3.5 times the amount of fibre, vitamins and minerals as fresh fruit.
In honour of the caloric density of dried fruits, I’m going to intentionally keep this section short, sweet, and incredibly muscular.
Trail mix is my favourite bulking food. It combines the many benefits of mixed nuts with the benefits of dried fruits, creating an absolute muscle-building masterpiece.
In fact, during my latest bulk, the only thing I changed about my diet was adding in a 450-calorie snack of trail mix between lunch and dinner. Then, when that stopped being enough, I added in a second 450-calorie snack of trail mix between breakfast and lunch. That simple approach to bulking allowed me to gain thirteen pounds over the course of four months, bringing my lifetime gains from +55 pounds up to +65 pounds.
Now, mind you, over these past several years, I’ve made a number of gradual improvements to my diet. The trail mix was being added in on top of a diet that’s already pretty good for maintaining a muscular physique. Still, it was my easiest and most enjoyable bulk yet.
Tip: I know that this is going to sound crazy, but I find trail mix much more enjoyable to “drink” than to eat. I put my trail mix in a cup and knock it back over the course of a few “sips.” I still chew it, of course.
Muesli cereal (trail mix + milk)
Muesli, like trail mix, is a blend of several bulking foods. It’s usually made by mixing together oats, grains, nuts, dried fruits. People will then usually pour in some milk (or yogurt) and eat it like cereal.
Once we’re getting into these combo foods where it’s just all the best bulking foods thrown together into a delicious mix, it’s just not fair to skinniness. I mean, how is skinniness ever supposed to survive when we’re armed with both trail mix and muesli? It’s not even a fair fight anymore.
Dark chocolate is a great source of healthy fats, minerals, and antioxidants, making it a wonderfully healthy bulking food. It’s also calorically dense and easy to digest, which will help us gain weight.
Chocolate is also rich in a compound called epicatechin, which helps to dilate blood vessels and improve blood flow, producing a similar effect to pre-workout supplements like L-citrulline. (Prunes do this as well.)
Now, as with all foods, these effects aren’t magic. Still, it may mean that if your bulking diet is rich in foods like chocolate, prunes, beets, and spinach, you’ll be able to improve your workout performance and muscle growth simply from eating a diet that’s known to be generally healthy.
Bulking tip: for an even more enjoyable bulk, you can add pieces of dark chocolate to your trail mix or muesli cereal.
Protein shakes are the easiest way for a guy with a small stomach to boost his protein intake. If you’re having a meal that’s low in protein, have a protein shake. Before heading home after a hard workout, have a protein shake. If you realize at the last minute that you haven’t eaten enough protein that day, have a protein shake. Simple.
Tip: you may not need as much water in your protein shake as you think you do. I can usually mix a good two scoops of whey protein into a standard glass.
Bananas are one of the most calorically dense fruits, and they’re also a great source of prebiotics, which is important for keeping your digestive system running smoothly.
Here’s how to add bananas to your bulking diet:
- Blend them into your breakfast smoothies.
- Have them as a pre-workout snack.
- Add banana slices to your muesli cereal.
- Eat peanut-and-banana sandwiches.
White rice is the cheapest bulking food. A cup of cooked white rice contains roughly 200 calories. Better still, those calories come from starch, which will be quickly broken down into glucose. That glucose is great fuel for your muscles, and also extremely unlikely to be stored as body fat.
Brown rice is usually marketed as being healthier because of its higher fibre content, but white rice is cheaper and easier to digest while being just as effective for building muscle. However, if you need more fibre or protein in your diet, brown rice might be the better choice.
Tip: white rice makes a great bed for curries, stir-fries, picadillo, and even chili, all of which are absolutely incredible bulking meals.
Oats are similar to white rice in that they’ll break down into glucose, which is great. However, oats are more filling and more nutritious, meaning that they’re often used quite differently.
Oats are rich in several vitamins and minerals, but their main selling point is that they’re rich in the fibre beta-glucan, which is absolutely fantastic for our heart health. Bulking can come along with the risk of gaining body fat, and bulking diets often involve eating more cholesterol and saturated fats. Oats are a popular way of balancing that out.
Ground oats are also popular in workout shakes, and they can indeed be effective for that. However, we usually recommend maltodextrin instead, given that oats can be a little bit hard to digest, sometimes causing bloating or discomfort while people are lifting.
Tip: you can make oats much less filling by blending them up into a smoothie and drinking them.
When you’re trying to eat more calories, a good blender will quickly become your best friend. When you blend foods, they become calorically denser, less filling, and easier to digest. And best of all, blending up foods doesn’t reduce their nutritional value.
Here are some good ingredients for a bulking smoothie:
- A handful of mixed nuts.
- A serving of spinach (for the nitrates).
- A handful of oats (for the starchy carbs).
- Yogurt (for the probiotics).
- A scoop of protein powder.
- Frozen mixed berries.
- Water or milk.
There are certainly ways to make tastier smoothies, but nothing will beat that in terms of fueling muscle growth.
Cheese is high in calories, contains a decent amount of protein, and makes food far more flavourful. Some cheeses, such as parmesan, are also rich in probiotics, making them great for your digestive health.
Tip: parmesan can be added to almost any savoury food—chili, soup, sandwiches, eggs, and so on—to intensify flavour, boost calories, and strengthen your digestive system.
Yogurt is high in protein and a great source of probiotics. It works well in smoothies, can be added to cereal, and makes for a great snack. When trying to eat more calories, choose full-fat yogurt instead of the low-fat “diet” yogurts that are becoming so common.
Tip: Greek yogurt is higher in protein and probiotics than most other yogurt varieties.
Kefir (Made from Milk)
Kefir can be made by fermenting a grain in milk. The fermentation process eats up some of the sugars in the milk, leaving probiotics in its place. This makes kefir higher in protein than milk, and better for your digestion than yogurt.
There’s a reason that bodybuilders (and Rocky) are notorious for drinking raw eggs to bulk up. Not only are they a fantastic source of vitamins and minerals, but they’re also high in protein, healthy fats, and calories.
Now, to be clear, I’ve routinely used raw eggs to help me bulk up. Sometimes I’ll mix them into a glass of orange juice and have them as a snack. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should eat raw eggs.
When eating raw eggs, there’s a small risk of salmonella poisoning, and so it’s important to choose high-quality eggs, get the blessing of your physician, and to drink them at your own risk. And if you have any pre-existing health issues that weaken your immune system, it probably won’t be worth that risk (because getting salmonella would be more devastating).
Tip: cooked eggs are equally nutritious, and they’re actually a little easier to digest, it’s just that they’re also far more filling.
It’s common for guys who are trying to bulk up to add more steak into their diets. After all, steak is rich in protein and muscle-building nutrients. However, meat is often chewy and sinuous, making it quite filling, and also slowing the speed that we can digest it.
However, if you choose ground meat instead, not only is it often cheaper, but it will be far easier to chew, much less filling, and it will digest more quickly.
Ground meat also tends to contain meat from a wider variety of locations on the animal, which means that it often has a more varied nutrient profile. Some people speculate that this makes it better for building muscle. I suspect that they may be right.
Salmon (and Other Fatty Fish)
Salmon is arguably the best meat for trying to eat more calories. It’s not only high in protein but also full of fish oil. Moreover, it’s quite easy to chew and digest, making it one of the healthiest and least filling sources of protein.
Tip: Eating salmon twice per week is more than enough to get all the benefits from healthy fats.
Spinach, Beets, and Leafy Greens
These foods barely contain any calories and yet they still rank as a top tier bulking food. How can that be? First of all, leafy green vegetables are great for our general health, our immune system, and our digestive system. So if we think about a longer-term approach to bulking, they can certain help.
However, the reason they’re on this list is far more rad than that. Recent research is showing that consuming foods that are high in nitrates—such as spinach and beets—is an effective way of improving the “pump” that we get from lifting weights (at least when doing hypertrophy training).
Drinking beet juice or blending spinach into our morning smoothies dilates our blood vessels, improves our blood flow, and allows us to pump more muscle-building nutrients into our muscles while lifting weights in moderate-to-high rep ranges. This can slightly increase the rate that we build muscle.
We get a similar effect from the pre-workout supplement L-citrulline, except this way of doing it is healthier and likely more effective.
Garlic doesn’t really contain any calories, but it’s also profoundly healthy. It releases sulphur compounds when we chop, crush, or chew it, which is why garlic is so notorious for causing bad breath. However, those same sulphur compounds are also incredibly good for our general health (study).
Nothing ruins the flow of a good bulk like getting sick. I’m going to write a whole article about how to avoid getting sick while bulking, but one helpful little trick is simply to eat more garlic.
One 12-week study found that daily consumption of garlic reduced the incidence of getting a cold by 63% compared to the placebo group. It also helps us recover from colds 61–70% more quickly than a placebo (study).
The other cool thing about garlic is that it’s a potent prebiotic, which means that it encourages the growth of the beneficial gut bacteria that help us to digest our food.
Finally, garlic adds a rich flavour to our foods, which can make eating more enjoyable, and thus make it easier to eat more calories.
The best bulking diet is going to be one that includes foods that are rich in calories and nutrients while still being easy to digest. They’re also going to improve our long-term health and digestive power. Many, many foods are able to help that.
Keep in mind that this list isn’t comprehensive. Use these foods for inspiration, but remember that bulking diets are flexible. Eat food that you enjoy, that you can afford, and that leaves you feeling good.
Finally, don’t change your diet all at once. Your digestive system is adapted to your current diet, meal schedule, and overall routine. Making radical changes to your diet overnight will likely throw a wrench into it.
For example, perhaps you’ll find yourself particularly lethargic after eating a meal because your body isn’t used to eating at that time of day. Or perhaps you’ll wake up in the middle of the night thirsty and needing to pee because you’ve added in extra food or fluid before bed. You won’t be able to avoid all of those unpleasantries, but you can certainly minimize them.
So if you want to swap out your breakfast for a smoothie, great. But don’t all-of-a-sudden start following a brand new meal-plan made up of foods that you can’t even pronounce yet, let alone digest. Like I mentioned above, in my latest bulk, all I did was take my usual diet and add in a couple of small snacks of trail mix.