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What Foods to Avoid to Build Muscle

  • Category: Nutrition, Blog
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  • Written By: Reema Kanda, RDN
What Foods to Avoid to Build Muscle

If building muscle mass is one of your fitness goals, it’s important to keep your diet in check by avoiding certain food groups. We spoke with HOI’s Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Reema Kanda, RDN, to get her expertise on which food groups should be avoided while you’re working on building muscle.

Q: What are four food groups or categories that should be avoided for muscle building and why?

A: It is important to highlight that muscles are made up of more than protein. Approximately 15 to 20 percent is protein, 70 to 75 percent is water, and 5 to 7 percent is fat, glycogen, and minerals. You may likely have heard that extra protein builds more muscle, however it is athletic training combined with protein that builds muscle strength and size. There is an abundance of research from the sports nutrition community that focuses both on resistance training and protein consumption to enhance muscle protein synthesis (MPS) known as muscle building. However, specific research is very limited in exploring foods to avoid in the context of muscle building.

So when you have a goal to improve your body composition, muscle strength, and/or even heal and recover from surgery without experiencing muscle loss from bed rest, then you should consider a nutrition plan that includes protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. In addition, it is important to be mindful of the foods you should limit that may prevent you from reaching your body composition goals.

  1. It is important to limit saturated fats, which is found in animal-based food sources such as high fat cuts of meat with skin, fried foods, full fat dairy foods, and egg yolks to name a few. Animal protein is a high-quality protein source and can help with muscle building, but focusing on lean protein options such as skinless poultry, egg whites, low fat dairy, and lean cuts of red meat that is less than 10 grams of fat and no more than 4.5 grams of saturated fat per serving. When thinking about protein muscle synthesis and how to achieve that, meat is one option that can comes to mind first. However, the American Cancer Society recommends limiting or not including processed or red meats to reduce cancer risk. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest limiting your daily saturated fat intake to less than 10% of daily calories per day. For example, on a 2,000 calorie diet, limit your saturated fat intake to no more than 20 grams. It is best to be mindful about the sources of animal-based protein and the saturated fat content when safely adding it to your nutrition plan for muscle building.
  2. Avoid empty calories such as foods high in added sugar. Carbohydrates or “carbs” supply fuel or energy for both your muscles and central nervous system. To power the working muscles that your trying build, focus your intake of consuming more complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, starchy vegetables, non-starchy vegetables, and beans and legumes for added health benefits. Unfortunately, desserts, candy, donuts, and many highly processed and packaged foods are not going to optimally fuel your energy towards muscle building. These can be avoided when focusing on muscle building.
  3. Alcohol has been shown to slow recovery because it can impair and not enhance your physical performance. Calories from alcohol do not fuel muscles. It may lead to weight gain in the form of body fat due to ethanol. Studies from sports nutrition communities suggest that alcohol consumption after exercise even when protein is consumed can reduce muscle protein synthesis.
  4. There have been accounts of heavy metals, such as arsenic, that have been tested to be above safe levels in low quality protein supplements so it’s important to take caution when consuming. Protein supplements can falsely claim it can help with muscle building when compared to whole foods. For example, low quality protein supplements may use low-cost free amino acids such a glycine or glutamine to help bring up the nitrogen content of the product to falsely appear it will meet the stated protein content on the nutrition facts label. Also, the sports nutrition community recommends obtaining protein supplements from a reputable source that is NSF Certified for Sport or has third party testing certification on the label. Supplements are not regulated in the way medications are. Some studies have commented that protein dense whole food consumption rather than protein supplements can be an effective nutritional strategy to promote muscle protein synthesis or muscle building when part of a healthy eating plan. The added bonus is it can improve overall diet quality which has its own set of health benefits.


  1. Carbone JW, Pasiakos SM. Dietary Protein and Muscle Mass: Translating Science to Application and Health Benefit. Nutrients. 2019 May 22;11(5):1136.
  2. Parr EB, Camera DM, Areta JL, Burke LM, Phillips SM, Hawley JA, Coffey VG. Alcohol ingestion impairs maximal post-exercise rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis following a single bout of concurrent training. PLoS One. 2014 Feb 12;9(2)
  3. Vliet SV, Beals JW, Martinez IG, Skinner SK, Burd NA. Achieving Optimal Post-Exercise Muscle Protein Remodeling in Physically Active Adults through Whole Food Consumption. Nutrients. 2018 Feb 16;10(2):224.