Even if you don’t consider yourself an athlete or body-builder—as I certainly do not—you should be concerned with muscle health. Skeletal muscles are the tissues that enable your body to move, whether it’s gardening, a stroll in the park or a triathlon. Smooth or visceral muscles are the ones that line the stomach, intestines and blood vessels. And keep in mind that the all-important heart is made up of specialized cardiac muscle that must work continuously without a break our whole lives. In total, muscles account for about half your body weight. That’s a lot of mass to keep healthy and functioning.
To build, repair and maintain muscle, there are certain items that are essential to muscle health. The first is plenty of water. To work properly and stave off debilitating cramps, the muscles must be hydrated. That means at least eight glasses of water per day and more during exercise. Sports drinks replenish the body with fluids and electrolytes, but they frequently have a lot of added sugar. Coconut water is an excellent replacement for sports drinks. It contains less sugar, fewer calories, less sodium and more potassium than most. Low potassium can cause muscle cramps and irregular heartbeat (the heart is a muscle, after all). Calcium and magnesium are also vital to keep the right balance of electrolytes, which enable the exchange of fluids and nutrients between cells. Everyone thinks of bananas as a powerhouse source for potassium and it is. But calorie for calorie, broccoli and spinach are much higher. Also good sources of potassium are navy beans, tomato juice, cantaloupe and kiwi fruit.
Protein is the next essential for maintaining muscle mass and function. For optimal muscle health, the protein-rich foods you eat must contain essential amino acids such as lysine. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein your body can’t synthesize. These amino acids are abundant in animal protein sources, such as milk products, meat, poultry, eggs and seafood. Milk protein is particularly good for healthy muscles because the structure of its amino acid content is effective in muscle repair. Enjoy foods such as:
Whey protein concentrate — the most complete amino acid profile of any food. Available online or at health food stores. Use in shakes and smoothies.
Eggs – next to whey protein, contains the highest concentration of essential amino acids. Only 70 calories each—try with salsa for a little zest in the morning.
Raw milk – great muscle-building properties because of protein, calcium and vitamin content.
Beef – grass fed, organic is optimal. Here’s a delicious way to prepare Mustard Crusted Tri-Tip.
Cottage cheese – very low in sugar and high in protein.
Greek yogurt – low or non-fat are best. 8 oz. of low fat is also a superior source of calcium.
Carbohydrates are everyone’s favorite food group and have received a bad rap lately. However, they contribute to muscle health by providing a ready energy source to power your physical activities. According to the website, Healthy Eating, eating a small, carb snack such as a piece of fruit or whole grain crackers before physical activity helps provide energy, while consuming a carbohydrate with a small amount of protein soon after exercise can stimulate muscle building. Carbs promote the release of insulin, which stimulates your muscles to incorporate new amino acids for the building of new tissue. You’ll find healthy carbohydrates in whole grains, milk products, fruits and vegetables. Other nutritionally packed sources of carbohydrates include:
Beans – digested slowly, providing a feeling of fullness. High in zinc and fiber.
Oats – steel cut are best, but rolled oats work well too. Avoid quick oats.
Quinoa and brown rice – both are rich in B vitamins and slow digesting.
Apples and other fruit – the high fiber cleanses the system and promotes better nutrient absorption.
Dietary fats play an important role in muscle and overall health. They help to maintain the flexibility and elasticity of cell walls, which facilitates the exchange of nutrients and assists in muscle cell repair and recovery. However, too many fats and the wrong kinds can be detrimental. Stick to unsaturated fats, such as those in fish oils and vegetable oils; notably olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, soybean oil, avocadoes, nuts and nut oils. Healthful, unsaturated fats reduce inflammation and help the muscles of the heart and cardiovascular system to operate smoothly. Fats are also a fuel source that helps muscles by burning longer and slower than fuel from carbohydrates. Make sure you get enough of these healthy, unsaturated fats in your diet:
Nuts – walnuts, Brazil nuts and almonds are loaded with vitamins and antioxidants. The Spinach and Grapefruit Salad contains walnuts and is an amazing combination of foods for muscle health.
Peanut butter – high in healthy fats and protein and low in carbohydrates.
Avocados – very rich in unsaturated fatty acids. Try my recipe for Strawberry Avocado Relish
Healthy oils – olive oil, coconut oil, walnut oil, hemp oil, flax seed oil.
Vitamins and minerals are vital to so many body parts and functions and muscles are no exception. Iron, which is most readily available in red meat and dark meat poultry products, helps keep all tissues oxygenated. Eating foods rich in vitamin C like oranges, kiwi and strawberries helps with iron absorption. Calcium is available mostly from low fat dairy products including milk, cheese and yogurt, but also from vegetables including spinach, kale, collard greens and broccoli. These super nutritious vegetables also contain good amounts of potassium and magnesium, which are important for keeping muscle systems functioning.
Think of it this way: Muscles make up a huge part of your body, so it’s logical to seek a large variety of foods to keep everything in working order. Luckily, that means unlimited delicious options to enjoy while staying healthy and strong.