The teenage years are often when young people start having the desire to put on muscle mass. Sometimes it is for improved sports performance, and sometimes it is just for looks! You may wonder if bulking up is healthy for you and how to go about it in an appropriate way.
Fortunately, teenagers don’t need to do anything crazy with their diet to bulk up. I encourage teenagers to eat consistently throughout the day, include 15-30 grams of protein and healthy carbohydrates each time they eat, and consume a wide variety of foods from each food group! Eating a well-balanced diet and consuming enough total calories will be helpful in building muscle when combined with weight training or other muscle building activity.
Read on for more information about who should gain weight and muscle, how to build muscle in a healthy way, tips for bulking up, and the best foods to eat for building muscle.
How to Healthily Gain Weight and Muscle
Gaining weight and muscle can be difficult for some people because you need to be eating in excess of what you are burning. Many teenagers have extremely high calorie needs, especially if they are playing a sport, so meeting those calorie needs might feel like a full-time job on most days.
To deal with their high energy needs and desire to build muscle and gain weight, some teenagers just decide to eat as much as possible. However, those extra calories are often not coming from the most nutrient-dense foods.
Your body likes to have energy and nutrients available when it needs them. So, if you are not eating much during the day, then going to the gym, and finishing off the night with a very high calorie fast-food meal, your body might have some trouble building muscle because it doesn’t have the energy more regularly available throughout the day.
Additionally, it is not healthy for most teenagers to put on a ton of weight super quickly. If you are eating tons of food just to put on weight fast, it is likely going to be stored as fat- not so much will become muscle. Building muscle takes more time and consistency with eating and exercise!
Who Should Gain Weight and Muscle?
It is always a good idea to talk to your doctor before trying to make any changes to your body. They can let you know if gaining weight and muscle is an appropriate goal for you. I also recommend that teenagers (and really anyone) work with a dietitian to make sure they are meeting their goals in a healthy way.
Attempts to gain weight or bulk up can be dangerous if not done properly. Trying to change your body can also become obsessive and unhealthy. What might start out as an innocent attempt to get stronger and fitter, could actually turn into disordered eating.
Here are some signs to look for that might indicate that some habits need to change:
- Skipping meals or going long periods without eating.
- Trying out fad diets like keto or intermittent fasting.
- Increased levels of anxiety or depression.
- Feeling anxious around food.
- Avoiding social situations where you might not have control over your food.
- Obsessively counting calories or macros.
- Thinking about food all the time.
- Feeling low on energy during your day and during workouts.
- Consistently eating to the point of feeling overly full.
- Dislike and lack of respect for your body.
- Working out excessively.
- Increase in injuries, soreness, and the time it takes your body to recover.
This is not an exhaustive list and unhealthy eating and exercise habits can look different for everyone. Evaluate your mindset around food and exercise. Are you making choices that are making you feel good and satisfied? Are you making choices that nourish your body and help you recover and feel strong and healthy?
If you realize that your nutrition choices are being made only to reach some arbitrary number on the scale or to achieve an arbitrary body type, that might be a sign to take a break or work on shifting your mindset. All positive health changes come out of a place of love and respect for your body. Never make those decisions out of shame, guilt, or hating your body.
Best Tips for Bulking Up for Teens
If bulking up is a goal of yours, there are ways to reach that goal in a healthy way. Here are a few of my best tips to get toned and strong!
- Eat regularly throughout the day. Don’t go long periods without eating a meal or snack. Keep food with you so that even on the days where life gets crazy, you still have food around to hold you over until your next meal.
- Don’t overdo it on the protein. With all the protein shakes and crazy supplements out there, it can be tempting to just pound the protein, especially if that ripped guy at your gym told you that is what he does. However, work with a dietitian to figure out what is a good amount of protein for you. Excess protein is going to be hard on your liver and won’t improve muscle gain. See also: How Much Protein Should Teenagers be Getting?
- Space your protein throughout the day. Did you know that your body can actually only handle a limited amount of protein at a time, so overdoing it by eating tons of it at once is not going to be doing you any favors. Depending on individual needs, most teens need somewhere between 10-30 grams of protein at each eating occasion. Timing is more important than overall amount.
- Use carbohydrates to fuel your workouts! Most of the time, I encourage teens to eat a balance of carbs, protein, and fat each time they eat. The one exception to this is the closer you get to exercise, the more you should focus on carbohydrates. Some people can handle a little bit of liquid protein, but remember that carbs are where you get the energy to fuel your workout!
- Exercise is a key part of bulking up! If you are at a point in your development where your doctor has said it is okay to lift weights, make sure you work with a trainer or coach that can help you use proper form. Overexercising can actually lead to a breakdown of your muscle, so find the sweet spot that works good for your body.
- Get enough sleep so that your body has every opportunity to recover. Sleep is an essential part of building muscle and if you aren’t getting enough sleep, bulking up will prove to be much more tricky than it needs to be.
Best Foods for Teenagers to Eat to Bulk Up
Many people think that protein is the magic food for bulking up. It is definitely important, but eating too much can be harmful and can actually cause you to miss out on other important nutrients that your body needs to build muscle.
The best foods to eat for bulking are a wide variety of foods from each food group! This includes:
- Fruits and vegetables Different colors tend to have different nutrient profiles. Eat a rainbow of colors with your fruits and vegetables to provide your body with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, fiber, and more good stuff that you need.
- Grains The grain group is a great source of carbohydrates and fiber for your body. These are essential for teenagers that are wanting to bulk up! Aim to make half of your grains whole grains during the day, such as whole grain pasta, whole wheat bread, brown rice, etc.
- Dairy Teenagers are in an important time of bone development and dairy is a great source of calcium! Dairy is also often a good source of protein. If you cannot consume dairy, ask your doctor about taking a supplement, or about finding other foods to still meet all your nutrient needs. Choose low-fat dairy options when you can!
- Protein You probably already know that protein is super important for building muscle. Try to get variety in your protein intake by including both plant and animal sources and by choosing lower-fat options.
- Fats and oils Healthy fats like seeds, nuts, nut butters, avocado, and olive oil are important for absorbing vitamins that help your body function. Healthy fats also are important for protecting your heart and decreasing inflammation that can come from intensive exercise.
What About Protein Supplements?
For most teenagers, supplements really aren’t necessary and you should never start one without consulting with your doctor. The supplement industry is highly unregulated which means that contamination with harmful substances is more common than you might think.
Did you know that protein powder is actually considered a supplement? Yep, that means you should ask your doctor before using a protein powder and you should choose one that has been thoroughly tested and proven safe.
Some teenagers may benefit from using a protein supplement, especially if they are following a vegetarian or vegan diet or have extremely high protein needs or a busy schedule. A dietitian can help you decide if using a protein powder is right for you.
Most other supplements that are promoted for body building are inappropriate for teenagers. In fact, most of them are a waste of money and you will be much better off focusing on eating a balanced diet.
- Is It Okay for a Teenager to Drink Protein Shakes
- The Best Protein Snacks for Teenagers
- Dietitian Recommended Protein and Energy Bars for Teens
- Is Whey Protein Safe for Teenage Athletes? Here’s What Dietitians Recommend
Creatine is a very popular supplement for those trying to build muscle. It is involved in making energy for muscle contractions. Creatine is found in many protein foods and is also made in the body, but many people supplement with additional Creatine to build their stores. Research has shown that it may be helpful for some athletes involved in exercise with high intensity spurts.
However, I don’t typically recommend Creatine for teenagers because it could be harmful, and might even be associated with kidney issues. Water retention, nausea, headaches, cramps, and muscle stiffness have also been linked to taking supplemental Creatine.
If you are not eating properly, supplementing with Creatine will not be as helpful as making changes to your diet. High level athletes that have been working with a dietitian and are eating properly may benefit from Creatine, but it should always be approved and monitored by a doctor and a dietitian.
If you have read online that you need to be eating a crazy amount of protein and supplementing with powders and Creatine, don’t worry- you can absolutely build muscle and get stronger without doing anything crazy to your diet. As long as you are eating an appropriate amount of food for your body, balancing your carbohydrates, protein, and fat, eating regularly and often throughout the day, and fueling appropriately before, during, and after exercise, you will be able to build muscle and improve your athletic performance.
To figure out an eating plan that works best for you, it is always helpful to work with a registered dietitian. Remember, the physical trainer that works at your gym is not a nutrition expert. Do not take advice from random fitness gurus on the internet or at your gym, or even from coaches. Instead, reach out to a qualified nutrition professional (AKA a registered dietitian) for all your nutrition questions!
Anzilotti A. Sports supplements. Kidshealth.org. Published November 2019.
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