As most of you know, to build muscle we need to be in an ‘energy surplus.’ What this means is that we need to be consuming more energy than what is usually required to sustain our normal activities. The reason that we need to be in an energy surplus is that we need to signal to our muscles that there is going to be enough energy to support them should they increase in size. In effect, without an energy surplus your muscles are hesitant to grow larger.
What this means is that if you just workout and don’t increase the energy you consume each day, you will likely get stronger, but you may not see the improvement in muscle bulk you are looking for.
Often a good target is adding about 2000-2,500kJ extra energy per day. For some this will be easy, but for others who lead a very active lifestyle and already eat a lot of food, this can be hard.
One of the best places to start when you are planning an energy surplus is to look at the meals that you are already eating. I find the smaller the changes the more sustainable, so swapping low kilojoule foods for higher kilojoule foods, or simply adding in a serve of a high kilojoule food is a great place to start. I have provided a number of foods below, grouped by type of food, that give the most bang for their buck when it comes to energy density. I have also provided a list of tips for attaining and maintaining an energy surplus at the end of this post.
Note regarding the macronutrient composition of meals: Getting the balance of macronutrients is really important when you are aiming to achieve your best within the shortest amount of time.
Higher fat foods are very energy dense, which means you only have to eat half as much to get the same amount of energy. But they tend to be more filling.
It is important to have a elevated protein intake (about 1.63g/kg body weight per day), however proteins are the most filling, and use up a lot of energy just digesting and metabolising them. So don’t overdo it with high protein foods in the hopes that this will improve your muscle bulk. Any more than around 2.2g protein/kg body weight per day is unlikely to help.
Carbohydrates are where around 45-65% of your energy should be coming from. Pre-workout and post-workout meals in particular should be higher in carbohydrate to support glycogen synthesis.
So, in summary, not overdoing it with protein, and ensuring a nice balance of carbs and fats in most meals is the best way to go. To assist, I have highlighted which foods below get most of their energy from fat and protein to help you plan your meals.
Apples - 1 medium apple (164g) has approximately 400kJ
Cavendish banana - 1 medium banana (98g) has 377kJ
Ladyfinger banana - 1 medium banana (78g) has 370kJ
Dried dates - 6 dried dates (30g) has 364kJ
Dried currants - 30g has 350kJ
Custard apple - 100g has 326kJ
Dried fig - 1 and a half dried figs (30g) has 325kJ
Avocado - 1/2 medium avocado (75g) has 650kJ - High fat
Cassava - 75g has 440kJ
Potato (Sebago potato is one of the most energy dense) - 1 small potato (129g) has 391kJ
Taro - 75g has 352kJ
Sweetcorn - 1/2 small ear of corn (73g) has 315kJ - High protein
Sweet potato - 1/2 small sweet potato (98g) has 291kJ
Adzuki Beans - 150g has 2,065kJ - High protein
Tempeh - Depending on the type, 100g can provide anywhere from 400kJ to approximately 700kJ - High protein
Soya beans - 150g has 921kJ - High fat, High protein
Green or brown lentils - 150g has 893kJ - High protein
Firm tofu - 150g has 753kJ - High protein
Oat bran - 100g has 1,620kJ
Rolled oats - 100g has 1548kJ
Spelt - 100g has 1471kJ - High protein
Brown rice - 100g has 669kJ
Chestnuts - 168g has 1,228kJ
Macadamia nuts - 40g has 1,207kJ - High fat
Tahini - 40g has 1,087kJ - High fat
Walnut - 30g has 871kJ - High fat
Peanut butter - 32g has 843kJ - High fat, High protein
Hemp seed - 30g has 694kJ - High fat, High protein
Some more tips for achieving an energy surplus
Achieving an energy surplus can be hard work. To be successful requires careful planning, a strong commitment to your goals, and a well functioning digestive system. Consider some of the below tips to optimise your progress.
Increase the size of your meals
If possible, increasing the size of your breakfast, lunch and dinners is the one of the easiest ways to increase your energy intake.
If your main meals are already large enough, consider making your morning and afternoon tea snacks into meals in their own right by adding a good serve of grains, vegetables and/or legumes at these meals.
Don’t skip meals
Life gets busy, so it is important to remember that skipping meals will stall your progress. Doing some meal prep at the start of the week, such as pre-cooking vegetables, grains, legumes and other proteins such as meat, will ensure you can easily put together a quick meal in a hurry if needed.
Chew more thoroughly
Digestion starts in the mouth. Instead of woofing down your food, chew slowly and thoughtfully to maximise the digestion of these foods, and therefore the release of their energy.
Pay attention to your gut
Cramping, bloating, pain or any other gastrointestinal symptoms following eating could indicate you have some digestive issues. Supporting digestion with supplements or foods such as pineapple and apple cider vinegar might be of assistance. Always remember to get any concerns checked out by your GP too.