Some simple muscle building food swaps

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.

Good luck!