What Nutrients Do Muscles Need to Grow?

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Building muscle boosts your metabolism, making it easier to achieve or maintain a healthy weight. While nutrition alone can't lead to significant muscle growth -- you'll need to pair it with a balanced exercise program for significant muscle gains -- a healthful diet can help you maintain or increase your muscle mass. Eat foods rich in a few key nutrients to support new muscle growth and maintain healthy muscle function.

Dietary Protein

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Protein makes up an essential part of your diet, and consuming enough of it supports muscle growth. During muscle growth, your muscle cells participate in protein synthesis -- creating new proteins from the amino acids present in your cells. This allows the size of your muscle fibers to increase, building muscle mass. The protein from your diet provides amino acids needed for this protein synthesis. Your daily protein needs depend on your body weight, explains the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service. To estimate the grams of protein you need daily, multiply your weight, measured in pounds, by 0.4.

Vitamin D

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The vitamin D in your diet also plays an important role in muscle growth, particularly if you've suffered an injury or illness. An animal study, published in the "American Journal of Pathology" in 2013, found that vitamin D helped stimulate new muscle growth after injury, restoring the damaged muscle. A clinical study, from the November 2013 issue of "Clinical Drug Investigation," found that vitamin D increased muscle mass in men with kidney disease. Maintaining healthy vitamin D levels also helps you preserve muscle function, while a deficiency causes muscle weakness. You need 15 micrograms of vitamin D -- the equivalent of 600 international units -- daily, advises the Institute of Medicine.

Essential Zinc

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Zinc also contributes to muscle growth. The zinc in your cells gets incorporated into hundreds of different proteins and helps regulate protein function. One of the proteins regulated by zinc is growth hormone, which relies on zinc for storage and secretion, according to a study published in "Endocrinology" in 2013. Healthy growth hormone processing proves essential for muscle growth -- it increases your level of IGF-1, a hormone that triggers new muscle cell growth and development. Through its effect on IGF-1, growth hormone also promotes protein synthesis in your muscle cells, further supporting muscle growth. You need a small amount of zinc daily -- 11 and 8 milligrams for men and women, respectively, according to the Institute of Medicine.

Food Sources and Meal Ideas

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Several foods in your diet provide beneficial protein -- lean meats, dairy, eggs and legumes all come packed with protein, while nuts, whole grains and vegetables modestly boost your intake. Several protein sources -- including oysters, poultry, beef, yogurt and nuts -- also contain significant amounts of zinc, while protein-rich dairy increases your vitamin D intake. Make balanced muscle-building meals by combining protein-, zinc- and vitamin D-rich foods with fruits and veggies. Serve oysters with a side of steamed broccoli, add lentils and grilled chicken breast to leafy green salads, or snack on Greek yogurt topped with chopped almonds. Spending some time in the sun also helps maintain healthy vitamin D levels -- consult your doctor to find out how much sun exposure you need in your climate to avoid vitamin D deficiency.