This is How to Eat for Lean and Toned Muscle

Increase energy, boost performance, and sculpt those beautiful muscles!

Learning how to eat for lean and toned muscle is a lot like learning how to eat for weight loss. Both of these fitness goals require you to eat plenty of clean, nutritious foods, including sufficient amounts of protein and healthy fats. There are two main differences between eating for toned muscle and eating for fat loss, however.

First, a muscle-sculpting diet requires you to eat a specific amount of carbohydrates, whereas the number of carbs that you eat on a weight loss diet is simply a matter of preference. Second, when trying to tone-up, there is also a greater emphasis on timing.

Before we get into when you should eat what, it’s important to make sure that you know the healthiest sources of each of the macronutrients mentioned above. Macronutrients are the elements that make up the food that we eat. These include protein, carbohydrates (including fiber), and fat. Once you know what to eat, you can work on timing your meals for optimal muscle gain!

“I Want to Tone-Up”

What does it mean to tone-up? Believe it or not, toning-up is actually just another way of saying building muscle. You must understand that building muscle does not mean you will get bulky. On the contrary: building muscle will actually make you look slimmer and leaner!

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “muscle weighs more than fat,” at some point in your life. This isn’t necessarily true. A pound is a pound. A more accurate phrase would be, “muscle is more dense than fat.” One pound of muscle takes up a lot less room in your body than one pound of fat. Furthermore, adding lean body mass (via muscle) will actually help you to reduce your fat mass. This means you will not only tone-up, but you’ll also slim-down!

This is How to Eat for Lean and Toned Muscle

Our example uses a moderately active, 30-year-old female. She currently weighs 150 pounds and stands at 5 feet, 7 inches tall. She used our Macronutrient Calculator and found that she should be eating about 2,000 calories per day. Her goal is to tone-up, so now she needs to figure out how much protein, carbohydrates, and fat she should be consuming each day.

The general macronutrient split for toning-up is 30% protein, 40% carbohydrates, and 30% fat. Remember this, because we’re going to come back to it. If she consumes 2,000 calories a day, 600 of them should come from protein, 800 of them should come from carbohydrates, and 600 of them should come from fat.


Why is protein so important? It reduces excess body fat, increase satiety, build muscle, boost metabolism, and aids in recovery! Each gram of protein contains four calories. So, if she needs to get 600 calories a day from protein, that means she must consume 150 grams of protein per day.

Chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, dairy, lentils, and beans are some of the most popular high-protein options. For a full list, check out this Ultimate List of 44 High-Protein Foods. Don’t eat meat? Don’t worry: you can still get plenty of protein with these 17 Top Plant-Based Proteins!

When should you eat protein?

At EVERY meal. Our example requires 150 grams per day, which is a significant amount of protein. You definitely don’t want to save all of that for your last meal of the day (unless you want to eat an entire chicken–which we don’t recommend.) Splitting it up into 5 or 6 meals (25-30 grams at each meal) throughout the day will make consuming protein much more manageable.

Make sure you eat a high-protein meal 2 to 3 hours prior to working out, and another one within an hour or two of finishing your workout.


Why are carbohydrates important? Carbs play a crucial role in the muscle-toning process. Not only do they fuel our muscles during workouts, but they also aid in the recovery process. This macronutrient also contains 4 calories per gram. If our example needs 800 calories from carbohydrates, she needs to aim for 200 grams per day.

It is very important that you focus on getting your carbohydrates from healthy sources. There are way too many unhealthy, processed carbohydrates out there. These “bad carbs” usually contain way too much sugar and chemicals, and almost no vital nutrients whatsoever. In other words, they are empty calories that do not benefit your body or your health.

Some healthy carbohydrate sources include whole grains (like brown rice, quinoa, and oats), fresh fruits, and vegetables. For a complete list, check out the healthy carbohydrate options in this Whole Foods Shopping List.

When should you eat carbohydrates?

The best time to consume carbohydrates is the meal directly following your workout. Unless you work an extremely active job, you don’t need to worry about loading up on carbs before you hit the gym. A general rule of thumb is to split up carbohydrates into moderate portions throughout the day and make your post-workout meal the most carb-dense.

If our example eats six meals per day, five of them could contain 30 carbohydrates. The post-workout meal could contain 50 grams, providing her with 200 grams of carbohydrates per day.


Why is dietary fat important? Fat provides you with energy and enables your body to absorb essential nutrients that would otherwise be expelled. Each gram of fat contains 9 calories. If our example requires 600 calories a day from fat, she must aim for 66-67 grams of fat per day.

It is critical that your dietary fat intake come from unsaturated sources – like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats –and not saturated fat or trans fat. These unhealthy fats are often found in processed or fried foods. For a list of healthy fat sources, check out our Ketogenic Diet Shopping List.

When should you eat fat? 

Much like protein, fat should be distributed evenly throughout each meal. Our example requires 66 grams of fat per day. If she eats six meals, that would leave her with 11 grams per meal.

Figuring Out Your Macronutrients Split

How do you figure out your macronutrient split? Well first, you need to figure out your daily caloric requirement. You can do this by using our Calorie Calculator for Macronutrients.

First you’ll select BMR. After that, enter your gender, age, weight, height, and activity level. Once you’ve done this, you’ll see your BMR and your recommended daily caloric intake (also known as TDEE or Total Daily Energy Expenditure).

Once you have your TDEE, you can calculate your macronutrients. As you know, the split for toning-up is 30% protein, 40% carbohydrates, and 30% fat.

Remember, our example found that she needs 2,000 calories a day to tone-up. She figured out how many of each individual macronutrients she needed by multiplying 2,000 calories by:

30% for Protein = 600 calories / 4 calories per gram = 150 grams of protein.

40% for Carbs = 800 calories / 4 calories per gram = 200 grams of carbs.

30% for Fat = 600 calories / 9 calories per gram = 66-67 grams of fat.

Use the calculator to determine your TDEE, and then you can find out exactly how many macronutrients you need daily to tone-up!

Most of us have been lifelong dieters, which makes it extremely difficult to comprehend the number of calories we need to consume to tone-up and build muscle. While reading this, you’ve probably been thinking to yourself, “This sure seems like a lot of food.” It does, trust us, we get it!

However, once you begin a strength training program and combine it with regular cardio/HIIT, your body will crave more nutrients. Exercising often and eating clean, nutritious foods, will get you into the best shape of your life!

Interested in toning-up? Need a strength training routine? We’ve got you covered! Try these awesome muscle-sculpting routines and programs:

Don’t forget to incorporate HIIT and Cardio exercise into your routine to help shed excess fat and reveal those beautiful muscles that lie beneath! Try these great routines:

Remember to follow us on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram for all of the latest and greatest weight loss tips, routines, recipes, and more!

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Erin Miller

Erin is an NASM Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist. She is also a Performance Nutrition Coach, certified through the Clean Health Fitness Institute. Some of Erin’s favorite hobbies include hiking, kayaking, and hanging out at the beach, although weight lifting is her greatest passion. She says, “Weight training is one of the most empowering things a person can do. Not just seeing, but feeling yourself transform… There’s just nothing else like it.”

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  1. Hey Erin, Iove this article thanks for sharing. I am looking at starting a new diet to lose a bit of belly fat. I keep reading reviews about the Half Day Diet but can’t make up my mind because of the price. I understand it has a ton of value which I can kind of justify for the price but then again in this review, they are saying it is great. Would love to get your opinion on it and is it something someone needs when first starting out. Thanks again for the tips. I’m on the fence if I should sign up or not.

    1. Hey Dylan,

      Thanks so much! Glad you found it helpful 🙂

      Weight loss is all about calories in, calories out. Simply put, if you’re using more calories than you’re consuming each day, weight loss will occur. For the average adult, timing of meals (or carbohydrate intake for that matter) doesn’t matter nearly as much as just making sure you’re staying within your personal daily caloric requirements. With that being said, it’s important to nourish your body with proper amounts of lean protein, unsaturated fats, and complex carbohydrates! I think you’ll find our article, “How Many Calories Should You be Eating Daily to Lose Weight?” helpful! One thing that I say all the time is there’s no such thing as a superior diet. It’s all about what you find to be the most sustainable for YOU.

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