The best protein foods for muscle growth have a few things in common:
- They are high in protein, obviously.
- They provide your body with the other nutrients it needs to build muscle.
Strength Training + Protein = Muscle Growth.
The equation looks easy, but it still takes serious effort to arrive at the solution.
Building muscle is not only about lifting weights and sweating in the gym.
It also means fueling your body with the nutrients it needs, particularly protein. Proteins are the building block of muscle; without enough of it, your muscle-building journey will be rocky.
This article takes a deep dive into the 30 best protein foods for muscle growth, explaining why each is a stellar choice for athletes or bodybuilders looking to gain muscle.
Who knows – you might discover a new superfood to incorporate into your diet.
All nutritional data in the list is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture FoodData Central database.
These are 30 best protein foods for muscle growth, in no particular order except sorted by category.
Table of Contents
Meat & Poultry
Beef, bird, and bison: here, you’ll find meats of all kinds, except for fish, which gets a category of its own.
Chicken breast is an excellent choice of protein, offering a whopping 31g per 100 grams.
The protein quality of chicken breasts is tremendous. One study looking at isolated chicken protein found it superior to beef.1
In addition, another study found that frequently eating chicken produces a small but significant weight loss in the form of body fat.2
The lean nature of chicken breasts ensures you get adequate protein without much fat, and the little fat you do get has a balanced ratio of fatty acids, with less saturated fats than red meat.
Chicken also provides essential B vitamins important in muscle function and energy production. Vitamin B6 helps your body use the protein from your meal, and niacin (B3) is essential for your digestive and nervous systems.
You get abundant amounts of both in a serving of chicken breast.
Last but not least, chicken breasts are highly versatile. You can grill, bake, roast, or sauté them, allowing for a variety of meal options beyond the chicken and rice standard among bodybuilders.
While chicken breasts have slightly higher protein content, chicken thighs still provide a considerable amount of this muscle-building nutrient. On average, cooked meat from chicken thighs contains about 26 grams of protein per 100 grams, and it’s the same high-quality stuff.
Chicken thighs contain a moderate amount of fat, more than the breast. If you don’t mind the additional calories per serving, the healthy fats in chicken thighs make them a great-tasting alternative. Also, fats play a crucial role in hormone production for building muscle.
Just like chicken breasts, the thighs of the chicken contain essential nutrients that support health and muscle gain. They are excellent sources of B vitamins, iron, zinc, and selenium, micronutrients involved in energy production, red blood cell formation, immune function, and tissue repair.
Chicken thighs are known for their richer flavor and tenderness compared to chicken breasts. While the leanness of chicken breasts makes them the preferred option on a fat-loss diet, the juiciness and flavor of chicken thighs can make your meals more enjoyable when trying to pack on the pounds.
Lastly, chicken thighs are often more affordable than chicken breasts, making them an economical choice when you’re looking to build muscle on a budget.
For good reasons, lean beef has been considered one of the best protein foods for muscle growth for over a century.
Beef is an excellent source of high-quality protein. It contains all essential amino acids in the right proportions, making it a complete protein source for muscle building. One hundred cooked grams of a lean cut like trimmed tenderloin roast provide more than 25 grams of top-quality protein.
Red meat is especially beneficial for older adults and a safe and effective way to gain lean muscle tissue when combined with strength training.3
Beef is not only high in protein but also contains a good amount of creatine, B vitamins, and other micronutrients like iron and zinc.
- Creatine enhances the energy transfer in your cells, boosting strength, power, and workout performance.
- B vitamins are necessary for energy production during training sessions, and hard training increases the requirement of several of them.
- Beef is also a good source of iron and zinc. Iron is vital for oxygen transportation to your muscles, while zinc supports protein synthesis and immune function.
Lean beef offers a variety of cuts, such as sirloin, tenderloin, and flank steak. It can be grilled, roasted, stir-fried, or used as an ingredient in stews, chili, or salads. That makes it a highly flexible food for enjoyable and diverse meal options as well as a great source of protein.
If you don’t mind the extra calories, fattier cuts of meat provide the same high-caliber protein and can be helpful during a bulk when training and eating for quality weight gain.
If you’re looking for a portable, protein-rich snack that requires no refrigeration or preparation, consider stocking up on beef jerky. It offers the nutritional advantages of lean meats in a highly convenient form.
Jerky is often extra lean as the fat portion of the meat falls off as it dries. That makes jerky almost pure protein.
When purchasing beef jerky, you should examine the ingredient list to ensure you’re not consuming excessive amounts of preservatives, sodium, sugar, or nitrates along with the meat.
Beef jerky can contain a significant portion of the recommended daily intake of sodium in just a few slices. While sodium isn’t inherently bad, consuming excessive amounts can be unintended or unwanted if you eat a substantial quantity of jerky.
If you desire variety in your jerky, you can explore alternatives such as pork jerky and turkey jerky. They provide similar protein benefits to regular beef jerky, and turkey jerky is particularly advantageous if you aim to reduce your intake of red meat while still enjoying the protein-rich jerky-eating experience.
Turkey is an excellent source of lean, low-fat protein.
A 100-gram serving of skinless turkey breast provides about 30 grams of protein. Like other animal-based sources, turkey protein contains enough of all the essential amino acids your body needs to build muscle.
While some parts of the turkey contain a fair amount of fat, the white meat is very lean, especially if you eat it without the skin. Skinless turkey breast is almost pure protein, with 0 grams of carbs and only 2 grams of fat per 100 grams of meat.
Turkey is packed with vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, which are involved in energy production and the formation of red blood cells, and selenium, which supports muscle health and your immune system by combating oxidative stress and inflammation.
Turkey is known for its high tryptophan content. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that helps produce serotonin, a hormone contributing to feelings of well-being and helps regulate sleep. Quality sleep is vital for muscle recovery, growth, fat loss, performance, and overall health.
Lastly, turkey is incredibly versatile and can be incorporated into many mouth-watering dishes. Pre-cooked turkey slices are an easy and convenient protein source on the go.
Lean Pork Chops
Time to pig out: pork chops are rich in high-quality animal protein, with a single boneless serving providing about 26 grams of protein when cooked.
Protein is crucial for muscle growth, and the protein from pork chops is of the highest possible quality.4 It is very high in the amino acid leucine, the amino acid for boosting muscle protein synthesis.
The protein quality is equally high for other kinds of pork, although the fat content of the meat can vary wildly depending on where on the pig it comes from.
Pork chops are also packed with various vitamins and minerals. For instance, they’re an excellent source of thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and vitamin B-6. They are also high in zinc, phosphorus, and selenium, an antioxidant that can help protect your cells from damage caused by oxidative stress.
Pork is one of the richest dietary sources of creatine, a compound proven to increase physical performance, strength, and muscle mass.
The small amount of fat present in pork chops is surprisingly good for you. It is more unsaturated than lamb or beef fat, and a 2015 study concluded that pork fat is the eighth most nutritious food in the world.5
Pork chops are versatile and can be prepared in various ways, making incorporating them into your muscle-building diet easy.
Bison contains similar amounts of protein as beef, with 100 grams of cooked meat providing around 25 grams. Both options serve as high-quality protein sources to build muscle, but bison offers a couple of advantages
Like beef, bison contains sufficient amounts of all the essential amino acids needed to make it a complete protein suitable for packing on lean muscle.
Bison meat is known for its leanness, containing less fat compared to other types of meat. It is also a good source of essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamin B12.
Bison meat naturally contains a lot of creatine, vital in energy production during high-intensity exercise like weight lifting.
Eating large quantities of red meat is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Bison could be a healthier option than beef for your heart without compromising the nutrients or the muscle-building protein.6
Bison are typically raised on grass and have minimal antibiotic exposure, being a naturally healthy species. In addition, the use of hormones is prohibited by the Federal government. That means natural, muscle-building meat for your muscles.
Eggs & Dairy
Dairy products and eggs provide some of the best protein for muscle-building!
Whole eggs might be the closest you can get to the perfect food. There is little doubt that eggs belong on any list of the best protein foods for muscle growth.
Eggs have a perfect balance of nutrients, high digestibility, and affordable price.7 They provide almost everything we need to stay healthy, with the exception of vitamin C.
One large egg provides 6 grams of complete protein with all the essential amino acids in just the proper ratios the human body needs.
Research shows that whole eggs are fantastic for boosting muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and supporting gains in lean muscle mass.8 Twenty grams of egg protein, the amount you get from four eggs, is enough to maximize MPS.9
They also contain several nutrients besides protein that may have anabolic (muscle-building) properties. Most of them are found in the egg yolk.
Eggs are also an excellent source of vitamin B, essential for energy metabolism in muscle cells. They are especially rich in pantothenic acid (B5) and B12, with two large eggs providing almost 50% of the B12 you need on a daily basis.
Plus, the yolk is one of the few good natural sources of vitamin D in food, which is necessary for bone health and muscular function.
While the yolk of an egg contains fat, they are mainly healthy fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, along with essential omega-3 fatty acids.
You can prepare and consume eggs in various ways, such as boiled, scrambled, or in omelets, making them convenient and adaptable, whatever your dietary preferences and muscle-building meal plan. Egg-cellent stuff!
Like whole eggs, egg whites are an excellent source of high-quality protein.
The majority of the protein in egg whites is ovalbumin, which is easily digestible and contains all the essential amino acids your body needs for muscle growth and repair.
Egg white protein does not boost muscle protein synthesis quite as effectively as whole eggs, but the result in gained muscle mass is not different.4
Egg whites are virtually fat-free and contain no cholesterol. They are low in calories, providing plenty of high-caliber protein while keeping your calorie intake in check.
While egg whites are primarily known for their protein content, they also contain several vital nutrients.
It’s true that when you remove the yolk, you lose several nutrients, including vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as the health benefits of omega-3s.
However, the egg white still contains several essential minerals like potassium, magnesium, selenium, phosphorus, and calcium, all of which support muscle function and overall health.
Speaking of calcium, did you know that the eggshell is not only edible but is the richest source of calcium you can find? Half an eggshell contains all the calcium an adult needs per day.10 Just boil the egg first to get rid of bacteria.
Egg whites are highly versatile, and you can easily incorporate them into many muscle-building meals and recipes. You can whisk or scramble them or use them in baking and cooking.
However, if you want your muscles to take up all the protein in egg whites, you should cook them, not do like Rocky and gulp them down raw.11 Cooking them breaks down the protein and makes digestion easier. Your body absorbs more than 90% of the protein in cooked egg whites but only ~65% in raw egg white.
Greek yogurt is one of the best high-protein foods for your muscles, with approximately double the amount of protein compared to regular yogurt.
This dairy product contains a good mix of fast-digesting whey protein and slow-digesting casein protein, making it great both as a post-workout meal and a bedtime snack for sustained muscle protein synthesis.
Research shows that daily Greek yogurt consumption to boost your protein intake during a resistance training program improves muscle strength, lean mass, and body composition.12
In addition to being a good source of protein, Greek yoghurt contains plenty of calcium, which plays a crucial role in bone health, as well as probiotics that promote gut health.
Greek yogurt is one of the best protein sources on the shelves and can serve as a healthy snack at any time of the day.
Icelandic Yogurt (Skyr)
Skyr, resembling Greek yogurt but with a bit thicker and creamier consistency, offers similar benefits for muscle growth.
Like most dairy products, Skyr is rich in calcium and good for your bones. In addition, it is naturally abundant in protein and contains virtually no fat.
In a recent study investigating the effects of consuming Skyr as a post-exercise meal, the researchers found that, compared to a placebo, Skyr added significant lean muscle mass and strength.13
Of course, that’s what you’d expect after consuming a high-quality protein source after intense workouts. Still, this study highlights Skyr’s suitability as both a workout snack and a reliable protein source in general.
Another dairy powerhouse, a cup of cottage cheese contains an impressive 28g of protein.
Dairy products contribute to lean muscle mass growth. They are high in essential amino acids and provide generous amounts of slow-digesting casein protein that keeps your muscles growing for hours and hours.
Cottage cheese is a prime example: it’s packed with casein protein that releases slowly, making it an ideal food for providing your muscles with building blocks over time, like before sleep.
In addition to satisfying your protein needs, cottage cheese contains essential nutrients necessary for muscle growth and overall health.
It is a good source of calcium, which plays a crucial role in muscle contraction and bone health. Cottage cheese also provides vitamins such as vitamin B12 and vitamin A and minerals like phosphorus and selenium.
Lastly, cottage cheese is a highly versatile and convenient food you can easily incorporate into various dishes. You can pound it down straight from the tub, mix it with fresh fruit or nuts, or use it as a topping for salads or other meals.
Both low fat cottage cheese and higher-fat are readily available on the shelves. The protein is equally good, so you can choose whether you want a low-calorie option or not.
Milk is a rich source of protein of the highest quality, containing both whey and casein, making it an udderly fantastic addition to this list of best protein foods for muscle growth.
- Whey protein is quickly digested and absorbed, providing a rapid influx of amino acids to your muscles. It is particularly rich in leucine, which is excellent for boosting muscle protein synthesis and post-workout recovery.
- Casein protein, on the other hand, is a slow-digesting protein, providing a sustained release of amino acids over a more extended period, supporting muscle growth and repair for many hours.
With milk, you get the best of both worlds and abundant amounts of all the essential amino acids your body requires.
In addition, milk contains plentiful amounts of many vitamins and minerals that support health and muscle growth. It provides nutrients like calcium, phosphorus, vitamin D, B12, and riboflavin, essential for bone health, muscle function, and energy production.
Staying hydrated is crucial for optimal muscle function and recovery. Milk is a great option to hydrate after exercise, with research showing that it outperforms both regular water and rehydration drinks.14
Another milk option is goat milk. It contains more protein, more calcium, less lactose, and a higher proportion of more digestible fatty acids per serving compared with cow milk.15
Overall, milk is liquid gold for athletes and easily one of the best protein foods for muscle growth.
Fish & Shellfish
Don’t be selfish–eat shellfish! In this section, you’ll find the best protein sources from under the sea.
Salmon is one of the best animal proteins from the sea. It provides essential fatty acids and plenty of protein: nearly 20g/100g.
The protein in salmon is easily digestible and contains all the essential amino acids – the building blocks of protein – required to build and maintain muscle tissue.
According to research, salmon is a good option for boosting muscle protein synthesis after working out.16 In addition, your fellow trainees will thank you when you open a can of salmon in the locker room.
Salmon is a fatty fish, rich in omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for your health and may aid in muscle recovery and reducing inflammation. It can even mitigate the muscle soreness you feel the days after a tough workout.17
Some research suggests that omega-3s are beneficial for preventing the loss of muscle mass, or even boost muscle gain, in older people.18
In addition to protein and healthy fats, salmon is packed with essential micronutrients. It is a good source of vitamin D (one of only a few excellent sources), vitamin B12, and vitamin B6. Additionally, salmon provides minerals like selenium and potassium, which are important for muscle contraction and recovery.
Few whole foods are better sources of omega-3 than salmon while also providing a lot of protein, making it a good idea to include this nutrient-packed fish in your hunt for the best protein foods for muscle growth.
You know the drill by now: fish is a great food for muscle growth, filled with tip-top protein and excellent fats.
Sardines are no exception.
Sardines are fatty fish, and the fat is of the best quality and very high in Omega-3 fatty acids. A recent study found that omega-3s help improve muscle strength during a strength training regimen.19
A single tin of Atlantic sardines (3.8 oz or 92g) contains almost 23 grams of protein. Sardines are high in the amino acid leucine, which tells your body to start the process through which it builds new proteins, including muscle.
A can of sardines is a little nutrient container with many essential vitamins and minerals for health and muscle function. For example, sardines are one of the best sources of vitamin B12 you can find, which is vital for a healthy nervous system and red blood cell formation.
Sardines are also rich in phosphorus, selenium, and vitamin D and contain a fair amount of vitamins B2 and B3, along with copper, iron, choline, and calcium.
If your culinary tastes are too refined to eat sardines straight out of a can, you’ll be delighted with their versatility. While sardines are ready-to-eat and require no preparation or cooking, making them a quick and convenient source of protein, they are also excellent additions to sandwiches, salads, pasta dishes, and snacks.
Sardines are low in the food chain and eat mainly plankton. That means they are relatively low in the toxic metal mercury compared to larger predatory fish higher up in the food chain.
Let’s stay under the sea with tuna, another high-protein food that’s also a rich source of healthy fats and micronutrients.
A typical can of 113 grams of drained tuna contains more than 20 grams of protein, making it a powerhouse for muscle growth, especially since tuna contains a good balance of essential amino acids.
In addition, tuna offers one of the highest amounts of leucine of any fish.20 Leucine activates pathways that stimulate muscle growth and helps optimize your body’s response to protein intake.
Tuna is a lean protein source, but the fat it provides is of the best quality and high in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties and may contribute to muscle health and recovery.
Fish oil from tuna and other fish also lowers your heart rate during exercise (without lowering your performance) and at rest.21 An elevated resting heart rate is one of the strongest predictors of cardiovascular problems.
As for vitamins and minerals, each can of tuna is a container of nutrients. Tuna is rich in several essential vitamins, including vitamins A, D, and several of the B vitamins.
In fact, tuna is one of the best dietary sources of vitamin D. Most foods are not naturally high in vitamin D. Tuna is an exception, with 100 grams providing more than a third of the Recommended Dietary Allowance for adults.
Is tuna one of the best protein foods for muscle growth? The answer is a resounding “yes.” Because of it, more than one bodybuilder has made themselves bored of tuna by basing their diet on it.
Shrimp and Shellfish
Shrimp and shellfish belong on any list of the best protein foods for muscle growth. They are high in protein and contain little to no fat or carbs while being especially rich in certain micronutrients.
A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of shrimp provides approximately 24 grams of protein. Shellfish like crab and lobster offer similar or even higher protein content.
Best of all, the protein is of great quality and highly digestible.
One example is mussels, which have an amino acid score of 107, comparable to the best animal proteins such as eggs with a score of 100.22
Both shrimp and other shellfish, including clams, oysters, and scallops, are relatively low in calories. That makes them an efficient source of protein to support muscle growth without loading up on calories.
While most shellfish are very low in fat, the fat they provide is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. It can help reduce inflammation in your body and support recovery and muscle growth.
Shellfish are especially rich in certain minerals necessary for muscle function and overall health. They are typically high in zinc, which plays an important role in protein synthesis, and iron, crucial for delivering oxygen to your muscles.
Oysters, in particular, are phenomenal zinc sources. Two medium-sized ones provide 100% of the DV (Daily Value), the recommended amount of a nutrient to consume each day.
Shellfish are also high in vitamin B12, a nutrient necessary for nerve function and DNA and red blood cell production.
Shrimp, scallops, and clams are some of the best foods to get taurine, an amino acid that serves as an anti-inflammatory agent and may help improve exercise performance.23
Shrimp and shellfish work with any cooking: steaming, grilling, frying, poaching, or roasting, making them versatile foods that fit into any protein-conscious diet. They are also relatively quick to cook, offering a convenient protein source.
Lastly, eating shellfish isn’t selfish: aquaculture-farmed shellfish like oysters and mussels are highly sustainable foods. They require no additional feeding as they sustain themselves from the ocean itself.
Beans & Legumes
So far, we have yet to stray from the animal kingdom in this list of the best protein foods for muscle growth. That changes now with the soybean.
Most plant-based proteins are not considered complete. They contain all the essential amino acids you need to build muscle but too little of one or more of them.
The soybean is an exception.
Soybeans contain all the necessary building blocks (amino acids) for muscle tissue synthesis in the right amounts and is one of the best plant-based sources of protein. It has a Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) of 1.00, close to some proteins from animal sources like meat and dairy.24
It is a staple in a vegan diet and for anyone who enjoys meals without animal foods without compromising their gains.
One cup (172 grams) of cooked soybeans gives you a massive 31 grams of muscle-building protein.
In addition to offering a plant-based protein boost, these legumes also contain significant amounts of vitamins and minerals that benefit your health. They are high in vitamins B and K and contain fair amounts of iron, copper, and magnesium.
Soybeans are one of the few foods that are good sources of both essential fatty acids your body needs, the omega-6 essential fatty acid linoleic acid and α-linolenic acid, the essential omega-3 fatty acid.25 They are typically lower in saturated fat and cholesterol than red meat and other animal products.
Soybeans contain naturally occurring compounds called isoflavones, which act as phytoestrogens.
These compounds have been studied for their potential benefits in reducing inflammation, supporting cardiovascular health, and providing general health benefits.26
There are some concerns that soy products and isoflavones have feminizing effects, including lowering testosterone and raising estrogen in men, but current research does not support such claims.27
Overall, soybeans are rich in nutrients and come with potential beneficial health effects. They are one of the few plant-based protein sources that provide everything you need to gain muscle mass and strength.
Their versatility allows for many different culinary applications, and they fit perfectly into various muscle-building dishes.
Staying on the plant-based side of the best protein foods for muscle growth, we find quinoa, another of the few foods that provide complete protein. That alone makes quinoa a valuable option for anyone following a plant-based diet.
Quinoa is relatively high in protein compared to other grains. It contains about 8 grams of protein per cooked cup (185 grams). That might sound like a small amount compared to many other protein-rich foods on this list, but you rarely eat just a bowl of quinoa and nothing else.
This whole grain provides a full spectrum of enough essential amino acids for optimal muscle growth and repair, including lysine, which is typically limited in other plant-based protein sources.
Quinoa is also a good source of complex carbohydrates, offering sustained energy levels and turbo fuel for your workouts.
In addition, it provides plenty of dietary fiber to keep you full and regular, as well as micronutrients like magnesium, iron, and zinc.
For vegan bodybuilders or anyone else looking for plant-based protein snacks, edamame beans offer an excellent solution. These are young, whole soybeans that are typically sold pre-cooked and frozen.
A single cup (155 grams) of edamame provides a substantial 18 grams of protein, a good amount of dietary fiber, and several essential vitamins and minerals.
Unlike many other plant proteins, soybeans contain all the necessary amino acids required for muscle building, and they are also present in appropriate amounts in the young edamame beans.
You can quickly heat these little guys in the microwave or boil them in salted water for a few minutes. Since they come pre-cooked, you can conveniently carry them as a snack without further preparation. Allow them to thaw, and you’re good to go.
The soybean isn’t the only bean in town when it comes to satisfying your protein needs.
Popular beans include kidney beans, black beans, lima beans, and pinto beans, and they all have one thing in common: they are good sources of protein and aid your muscle building and recovery.
A cup (172 grams) of cooked beans typically gives you 15 grams of protein.
The protein in beans is not complete, meaning it contains too little of at least one essential amino acid. In the case of beans, it’s methionine.
Fortunately, you rarely eat only beans during the day, and your body is smart enough to piece the amino acid puzzle together on its own, using pieces from various foods.
When you eat a variety of protein sources, including grains, nuts, or seeds, you provide the missing methionine puzzle piece, and your body makes a complete protein. Easy as that. It doesn’t even have to be in the same meal.28
If you eat any animal protein, you don’t have to worry about it at all. Doing so auto-completes the protein puzzle.
Besides the protein content, beans are a great source of complex carbohydrates, providing sustained energy for your muscle-building workouts. They help build and maintain your glycogen stores, the primary fuel during high-intensity exercise like strength training.
Beans are high in fiber and packed with various vitamins and minerals. They’re particularly high in iron, magnesium, and potassium, all of which play a role in muscle metabolism and function. They also contain folate, a B vitamin that helps form red blood cells and repair tissues, including muscle.
If you are a vegetarian or vegan, beans are some of the best sources of protein you can find and should be a staple in your diet. And if you’re not, you have a good reason to include them, as they are some of the best protein foods for muscle growth, health, and performance.
Staying on the legume side of things, lentils are a fantastic plant-based protein source for building muscle, with about 18 grams of protein per cup when cooked.
Like beans, lentils do not provide complete protein by themselves. The amino acids methionine and tryptophan limit them.29
Fortunately, just like with beans, you have nothing to worry about unless you only eat lentils.
Your body completes the lentil protein with amino acids from other protein sources you eat throughout the day.
For example, the traditional combination of lentils and whole grains or white or brown rice provides a complete profile of essential amino acids.
Lentils are also high in complex carbohydrates, providing steady energy for workouts and replenishing glycogen stores in your muscles after intense training sessions.
In addition, this little legume contains a good amount of dietary fiber to help you feel full and can assist in weight management.
Like beans, lentils are packed with micronutrients such as iron, folate, manganese, and phosphorus, which all play essential roles in many bodily functions, including supporting muscle and growth.
Lentils are low in fat and relatively low in calories, making them a great food choice if you’re trying to build muscle while maintaining or losing weight. And they are incredibly versatile and can be added to various dishes, making them easy to include in your diet.
Tofu, or bean curd, is a popular ingredient in vegetarian and vegan cuisine and a staple food in many parts of the world. It’s made by curdling soy milk and pressing it into solid blocks.
It’s an swell source of plant-based protein. A half-cup serving (124 grams) of tofu provides about 10 grams of protein; because it’s protein from the soybean, it’s high quality.
Unlike many vegetable proteins, tofu is a complete protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids your body needs in sufficient amounts.
Tofu is low in saturated fat and contains no cholesterol, which makes it a great option for a heart-healthy diet.
Soy foods like tofu contain isoflavones, which are a type of phytoestrogen. Some research suggests that isoflavones may have muscle-building benefits in women, especially when combined with resistance training.30
Tofu is loaded with various essential nutrients, including calcium, manganese, selenium, copper, iron, and phosphorus. These nutrients are vital in maintaining bone health, reducing inflammation, and muscle function.
Plain tofu doesn’t taste much and is pretty bland, but that only means that you can use it in various dishes, and it takes on the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with. That makes it easy to incorporate into protein-rich meals in a way that suits your taste preferences.
If you’re following a vegetarian or vegan diet, tofu is likely already a mainstay of your protein feedings. For everyone else, it can be one of the best ways to introduce more plant-based protein options into your muscle-building diet.
Nuts & Seeds
These little guys are packed with nutrients, protein being one of them!
Almonds, a nutritious tree nut, are abundant in protein and essential nutrients. You can enjoy them in raw and roasted form, with or without added salt. Almonds make for hassle-free snacks that can be stored conveniently and eaten as is without any fuss.
Almonds boast a notably high protein content, providing over 20 grams of protein per 100 grams. That’s as much as you get from meat or fish, although the protein quality of almonds is not entirely on par with animal foods.
Additionally, almonds offer a generous amount of healthy fats, primarily unsaturated, while relatively low in saturated fats.
Incorporating almonds into your diet is associated with several cardiovascular benefits, including a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, almonds are low in carbs and contribute to improved blood sugar control.31 32
Almonds are excellent sources of antioxidants, notably vitamin E, which shields your cells from oxidative damage. By consuming a handful of almonds, you get about a third of the recommended daily intake (RDI) for vitamin E. Most of the antioxidants in almonds are concentrated in the skin.33
While almonds are naturally calorie-dense, a portion of their energy content (around 10-20%) is not fully absorbed during digestion.34 That makes them a good snack even on a cutting diet when consumed in moderation.
If you want all the calories, almond butter is a better option. Breaking down almonds into butter enhances their digestibility.
Nuts and Seeds
In addition to almonds, you can enjoy a diverse array of nuts and seeds as protein-rich snacks.
When you consume a handful of nuts and seeds, you benefit from their protein content and obtain a generous supply of healthy fats and various essential nutrients.
Some examples of these nutritious powerhouses include hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts, and cashews.
- When consumed in moderation, walnuts contribute to improved blood lipids and offer protection against heart disease without promoting weight gain, despite being high in calories.35
- Hemp seeds are incredibly nourishing. They contain approximately 25% to 35% healthy fats, 20% to 25% protein, 20% to 30% carbs, and 10% to 15% insoluble fibers, as well as a range of vitamins and minerals such as phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, and zinc.
- Pumpkin seeds are notably rich in protein, with a cup (46 grams) providing close to 14 grams of protein. Additionally, they offer an abundance of micronutrients such as magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and manganese. Furthermore, pumpkin seeds boast potent antioxidants that help protect your cells.
Other nuts, including hazelnuts and cashews, are equally nutritious and flavorful and provide a substantial protein boost.
Whenever you desire a healthy and delectable snack, a handful of nuts or seeds delivers ample nutrients and help you meet your daily protein requirements. If you require a lot of energy, you can add dried fruits to create a delightful trail mix.
Peanuts and Peanut Butter
Peanuts get a section of their own in this list of best protein foods for muscle growth as they are not actual nuts but belong to the legume family, much like peas and lentils.
However, this distinction does not diminish their nutritional value. On the contrary, peanuts offer comparable nutritional benefits and protein content similar to genuine nuts while being more affordable.
Peanuts are rich in protein, surpassing many other nuts, and contain ample amounts of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Also, peanuts are associated with various health advantages, including a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
While peanuts are considered a high-calorie food, research indicates that even a substantial daily peanut consumption does not increase body fat.36
Like almonds, your body cannot fully absorb all the calories and fat from whole peanuts. Approximately 20% of the fat in peanuts passes through your body and ends up in the toilet.
However, when consuming peanut butter instead of whole peanuts, you absorb more calories and nutrients—great news for anyone struggling to get enough calories to put on body weight.
A handful of peanuts or a tablespoon of peanut butter is an excellent method to boost your protein and calorie intake, offering a healthy snack option for any fitness enthusiast, provided you don’t have any peanut allergy.
Supplements in a list of the best protein foods? Only if they are foods. Here, you find ready-to-consume protein foods and protein supplements, which are foods for sportspeople.
Protein bars are available in a wide range of types and flavors. While many serve as excellent protein sources and make ideal snacks for muscle-building, others may contain undesirable filler ingredients, high sugar content, and excessive fats.
When selecting a protein bar, review the nutritional information label before purchasing.
- Aim for approximately 20 grams of protein or more per serving. You need that much to stimulate muscle protein synthesis fully.
- Ensure that the primary source of protein is of high quality. Look for ingredients such as whey protein, soy protein, milk protein, or other similar sources. Avoid bars where collagen protein is the main protein source. Although collagen has benefits for skin and joint health, it is not effective for muscle-building. Some collagen content is acceptable as it contributes to a thick and chewy texture but should not be the primary protein source.
- Pay attention to the sugar content. While some natural sugar is acceptable, avoid protein bars loaded with added refined sugar. While endurance athletes may benefit from added sugar for energy during intense training sessions, you likely want to obtain your carbohydrates from better sources when you bite into a protein bar for muscle-building purposes.
In the past, protein bars often tasted like a piece of chalk with a sawdust texture. However, you now have a wide selection of protein bars that taste great and provide a favorable nutrient profile.
You shouldn’t base your protein intake on bars, but they can be part of a balanced diet to help you get enough protein, and it can be a good idea to keep a few protein bars on hand for a convenient and tasty high-protein energy boost when needed.
Whey Protein Powder
You don’t need protein powder to build muscle. That being said, chugging a protein shake is a highly convenient way to boost your protein intake if you, for some reason, don’t get as much protein as you want or need from your regular diet.
A few scoops in a shaker, add water, and you have a ready-to-go protein source anywhere and at any time.
- It has greater bioavailability and concentration of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), particularly leucine, than other proteins.
- Some research suggests that whey protein might maximize lean body mass gain and strength improvements compared to other protein supplements.
- Incorporating whey protein into your diet can aid weight loss efforts by helping you feel full and reduce your overall calorie intake. Replacing calorie-dense options with a whey protein shake can improve your body composition by promoting muscle growth and fat loss.
The two main types of whey protein powder are whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate.
- Isolate contains less fat and milk sugar, making it suitable even if you’re lactose intolerant.
- Concentrate, on the other hand, provides more biologically active compounds with potential health benefits.
Both are equally effective for building muscle, gram for gram.
A protein supplement on the list of the best protein foods for muscle growth? Sure, when it’s highly nutritious, powdered food like whey protein.
Soy Protein Powder
When you eat a meal based on soybeans, you automatically get some carbs along with the protein. That’s not a bad thing, but sometimes you want pure protein and nothing else.
That’s where protein powders shine. Also, they can’t be beaten for convenience.
Soy protein isolate contains a minimum of 90% protein and is highly effective for stimulating muscle protein synthesis. It’s not quite as potent as whey protein, but more so than the other milk protein, casein.
More importantly, most studies agree that soy protein supplements produce the same long-term gains in muscle mass as whey protein.39
That makes soy isolate the most popular choice for anyone looking to supplement their diet with a protein shake from plant sources. And, because protein powders are simply food in powdered form, it fits right into this list of the best protein foods for muscle growth.
Ready-to-drink (RTD) shakes are pre-mixed protein shakes that provide a convenient and hassle-free option for boosting your protein intake.
These shakes are typically made with whey protein or milk protein, although vegan-friendly alternatives utilizing almond milk or pea protein are also available.
RTD shakes offer even greater convenience than protein powder since they come pre-mixed and ready to consume.
One drawback is that you cannot customize the serving size according to your preference. But if your RTD shake provides at least 20 grams of protein, you’ll effectively stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
RTD shakes can be stored at room temperature, allowing you to carry them anywhere. Some might not enjoy the experience of a lukewarm shake, but if you are okay with them not being ice-cold, they still offer a convenient on-the-go protein boost.
When selecting an RTD shake, review the nutrition facts label to ensure it meets your requirements. Some RTDs primarily consist of protein, while others may also contain carbohydrates. There is nothing inherently wrong with carbs if that aligns with your goals, but if you notice that a shake is loaded with added sugars, you might explore other brands that focus on giving you mostly protein.
Bonus Protein Food: Cheese
So, I lied about the 30 best protein foods for muscle growth. There are 31 of them on this list.
We can’t forget about cheese.
I enjoy cheese to the point that I am probably more cheese than man at times.
Cheese contains abundant amounts of protein. To be more specific, it’s casein protein, so it’s high-quality stuff. A 2022 study found that 30 grams of protein from cheese boosts muscle protein optimally after exercises and at rest.40
Different cheeses give you various amounts of protein, with Parmesan being the king of the cheese mountain, providing a whopping 35 grams per 100 grams.
Other cheeses don’t quite reach those heights, but Swiss, Edam, Gouda, and Mozzarella, to mention a few, all top 25g protein/100g.
Cheese is relatively high in calories, but you can opt for lower-fat versions if you’re counting them.
Micronutrients? Cheese got them. Most cheeses are good sources of phosphorous and vitamins A, B12, and K. And, of course, let’s not forget calcium. Cheese is a supreme source of calcium.
Best of all, you can always find some type of cheese that fits whatever’s on the menu. On sandwiches, in salads, on a burger, and in omelets: cheese makes everything better. You can also consume it as a standalone, convenient snack for your protein pleasure.
How Much Protein Do You Need for Muscle Growth?
Building muscle is not just about selecting the best protein foods for muscle growth. You also need to eat enough of them.
General guidelines from US and European authorities recommend a daily protein intake of around 0.8 grams per kilogram (0.36 grams per pound) of body weight.
That’s the minimum to stay healthy, but it’s not enough for someone looking to build muscle effectively.
Research for recent years shows that you need twice that amount, or even more, to optimize your muscle gains. A high-protein diet is superior for building muscle, strength, and athletic purposes.
- The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 1.2–1.7 grams of protein per kilogram, or 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound, of body weight per day, for active individuals who want to increase muscle mass.
- According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, strength athletes and resistance-trained individuals who want to build muscle should aim for at least 1.4–2.0 g protein/kg (0.65–0.91 grams per pound) body weight/day.
- Finally, a systematic review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine finds that 1.6–2.2 grams of protein per kg (0.7–1 gram per pound) of body weight per day optimize gains in muscle mass.
- Eat at least 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
- Eating 1.4 g/kg/d is likely even better.
- Consuming up to 2.2 g/kg/d ensures your muscles have access to the protein they need for optimal gains.
There are also certain instances where your protein requirements might increase.
- On a weight-loss diet, you need at least 2 grams per kg (0.91 grams per pound) of lean body mass to protect your hard-earned muscle. If you’re already lean and looking to get ripped, you might need even more.
- Older adults generally need more protein than young people to maintain or gain muscle. Aiming for the upper end of the 1.6–2.2 grams of protein/kg/day recommendation is likely a good idea.
- If you only eat plant-based protein, which is slightly less effective for muscle gain, upping your overall protein intake by 25% is a sound strategy to ensure you get enough essential amino acids to maximize your muscle-building potential.
The easiest way to figure out how much of the best protein foods for muscle growth you should put on your plate is to use our nifty protein calculator!
Building a strong, muscular physique requires a balanced diet, regular weight training, adequate rest, and consistency. Also, your body needs a variety of nutrients, not just protein, to thrive, grow, and perform at its best.
This list of the best protein foods for muscle growth is filled with champion choices to support your goals. Whether you’ve just started your fitness journey or you’re an experienced bodybuilder or athlete, whether you prefer a plant-based diet or enjoy a variety of protein sources, they are sure to provide the nutrients your body needs for success.
The path to muscle growth may be challenging, but with discipline, perseverance, and a good diet, you can achieve the results you desire.
More Like This
If you enjoyed this article about the best protein foods for muscle growth, be sure to check out these excellent protein resources:
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