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Eat, Lift, Grow: Discover the 21 Best Muscle-Building Foods

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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As the saying goes, “You have to eat big to get big.” While this phrase doesn’t paint the full picture, your diet plays a massive role in building muscle mass. 

Muscles need protein for energy, repair, and growth. You won’t make as much progress without enough protein intake and can run into serious issues if you become protein deficient. 

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But not all foods are created equal. So, what are the best muscle-building foods? Should you stick to chicken breast and broccoli every night or switch things up?

Don’t panic. We’ve compiled the 21 best muscle-building foods you can incorporate into your diet for massive muscle gains. Read on for everything you need to know. 

Why Is Protein Important?

Protein is an essential macronutrient that plays a critical role in maintaining your body’s health and proper functioning. 

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Protein is made up of ‘building blocks’ known as amino acids. 

The human body uses amino acids to build and repair muscles, make hormones and enzymes, provide energy, and support other bodily functions.

There are around 20 different amino acids, and 11 of them are made by the body and known as non-essential. The other nine are called essential amino acids, as you have to get them through your diet or supplementation for your body to function correctly. 

Without enough protein, you can start to get sick quickly or feel weak and hungry. Sometimes, you can experience mood changes, muscle loss, weakness, or stress fractures in the bones. 

So, if protein is so important, how much should you eat per day to build muscle mass?

The 21 Best Protein Sources for your Muscles

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Your diet and training regimen are crucial if you want to build lean muscle mass, strength, and power. 

Without the proper fuel, you won’t be able to train as hard and push your body to the next level. High protein options are a must but don’t forget healthy carbohydrates and fats. A balanced diet is necessary for energy production, optimal bodily function, and recovery.

Here are some of the best food options if you want to gain lean muscle mass. 

1. Whole Eggs

Whole eggs are one of the best sources of protein. They’re easy to eat, versatile, and full of healthy fats and essential nutrients. 

One large egg (50 grams) offers roughly 6 grams of high-quality protein

Eggs also contain all the essential amino acids your body needs to build lean muscle mass and B vitamins for energy production, so they’re perfect for supporting your training sessions. 

2. Salmon

Fatty fish, like salmon, are an excellent source of protein. 

A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of salmon has roughly 17 grams of protein. Most salmon filets are 5–7 ounces, so you might get around 28–39 grams of protein per meal. 

Salmon also contains omega-3 fatty acids and essential vitamins like B12, selenium, and niacin. These nutrients play a critical role in muscle gain, heart health, and brain function. 

3. Chicken Breast 

You’ve probably seen or tried the classic meal for building muscle; chicken breast, rice, and broccoli. This meal might be a bit bland, but you don’t have to hate the chicken breast just yet.

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4.5

Based on our testing, this is the best creatine for most people. It has the perfect dosage of creatine monohydrate per serving, which has been proven to increase muscle mass.

Pros:
  • Promote strength and muscle gains
  • Tested for purity and safety
  • Creatine has no known side effects
See on Amazon See on Transparent Labs

A 3-ounce (85-gram) portion of chicken breast contains roughly 27 grams of muscle-building protein. Most servings range between 6–8 ounces, so you’ll get approximately 54–72 grams per meal. 

4. Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and granola is many people’s favorite breakfast for muscle growth and for a good reason. It’s a nutritious food chock full of vitamins and minerals like B12, selenium, and zinc.

There are roughly 24 grams of protein per cup of Greek yogurt, making it an exceptional muscle-building food.

Greek yogurt is a combination of fast-digesting whey protein and slow-digesting casein protein. Some research has suggested combining these types of protein can benefit lean muscle mass gains. 

5. Egg Whites

If you don’t like yolks or are worried about excessive calories from whole eggs, consider adding egg whites to your diet. 

One whole egg white contains around 4 grams of protein without any grams of fat. This can be beneficial if you’re working with diet restrictions or macronutrient requirements.

For example, you can add egg whites to regular eggs to incorporate more protein without excessive fat or calories. That said, egg whites have less nutritional value compared to whole eggs. 

6. Almonds

If you’re looking for plant-based protein, almonds should be a staple in your pantry. The protein content of one ounce (28 grams) of roasted almonds is 6 grams.

Almonds also contain loads of vitamin E, phosphorus, and magnesium. 

Almond’s nutritional profile is fantastic for lowering the risk of heart disease, lowering blood sugar, and reducing high LDL cholesterol and blood pressure. But they’re incredibly calorie dense, with a half cup of blanched almonds containing over 400 extra calories. 

7. Cottage Cheese

Cottage cheese is another dense protein that can support physical activity and muscle health. 

There are roughly 28 grams of protein in one cup of cottage cheese, alongside the essential amino acid leucine.

Cottage cheese can be bought in several varieties, including high-fat and low-fat options like other dairy products. Both options can be helpful to have for a high-protein diet or after an intense weight-lifting session. 

8. Milk

If you’ve heard of the GOMAD diet, then you know that dairy milk is a common tool for extreme muscle mass gains and bulking phases. Regular milk contains every nutrient your body needs for bone health, daily function, and muscle protein synthesis. 

One cup of dairy milk contains roughly 8 grams of protein

Milk is a “complete protein,” meaning it has all nine of the essential amino acids your body needs for optimal muscle growth and function. 

The best part is one cup of skim milk contains approximately the same amount of protein as whole milk, so you can enjoy a glass even on a low-fat diet. 

9. Lean Beef

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Lean beef can be a great protein option, as it’s full of B vitamins, minerals, and creatine. Creatine has been linked to better exercise performance and accelerated muscle growth, and animal proteins can have 1 gram for every 1–2 pounds. 

A 3-ounce (85-gram) portion of lean ground beef can have around 25 grams of protein

However, the amount of fat and calories will vary depending on the percentage of fat you select. Lean ground beef with higher fat percentages will typically have more calories per serving and may interfere with your macronutrients. 

10. Turkey breast

Lean proteins, like turkey breast, are incredibly underrated. A 3-ounce (85-gram) portion contains approximately 26 grams of protein

The best part?

It contains nearly zero grams of fat and carbs, making it excellent for specific diets or meeting macronutrient requirements. It’s also a great source of B-complex vitamins, which are critical for high-intensity resistance exercises. 

11. Protein Powder

Although it’s best to focus on whole foods, dietary supplements like whey powder can be incredibly useful. 

One scoop of whey protein powder can contain between 25-30 grams of protein, making it an exceptionally dense source. 

There are many types of dairy protein powders, like why and casein. Alternative protein powders made from plants can be helpful if you have dietary restrictions or allergies. 

12. Pork Tenderloin

Another lean meat to add to your diet is pork tenderloin. There are roughly 23 grams of protein per 4-ounce serving. Lean pork tenderloin offers fantastic macro profiles, as it’s extremely low in fat.

It has similar benefits to other meats, like supporting muscle protein synthesis, energy levels, and exercise performance. 

13. Tuna

Quality protein sources, like tuna, are a must for a healthy diet. As an oily fish, tuna is loaded with high amounts of vitamins, nutrients, and minerals. 

A 3-ounce (85-gram) portion of tuna can have around 20–25 grams of protein

Tuna offers large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which have countless health benefits for physical performance, cardiovascular health, and cognition. Studies have also shown that omega-3s can also slow down age-related muscle loss. 

14. Beans

Kidney beans, black beans, garbanzo beans—there are countless suitable protein sources!

Many options, like black, kidney, and chickpeas, have around 8–9 grams of protein per 100-gram serving. 

Beans also provide fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and other nutrients. They’re a fantastic source of plant protein, whether you’re a vegetarian, vegan, or omnivore. 

15. Quinoa

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Although grain crops like quinoa aren’t likely to be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a suitable protein source, they’re fantastic options to add to your diet. 

100-grams of cooked quinoa has around 4.5 grams of protein. It’s full of fiber, copper, iron, zinc, and other nutrients.  

One of the best parts of quinoa is that it’s easy to incorporate into your daily diet as a substitute for rice, beans, or pasta. Furthermore, it has antioxidant properties that can protect your cells and reduce the chances of specific diseases. 

16. Pumpkin seeds

Whether you’re in need of a quick snack, topping a bowl of Greek yogurt, or adding them to a dish, pumpkin seeds are a fantastic ingredient to have on hand. 

A half-cup (59 grams) of pumpkin seeds can have around 17–18 grams of protein

They also contain several minerals, like iron, magnesium, and zinc. You can easily incorporate them into your diet as a snack, a salad topping, or as ingredients in baked goods. 

17. Lentils

If you want one of the highest quality plant protein sources, look no further than lentils. Research has linked regular lentil consumption to a lower risk of heart disease and fatty liver disease

A 100-gram serving of cooked lentils contains roughly 8-9 grams of protein.

Lentils contain additional nutrients, like fiber, folate, potassium, magnesium, and copper. They’re perfect as a side dish and work well for vegan and vegetarian diets. 

18. Edamame

If you’ve been around the fitness community, you might have heard of edamame as a high-protein snack. Edamame refers to immature soybeans, and one cup of frozen edamame contains around 18 grams of protein

Like other beans and high-quality plant sources, edamame contains several vitamins and minerals. Purchasing a bag in the frozen section of the supermarket is a great way to have high-protein snacks on hand. 

19. Shrimp

If you want to spice up your animal-based proteins, turn your attention to shrimp. Shrimp are significantly protein dense, with a 3-ounce (85-gram) portion offering around 19 grams of protein

Shrimp doesn’t have much carbs or fats, which makes them an excellent choice for hitting your macronutrients. They also contain high amounts of leucine, which is critical for healthy muscles and growth. 

20. Tofu

Tofu may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of high-protein foods. But tofu is a complete plant-based protein made from soy milk. 

100-grams of raw tofu contains around 8 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat, and 2 grams of carbs.  

It’s a great meat substitute and provides your diet with a mix of protein sources. Tofu is an excellent source of calcium, which is necessary for healthy bones and muscle function. 

21. Brown Rice

You might see brown rice and think, “How can that be a good source of protein!?”

And while it’s true there are roughly 6 grams of protein per cup of cooked brown rice, it contains essential macronutrients for a balanced diet. 

Cooked brown rice contains 50 grams of carbs per cup, which is a great energy source to fuel your resistance training. 

How Many Grams of Protein Should You Eat Per Day?

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Managing your daily protein intake is critical for your overall health, especially if you’re trying to pack on muscle mass and strength. 

If you’re trying to build muscle mass, you should consume roughly 1.5–2 grams of protein per pound of body weight. 

This will account for roughly 20–30% of your daily calorie requirements. 

The rest of your diet will depend on your health goals, but 20-30% of daily calories from fat and 40–60% from carbohydrates is suitable for most individuals. Food sources should be healthy, nutritious, and minimally processed whenever possible.

If you’re unsure about how much protein to consume, you can use an online Macronutrient Calculator to determine your needs. Simply provide your height, weight, age, gender, and activity level to get a rough estimate.

How Can You Track Your Macronutrients?

Unless you want to break out a pen and paper every time you sit down to eat, you’ll need something to track how many grams of protein you’re eating each day. 

There are several mobile apps you can use, allowing you to track your macros, scan barcodes, and use other useful features. Some of the highest-rated options include the following:

  • MyMacros+
  • MyFitnessPal
  • Chronometer

Some of the mobile apps have free and paid options with varying features. You’ll need to experiment with the different options to see which one suits your fitness goals and circumstances. 

Besides an app, it may be helpful to invest in a food scale that measures grams. This will allow you to precisely measure different meats, grains, and foods so you can ensure you’re hitting your target macronutrients day in and day out. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What Foods Are Best for Building Muscle?

Any high-protein items, like chicken, Greek yogurt, salmon, lean beef, or even beans, will help you gain lean muscle mass. If you’re strapped for time or find it challenging to eat enough protein, consider incorporating protein powder into your regimen. 

How Do You Gain Muscle Fast?

There’s no shortcut to building muscle. The fastest way is to dial in your diet, so you’re eating a caloric surplus of protein, carbs, and fats. Try to eat around 1.5–2 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day. You’ll also need adequate training volume and enough time to rest and recover each week.

What Foods to Avoid When Building Muscle?

It’s best to avoid foods high in sugar, additives, fat, and processed ingredients. Avoid alcohol, sugary beverages, and deep-fried foods. Junk food doesn’t provide much nutritional value and can negatively impact your overall health. 

About

Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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