Protein is the all-star nutrient your body needs to build muscle.
While many folks are drawn to supplements and protein powder to kickstart muscle growth, there are a number of powerhouse foods that will do just the trick — and also boast the benefit of other nutrients helpful in health and gaining muscle.
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The American College of Sports Medicine recommends eating 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day in conjunction with physical activity to build muscle mass. That equals to 75 to 120 grams of protein per day for someone who weighs 150 pounds.
But not all protein-rich foods are created equal. While some have been shown to have numerous health benefits, others are linked to health conditions like heart disease. So, base your choices on how they can help you build muscle and also how they can promote life-long health.
If you're trying to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, it's not only important to eat high-quality protein-rich foods but also ones that are lower in calories. Good news: The best types of protein-rich foods to eat to build muscle also happen to be some of the leanest.
While protein is most often found in animal foods, it can also be found in a number of plant-based foods. Combine your strength training or other physical activity with these healthy proteins to build muscle and maintain it.
6 Best Proteins for Muscle Mass Gains
1. Chicken Breast
A staple muscle-building meal is chicken with rice and broccoli. Chicken is popular among people who are trying to lose fat and gain muscle because it is one of the leanest protein options and is also rich in leucine.
Leucine is a an essential amino acid and also a branched chain amino acid. It has been shown to be one of the most beneficial nutrients in building muscle. A 6-ounce portion of chicken breast contains 10 grams of leucine.
A small study published in April 2005 in American Journal of Physiology showed that eating protein and isolated leucine after a workout better stimulated muscle growth compared with eating just carbohydrates or eating protein alone in men.
Similar for women, leucine intake was shown to be a major predictor of muscle growth in healthy older women in a study published in May 2018 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
One 6-ounce chicken breast contains 289 calories, 55 grams of protein and a mere 5.5 grams of fat, according to the USDA. A drumstick, on the other hand, contains 17 grams of fat for the same portion of meat.
Chicken is also a great food to eat to build muscle as it is versatile and can easily be added to meals at any time of the day.
Soy and soy products like edamame are vegetarian and vegans' best friend for building muscle.
Soy is one of the closest plant-based proteins to animal foods when it comes to amino acid profile and protein quality. A study published in September 2009 in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that while whey protein (found in dairy) was superior for building muscle mass, soy protein also helped to build muscle mass and was better at it than casein protein (also found in dairy).
You can find edamame in most grocery stores in the frozen section. Add edamame to any meal for a protein boost or eat as an easy, filling snack. Just pop a bag of frozen edamame in the microwave or warm them up on the stove in boiling water and you are set with a delicious and satisfying protein-rich snack. Another major benefit of edamame is it doesn't need to be cooked at all!
3. Beef Tenderloin
All cuts of beef are not created equal. Beef tenderloin is one of the leanest cuts of beef and also one of the richest in vitamins and minerals. It comes from inside the sirloin and is boneless.
FYI, a lean meat is a cut with less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams, according to the USDA. So if you're trying to lose fat while gaining muscle, beef tenderloin is a great food choice to get the beneficial protein, vitamins and minerals without the extra calories from fat.
One of the most beneficial nutrients in beef tenderloin is an amino acid called beta-alanine. Beta-alanine contributes to less muscle fatigue and therefore improves performance, a September 2017 systematic review in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness concluded.
Include beef tenderloin in your monthly line-up of muscle-building proteins to enjoy a juicy and tender meat with beneficial nutrients.
4. Pork Chops
While bacon and ham may be more common sources of pork, pork chops are a great choice because of their leanness and vitamin and minerals. A three-ounce pork chop has 15 grams of protein and a mere 2.5 grams of fat, according to the USDA.
Eating pork on a regular basis was as helpful as eating beef or chicken for building muscle and losing fat, per a study published in February 2014 in Nutrients.
Pork chops are are also packed with vitamins and minerals such as iron. Iron is a beneficial mineral that helps build red blood cells. These red blood cells will help you work out harder and, therefore, gain muscle.
Resistance training, or weight training, is one of the most effective ways to build muscle. When you can lift heavier and perform more reps, you are providing your body the right stimulus to grow muscle mass. Combine resistance training with high-quality protein like pork chops to build muscle in no time.
Salmon is one of the richest sources of anti-inflammatory omega-3s, a type of polyunsaturated fat. Inflammation is the body's response to stress or injury — and when the body is inflamed for long periods of time it has been linked to heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
That's why it's important to eat foods like salmon, which help lower inflammation to prevent disease as well as build muscle mass.
While you can enjoy a cut of sockeye salmon on a bed of rice with mixed vegetables on the side, you can also find canned salmon and smoked salmon for convenient options.
Omega-3s can also promote recovery from workouts. Taking an omega-3 fatty acid supplement stimulated muscle growth in older adults, a randomized controlled trial published in February 2011 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found.
One medium filet of salmon (8 ounces) has 363 calories, 58 grams of protein and 13 grams of fat, per the USDA. The high-quality protein plus the benefits of the omega-3s make salmon a top muscle-building protein.
Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans and oftentimes has other whole grains added to it.
It can be easily crumbled and sauteed and added to stir-fries, veggie breakfast bowls and soups. It requires almost no cooking and therefore can be a convenient protein option when compared to meats, which require more time and prep.
Tempeh has all the same benefits as edamame and other soy products. It is packed with high quality protein at 20 grams of protein per 3.5 ounces of tempeh, according to the USDA. Not only is it rich in protein but it also contains 5 grams of fiber to maintain a healthy gut.
3 Proteins to Avoid When You're Trying to Build Muscle
Salami is a deliciously fatty meat but it's not great for building muscle. It's considered a processed meat and therefore typically contains high amounts of sodium and inflammatory fats.
In fact, high red meat intake was associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease, per an August 2010 study in Circulation that followed 84,136 women aged 30 to 55 with no known chronic heart disease, cancer or diabetes.
While higher intakes of poultry, fish and nuts were significantly associated with lower risk of heart disease, processed red meat was associated with higher risk.
One slice of salami contains 106 calories, 6 grams of protein and 9 grams of fat, according to the USDA. Since salami has more fat than it does protein, you'll want to avoid it to stay healthy and lean.
While ribs are a summer barbecue favorite, there's more fat than protein on those bones. One medium rib (about 66 grams) contains 260 calories, 10 grams of protein and 20 grams of fat, according to the USDA. This is an even higher ratio of fat to protein than salami.
Red meats develop carcinogens, cancer-causing agents, when cooked or exposed to high heat. These carcinogens contribute to chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation can be caused by pro-inflammatory foods, smoking and stress. When the body is in a chronically inflamed state and inflammatory markers are high in the blood, the body becomes catabolic (breaks down) — which leads to loss of muscle mass.
Chronically high cortisol levels were associated with frailty in older adults, per a May 2017 study in Maturitas. One of the major symptoms of frailty is muscle loss, and older adults who had the highest degree of frailty also had the highest measured cortisol levels.
While red meats and processed meats may have protein, they're also linked to disease and loss of muscle mass in the long term — so you're better off avoiding them.
While this is a list of foods to avoid, it's not a list of banned foods for life — you can still enjoy the occasional strip of bacon. However, it's not the best protein for building muscle.
A study published in March 2013 in BMC Medicine included an analysis of dietary intake and cancer risk in 448,568 men and women between the ages of 35 to 69 years old without prevalent cancer, stroke or myocardial infarction. Researchers found that a higher intake of red meat was associated with all-cause mortality and the association was even stronger with processed meat.
The researchers estimated that 3.3 percent of deaths could be prevented if all participants reduced their intake to less than 20 grams (about 0.7. ounces) of processed red meat per day.
That's why you'll want to choose proteins that not only have beneficial protein to build muscle, but also contribute to overall health and muscle recovery from exercise. Choose leaner proteins with high quality vitamins, minerals and other beneficial nutrients like omega 3s and fiber.
If you're eating bacon, try cooking off most of the fat and dabbing it with a paper towel to reduce the fat content.
- The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine: "Protein and the Athlete — How Much Do You Need?"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Protein Intake for Optimal Muscle Maintenance"
- United States Department of Agriculture: "Pork Chops"
- Nutrients: "A comparison of regular consumption of fresh lean pork, beef and chicken on body composition: a randomized cross-over trial"
- American Journal of Physiology: "Combined ingestion of protein and free leucine with carbohydrate increases postexercise muscle protein synthesis in vivo in male subjects"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Leucine: a nutrient ‘trigger’ for muscle anabolism, but what more?"
- Journal of Applied Physiology: "Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men"
- The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness: "Effects of beta-alanine supplementation on performance and muscle fatigue in athletes and non-athletes of different sports: a systematic review"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Dietary saturated fats and their food sources in relation to the risk of coronary heart disease in women"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Dietary omega-3 fatty acid supplementation increases the rate of muscle protein synthesis in older adults: a randomized controlled trial"
- Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry: "Nutritional and health benefits of soy proteins"
- Circulation: "Major Dietary Protein Sources and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in Women"
- Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health: "Oxidative stress and frailty: A systematic review and synthesis of the best evidence"
- BMC Medicine: "Meat consumption and mortality - results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition"
- The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "How Teen Athletes Can Build Muscle with Protein"
- Today's Dietitian: "Protein for Fitness: Age Demands Greater Protein Needs"