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9 Muscle-Building Proteins That Won't Bust Your Budget

author image Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN
Caroline Kaufman helps busy people live healthier, less stressful lives. She has an M.S. in nutrition communication from Tufts and an A.B. in English from Harvard. Caroline is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, writer, consultant for Health Warrior and the California Strawberry Commission and blogger at

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9 Muscle-Building Proteins That Won't Bust Your Budget
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Everyone knows that if you want to build muscle, you need to eat protein. But it’s not always a "more is better" situation. Consume too much protein and you’ll start storing excess calories as fat; too little and you won’t be able to fuel muscle growth and recovery. To reap all the benefits of your hard work, you need to monitor both protein quantity and timing. “Protein needs for building muscle vary, but between 1.2 to 1.9 grams per kilogram of body weight is generally recommended,” advises Heather Mangieri, a sports dietitian in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Research suggests that your body can’t use more than 30 grams of protein at a time for muscle building, so experts recommend spreading protein intake throughout the course of the day. If you aim for 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal and include protein with snacks, Mangieri says you will “optimize muscle protein synthesis and enhance performance.” How can you get enough protein without busting your budget? Four leading sports nutrition experts share their favorite inexpensive sources of quality protein.

1. Beef Jerky
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1 Beef Jerky

If you think of beef jerky as the chopped and re-formed meat sticks sold at gas stations, think again. There’s been a resurgence of traditional whole-muscle jerky, sometimes studded with fruit, which the ancient Incans used to call “charque” (sounds a lot like jerky, doesn’t it?). Many current varieties are made without nitrates, MSG and artificial ingredients and preservatives. With about 10 grams of protein in one ounce, “beef jerky is a great post-workout snack” along with an apple or a handful of berries, suggests Jim White, RD, ACSM, exercise physiologist and spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. PROTEIN: 10 grams per ounce.

2. Sardines
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2 Sardines

They may look small, but sardines pack 14 grams of protein into a two-ounce serving. These tiny nutritional powerhouses are also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, are very high in selenium and vitamin B-12 and high in calcium, niacin and phosphorus. Jim White, RD, suggests eating them straight out of the can, on a salad or in a sardine-salad sandwich on whole-wheat bread. The Monterey Bay Aquarium recommends buying U.S. and Canada Pacific sardines caught with purse seines and avoiding Atlantic sardines caught in the Mediterranean because of overfishing. PROTEIN: 14 grams per two-ounce serving (varies depending on the brand and variety).

Related: 22 Delicious Protein Powder Recipes (That Are NOT Shakes)

3. Beans
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3 Beans

Beans truly are magical -- for your muscles. While you may think that animal sources of protein are superior to plant sources, Heather Mangieri, RDN, sets the record straight: “Research suggests that protein from both plant and animal sources seem to work equally well in increasing muscle protein synthesis as a result of exercise.” She recommends including beans in your post-workout meal due to their balance of complex carbohydrates and protein. While both canned and dried beans are inexpensive, dried beans are a huge money saver. The Bean Institute reports that dry beans cost just 13 cents per serving (versus 50 cents for a national brand of canned beans), and that for $1.50 you can buy a bag of dried pinto beans that makes 12 half-cup servings! Save time by cooking a big batch over the weekend and adding them to meals and snacks throughout the week: Replace some or all of the meat in a dish with beans, throw edamame in your stir-fry, mash black beans for taco night, add chickpeas to salads or make a simple bean salad by mixing a variety of rinsed, canned beans with bell peppers, onion and parsley, tossing with Italian salad dressing and refrigerating for several hours. PROTEIN: 7 grams per half-cup, cooked.

Related: 10 Healthy and Hearty Chili Recipes

4. Cottage Cheese
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4 Cottage Cheese

A simple cottage cheese snack at bedtime can help you repair muscle damage while you sleep. Cottage cheese contains a type of protein called casein, which digests slowly over time, explains Jim White, RD. Because it stays in your system longer than fast-digesting proteins like whey, it’s ideally suited for fasting states like sleep. Cottage cheese is also a great source of leucine, one of the nine essential amino acids that we have to get from our diets. Circulating leucine activates protein synthesis and muscle growth, so your muscle growth suffers if you don’t have enough, according to a 2006 study in the Journal of Nutrition. Skip the supplements, notes Alissa Rumsey, RD, CSCS, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “There isn’t any compelling research that leucine supplements aid in muscle development. And you don’t need them -- a well-rounded diet with enough protein will supply enough leucine.” PROTEIN: 14 grams per half-cup serving.

Related: 13 Surprising Vegetarian Sources of Protein

5. Canned Salmon
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5 Canned Salmon

“Nothing against tuna,” says Christopher R. Mohr, Ph.D., RD, industry consultant and nutrition spokesperson, “but salmon offers the same amount of protein and even more omega-3s without the concern of high mercury levels.” Yes, those oft-neglected cans of salmon pack a whopping 20 grams of protein in one three-ounce serving, plus 18 percent of your daily recommended value of calcium, which is important for muscle function and bone health. One of Mohr’s favorite ways to eat canned salmon is “mixed with a solid, grainy mustard and added to a halved avocado.” You can also turn it into a salmon burger, toss it on a salad or make a salmon salad sandwich with chopped celery, a little mayo, minced red onion, sliced tomato and romaine lettuce on whole-grain pumpernickel bread. PROTEIN: 20 grams per three-ounce serving.

Related: The 13 Types of Fish to Avoid

6. Snacking Cheese
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6 Snacking Cheese

Part-skim mozzarella string cheese isn’t just for kids; anyone trying to build more lean muscle can benefit. To maximize your protein intake per ounce, choose from Parmesan, Monterey jack, mozzarella, Swiss, provolone, cheddar, port salut or Colby. Cheese has become an incredibly convenient snack now that many companies make individually packaged single servings. When you need a protein boost, you can easily find them in airports, convenience stores and drugstores. Christopher R. Mohr, RD, who consults for Babybel, loves their mini cheese wheels in particular: “With at least four grams of protein per serving, these are an easy, portable source of protein.” But don’t just relegate preportioned cheeses to snack status; they’re a simple way to add protein to your meals too. “I’ll usually have two to three mini Babybels at a time to complement the rest of the meal,” say Mohr, who strives to meet the recommended 20 grams of protein per meal to build muscle. PROTEIN: 14 grams per two-ounce serving (varies depending on type).

Related: 22 Delicious Protein Powder Recipes (That Are NOT Shakes)

7. Greek Yogurt
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7 Greek Yogurt

All yogurts contain protein, but Greek varieties have more than double the amount found in traditional types,” says Heather Mangieri, RDN. Since the main protein in yogurt is slow-digesting casein, it’s “a great choice for a midday or evening snack, when you might have a few hours without food,” she adds. Greek yogurt is incredibly versatile. You can make a traditional fruit-and-nut parfait, use it as a substitute for sour cream in vegetable dips and add it to muffins, pancakes, quick breads and smoothies. Dip fruit in Greek yogurt and freeze for a refreshing treat. Mangieri recommends buying yogurt in two-pound containers to save money (and ensure you never run out!) PROTEIN: 17 grams per six-ounce container (varies depending on brand).

Related: 14 Protein-Packed Breakfasts to Power You Through Morning

8. Eggs
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8 Eggs

Eggs have six grams of high-quality protein, and at about 21 cents per egg, “they’re also one of the least expensive ways to get protein,” notes Heather Mangieri, RDN. She often recommends eggs to athletes “because they are versatile and portable. They can be cooked into an entree, such as a quiche, made into egg salad or eaten whole on the go.” While eggs have historically been the poster child for high cholesterol, saturated fat and trans fat have a greater impact on “bad” LDL cholesterol levels than dietary cholesterol. The dietary guidelines committee (made up of nutrition scientists) recently recommended that the daily limit on cholesterol (300 milligrams) be dropped, although the restriction is currently still in play. The committee claims the data don’t support the restriction. There are some people who are sensitive to cholesterol (likely those with high total and LDL cholesterol and those with diabetes), and it will raise their levels, but it’s such a small percentage that it doesn’t warrant such a wide restriction. PROTEIN: Six grams per large egg.

Related: The 20 BEST Ways to Use Eggs

9. Whey Protein
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9 Whey Protein

There’s a good reason so many people love whey protein. “It’s a high-quality, nutritionally complete protein that is rapidly digested and absorbed,” says Heather Mangieri, RDN. Plus, it contains leucine, the amino acid responsible for muscle growth. Protein powders, like all supplements, are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which means you can’t be sure you’re getting what’s on the label. In fact, a 2010 Consumer Reports test found that three daily servings of some popular protein powders and beverages exceeded the safe limits of two heavy metals: arsenic and cadmium (which can cause kidney damage). In order to reduce your risk of exposure, Alissa Rumsey, RD, recommends choosing “an organic, grass-fed protein variety,” and limiting your intake to one serving per day. If organic protein powders are too expensive or you’re unable to find a brand you trust, Rumsey says the best solution is to get your protein from whole foods and to “rely on powders only as a last resort.” PROTEIN: 20 grams per one scoop (25 grams) serving.

Related: 6 Easy Smoothie Breakfast Bowls

What Do You Think?
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What Do You Think?

What’s your favorite source of inexpensive protein? Did you find anything new to try? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Related: The 7 Best Protein Bars - and 3 to Avoid!

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