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

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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. “Protein needs for building muscle vary, but between 1.2 to 1.9 grams per kilogram of body weight is generally recommended,” says Heather Mangieri, a sports dietitian in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Spread your protein intake throughout the course of the day, aiming for 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal and include protein with snacks, Mangieri says. That way, you'll “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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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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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)

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

3

Beans

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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. Plus, dried beans are a huge money saver!

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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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, an essential amino acid that activates protein synthesis and muscle growth, 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

5

Canned Salmon

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“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

Read more: The 13 Types of Fish to Avoid

6

Snacking Cheese

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Part-skim mozzarella string cheese isn’t just for kids. 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.

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 pre-portioned 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.

PROTEIN: 14 grams per two-ounce serving (varies depending on type)

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

7

Greek Yogurt

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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)

Read more: 14 Protein-Packed Breakfasts to Power You Through Morning

8

Eggs

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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,” says Heather Mangieri, RDN. She often recommends eggs to athletes because they are versatile and portable. 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. 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: 6 grams per large egg

Read more: The 20 BEST Ways to Use Eggs

9

Whey Protein

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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 order to reduce your risk of exposure to toxic ingredients, 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

Read more: 6 Easy Smoothie Breakfast Bowls

How to Snack Like a Nutritionist When You Travel

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Overview

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. “Protein needs for building muscle vary, but between 1.2 to 1.9 grams per kilogram of body weight is generally recommended,” says Heather Mangieri, a sports dietitian in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Spread your protein intake throughout the course of the day, aiming for 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal and include protein with snacks, Mangieri says. That way, you'll “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.

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