This article is a subset of our muscle building diet guide.
Working out and eating right is all it takes to build muscle mass. Simple as that, nothing more, nothing less. These are the two necessary facets of muscle development.
This article dives into the latter as we discuss the best protein sources for improving overall health and to build lean muscle. We share not only insightful but actionable information to help you achieve your fitness goals.
Protein powder supplements and protein shakes are very convenient and can be added to your diet. However, we strongly recommend that most of your protein consumption comes from foods on this list.
Best protein-rich foods for gaining muscle
Here are some of the best muscle-building foods to incorporate into your diet. In this article, we aren't covering carbohydrates. However, whole grains carbs are very important for energy and should not be ignored. Our favorites are brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and sweet potatoes.
When paired with resistance training, these bodybuilding foods will help you build muscle and improve overall strength.
Poultry – Chicken Breast, Turkey Breast
Poultry like chicken and turkey breast are one of the best foods for building muscle. These high-protein low-fat food sources contain B vitamins which help your body function during physical activity. Simply put, poultry is often a bodybuilder's go-to protein source.
Similar to beef and salmon, poultry is a complete protein meaning it contains all the essential amino acids.
Poultry is a great addition to a high-protein diet and different types can be used interchangeably. Studies show that a high-protein diet promotes fat loss (study, Navas-Carretero).
As a bonus, turkey breast and chicken breast are rich in niacin, vitamin B-6, and Selenium. Vitamin B-6 helps metabolize protein and helps maintain your blood glucose (study, Stuart).
Pro Tip: Aim for more of the higher protein cuts like the breasts, wings, and tenders (white meat). Lower protein cuts include thighs and drumsticks (dark meat).
Poultry is a good source of protein and contains all nine essential amino acids. We recommend limiting the amount of skin since it is mostly fat.
Red Meats – 95% Lean Ground Beef, Lean Steak, Pork Tenderloin, Bison
Red meat contains high-quality protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B12, selenium, niacin, choline, and creatine. It is a great and easy source of protein to add to your diet.
Bison is a better alternative than fattier beef cuts when considering heart disease risk. (study, McDaniel). However 95% lean beef is a very good choice.
We suggest limiting red meat servings to about three portions per week (World Cancer Foundation). This portion size offers the advantages of eating red meat while lowering the risks of colorectal cancer.
Pro Tip: When shopping for steak, choose cuts that have the word "loin" and "round". For example, "eye of round roast", "round steak", "sirloin", and "tenderloin". These are lean cuts.
Fish – Salmon, Trout, Tilapia, Cod, Halibut, Shrimp
White-fleshed fish like tilapia, cod, and halibut are extremely lean. They contain up to 25 grams of protein and only 3 grams of fat.
However, they have only 15-20% as much Omega-3s as fattier fish like salmon and trout.
Generally, seafood is high in protein while being low in saturated fat. Certain fish like salmon, trout, sardines, black cod and herring are high in Omega-3 fatty acids.
Remember, fat is an important macronutrient that we need to grow. Fats from fish oil and olive oil contain healthy fats that improve our overall heart health. The only fat that we want to be careful about consuming is saturated fat.
Pro Tip: Incorporate lean and fatty fish into your diet. By mixing the two, you get a lot of protein and a good amount of healthy Omega-3s fatty acids while keeping unhealthy fats in check.
Greek yogurt is packed with casein protein (15-20 grams per 6oz). Casein protein is a slow-digesting protein that contains all nine essential amino acids that can only be obtained via the whole foods we eat. These amino acids are important for building lean muscle and maintaining a healthy diet.
Eating greek yogurt at night is especially beneficial because the casein protein slowly digests throughout the night (study, Trommelen).
Add some fruit, granola, and honey for a delicious and healthy snack!
Pro Tip: Greek yogurt can be found in single-serving containers which makes it perfect for any snack. Avoid regular yogurt as it has less than half the protein of Greek yogurt.
Cheese – Cottage Cheese, Mozzarella, Blue Cheese, Feta, Ricotta
Let your cheese get to room temperature since cheese is made from mostly fat. When fat is kept cold, the flavor, aroma and texture change for the worse. By letting your cheese reach room temperature, you will get the full flavor and benefits that it can provide.
Like milk, most cheese contains both casein and whey protein (80% casein / 20% whey protein)
Cottage Cheese - more voluminous than other cheeses. 4oz of cottage cheese has the same calories as 1oz of other cheeses and twice as much protein. High protein foods like cottage cheese increase feelings of fullness making them a popular choice amongst fitness enthusiasts (study, Leidy).
Mozzarella - lower in sodium compared to other cheeses. It also contains the healthy probiotics of Lactobacillus fermentum and Lactobacillus casein which improves gut health, fights inflammation and helps promote immunity (study, West, Cox, Merenstein). Additionally, these bacteria found in mozzarella reduce the duration of respiratory infections (study, Guillemard).
Blue Cheese - highest calcium content and has a bold flavor that promotes bone health and reduces osteoporosis (study, Heeok, Kim).
Feta Cheese - contains a high CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) content. CLA is often associated with overall improved body composition and reduced body fat. Note that the sodium content for Feta is higher than other cheeses (study, Rainer, Fischer-Posovszky).
Ricotta Cheese - high in whey protein, which contains all the essential amino acids that we can only obtain from food. Whey also lowers blood pressure, reduces cholesterol, and promotes muscle growth (study, Pal, Pennings).
Pro Tip: Look for healthier cheeses like the ones listed above. Also, use cheese in moderation, it should not be the main source of your protein.
Milk – Skim Milk, 1% Milk, 2% Milk, Whole Milk
Milk contains two types of proteins: casein (80%) and whey (20%).
Casein is a dairy protein that slowly reduces amino acids compared to its whey counterpart. It slowly feeds your cells with amino acids which is perfect for when you are sleeping. Casein has been shown to reduce muscle tissue breakdown and is referred to as anti-catabolic (study, Res).
Milk consumption after exercise supports strength gains, fat mass loss and possible reduction in bone turnover (study, Josse).
Skim milk promotes greater muscle protein accretion than plant-based proteins after resistance exercise. Consumption of milk proteins supports a more rapid lean mass accrual (study, Wilkinson).
Milk contains a lot of saturated fat which is not healthy or beneficial for muscle gain. Be sure to watch your saturated fat intake and to limit the consumption of fatty milk.
Pro Tip: Aim for the lowest fat milk type that you can tolerate. All types of milk are high in calcium and protein.
Eggs – Egg, Egg White
Eggs contain high-quality protein, fats and other nutrients like vitamin B12, phosphorus, and choline. Eggs also contain the amino acid, leucine, which is very beneficial for muscle gain. Please note that the yolk is high in saturated fat and cholesterol (study, Layman).
Egg whites are one of the few forms of pure protein (91% of calories from protein). Our suggested ratio of 3 egg whites to everyone whole egg can help increase daily protein intake.
It’s important to note that research regarding egg consumption is mixed. Some studies say dietary cholesterol is bad for you while others say dietary cholesterol does not affect bad cholesterol in the body.
The bottom line on eggs is still unclear. We suggest limiting egg consumption to 6-7 large eggs per week until more research is done.
Pro Tip: We suggest using a ratio of 3 egg whites for every 1 whole egg to keep protein levels high while also keeping cholesterol in check. Try an egg + egg white omelet or scramble for a delicious high protein breakfast.
Lentils and Beans – Soybeans, Lentils, White Beans, Cranberry (Roman) Beans, Split Peas
Beans and legumes are heart-healthy foods that are enjoyed across the world. They are inexpensive and contain a great source of protein, fiber, iron, and potassium.
White Beans and Cranberry Beans - rich in protein and fiber and contain healthy amounts of vitamins, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron. Beans work in all diets and are a great source of protein for plant-based diets.
Split Peas / Chickpeas - provide all the essential amino acids needed for growth and repair. They contain all three branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) that are used for muscle building.
Pro Tip: Lentils are said to be triple threats. They are rich in fiber, protein and low-impact, slow-releasing carbohydrates.
Tofu and Soy Products – Tofu, Soybeans, Edamame
Tofu is produced from soy milk. It’s a healthy vegan meat substitute that is rich in protein, calcium, manganese, and phosphorus. It’s regarded as one of the best plant protein foods for muscle development (study, Paul).
Soybeans - contain the highest amount of protein, potassium, and iron by weight. These make soybeans a very beneficial food when adding on muscle. Iron is critical to athletic performance because of its role in energy metabolism (study, Hinton).
Edamame - immature soybeans particularly served in Asian cuisine. Edamame is packed with protein, fiber, folate, vitamin K, and manganese.
Women often need additional iron because of blood loss during menstruation.
Pro Tip: Tofu can be eaten raw or cooked depending on preference. It can be added as a high protein meat substitute to any dish. It’s commonly mixed with vegetables or added to a carb base like rice or noodles.
Nuts and Seeds – Hemp Seeds, Pumpkin Seeds, Peanuts, Almonds, Pistachios, Flax Seeds, Chia Seeds
Raw unprocessed nuts are significantly healthier than processed nut products like peanut butter. The best way to incorporate nuts into your diet is to add them to your post-workout meal for added nutrients and increased fullness from the fiber.
For breakfast, add a 1oz serving of nuts into your cereal, or yogurt with fruit. For lunch, they work perfectly in your favorite salad. For dinner, eat a small handful with your vegetables or on the side.
Similar to nuts, seeds are finer and can be crushed or added raw to most meals. We like adding seeds to our smoothies, cereal, or yogurt. Seeds also work well with oatmeal or even in dressings or on pasta.
Hemp Seeds - highest amount of protein across all seeds and nuts. Like split peas, they are one of the few plants that contain all essential amino acids that is critical for muscle gain. Additionally, hemp seed protein is of higher quality than most of the other plant protein sources (study, House).
Pumpkin Seeds - contain healthy Omega-6 and monounsaturated fats. Additionally, they can lower blood cholesterol and reduce the risk of breast cancer (study, Zaineddin).
Flax Seeds - rich in Omega-3 fats, fiber, and antioxidants like lignans. This antioxidant helps reduce cholesterol and blood pressure.
Chia seeds - contain a healthy amount of Omega-3 fats and can help reduce appetite
Peanuts - actually belong to the legume family. An interesting study showed that peanut consumption was associated with a lower death rate (study, Brandt).
Almonds - reduce the rise in blood sugar levels after a meal by up to 30% in people with diabetes (study, Cohen). Almonds also promote the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut known as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria (study, Liu).
Pistachios - high fiber nuts that can help increase the good cholesterol. This is very important for overall good health (study, Sheridan).
Nuts and seeds are high in calories but cannot replace your main protein sources like meat and tofu.
Pro Tip: Nuts and seeds are essential for a muscle-building diet because they contribute a wealthy amount of essential nutrients, healthy fats, and protein.
Importance of high protein low carb foods
The foods listed above are all relatively high in protein and low in carbs. These are important food groups because protein is often the hardest macronutrient to eat. This is because each source often needs preparation and cannot be eaten raw (poultry, meat, eggs etc).
High-protein low-carbohydrate foods like nuts, lentils, greek yogurt, and string cheeses are great low-carb snacks that can be eaten on the go and all have 10 grams of carbs or less per serving.
By now, you should have a better grasp of the different protein groups that bodybuilders eat each and every day. Each group has unique benefits and we recommend pairing a mix of the above foods with a balance of carbohydrates, veggies, and healthy fats.
While low-carb diets are popular and effective, they are not required. We do recommend carbs on days you workout as it will help with energy.
Don't forget to implement a few sessions of resistance training each week. When we workout, our muscle fibers break down and are built back bigger in a process called muscle protein synthesis.
For a diet plan for muscle gain and weight loss, please refer to our muscle building diet guide.