Fuel Your Muscles: 20 Best Foods for Muscle Building

Producing and maintaining lean muscle mass requires regular physical activity and nutritious eating. Here are 20 of the best muscle-building foods.

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by
Chelsea Rae Bourgeois, MS, RD
— Signos
Health writer
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
May 17, 2024
September 24, 2023
— Updated:
September 25, 2023

Table of Contents

Building muscle tissue can be both an art and a science. Finding new ways to break down and rebuild muscle in the gym can feel like art, while nutrition’s role in muscle growth can be quite scientific. All foods can fit into a well-balanced diet, but some serve our bodies better than others—especially regarding body composition goals.

If building muscle is your MO, eating enough protein and high-quality carbohydrates is essential. But what foods work in a muscle-gain diet? Good news! The options are endless, and we’ve compiled a list of 20 of the best muscle-building foods to incorporate into your lifestyle.

How to Eat to Build Muscle: The Importance of Nutrition 

Nutrition plays a pivotal role in many areas of health. Like gasoline for your car, think of the food you eat as the fuel that keeps your body moving and operating smoothly. A healthy diet can help reduce the risk of developing chronic disease, improve cognitive function, promote healthy digestion, and supply the energy needed to tackle your day.

When eating for health, we focus on a balance of carbs, lean proteins, and healthy fats. While the same is true for fueling exercise performance, science reiterates the importance of meeting your protein and carbohydrate needs when trying to build lean muscle mass.

The amino acids in proteins are responsible for muscle tissue structure, making protein an essential nutrient for muscle repair. There are 20 amino acids, and our bodies can produce most of them. Those that we can’t make on our own, we must get from our diet. We call these essential amino acids, and they’re major players in muscle growth.

Protein gets a lot of hype, and rightfully so, but we can’t forget about carbs’ role in muscle gain. Going into your workout fatigued doesn’t set you up for success—here’s where carbs come into play. Carbs are our fuel source, giving us the energy we need to hit our workouts hard. Eating enough healthy carbs can help prevent muscle loss and enhance post-workout muscle recovery.

We all have unique nutrition needs. Consider working with a registered dietitian specializing in sports nutrition to determine how many grams of protein and carbohydrates you need daily to support your fitness goals.

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20 High-Protein Muscle-Building Foods to Help You Gain Lean Muscle

High-quality protein intake offers a list of health benefits, including reducing body fat and supporting muscle protein synthesis. We’ve compiled a list of 20 of the best animal and plant-based protein sources to consider adding to your meal plan as you pursue muscle gain.

Some of our favorite high-protein foods for muscle building include:

1. Eggs 

Whole eggs got a bit of a bad rap over the years with concerns for their effects on cholesterol, but eggs can be a nutritious addition to a balanced diet. One whole egg, boiled or poached, contains over six grams of protein, a decent amount of protein per serving.

Recent research has shown that eating whole eggs may be preferable to egg whites when reducing body fat percentage through resistance training.1 Plus, eggs contain many other vital nutrients like B vitamins, which are critical for energy production, and choline.

2. Salmon 

If you’re looking for a massive helping of protein, salmon might be a great choice. One medium salmon filet offers approximately 59 grams of protein.2 Plus, salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which boast their own health benefits like reducing inflammation.

3. Chicken Breast

Chicken breast is a low-fat animal protein, rich in the amino acid leucine and several B vitamins. One average chicken breast provides 56 grams of protein.3 Plus, it pairs well with various other foods, making it a go-to source of protein for many people in the bodybuilding community.

4. Greek Yogurt 

Plain Greek yogurt is packed with high-quality protein and gut-friendly probiotics, making it an ideal choice for building lean mass and supporting gut health. A recently published study showed that including nonfat Greek yogurt in your post-workout meal can improve your strength, muscle thickness, and body composition.4

5. Soybeans 

Soybeans are trusted legumes and an excellent plant-based protein. They contain all nine essential amino acids, making them a complete protein. Soy protein powders are popular and commonly used in elite protein shakes.

6. Edamame 

Edamame beans, considered immature soybeans, pack a punch when it comes to protein. They can be enjoyed fresh or frozen, and they can added to a variety of dishes. One cup of prepared edamame provides more than 18 grams of protein.5 Toss them into a stir fry or a salad for an extra kick of protein and flavor.

7. Quinoa 

Quinoa is one of the few plant-based proteins that contains all nine essential amino acids plus the added benefits of magnesium, B vitamins, phosphorus, and vitamin E, among other nutrients. One cup of cooked quinoa provides more than eight grams of protein.6 Enjoy it warm, or toss it in a salad cold.

8. Lean Beef

Red meat occasionally gets frowned upon because of its saturated fat content and potential impact on heart health. However, when it’s enjoyed in moderation, it can be an excellent source of protein for those trying to build muscle. To consume creatine naturally, lean red meat might be your MVP. Just four ounces of lean ground beef, enough to make a hamburger patty, contains 22 grams of protein.7 Plus, it’s rich in heme iron, which helps prevent anemia.

9. Chickpeas 

Chickpeas, sometimes called garbanzo beans, can be a great source of protein and carbohydrates. Canned chickpeas provide almost 15 grams of protein and 40 grams of carbs per cup.8

10. Peanuts 

One cup of peanuts provides almost 41 grams of protein.9 Plus, they are a good source of magnesium, which can help support exercise performance and muscle growth. Not a fat of whole peanuts? Peanut butter also offers decent protein per serving.

11. Beans 

Beans are a valuable protein source, especially for those following a vegan or vegetarian diet. Black beans, kidney beans, navy beans—the options are endless! They are packed with fiber and minerals that support bone health, such as calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium.

12. Tuna 

Much like salmon, tuna is a protein-rich fatty fish. It is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which research indicates may improve muscle mass and overall strength, and just three ounces provide almost 20 grams of protein.10, 11

13. Milk 

For those who can tolerate lactose, milk can be an excellent option for boosting your protein intake in pursuit of muscle gains. One cup of low-fat milk provides eight grams of protein and many other nutrients.12 It’s also an excellent medium for mixing whey protein and other protein powders.

14. Cottage Cheese

One cup of reduced-fat cottage cheese provides more than 24 grams of protein and a decent amount of calcium.13 Pair it with fresh fruit for a nutritious breakfast, or add it to your lasagna recipe to boost protein at dinner.

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15. Brown Rice

If you need a whole-grain carb source that packs a protein punch, brown rice might be just what you’re looking for. One cup of cooked brown rice provides almost 50 grams of carbohydrates and five grams of protein.14 Plus, it is rich in B vitamins and fiber. Pair it with lentils, beans, or chickpeas to get a wide range of amino acids on a plant-based diet.

16. Buckwheat 

Buckwheat is not a wheat product. Instead, it’s more closely related to quinoa. One cup of roasted buckwheat groats provides almost six grams of protein and 33 grams of carbohydrates.15

17. Shrimp 

Shrimp can be a delicious way to boost your protein intake as you work to put on muscle. Just three ounces provides more than 20 grams of protein, among many other health benefits.16 They can be enjoyed in salads, tacos, and pasta dishes—it’s hard to get bored with such a versatile food!

18. Scallops 

Like other lean protein sources, scallops provide a decent amount of protein without excess fat. Three ounces of cooked scallops offer 17 grams of protein and less than one gram of fat.17 Scallops might be an excellent option to increase your protein intake without skewing your other macronutrient goals.

19. Tofu 

Tofu is often associated with the vegan diet but can support muscle building across many different nutrition platforms. Approximately 1/4 block of tofu provides almost 16 grams of protein and gut-friendly prebiotics, probiotics, and antioxidants.18

20. Turkey

Like chicken, turkey can be an excellent source of protein. It’s a low-fat poultry source that can be adapted to fit into many different recipes. It’s also a great source of magnesium and zinc, which can support muscle-building efforts.

FAQs About Muscle-Building Foods 

When should I eat to build muscle?

Nutrition recommendations, including the timing of your meals, will vary from person to person. However, most experts recommend eating a quality carb and protein source every 2-3 hours to maintain energy and meet your daily protein needs.

What is the best supplement for building muscle?

There are so many supplements available on the market today. The best option is one that you can tolerate and enjoy regularly. Protein powders—soy or whey protein—help prevent boredom in your supplement routine since they can be mixed in various ways. Add them to smoothies, iced lattes, or baked goods.

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What’s the right diet to build muscle?

The proper diet to build muscle will look different depending on who you ask. We all have unique nutrition needs based on various factors, including body weight, genetics, physical activity, and health goals. Consider working with a registered dietitian to assess your nutrition needs and tell you what to eat to gain muscle.

What foods build muscle mass fast?

Lean protein sources like chicken breast, turkey, low-fat cottage cheese, and quinoa can support muscle gains. However, while nutrition is vital in building muscle, it can’t do it alone. If you want to build muscle in a timely manner, it’s essential to incorporate physical activity. Strength training and cardiovascular workouts can help develop healthy muscle tissue.

Learn More About Healthy Habits and Nutrition with Signos’ Expert Advice 

If you wonder how to eat to gain muscle, you’re not alone. However, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all muscle gain diet. We all have unique nutrition needs and respond to foods differently. Enter Signos continuous glucose monitoring. 

Signos’ CGM can complement good nutrition and lead to healthy habits by providing users with real-time data to help us understand how our bodies respond to food. CGM gives us valuable insight into how our unique systems process the foods we eat, allowing us to make informed decisions about nutrition.   

Signos can improve health in several ways, putting you in the driver’s seat of your health. Learn more about nutrition and healthy habits on Signos’ blog. And find out if Signos is a good fit for you by taking a quick quiz!

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References

  1. Bagheri, R., Hooshmand Moghadam, B., Ashtary-Larky, D., Forbes, S. C., Candow, D. G., Galpin, A. J., Eskandari, M., Kreider, R. B., & Wong, A. (2021). Whole Egg Vs. Egg White Ingestion During 12 weeks of Resistance Training in Trained Young Males: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 35(2), 411–419. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000003922
  2. Salmon, steamed or poached. FoodData Central. October 30, 2020. Accessed September 18, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1098977/nutrients.
  3. Chicken, broiler or fryers, breast, skinless, boneless, meat only, cooked, braised. FoodData Central. April 1, 2019. Accessed September 18, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/331960/nutrients.
  4. Bridge, A., Brown, J., Snider, H., Nasato, M., Ward, W. E., Roy, B. D., & Josse, A. R. (2019). Greek Yogurt and 12 Weeks of Exercise Training on Strength, Muscle Thickness and Body Composition in Lean, Untrained, University-Aged Males. Frontiers in Nutrition, 6, 453634. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2019.00055
  5. Edamame, Frozen, Prepared. FoodData Central. April 1, 2019. Accessed September 18, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168411/nutrients.
  6. Quinoa, cooked. FoodData Central. April 1, 2019. Accessed September 18, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168917/nutrients.
  7. Beef, ground, 90% lean meat / 10% fat, raw. FoodData Central. April 1, 2019. Accessed September 18, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/174030/nutrients.
  8. Chickpeas, from canned, reduced sodium. FoodData Central. October 30, 2020. Accessed September 19, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1100434/nutrients.
  9. Peanuts, roasted, unsalted. FoodData Central. October 30, 2020. Accessed September 18, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1100538/nutrients.
  10. McGlory, C., Calder, P. C., & Nunes, E. A. (2019). The Influence of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Skeletal Muscle Protein Turnover in Health, Disuse, and Disease. Frontiers in Nutrition, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2019.00144.
  11. Fish, tuna, fresh, bluefin, raw. FoodData Central. April 1, 2019. Accessed September 18, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173706/nutrients.
  12. Milk, low fat, fluid, 1% milkfat, with added vitamin A and vitamin D. FoodData Central. December 16, 2019. Accessed September 19, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/746772/nutrients.
  13. Cheese, cottage, low fat, 2% milkfat. FoodData Central. April 1, 2019. Accessed September 18, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/328841/nutrients.
  14. Rice, brown, cooked, no added fat. FoodData Central. October 30, 2020. Accessed September 19, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1101631/nutrients.
  15. Buckwheat groats, roasted, cooked. FoodData Central. April 1, 2019. Accessed September 19, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170686/nutrients.
  16. Crustaceans, shrimp, cooked. FoodData Central. April 1, 2019. Accessed September 19, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/175180/nutrients.
  17. Mollusks, scallop, (bay and sea), cooked, steamed. FoodData Central. April 1, 2019. Accessed September 18, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/167742/nutrients.
  18. Tofu, hard, prepared with nigari. FoodData Central. April 1, 2019. Accessed September 19, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/174291/nutrients.

About the author

Chelsea Rae Bourgeois is a registered dietitian nutritionist with several years of experience working in the clinical setting. Once a track and field athlete on a competitive stage, she now finds joy in combining her passions as a health writer to help people embrace their wellness through nutrition and fitness.

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