Striking the right balance between protein, carbs and fats with the right amount calories is muscle food 101, but making sure you are setting your body up for success with the correct micronutrients to foster a muscle building furnace, can make it a lot easier.
While the ultimate fate of those calories is decided largely by how much you burn day to day, genetics and various lifestyle factors have a say, too. The amount and intensity of your workout will also be impacted by the quality of your diet. It’s difficult to push yourself when you’re feeling lethargic.
For example, missing out on vitamin E can cause muscle weakness and leg cramps, while inadequate vitamin A intake can result in dizziness, nausea, muscle and joint pain, and even loss of balance. Not conducive to a PB-crushing leg sesh.
You might already be regularly munching some of the foods below, others may come as a surprise – but trust us, all of them will fuel your mission to build lean muscle. Load up your shopping trolley with our best muscle building food picks.
The 25 Best Muscle Building Foods
1. Whole eggs
Another day, another article touting the benefits of eggs. Those golden orbs contain large amounts of the amino acid leucine, which is essential for post-exercise muscle recovery. Whole eggs in particular are considered to be something of a protein synthesis powerhouse. In fact, eating whole eggs after a workout elicits a 40 per cent greater muscle-building response than consuming egg whites alone, a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found.
As well as a huge helping of complete protein (around 20g per 100g serve), salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which optimise nutrient partitioning by reducing inflammation. Omega-3 increases insulin sensitivity, a study from Harvard University found, resulting in less insulin floating around in your bloodstream. A good thing, because insulin boosts fat storage. Just try to avoid reheating it in the office microwave.
3. Soy beans
Gracing third place in our list of best muscle building foods, soy beans could boost your plant based muscle gains. If your goal is building lean, green muscle, soybeans are your most dependable option. Unlike other vegetarian sources of protein, those little legumes contain all nine essential amino acids, making them an essential vegan muscle food. Tofu, tempeh, and most vegetarian meat alternatives are made out of soy, which boasts around 36 grams per 100g serve.
Fruit isn’t your a-typical bodybuilding fare, but an exception can be made for pineapple. It’s the only food known to contain bromelein, an enzyme that digests protein. Fun fact: pineapple is often uncomfortable to eat because the bromelain is digesting the skin on the inside of your mouth. Plus, its anti-inflammatory properties will help soothe post-workout pain, tenderness and swelling.
5. Greek yogurt
As well as being loaded with fast-digesting whey protein and slow-digesting casein protein – around 10 grams total per 100g serve – Greek yogurt is a source of vitamin D, which helps your body absorb calcium and phosphorus. Calcium is crucial for muscle contractions, while phosphorus is essential for creating ATP (the form of energy your body uses). According to research by Baylor University, a mix of whey and casein protein is the optimum combination for increasing lean mass.
Your co-workers may not thank you, but your biceps will. In a study published in The Journal of Nutrition, garlic was shown to increase testosterone and lower cortisol in rats on a high-protein diet. How? It’s all to do with a compound within garlic called allicin, which reduces the amount of ‘stress hormone’ pumping around your body. Cortisol competes with testosterone in your muscle cells, so essentially less stress results in better gains.
7. Turkey breast
We’re all well aware of the high protein content that turkey possesses, at 29 grams of protein per 100g, turkey is another big protein hitter. But this lean meat has another superpower in relation to the special mineral it contains. Turkey contains 30mg of magnesium per 100 grams making it an impressive addition to your health promoting meal plan. Low levels of magnesium can cause muscle cramps and have been linked to depression according to a review published by Pharmacological Reports. It’s also high in zinc, which supports protein synthesis and helps your body maintain healthy levels of testosterone, as mentioned by researchers at the Wayne State University School of Medicine in Michigan, US.
8. Kidney beans
Being higher in carbohydrates, beans and legumes are often overlooked for their leaner cousins. But these fibrous foods are essential for a healthy gut – something you depend on to absorb the nutrients, minerals and supplements required to carve lean muscle. Kidney beans contain the most, with around 8 grams of protein per 100g serve (and around 10 grams of fibre!). Pair them with a whole grain such as brown rice to make a complete protein.
Inexpensive and versatile, tuna packs around 25 grams of protein per 100g serve, making it hearty muscle-building fare – with the added benefit of those essential omega-3 fatty acids. Just don’t make it the only thing you eat, or you could wind up with some unwanted side effects. Like mercury poisoning.
10. Lean beef
Muscle food of the bovine variety has come under fire in recent years, but enjoyed in moderation, it can make meaningful gym fuel. As well as 26 grams of protein per 100g, which is around the size of a hamburger patty, lean beef contains high levels of zinc. This nutrient is important for testosterone production and also helps your body to recover quicker from exercise. What DOMs?
11. Extra virgin olive oil
The monounsaturated fats in olive oil stimulate protein production for muscle growth and prevent tissue breakdown, but the Mediterranean favourite also has some hidden muscle benefits. It increases insulin sensitivity in your muscles, allowing them to make optimal use of glucose, amino acids and nutrients. Olive oil also contains oleuropein – a phenolic compound that causes white fat cells to act like brown fat cells, according to researchers at Kobe Women’s University in Japan.
12. Cottage cheese
Cottage cheese contains the slow-digesting protein casein, which explains why people like to eat it before bed. Sleep repairs your muscles up to a point; after a few hours a fasting element kicks in, and your body begins breaking muscles down to use as energy. Cottage cheese allows for a sustained release of amino acids throughout the night. Plus with 15 grams of protein and just 85 calories per 100g serve, it’s a muscle food no-brainer.
Let us offer you some pearls of wisdom. Oysters may not be the best-known muscle food, but being packed with upwards of 20 grams of protein (and just five grams of fat) in every 100g, they have an impressive nutritional profile. Compared to chicken, oysters contain more than eight times more iron, and almost 50 times the amount of zinc – around 5.3mg per medium-sized mollusc.
14. Protein powder
Load up your shaker with the whey variety, which naturally contains all 20 amino acids, for an easy-to-digest post-workout protein hit. Plant-based alternatives are also a dependable choice – when it comes to packing on muscle, switching whey protein for rice protein yields identical results, according to a study published in the journal EC Nutrition.
Whilst many would prefer to swerve their side of broccoli, it could play a part in muscle recovery. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli are full of zinc, which according to an article published by Redox Biology, may play a role supporting muscle repair after exercise. Hate broccoli? Sub in kale, sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy or cabbage.
Quinoa is one of the few plant foods that contain all nine essential amino acids, with the added benefit of fibre, magnesium, B vitamins, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin E, potassium, iron… the list goes on. There are around 5 grams of protein in every 100g of cooked quinoa. Not half bad for a seed.
As snacks go, almonds are among the most muscle-friendly. They’re packed with vitamin E, which is essential for repairing cellular damage caused by exercise, according to research published in the journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine. One serving (23 almonds, to be precise) contains 35 per cent of your RDA, along with six grams of protein.
Don’t be fooled by the name, buckwheat bears no relation to wheat. It’s more closely related to quinoa. As a plant-based complete protein, buckwheat boasts around 13 grams of the stuff per 100g serve, along with manganese, magnesium, niacin, zinc, phosphorus, folate, as well as vitamin B6 – which your body needs to absorb amino acids from the foods you eat.
19. Pork tenderloin
Pork tenderloin is a boneless cut of meat from the loin, which runs from the hip to the shoulder of the pig. With 21 grams of protein and four grams of fat, it’s the leanest and also most tender part of the animal, because the muscles are used for posture rather than movement. One serve contains around a third of your daily vitamin B2 requirements, which is essential for breaking down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
20. Chicken breast
A bodybuilding classic in our list of best muscle building foods, skinless cooked chicken breast (around 175g) contains approximately 55 grams of complete protein. It also contains approximately 2 grams of saturated fat, making it a leaner choice than thighs or drumsticks and is also high in selenium, which protects cells from free radical damage caused by your workout.
Are beets the muscle food you’re missing out on? Eating two medium-sized beets an hour and fifteen minutes prior to exercise boosts performance, reduces perceived exertion, and decreases the amount of oxygen you need to complete your workout, according to research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This means you can train more intensely and for longer.
Peas are an underrated source of muscle building protein and muscle fuelling starch. With 14 grams of carbs and 5 grams of protein per 100 grams, the impressive protein and carb combo sets the perfect muscle gain environment post workout. According to an article published by the Cambridge University Press, the vitamin and mineral contents of peas may play important roles in the prevention of illnesses. Pair them with rice and beans and you have a full spectrum of amino acids (the building blocks for building muscle).
Another heavy hitting source of protein, mozzarella contains 28 grams of protein per 100 grams – fundamental for your packed lunch of muscle building foods, and yes, even on pizza. It is also high in calcium which is important in supporting bone health – vital during your high impact exercise sessions.
Oats are a perfect post workout food to replenish your muscles with the energy they need to ensure you adequately recover and are ready to power through your next workout. Aside from the energy they give you, oats are a unique grain with as much as 11 grams of protein per 100 grams. Plus, if you struggle with digestive issues, something that can be most unwelcome during training sessions, oats are packed with 10 grams of fibre per 100 grams to help you avoid any unpleasant issues.
Prawns pack a protein punch of 20 grams per 100 grams, making it the perfect choice of muscle building foods. According to an article published by the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, you can get 47% of your RDA of B12 from just 100 grams which will help prevent anemia, osteoporosis and support your memory.
Kate is a fitness writer for Men’s Health UK where she contributes regular workouts, training tips and nutrition guides. She has a post graduate diploma in Sports Performance Nutrition and before joining Men’s Health she was a nutritionist, fitness writer and personal trainer with over 5k hours coaching on the gym floor. Kate has a keen interest in volunteering for animal shelters and when she isn’t lifting weights in her garden, she can be found walking her rescue dog.