11 Foods to Help You Build Muscle

11 Foods to Help You Build Muscle

The most common reason people want to build muscle is to bulk up and improve their physique and strength, also known as "bodybuilding".

Increasing muscle is also beneficial for weight management, as muscle is an "active tissue" meaning it uses energy even while we rest. Increasing your muscle mass, therefore, means your body burns more calories at rest. This can help you both lose weight and keep it off.

Maintaining muscle mass is also beneficial as we get older and naturally lose some of our muscle mass and strength. From the age of 30, we lose approximately 10% of our muscle mass every decade and after 50, that increases to 15%. A loss of muscle mass, known as sarcopenia, is associated with several negative health outcomes such as an increased risk of falls, various diseases, and poor quality of life. It is therefore beneficial to try and minimize this loss of muscle to maintain good health as we age.

When trying to gain muscle, it is essential to get enough protein, both throughout the day and immediately after workouts. The International Society for Sports Nutrition recommends 1.4 grams to 2 grams of protein per kg body weight per day for muscle building. The exact amount will depend on factors such as gender, body size, and activity levels (1).

The recommended muscle-building foods below include both plant and animal sources. These include: whey powder, tofu, peas, milk, beans, lentils, eggs, and fish. To build muscle, these foods should be eaten in combination with regular resistance exercise. Resistance exercise is any type of exercise that causes muscles to contract against a force or resistance; this can be free weights, weight machines, or your own body weight. For example, weight lifting, squats, lunges, push-ups and even yoga. Resistance exercise builds and tones muscle and makes your muscles stronger, it also increases bone strength. For good health, it is also recommended to include 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per week.

There is some debate about animal vs. vegetarian protein sources. Many bodybuilders are convinced you need animal protein to build muscle. There are however many successful vegan bodybuilders and athletes and a new school of thought that the inflammation caused by animal proteins might actually hinder performance. For this reason, the following list contains a mixture of both animal and plant-based proteins. If you do consume animal foods, it is healthy to include a mixture of both plant and animal proteins in your diet.

These muscle-building foods are all high in protein, easy to prepare, and have other health benefits beyond just their high protein content.

Foods to Help You Build Muscle

1Whey
Whey Powder
Whey protein is a mixture of some of the proteins naturally occurring in milk and is a common ingredient in protein supplements and meal replacements. It is particularly rich in two proteins called beta-lactoglobulin and alpha-lactalbumin. Whey has one of the highest protein bioavailability scores of all foods and is more rapidly digested than other proteins such as casein (2), making it a favorite amongst bodybuilders. Research shows that whey protein in combination with resistance exercise increases muscle mass (3,4).
Nutrition Facts for Dried Sweet Whey Powder.
2Tofu
A block of tofu
Tofu is a top vegetarian source of protein. All types of protein supply the body with the amino acid building blocks required to form new muscle, but some foods contain a better profile of amino acids than others. Tofu provides good amounts of essential amino acids, which must be obtained through diet, as the body cannot manufacture them (5). Soy protein in one study was comparable to whey protein in preventing exercise-induced muscle damage and aiding recovery in soccer players (6).
Nutrition Facts for Firm Tofu.
3Peas
Green Peas
A cup of cooked green peas contains nearly 9 grams of protein. Pea protein powder is gaining popularity as a vegan protein source. One study found that pea protein in combination with resistance training promoted a greater increase in muscle thickness after 12 weeks, compared with just training alone (and a placebo). The results were particularly pronounced in people starting or returning to training after a break and were comparable to a third group who took whey protein (7).
Nutrition Facts for Cooked Green Peas.
4Milk
A glass of milk
Milk is packed with amino acids and makes a great post-workout recovery drink. According to research, milk may be even better than sports drinks at aiding recovery after exercise (8). Milk increases muscle protein synthesis (7,9) post-exercise while reducing muscle soreness and loss of function. It also re-hydrates the body very well, being approximately isotonic, as well as contributing to replenishing glycogen (energy) stores (8).
Nutrition Facts for Skim Milk.
5Beans and Lentils
Lentils
Pulses include beans, lentils, and chickpeas. They provide a healthy dose of plant-based protein for muscle building. Beans are also a great energy source, as they contain slow-releasing carbohydrates and fiber, which help keep blood sugar levels balanced to fuel your workouts. Pulses also supply magnesium, an essential nutrient for muscle function, which may also enhance exercise performance (10).
Nutrition Facts for Lentils (Cooked).
6Almonds
Almonds
Almonds make a great portable, post-workout snack for when you're on the go. Almonds have the highest protein content of all nuts (except peanuts - see below); a handful contains around 7g of protein. Almonds also have a high satiety value, meaning they keep you feeling full and satisfied and help control appetite (11,12). This can be beneficial for anyone looking to build muscle and reduce body fat simultaneously. Almonds are another great source of magnesium.
Nutrition Facts for Almonds.
7Eggs
Eggs
Eggs offer a powerful dose of high-quality protein. One egg contains around 6g of protein. Eggs also provide choline, which may improve athletic performance and reduce fatigue (13). Choline is also necessary for communication between the nervous system and the muscles. Furthermore, eggs can be beneficial for appetite control and weight management (14,15).
Nutrition Facts for Hard Boiled Eggs.
8Fish
Tuna Fillet
Fish provides all the protein of red meat, without the saturated fat. White fish is high protein and low in fat, while oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines contain omega-3 fatty acids, which aid protein metabolism for effective muscle growth. Studies have shown that omega-3 supplements stimulate muscle protein synthesis in older adults (16), as well as young and middle-aged adults (17).
Nutrition Facts for Bluefin Tuna (Cooked).
9Quinoa
A bowl of quinoa
Quinoa is botanically a seed but eaten as a grain. It is packed with protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, plus all the amino acids needed for muscle growth. In fact, quinoa is the ideal grain for anyone looking to build muscle, as the amino acids are well absorbed making it a high-quality protein (18). It is also an excellent energy food, containing slow-releasing carbohydrates and the minerals magnesium and iron, which are required for muscle function and maintaining energy levels.
Nutrition Facts for Quinoa Cooked.
10Chicken
Lean chicken breast
Chicken and other poultry are a great low-fat protein source; an average chicken breast contains around 50g protein. Poultry is also a top source of the amino acid leucine, an essential branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) that helps prevent age-related muscle loss (20) and may stimulate muscle growth in younger people. Although the evidence is not conclusive (19,21). Animal foods also provide vitamin B12, required for repairing damaged cells and for red blood cell production.
Nutrition Facts for Lean Chicken Breast (Cooked).
11Peanuts and Peanut Butter
Peanuts
Peanuts and peanut butter are not technically nuts, but legumes (from the same family as beans and lentils), which account for their higher protein content compared with other common nuts. Peanuts and peanut butter contain around 24g protein per 100g, compared with cashews 18g, Brazil nuts 14g, and pecans 9g. In one study, elderly patients were given peanut protein in combination with resistance training for 6 weeks and it significantly increased both muscle growth and strength (22).
Nutrition Facts for Peanut Butter (Chunk Style).

Tips for Building Muscle

  • The American College of Sports Medicine recommends resistance training (weight lifting) to build muscle. This involves training each muscle group two or three times per week on non-consecutive days by doing 8-12 repetitions and 2-4 sets of each different exercise.
  • Don’t forget to incorporate rest days between your training days, as they are essential to building muscle. In fact, it is during rest periods that new muscle formation takes place.
  • Caffeine enhances muscle strength, so can boost your workout and may also decrease muscle soreness post-workout. Take it easy though, as too much can cause fatigue in the long term.
  • Vitamin C supplements may speed up muscle recovery and reduce pain after intensive workouts (23,24). The best way to get plenty of vitamin C is to eat 10 servings of fruit and vegetables per day.
  • 70% of muscle mass is made up of water and water is essential for building healthy muscles. Hydration is also key to exercise performance and maintaining physical and mental energy. Requirements increase with activity levels and hot weather, so drink accordingly.
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Data Sources and References

  1. Kerksick CM, Arent S, Schoenfeld BJ, Stout JR, Campbell B, Wilborn CD, Taylor L, Kalman D, Smith-Ryan AE, Kreider RB, Willoughby D, Arciero PJ, VanDusseldorp TA, Ormsbee MJ, Wildman R, Greenwood M, Ziegenfuss TN, Aragon AA, Antonio J. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Aug 29;14:33. doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4. eCollection 2017. 28919842
  2. Dangin M, Guillet C, Garcia-Rodenas C, Gachon P, Bouteloup-Demange C, Reiffers-Magnani K, Fauquant J, Ballèvre O, Beaufrère B. Influence of the protein digestion rate on protein turnover in young and elderly subjects J Physiol. 2003 Jun 1;549(Pt 2):635-44. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2002.036897. Epub 2003 Mar 28. 12665610
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  4. Lockwood CM, Roberts MD, Dalbo VJ, Smith-Ryan AE, Kendall KL, Moon JR, Stout JR. Effects of whey protein supplementation prior to, and following, resistance exercise on body composition and training responses: A randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study J Am Coll Nutr. 2017 Jan;36(1):16-27. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2016.1140094. Epub 2016 Oct 6. 27710436
  5. Gilani GS. Protein digestibility-corrected amino acid scores (PDCAAS) for soy protein isolates and concentrate: criteria for evaluation Br J Nutr. 2012 Aug;108 Suppl 2:S168-82. doi: 10.1017/S0007114512002383. 23107528
  6. Tzatzakis T, Papanikolaou K, Draganidis D, Tsimeas P, Kritikos S, Poulios A, Laschou VC, Deli CK, Chatzinikolaou A, Batrakoulis A, Basdekis G, Mohr M, Krustrup P, Jamurtas AZ, Fatouros IG. Effect of whey vs. soy protein supplementation on recovery kinetics following speed endurance training in competitive male soccer players: a randomized controlled trial Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2019 Nov 21:1-14. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2018-0984. Online ahead of print. 31751937
  7. Duarte NM, Cruz AL, Silva DC, Cruz GM. Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2020 Jan;60(1):75-84. doi: 10.23736/S0022-4707.19.09741-X. Epub 2019 Sep 23. 31565912
  8. Kerksick CM, Arent S, Schoenfeld BJ, Stout JR, Campbell B, Wilborn CD, Taylor L, Kalman D, Smith-Ryan AE, Kreider RB, Willoughby D, Arciero PJ, VanDusseldorp TA, Ormsbee MJ, Wildman R, Greenwood M, Ziegenfuss TN, Aragon AA, Antonio J. Cow's milk as a post-exercise recovery drink: implications for performance and health J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Aug 29;14:33. doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4. eCollection 2017. 28919842
  9. Tipton KD, Elliott TA, Cree MG, Aarsland AA, Sanford AP, Wolfe RR. Milk ingestion stimulates net muscle protein synthesis following resistance exercise Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2007 Jan;292(1):E71-6. doi: 10.1152/ajpendo.00166.2006. Epub 2006 Aug 8. 16896166
  10. Veronese N, Berton L, Carraro S, Bolzetta F, De Rui M, Perissinotto E, Toffanello ED, Bano G, Pizzato S, Miotto F, Coin A, Manzato E, Sergi G. Can Magnesium Enhance Exercise Performance? Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Sep;100(3):974-81. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.080168. Epub 2014 Jul 9. 25008857
  11. Hull S, Re R, Chambers L, Echaniz A, Wickham MS. Appetitive, dietary and health effects of almonds consumed with meals or as snacks: a randomized, controlled trial Eur J Nutr. 2015 Aug;54(5):803-10. doi: 10.1007/s00394-014-0759-z. Epub 2014 Sep 3. 25182142
  12. Hollingworth S, Dalton M, Blundell JE, Finlayson G. A mid-morning snack of almonds generates satiety and appropriate adjustment of subsequent food intake in healthy women Nutrients. 2019 Aug 30;11(9):2030. doi: 10.3390/nu11092030. 31480245
  13. Rodriguez NR, DiMarco NM, Langley S; American Dietetic Association; Dietitians of Canada; American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Choline: an important micronutrient for maximal endurance-exercise performance? J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Mar;109(3):509-27. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2009.01.005. 19278045
  14. Ratliff J, Leite JO, de Ogburn R, Puglisi MJ, VanHeest J, Fernandez ML. Short-term effect of eggs on satiety in overweight and obese subjects Nutr Res. 2010 Feb;30(2):96-103. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2010.01.002. 20226994
  15. Borzoei S, Neovius M, Barkeling B, Teixeira-Pinto A, Rössner S. The effects of consuming eggs for lunch on satiety and subsequent food intake Eur J Clin Nutr. 2006 Jul;60(7):897-902. doi: 10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602397. Epub 2006 Feb 15. 16482079
  16. Smith GI, Atherton P, Reeds DN, Mohammed BS, Rankin D, Rennie MJ, Mittendorfer B. Dietary omega-3 fatty acid supplementation increases the rate of muscle protein synthesis in older adults: a randomized controlled trial Clin Sci (Lond). 2011 Sep;121(6):267-78. doi: 10.1042/CS20100597. 21501117
  17. Smith GI, Atherton P, Reeds DN, Mohammed BS, Jaffery H, Rankin D, Rennie MJ, Mittendorfer B. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids augment the muscle protein anabolic response to hyperinsulinaemia-hyperaminoacidaemia in healthy young and middle-aged men and women J Appl Physiol (1985). 2009 Oct;107(4):1308-15. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00348.2009. Epub 2009 Jul 30. 19644030
  18. Proll J, Petzke KJ, Ezeagu IE, Metges CC. Nutritional quality of the protein in quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa, Willd) seeds J Nutr. 1998 Nov;128(11):2014-22. doi: 10.1093/jn/128.11.2014. 9808658
  19. Verreijen AM, Verlaan S, Engberink MF, Swinkels S, de Vogel-van den Bosch J, Weijs PJ. Supplementing Breakfast with a Vitamin D and Leucine-Enriched Whey Protein Medical Nutrition Drink Enhances Postprandial Muscle Protein Synthesis and Muscle Mass in Healthy Older Men Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Feb;101(2):279-86. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.090290. Epub 2014 Nov 26. 25646324
  20. Murphy CH, Saddler NI, Devries MC, McGlory C, Baker SK, Phillips SM. Leucine-Enriched Essential Amino Acids Improve Recovery from Post-Exercise Muscle Damage Independent of Increases in Integrated Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis in Young Men Am J Clin Nutr. 2016 Dec;104(6):1594-1606. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.116.136424. Epub 2016 Nov 9. 27935521
  21. Kephart WC, Mumford PW, McCloskey AE, Holland AM, Shake JJ, Mobley CB, Jagodinsky AE, Weimar WH, Oliver GD, Young KC, Moon JR, Roberts MD. Leucine supplementation and intensive training J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2016 Jul 26;13:30. doi: 10.1186/s12970-016-0142-y. eCollection 2016. 27468258
  22. Bell KE, Brook MS, Snijders T, Kumbhare D, Parise G, Smith K, Atherton PJ, Phillips SM. The effects of resistance training with or without peanut protein supplementation on skeletal muscle and strength adaptations in older individuals Front Nutr. 2019 Apr 11;6:40. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2019.00040. eCollection 2019. 31032258
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