20 Best Muscle Building Foods That Help Build Lean Mass

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Published by James Cunningham, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: June 19, 2024
FACT CHECKED by Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
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There’s a common myth that training for serious muscle gain requires ridiculous caloric intake, especially for those naturally skinny guys and gals.

The truth is that modifying your diet to include more protein- and nutrient-rich foods, combined with serious muscle training, is the proper way to encourage muscle growth.

It is indeed true that calories and carbs are needed for energy during hard training, but in excess and without the proper moderation, these extra calories and carbs only "bulk up" to extra pounds of fat, not muscle.

As a health and performance coach, after testing over 100 healthy foods, I singled out the best 20 to help you start bulking up the right way.

Quick Summary

  • For effective lean muscle growth, include chicken breast, whey protein, lean beef, tuna, and shrimp in your diet, as these foods are rich in proteins and essential nutrients.
  • Emphasizing a balanced diet is crucial for muscle growth, focusing on foods like lean beef for creatine, tuna for omega-3 fatty acids, and shrimp for leucine, all of which are essential for muscle repair and development.
  • According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, 3 ounces (about 85 grams) of cooked Atlantic salmon provides a balanced mix of nutrients essential for muscle growth, including 175 calories, 10.5 grams of fat, 0 grams of carbohydrate, and 18.79 grams of protein.
  • In my own experience as a fitness trainer, I've found that a varied diet, including plant-based proteins like lentils and quinoa, along with nutrient-rich options like sweet potatoes and almonds, significantly enhances muscle building.

Top 20 Muscle Building Foods

1. Chicken Breast

chicken breast

Chicken breast (skip the skin!) is a muscle-building staple because it is a lean meat that is chock full of protein and nutrients that help get muscles growing.

Especially important for active muscle builders, chicken contains plenty of niacin and vitamin B-12, which help with energy and proper muscle function.

Chicken also includes iron and zinc, which all help ensure healthy body functioning.

Chicken was also one of the biggest factors that helped Matt Damon shed 60 pounds of weight.

Read More: Matt Damon's Workout Routine & Diet Plan

2. Whey protein

Perfect for building muscles with its low calorie count and high protein content, whey protein is also full of nutrients such as glutamine and BCAAs. According to one of the studies found on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, these nutrients aid in muscle stimulation and growth [1].

Whey is a protein lover’s dream, and it manages to be filling while also being quick to digest. This results in speeding up the muscular repair and growth process, which helps with more effective muscle building.

3. Lean Beef

Lean Beef

The leaner, the better! Aim for 90%–95% lean beef to avoid adding extra fat to your diet, and if you can, spend the extra money on grass-fed beef to ensure that your body is getting the nutrients it needs.

These nutrients include plenty of protein and creatine, as well as B vitamins and minerals. A Healthline study states,

Some research has even shown that consuming lean red meat can increase the amount of lean mass gained with weight training.

"Even when you’re trying to gain muscle, it may be best to choose beef that supports muscle gain without providing too many extra calories."

- Grant Tinsley, Ph.D., CSCS,*D, CISSN

4. Tuna

Tuna

Not only is tuna high in protein and nutrients, but it’s also inexpensive and easy to pick up a can full of fish that tastes good and is good for you.

Light canned tuna, preferably tuna that comes packed with water instead of unhealthy mystery oils, is a perfect weight-building food that includes vitamin A, omega-3 fatty acids, and many B vitamins that are essential for healthy body weight and exercise function.

5. Shrimp

Shrimp are a blast of almost nothing but protein, with single servings containing 18 grams of protein with as little as 1 gram of fat and zero carbs.

A great way to incorporate protein into your diet without packing on calories can be prepared in a variety of ways as a meal or a snack any time of day.

Shrimp are also filled with leucine, an amino acid naturally found in animal proteins. This amino acid is crucial for muscle mass to grow and function.

6. Eggs

eggs

Containing high-quality protein, including leucine and other essential amino acids, eggs are perfect for muscle building [2].

Eggs as a pre-workout have long been misunderstood as artery cloggers, but the cholesterol-filled yolks can be left out if you are going for a lower-fat diet.

Either way, eggs are a powerful and versatile muscle-growing food.

Recipes containing egg whites also work to add healthy protein to your diet without the extra fat and cholesterol.

7. Lentils

Lentils are loved for their many health benefits and little to no unhealthy qualities.

Lentils are not only inexpensive and easy to make; they are filled with protein, dietary fibers, and carbohydrates to fill you up and keep you full throughout the day.

Lentils also aid in lean muscle growth. These legumes are also high in potassium, which helps muscles work without cramping or painful muscle contractions.

8. Quinoa

quinoa

Quinoa is a high-protein superfood that is filled with healthy nutrients as well as carbohydrates to keep you full throughout your workouts.

Some of quinoa’s nutrients include magnesium and phosphorus, the former being a necessary nutrient for healthy heart and brain functioning.

Phosphorus has the added benefit of building healthy muscle fibers as well as strong bones and teeth.

9. Sweet Potato

Sweet potatoes are a root vegetable that can be a surprising addition to any muscle-building meal plan [3].

You will watch your progress increase with these super veggies, also called yams, which are filled with potassium and healthy fiber.

Mash them, make them into fries, prepare them any way that you would a white potato, and watch the extra nutrients beef up your workout.

10. Peanuts

Although many nuts have plenty of protein for muscle growth, you do have to watch out for the fat content to keep those muscles lean.

According to a study on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, peanuts contain 25.8% protein, 49.24% total fat, and 8.5% dietary fiber per 100 grams, making them a rich source of essential nutrients for muscle building [4].

In addition, the amino acids found in peanut butter can help lower blood pressure. They make a great snack food, and with a variety of different seasonings and flavorings, peanuts can be a quick handful of protein that you don’t have to become bored of.

11. Salmon

Those good for you omega-3 fatty acids are what salmon is all about, including EPA and DHA, which make this another food that is good for your muscles and for your brain.

Salmon is also high in protein and low in fat, making it a perfect diet staple.

Per the USDA, 3 ounces of cooked Atlantic salmon offer 175 calories, 10.5 grams of fat, 0 grams of carbs, and 18.79 grams of protein, making it an excellent choice for muscle building.

Not only is salmon shown to build muscles, but the B vitamins within salmon are great for energy to keep your workout going. If you want to learn how to cook salmon, you can watch this video below.

youtube

12. Broccoli

broccoli

Leafy greens like broccoli are perfect for muscle gain, and this vegetable contains numerous nutrients necessary for a muscle-building workout routine.

One that includes vitamins and minerals for a fit body and mind.

Make sure to include this in your meal plan.

Related post: The Best vegan supplements for bodybuilding

13. Brown rice

brown rice

This is the classic bodybuilder's bro food.

It may not be a protein-packed superfood, but rice is known as a good pre-workout meal.

It contains enough carbohydrates to endure any weight lifting session and get you through your strength training.

It is also more healthy and nutritious compared to white rice.

14. Steel-Cut Oats

Similarly to brown rice, steel-cut oats are full of carbohydrates and can be used in a variety of ways in your cooking.

Besides the traditional breakfast of hardy oatmeal, oats can be used for breading a variety of lean meats or as a filler in meatballs.

However you prepare your oats, make sure to opt for steel cut, ensuring that you get the most nutrients possible.

15. Spinach

spinach

Spinach isn’t just for Popeye! Another healthy leafy green vegetable, spinach packs a punch of nutrients such as vitamins A and E, as well as plant fiber and plenty of protein.

This low-calorie, low-fat food is great for weight building in that it gives you many different nutrients in one small package.

16. Soybeans

Soybeans are another great food that can boost your vitamin and mineral levels, as well as those healthy unsaturated fats. Vitamin K, iron, and phosphorus are at the top of the list of the soybean’s nutrients.

Vitamin K is essential for healthy eye function, and iron is necessary for oxygen transport in your blood. Women in particular can benefit from iron especially during menstruation, when iron levels are low.

17. Chickpeas

chickpeas

Chickpeas are a carb- and protein-packed food, with dietary fiber in addition.

These tiny beans, also known as garbanzo beans, can replace some rice dishes and be added as another versatile carb source for your diet plans.

Watch the video below so you'll know how to make delicious dishes with chickpeas.

youtube

18. Turkey Breast

Turkey Breast

Turkey breast is one of the leanest forms of meat you can eat and can replace chicken, beef, and pork in dishes that you would like to make healthier.

Turkey lacks the fat that these meats contain, even in their leaner variety, and can aid in packing on protein with delicious meals that will not add fat or extra calories to your meal plans.

19. Tofu

Tofu is made up of one of the best muscle-building superfoods, soybeans.

This meat substitute therefore contains lots of carbohydrates, as well as some protein, while being relatively low in fat.

Tofu is also high in calcium, helping grow strong muscles for vegetarians and meat eaters alike.

Related Article
: The Benefits of Tofu

20. Almonds

almonds

Almonds are another very healthy nut, with a high protein content and many nutrients.

Almonds contain vitamin E, which is great for hair, skin, and nails, as well as magnesium and phosphorus for healthy body functioning.

Blend almonds into a smoothie to concentrate your nutrients, or have them as a snack covered in any flavoring that you prefer.

FAQs

What Role Do Micronutrients Play in Muscle Building?

The role that micronutrients play in muscle building includes playing a vital role in muscle function, recovery, and growth. They aid in processes like protein synthesis, energy production, and the repair of muscle fibers, making them essential for effective muscle building.

How Do Anti-Inflammatory Foods Aid in Muscle Recovery?

Anti-inflammatory foods aid in muscle recovery by reducing muscle soreness and speeding up recovery after intense workouts. They work by minimizing inflammation in the body, which is a common response to rigorous exercise, thereby enhancing the muscle repair process.

Why Is Meal Timing and Frequency Important for Muscle Building?

Meal timing and frequency are important for muscle building since they optimize muscle protein synthesis and recovery. Eating protein-rich meals at strategic times, especially post-workout, ensures a steady supply of amino acids for muscle repair and growth.

What Are Effective Plant-Based Protein Sources for Muscle Building?

Effective plant-based protein sources for muscle building include lentils, chickpeas, tofu, tempeh, and quinoa. They provide essential amino acids and are a great alternative for those following a vegetarian or vegan diet.

How Does Hydration Impact Muscle Building?

Hydration impacts muscle building by ensuring efficient nutrient transport and waste removal in muscles, contributing to their overall health and growth. This is also because muscles are composed of about 75% water.


References

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25169440/
  2. https://www.vice.com/en/article/wjpdwy/you-should-eat-the-entire-egg-to-build-muscle
  3. https://www.weekand.com/healthy-living/article/sweet-potato-benefits-bodybuilders-18023080.php
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4711439/
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About The Author

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Sport & Exercise Science from University of Hertfordshire. He's a Health & Performance Coach from London that brings a unique blend of academic knowledge of health supplements and practical exercise experience to the table for his readers.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC is an ex-National Soccer player turned MMA and Kickboxing champion, with ACE CPT and PN1-NC certifications. His advice is rooted in education and experience, ensuring that readers receive scientific and battle-tested insights. His mission is to empower his clients and readers to realize their potential and become the best versions of themselves.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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