These real foods deliver all the complete proteins you need to build strength and reduce the risk of injury
When it comes to building muscle, what you put into your body is just as important as the time you spend in the gym. Muscles are made from protein, so they need more of it to grow, says Gabbi Berkow, a New York City–based dietitian, exercise physiologist, and certified personal trainer. This process requires energy—about 500 to 1,000 more calories per day than needed to simply maintain your weight. That bump should largely come from increased protein (at least 20 grams at every meal for men and women) and a slightly greater amount of carbs (at least three grams per kilogram of body weight).
Timing also matters. It’s best to sandwich your workouts with protein, eating one to two hours before and after a workout. Berkow says doing so helps protects against excessive muscle breakdown during the effort and stimulates regeneration after the fact.
The best option for stimulating muscle growth comes from animal sources, which are considered complete proteins, as they contain all nine essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein that your body can’t produce on its own, Berkow says. However, a variety of non-animal sources can be eaten together to reach the full roster of nine amino acids. Keep that in mind as you craft meals, and aim to include the muscle-building foods below on your plate.
In addition to being a complete protein, chicken is rich in leucine, an amino acid that specifically plays a major role in muscle protein synthesis by stimulating protein-building pathways, Berkow says. Chicken breast is the best cut for athletes because it’s low in fat, which slows digestion, so the protein accesses your muscles more quickly.
Get Your Fill: Have at least four ounces of chicken (the size of your hand) to get the daily minimum of 20 grams of protein.
This favorite also has all the essential amino acids your muscles need, but it’s also packed with omega-3 fatty acids—healthy fats that lower inflammation and don’t slow digestion. “Omega-3 fatty acids make cell membranes more fluid, which can help your muscles grow by allowing protein to enter your muscle cells easily,” Berkow says. There’s also evidence that it can reduce the loss of muscle mass and spur muscle protein synthesis.
Get Your Fill: A four-ounce piece of salmon will give you the minimum 20 grams of protein.
Eggs are a concentrated source of vitamin B12, which plays a role in red blood cell production and muscle contraction. Just make sure you eat the whole egg, not just egg whites, since that’s the only way you’ll get all nine amino acids. New research shows that when people consumed 18 grams of protein in the form of whole eggs after resistance training, their muscle-building response was 40 percent greater than those who consumed the same amount of protein from egg whites. “The egg yolk is also a good source of vitamin D, which is needed for proper muscle function and is associated with less muscle pain,” Berkow says.
Get Your Fill: One egg has six to seven grams of protein, so you need three to four eggs at a time to get to 20 grams.
Beans contain protein, but they need to be combined with another plant source, like whole grains or nuts, to form a complete protein. While it’s a slightly less efficient way to get your muscle-stoking nutrients, it’s necessary for vegans and a good option for heavy meat eaters because they’re lower in fat than many animal sources. Beans also contain fiber, giving your meal some staying power.
Get Your Fill: One cup of beans has 15 grams of protein; add rice (which has another five grams) and you’ll get all the essential amino acids.
Beef contains high levels of creatine, which your muscles use to produce energy quickly. The more creatine you have, the harder you’ll be able to go, whether that’s lifting heavier weights, upping your reps, pedaling a little harder, or spending more time on the wall. All that leads to muscle gains. “Beef is rich in iron, which you need for energy because it delivers oxygen to cells through your bloodstream, and selenium, a powerful antioxidant that helps reduce damage to your muscle cells,” Berkow says.
Get Your Fill: You need at least four ounces of beef to get 20 grams of protein. Red meat is high in saturated fat, so opt for lower-fat cuts like rounds or loins, and Berkow says to choose organic, grass-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free beef whenever possible.
Like meat, Greek yogurt has all the essential amino acids. “The fluid properties of Greek yogurt cause your body to digest it faster, which supports muscle growth,” Berkow says. It’s also a good source of calcium, which is needed for muscle contraction and signaling, and vitamin D, which supports those functions.
Get Your Fill: Have one cup of plain low- to moderate-fat (like 2 percent) Greek yogurt to get your 20-gram protein minimum. Without the fat, the protein will hit your muscles faster. But you can also just eat slightly more of a full-fat variety. Either way, look for versions without added sugar.
Consider this official permission to eat cheese. It contains slow-digesting casein, a protein specific to dairy, so it keeps a steady stream of energy flowing to your muscles between meals, Berkow says. She recommends incorporating dairy into your diet, such as one cup of low-fat cottage cheese, right before bed, to give your muscles protein while you sleep. The practice has been shown to stimulate muscle building.
Get Your Fill: About three ounces of cheese will get you to 20 grams of protein.