12 Best Foods to Build Muscle

A table showing the best foods to gain muscle

You’ve come to the right place if you’re looking for the best foods to build muscle. You’ve probably realised by now that you can be hitting the gym as hard as you like, but without supporting your sessions with well-thought-out nutrition, your progress will hit a wall.

Gaining lean muscle can be thought of as a fine art and sometimes trial and error are needed until you get it absolutely right. You’ll need to be consuming enough calories to be building muscle but not overconsuming so that you gain too much fat as well.

Your diet should be high in protein – between 1.6 – 2.0g of protein per kg of your body weight and not all protein is equal. You need to be consuming all 9 essential amino acids as all 9 are needed to build muscle.

Animal, fish and dairy contain all of these however most plant-based sources do not. This doesn’t mean you cannot gain muscle as a vegan or vegetarian though, you will simply need to make sure you are eating a range of proteins so that you consume all of the essential amino acids by combining appropriate sources.

Prioritising protein in your diet does not mean you forget other key nutrients, however, as you still need to be fueling your body with complex carbohydrates and healthy fats too, to be performing well in the gym.

As a personal trainer and nutrition adviser, here are the 12 best foods to build muscle I recommend to my clients…

Eggs are one of the best foods to gain muscle

1. Eggs

You might have heard of people drinking raw eggs straight after a workout. Now, let me be clear, there’s no need to take it that far but they are an excellent source of protein with healthy fats and B vitamins which are involved in your energy systems. Eggs are the whole package when it comes to building muscle.

2. Chicken and turkey

It’s a classic – chicken and rice (of course, you are absolutely allowed to eat more exciting meals than this)! Both chicken and turkey are rich in B vitamins and packed with a massive 29-31g of protein per 100g which is the reason these meats are such a body-building staple.

3. Cottage cheese

Whether you opt for a reduced or full-fat cottage cheese will be down to your calorie target but either way, it’s high in protein with 11g per 100g which is around half a cup, so really quite a lot in a small amount! Cottage cheese can therefore make a great snack with chopped fruit or spread on crackers/flatbread/sandwiches.

4. Greek yoghurt

Protein from dairy sources like greek yoghurt is also a fantastic food option to build muscle! You’ll see protein shakes that are often either whey or casein based and BOTH of these are in dairy products.

Whey protein is more readily digested and absorbed so it’s great to hit your body with this straight after a workout.

Casein protein is digested more slowly, meaning you continue to absorb some of your snack throughout the day. This means the muscle-building benefits of your food can be spread out which is ideal.

Greek yoghurt is generally higher in protein than normal yoghurt so it’s a superior choice. As mentioned above, this is great after a workout but also before bed too, as your body does most of its healing/building overnight and so the casein can be working its magic over these hours.

5. Tofu, tempeh and edamame

I mentioned earlier that plant-based sources don’t contain all of the essential amino acids needed for muscle building; however, these soybean-based sources are an exception. Tofu, tempeh and edamame offer around 10g per 100g and are complete proteins, containing all 9 essential amino acids.

Tofu is also a source of Calcium which is ideal for vegans who don’t get calcium from dairy products. Tempeh is a good source of iron and fibre and is really easy to use as it’s a lot denser than tofu so can mean less preparation. Edamame beans make a tasty snack and are a good source of fibre, calcium, iron, and vitamin C so they’re the perfect addition to your diet!

6. Milk

Same as with greek yoghurt, milk contains both fast-acting (whey) and slow-acting (casein) protein making dairy products some of the best foods to build muscle. Milk is also high in carbohydrates which are needed to keep the body well-fuelled to be hitting the gym hard. 

7. Chickpeas

Chickpeas are a source of carbs, protein and fibre (happy gut = happy body = better workouts!) With 19g of protein per 100g, chickpeas are well worth using in some of your meals.

If you are consuming plant-based sources only, you will need to make sure you are complementing these with proteins containing the amino acids chickpeas lack. Specifically, methionine and cystine found in grains and cereals such as rice and quinoa. These combinations are simple once you get the hang of it!

8. Scallops

Now if you are looking for low-calorie foods to build muscle, scallops could be just what you’re looking for. Alongside 20g of protein per 100g, you’ll only be adding just over 100 kcal to your day. So scallops are a brilliant option for lean bulking.

9. Tuna

With a whopping 28g of protein per 100g with good amounts of vitamins A and B used for growth, development and energy systems – peak gym performance, yes please! – tuna is a worthy inclusion in this list.

Tuna also contains a juicy amount of omega-3 fats which are vital for health (in too many ways to mention here) and have been shown to slow muscle loss as we age.

10. Shrimp

Although it’s important to be including good amounts of carbs and fat in your diet too, a great way to increase your protein intake without increasing your calories too much is by eating shrimp. They’re almost pure protein with 24g per 100g, with the rest comprising mainly of water with some delicious vitamins and minerals thrown in there too. If you’re struggling to get your protein up without overconsuming calories, shrimp are your friends.

11. Beans

There are so many options here and beans can be used in a huge variety of delicious dishes. Depending on the variety of bean, you’re looking at 5-24g of protein per 100g and they are great for a lean bulk because they’re lower in calories than meat alternatives. Beans are served with added health benefits of being high in fibre, B vitamins, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron (yum!)

12. Protein powder

It’s important to remember you should consume protein sources from real food at every meal, including snacking. Real foods that build muscle also contain nutrients that not only help encourage muscle growth but help maintain overall health too.

However, it is often challenging to hit your protein target from food sources alone without massively overconsuming calories. And this is where supplementing with protein powder and snacks comes in.

You can consume 20-25g of protein per shake and only just over 100 kcal so it’s a really useful way to get those last few grams of protein in. You can get a whole variety of flavours and there are some very decent vegan versions too if you can’t/don’t want the milk-based varieties.

Depending on what time of day you are consuming your shake will depend on whether you opt for a fast-acting or slow-acting protein. Fast-acting is best for straight after a workout and slow-acting is best for other times of the day or before bed.

Shrimps in a frying pan. Shrimps are some of the best food to gain muscle without gaining fat.

Foods That Build Muscle FAQS

How many calories should I consume to gain muscle?

How many calories you should eat to gain muscle can vary depending on your current weight, activity levels and whether you want a very lean bulk or just want to bulk up as fast as possible. This could be anywhere between 200-800kcal surplus. As a general rule, try between a 300-500kcal surplus over the calories your body uses each day (the lower end for a lean bulk, the higher end if you’re not so bothered about leanness) and go from there. Drop me a message if you need help calculating the value for your calorie maintenance in order to calculate your surplus.

Can you build muscle in a calorie deficit?

Yes! You can build muscle in a calorie deficit, it’s just a lot harder. Make sure you’re hitting your protein target and that your training sessions are resistance based. However, muscle gain will be a lot slower than building muscle in a calorie surplus.

How do I make sure I am consuming all of the essential amino acids needed for building muscle as a vegan?

Building muscle as a vegan requires a bit of homework to learn which protein sources lack certain amino acids and which contain the amino acids you need in order to combine them in your diet. I have written some useful guides on building muscle as a vegan and can advise you if you don’t have the time to be sorting this out for yourself. Stick a table/notes to your fridge, with specific meal and snack ideas to make sure you stay on it.

Do I have to eat at certain times of the day?

Some personal trainers or nutrition advisers will tell you that you absolutely must eat 5 small meals a day, and some people will argue 3 big meals a day – there are SO MANY conflicting opinions but genuinely most are just out to get you clicking on their content or buying into their exact routine. But you are you, so eat at times that work for you.

There are some better times to eat certain macros however so it’s good to bear this in mind. Before exercise, it’s a good idea to consume a good amount of complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, as these are slow-release and can keep you fuelled throughout your workout. If you have more energy during your workouts, you can push your muscles further and stimulate more muscle gain. Opt for a carb-filled meal 2-3 hours before a session or a snack 1-1.5 hours before. If all else fails, a piece of fruit like a banana half an hour before is better than nothing and will still make all the difference.

Post workout you want to be hitting that protein, the faster release the better eg. whey protein, or pea protein for the non-dairy folks. You also need to re-fuel on carbs ready for your next session as straight after your workout is when your body is best at storing carbohydrates. Faster-acting, sugary carbohydrates are actually great here, so you can digest and absorb them asap.

Other than this, eat when suits you with complex, whole carbs, and a good array of veggies. Spread your protein intake out during the day to give your body a constant supply to build build build!

What are the best foods for lean muscle and fat loss?

Eating a balanced diet of complex carbohydrates, complete proteins (containing all 9 essential amino acids) and healthy fats is key. You may have heard of ‘dirty-bulking’ which is eating whatever you want like burgers, pizzas etc and yes, these may be high in calories and protein, however, they lack vital micronutrients needed for healthy muscle growth and maintenance. So your muscle growth will be stunted. Also, your energy levels will be affected and most likely your mood – happy body, happy mind! So while we’re focussed on eating enough protein and calories, we still need to be making sure our diet is well-rounded and nutritious.

Does protein make you fat?

This is absolutely a myth. If anything, it is the opposite. Protein actually uses more calories for you to digest and absorb than your other macros. It also keeps you fuller for longer which can lead to eating fewer calories and building more muscle (using the protein you consume). Your body’s metabolism rises, meaning you actually burn more calories even while resting.

If you need more help finding the best foods to gain muscle tailored specifically to you, take a look at my You&Food Online Nutrition Coaching or reach out to me on Instagram for nutrition and personal training tips and guidance.

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Picture of Ray Hickford

Ray Hickford

Hi, I’m Ray, a health and wellbeing professional in Manchester working with clients through training and nutrition programmes to help them feel more confident, strong and happy both in and outside of the gym.
As a Qualified Personal Trainer and Level 4 RSPH Nutrition Advisor, I am constantly learning myself - from my clients, from other industry experts and sometimes myself! And sometimes I write some of this down for ya.

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