High Protein Foods to Build Muscle: Complete Nutrition Guide
This no-nonsense, science-based guide gives you all you need to know about high protein foods to build muscle. Written by a coach who trains professional athletes. We're going to cover...
Let's jump right in...
What Foods to Build Muscle?
Alright, so let's start with the essentials. Protein-based foods are widely known as the key macronutrient for muscle building, and with good reason. Consuming protein provides our bodies with the amino acid 'building blocks' for more muscle tissue to be formed (assuming you're following a proper mass gain programme)
With that said, we also need to consider that both carbohydrate and fat-based foods also play a role in muscle building. Together, they help to increase our calorie intake, creating the surplus required for new tissue to be created. Moreover, carbohydrate intake post-workout can help to replenish glycogen stores, which has been shown to increase intra-cellular signalling for protein synthesis.
"Proteins build muscle, but they do so better when combined with carbohydrate and fat-based foods."
Good Foods to Build Muscle
Poultry (Chicken, Turkey etc)
Meat (Pork, Beef, Lamb etc)
Soy pieces and/or mince
Meat alternatives (i.e. plant and soy-based fake sausages, burgers etc)
Legumes (Lentils, beans)
Seitan (A form of wheat protein)
You'll notice that this list is focused on healthy foods to build muscle, rather than junk type or processed foods. You can also build muscle eating foods like processed meats, fried chicken etc, but there has been plenty of research linking those foods to negative health outcomes and all-cause mortality.
High Protein Snacks for Muscle Gain
Assuming 80% of your protein intake comes from the good protein sources mentioned above, you've got about 20% 'wiggle-room' for high protein snacks. These can be really useful for when you're out of the house or on the road travelling, but still need some protein intake for muscle gain.
1) Protein Shakes: Just pop a couple of scoops in your shaker and fill up from any tap. Super easy and super quick, making them great for when you're busy but still need that high protein fix.
2) Protein Bars: My go-to 'on the road' protein snack, 20-30g protein in a sweet, tasty package, easy peasy. There's loads of choice nowadays too.
Muscle Building Foods For Skinny Guys
If you're someone who is naturally skinny, and who finds it hard to gain size, then there are certain muscle-building foods that are likely going to work better for you.
I'm talking fatty cuts of meat, fish, whole eggs, various types of milk, etc. Basically all the 'fattier' and higher calorie choices that are going to help you to bump up your daily calorie intake.
Alternatively, you can eat plenty of leaner proteins, but be generous with your cooking oil, and maybe even drizzle some olive oil as you serve them up.
Foods to Build Muscle and Burn Fat
On the other hand, if you're someone who is a little more on the 'thicc' side of life and tends to be naturally bigger and stronger but struggles to lose fat, then you might have more success focusing your intake around lean sources of protein.
Things like poultry, egg whites, lean tuna, soy pieces etc. These are lower in fats and therefore lower in calories, which will help you to keep your protein intake up whilst keeping your daily calorie intake down.
Foods to Build Muscle Vegan
So I'm a professional strength & conditioning coach, I work with high-level athletes for a living, I train hard 5-8 times per week, and I've made great gains whilst eating vegan for the past four years. Current research also supports that vegan diets are equally as effective as omnivorous diets for muscle building.
Vegan foods to build muscle include:
Soy pieces and mince
Plant and soy-based meat alternatives (fake burgers, sausages etc)
Legumes* (beans, lentils)
Seitan** (wheat gluten)
*Whilst legumes are a good protein source they tend not to provide a full amino acid profile, so either eat them as one of multiple sources of protein or supplement with essential amino acids.
**Seitan is a wheat protein-based product, and wheat protein isn't as good a quality protein as soy. So I would personally count it as about 50% of the total value. I.e. if you get 50g of protein from seitan, count it as 25g.
7-day Meal Plan for Muscle Gain
This is a really popular search in google, but here's the problem with it.
Do you really think a random meal plan from the internet is going to somehow be right for your individual sex, size, weight goals or training requirements? Some people might need 180g of protein to optimise muscle building, whilst others might need 120g.
Some people might need 2200 calories to gain muscle, whilst others might need closer to 4 or even 5000.
If you really want a science-backed plan to build muscle, here it is...
Use a TDEE Calculator to determine how many calories you require per day to maintain your body weight.
Add around 300-500 calories to this amount
Eat approximately 1g of protein per lb of bodyweight
Track your body weight and physique and adjust your calories over time
You ask any serious bodybuilder or athlete and I can guarantee you that they do something very similar to this.
Frequently Asked Questions About High Protein Foods to Build Muscle
Best protein foods to build muscle?
There are no single best protein foods to build muscle. Choose a few that you enjoy from the lists above and make sure that you get enough of them.
How should I eat to build muscle?
You should follow the steps I outlined in the 7-day meal plan section. Calculate your TDEE, add 300-500 calories, eat 1g protein per lb body weight, adjust over time.
Ideally, aim to consume your protein evenly throughout the day to maximise muscle-building response. (Schoenfeld study)
Is a high protein diet good for building muscle?
Absolutely, decades of human experience, as well as research, has shown that high protein diets are superior for muscle growth.
High protein vegetables for bodybuilding?
Honestly, if you're looking for protein there are likely far better sources than vegetables. The lists of good proteins listed above are a great start. The closest you're likely to come are legumes (beans and lentils) which are decent protein sources, but I would still supplement them with soy-based sources to maximise amino acid profiles.
Alright, that's enough reading for today, time to put some things into action...
1) Get in the gym and start working through the 8 week programme. Get stronger, more explosiveness, and jump higher.
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you're looking for 1:1 coaching to improve your sports performance, you can find more information about my strength, fat loss and muscle building services here.
'Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.
His experience includes 7+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.