Striking the right balance between protein, carbs and fats is muscle food 101, but less familiar is the influence of nutrient partitioning – how your body decides whether calories from those nutrients are burned as fuel, stored as fat, or used to build new muscle tissue.
While the ultimate fate of those calories is decided largely by genetics, various lifestyle factors have a say, too. The amount and intensity of your workout, as well as the quality of your diet (hello, micronutrients), which regulate important hormones such as cortisol, testosterone and insulin.
Nutrient deficiencies can mess with more than just your calorie-sorting abilities. Missing out on vitamin E can cause muscle weakness and leg cramps, while inadequate vitamin A intake can result in dizziness, nausea, muscle and joint pain, and even loss of balance. Not conducive to a PB-crushing leg sesh.
You might already be regularly munching some of the foods below, others may come as a surprise – but trust us, all of them will fuel your mission to build lean muscle. Load up your shopping trolley with our best muscle food picks.
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1. Whole eggs
Another day, another article touting the benefits of eggs. Those golden orbs contain large amounts of the amino acid leucine, which is essential for post-exercise muscle recovery. Whole eggs in particular are considered to be something of a protein synthesis powerhouse. In fact, eating whole eggs after a workout elicits a 40 per cent greater muscle-building response than consuming egg whites alone, a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found.
As well as a huge helping of complete protein (around 20g per 100g serve), salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which optimise nutrient partitioning by reducing inflammation. Omega-3 increases insulin sensitivity, a study from Harvard University found, resulting in less insulin floating around in your bloodstream. A good thing, because insulin boosts fat storage. Just try to avoid reheating it in the office microwave.
3. Soy beans
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If your goal is building lean, green muscle, soybeans are your most dependable option. Unlike other vegetarian sources of protein, those little legumes contain all nine essential amino acids, making them an essential vegan muscle food. Tofu, tempeh, and most vegetarian meat alternatives are made out of soy, which boasts around 36 grams per 100g serve.
Fruit isn’t your a-typical bodybuilding fare, but an exception can be made for pineapple. It’s the only food known to contain bromelein, an enzyme that digests protein. Fun fact: pineapple is often uncomfortable to eat because the bromelain is digesting the skin on the inside of your mouth. Plus, its anti-inflammatory properties will help soothe post-workout pain, tenderness and swelling.
5. Greek yogurt
As well as being loaded with fast-digesting whey protein and slow-digesting casein protein – around 10 grams total per 100g serve – Greek yogurt is a source of vitamin D, which helps your body absorb calcium and phosphorus. Calcium is crucial for muscle contractions, while phosphorus is essential for creating ATP (the form of energy your body uses). According to research by Baylor University, a mix of whey and casein protein is the optimum combination for increasing lean mass.
Your co-workers may not thank you, but your biceps will. In a study published in The Journal of Nutrition, garlic was shown to increase testosterone and lower cortisol in rats on a high-protein diet. How? It’s all to do with a compound within garlic called allicin, which reduces the amount of ‘stress hormone’ pumping around your body. Cortisol competes with testosterone in your muscle cells, so essentially less stress results in better gains.
7. Turkey breast
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At 29 grams of protein per 100g, turkey is another big protein hitter. It’s also high in zinc, which is essential for protein synthesis and helps your body maintain healthy levels of testosterone, according to researchers at the Wayne State University School of Medicine in Michigan, US.
8. Kidney beans
Being higher in carbohydrates, beans and legumes are often overlooked for their leaner cousins. But these fibrous foods are essential for a healthy gut – something you depend on to absorb the nutrients, minerals and supplements required to carve lean muscle. Kidney beans contain the most, with around 8 grams of protein per 100g serve (and around 10 grams of fibre!). Pair them with a whole grain such as brown rice to make a complete protein.
Inexpensive and versatile, tuna packs around 25 grams of protein per 100g serve, making it hearty muscle-building fare – with the added benefit of those essential omega-3 fatty acids. Just don’t make it the only thing you eat, or you could wind up with some unwanted side effects. Like mercury poisoning.
10. Lean beef
Muscle food of the bovine variety has come under fire in recent years, but enjoyed in moderation, it can make meaningful gym fuel. As well as 26 grams of protein per 100g, which is around the size of a hamburger patty, lean beef contains high levels of zinc. This nutrient is important for testosterone production and also helps your body to recover quicker from exercise. What DOMs?
11. Extra virgin olive oil
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The monounsaturated fats in olive oil stimulate protein production for muscle growth and prevent tissue breakdown, but the Mediterranean favourite also has some hidden muscle benefits. It increases insulin sensitivity in your muscles, allowing them to make optimal use of glucose, amino acids and nutrients. Olive oil also contains oleuropein – a phenolic compound that causes white fat cells to act like brown fat cells, according to researchers at Kobe Women’s University in Japan.
12. Cottage cheese
Cottage cheese contains the slow-digesting protein casein, which explains why people like to eat it before bed. Sleep repairs your muscles up to a point; after a few hours a fasting element kicks in, and your body begins breaking muscle down to use as energy. Cottage cheese allows for a sustained release of amino acids throughout the night. Plus with 15 grams of protein and just 85 calories per 100g serve, it’s a muscle food no-brainer.
Let us offer you some pearls of wisdom. Oysters may not be the best-known muscle food, but being packed with upwards of 20 grams of protein (and just five grams of fat) in every 100g, they have an impressive nutritional profile. Compared to chicken, oysters contain more than eight times more iron, and almost 50 times the amount of zinc – around 5.3mg per medium-sized mollusc.
14. Protein powder
Load up your shaker with the whey variety, which naturally contains all 20 amino acids, for an easy-to-digest post-workout protein hit. Plant-based alternatives are also a dependable choice – when it comes to packing on muscle, switching whey protein for rice protein yields identical results, according to a study published in the journal EC Nutrition.
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli contain compounds that block production of estrogen, the primary female sex hormone you’ll recognise from year six science, as well as compounds that closely mimic it. They’re also full of zinc, which you’ll recall helps to boost your T-levels. Hate broccoli? Sub in kale, sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy or cabbage.
Quinoa is one of the few plant foods that contain all nine essential amino acids, with the added benefit of fibre, magnesium, B vitamins, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin E, potassium, iron… the list goes on. There are around five grams of protein in every 100g of cooked quinoa. Not half bad for a seed.
17. Freshwater algae
Yes, algae. You might be familiar with spirulina and chlorella, the brightly-coloured freshwater algae often found in those lurid smoothie bowl snaps on Instagram. We hate to say it, but this time the influencers are onto something. Besides myriad vitamins, minerals and antioxidants – they’re more nutrient-dense per gram than kale, spinach and broccoli – chlorella and spirulina are a complete protein source, with the former packing between 50 to 60 per cent protein, and the latter around 65 to 70 per cent. Which is more than can be said for vitamin gummy bears.
As snacks go, almonds are among the most muscle-friendly. They’re packed with vitamin E, which is essential for repairing cellular damage caused by exercise, according to research published in the journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine. One serving (23 almonds, to be precise) contains 35 per cent of your RDA, along with six grams of protein.
Don’t be fooled by the name, buckwheat bears no relation to wheat. It’s more closely related to quinoa. As a plant-based complete protein, buckwheat boasts around 13 grams of the stuff per 100g serve, along with manganese, magnesium, niacin, zinc, phosphorus, folate, as well as vitamin B6 – which your body needs to absorb amino acids from the foods you eat.
20. Pork Tenderloin
Pork tenderloin is a boneless cut of meat from the loin, which runs from the hip to the shoulder of the pig. With 21 grams of protein and four grams of fat, it’s the leanest and also most tender part of the animal, because the muscles are used for posture rather than movement. One serve contains around a third of your daily vitamin B2 requirements, which is essential for breaking down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
21. Chicken breast
A bodybuilding classic, skinless cooked chicken breast (around 175g) contains approximately 55 grams of complete protein and approximately two grams of saturated fat, making it a leaner choice than thighs or drumsticks. It’s also high in selenium, which protects cells from free radical damage caused by your workout.
22. Apple cider vinegar
Another wellness trend genuinely worth poaching, consuming apple cider vinegar before a meal raises insulin sensitivity by a whopping 34 per cent, according to researchers from Arizona State University, who prescribed participants a tonic with a ratio of four teaspoons of vinegar to eight teaspoons of water. We suggest adding a splash of raw honey, because it isn’t the tastiest tonic ever.
Are beets the muscle food you’re missing out on? Eating two medium-sized beets an hour and fifteen minutes prior to exercise boosts performance, reduces perceived exertion, and decreases the amount of oxygen you need to complete your workout, according to research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This means you can train more intensely and for longer.