In this image for an article about muscle-building foods, a woman is standing in front of her garage holding medium free weights in each hand. She is extending her arms to the sides and breathing out. She's wearing black leggings and a Peloton sports bra.

Add These 11 Muscle-Building Foods to Your Grocery List

Get the muscle gains you're after with the help of these protein-packed foods.

By Jessica MigalaOctober 3, 2023


When your goal is to build muscle, you’ll want to add resistance training to your routine—that’s what challenges muscle fibers, after all. But doing pushups and squats or lifting weights isn’t all you’ll need to do—what you eat is also key for meeting strength goals. And certain muscle-building foods can help you get there.

But which foods are great for building strength, and why? We dove into the science and interviewed two registered dieticians to learn more about what muscle-building food means, the crucial role protein plays in the equation, the best foods for muscle gain to consider adding to your diet, and how to work in more of these powerhouse ingredients into your day. 

What Are Muscle-Building Foods?

As its name suggests, muscle-building foods are foods filled with nutrients that help your muscles recover after a workout and grow stronger. While you can (and should!) lift weights or do bodyweight resistance exercises, you won’t see the gains you’re after if you’re not feeding your muscles the nutrients they need to grow. 

“As you’re exercising, there is a small amount of damage to muscle fibers,” says Molly Kimball, RD, a sports dietitian with Oschner Health in New Orleans. “As they repair, we see the growth and increase in size, strength, and stamina in muscles.”

Since muscles endure a very normal (and healthy) breakdown during exercise, it’s your job to feed them the nutrients needed for this repair. The main nutrient needed is (drumroll, please) protein.

Many different types of diets (including those that are plant-based or contain animal proteins) can support your body’s protein needs and your fitness goals. However, it may take some concerted effort to get enough high-protein foods for muscle building. But why is protein so important for a muscle-building diet in the first place?

Why Protein Is Crucial for Building Muscles

As you go about your day, your muscles are always changing, constantly going through a cycle of breakdown and rebuild. While you might associate this process with exercise, it happens other times, too. 

For instance, overnight, your body breaks down muscle into amino acids, which then support your body’s physiological needs, such as blood sugar regulation, immune function, a source of energy, and more. This process of breaking down and rebuilding is completely normal—and protein is the main nutrient needed to support muscle health. 

Here’s how it works: The building blocks of protein are amino acids. Amino acids are grouped into a couple of main buckets, including nonessential (those the body can make itself) and essential (those the body cannot make and must get from food). Eating foods with amino acids creates new muscle, a process called muscle protein synthesis. When you eat the right amount of protein from high-quality sources (like the muscle-building foods listed below), you boost the benefits of resistance exercise by repairing muscle proteins and creating new ones, which maintains the muscles you have and stimulates new growth. Thank you, protein!

Another important point to note: If your goal is to lose weight and you’re eating in an energy deficit, you’ll stress muscles. Therefore, eating a higher-protein diet will protect your existing muscle mass and safeguard against further muscle breakdown, especially when combined with resistance training, research shows.

How Much Protein Do You Need for Muscle Building?

Your protein needs are individualized depending on your activity level, body weight, and fitness goals.

However, if you’re following the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of protein intake, you may not be getting what you need for muscle growth, Kimball says. The RDA for protein, which is set at 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, is typically too low for someone active, Kimball explains. (That means a 150-pound person following the RDA would need about 54 grams of protein per day.) 

A better goal, Kimball says, is to take your body weight in pounds and aim for no less than half of a gram of protein per pound of body weight, up to one gram per pound of body weight. (So in the same scenario, a 150-pound person would consume at least 75 grams of protein per day, but no more than 150 grams.)

11 High-Protein Foods for Muscle Building

Ready to prioritize protein and build muscle, but not sure how to make it happen? Work in muscle-building foods that deliver plenty of protein naturally. 

Here are some of the best muscle-building foods that deliver protein (plus plenty other good-for-you nutrients):

Lean Meats

“Animal protein provides more protein per portion compared to plant proteins,” says Chrissy Barth, RDN, an integrated and functional sports dietitian nutritionist and founder of EPIC Biology. Aim for lean varieties that contain lower amounts of saturated fat, such as turkey, chicken, and grass-fed beef, she says. (But don’t stress if you follow a plant-based diet—there are plenty of other great protein sources available to pick from, with many listed below.)

The amount of protein you get will depend on the type and cut of meat, but 3.5 ounces of chicken breast has about 31 grams of protein, according to the USDA. 

Protein Powders

There are countless protein powders available today, but one that stands out is whey protein. “It’s one of the higher bioavailable sources of protein,” Kimball says. “It’s digested quickly and is great for post-workout recovery,” she explains. Plus, it has a neutral flavor, so it slides into smoothies, shakes, and other fare easily, helping transform your regular go-to snacks and meals into muscle-building foods. 

The amount of protein you get varies depending on the brand (so check the nutrition label!), but many brands contain about 20 grams in a serving, give or take. Also a good idea: Make sure any protein powder is a high-quality choice without a bunch of additives hidden inside. A good place to start is selecting a pick in the National Sanitation Foundation’s (NSF) Certified for Sport® directory.

If you’d rather opt for a plant-based protein powder, go for pea protein. It has a similar neutral flavor profile, making it easy to blend up and eat, Kimball says. Again, it varies based on the brand, but one serving might offer about 15–20 grams of protein.

Cottage Cheese

Cottage cheese is having a moment right now—but one it deserves, especially when it comes to delivering a muscle-building bite. “Cottage cheese is rich in casein, a type of slow-digesting protein,” Kimball says. While whey protein is best used before or after a workout (since it quickly breaks down into amino acids your body can use right away), casein goes through that process slower. So, if you’re hungry before bed, say, this type of protein will help keep you fuller throughout the night and offer a steadier stream of amino acids. In turn, that can help minimize the muscle loss that naturally happens overnight, Kimball explains. 

One cup of low-fat cottage cheese has about 24 grams of protein, according to the USDA.

Beans and Lentils

Whether you like black, navy, pinto, or white beans or green, red, or Beluga lentils, rest assured—they’re all worthy sources of plant-based protein for growing muscle. In addition to protein, these muscle-building legumes also contain carbohydrates, which are the body’s main fuel source, Barth notes. “Getting extra calories from carbohydrates allows protein to do its job,” she explains. “If you don’t, your body will utilize protein stores in the muscle for energy, hindering metabolism, which is counterproductive.”

One cup of black beans, for example, has nearly 15 grams of protein, per the USDA. Meanwhile, one cup of lentils has about 18 grams.


If you eat fish, salmon is a muscle-building winner, Barth says. “When choosing fish, we follow the acronym SMASH—sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon, and herring—which are the types that are the highest in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and lowest in toxins like mercury,” she explains. The other fishes on this list (which are usually found in canned form) are great as well, but salmon stands out thanks to its easy-to-cook size and more neutral taste. Not to mention, salmon can be used in many dishes, from salmon curry to grilled salmon bowls to barbequed salmon, just to name a few.

One raw 3-ounce fillet of salmon has about 17 grams of protein, notes the USDA.


Cheese, please! In one small trial, scientists found that consuming about an ounce of cheese after a lower-body resistance exercise session (or during rest or recovery) increases muscle protein synthesis rates. Though there were no differences in the rise of muscle protein synthesis rates between cheese and milk, eating cheese provided a more sustained rise in the process. Why is cheese so good at helping your muscles repair and grow, you might wonder? Researchers say it’s because it’s higher in calories, fat, and casein protein, which slows down absorption.

One ounce of Swiss cheese offers about 8 grams of protein, says the USDA. Meanwhile, one ounce of cheddar has about 7 grams.

Hemp Seeds

All you need is a sprinkle. Hemp seeds have a nutty, earthy taste that you can add to oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, and salads. What’s more, they pack in omega-3 fatty acids to help reduce inflammation, Barth says. 

A 3-tablespoon serving of hemp seeds has roughly 9.5 grams of protein, notes the USDA.


Eat your eggs. “Eggs are a great source of protein, and the majority of the protein in eggs is absorbed in the body,” Barth says. Plus, their fats are mostly unsaturated. Eggs are also rich in a specific amino acid called leucine, which is a great stimulator of muscle protein synthesis, research shows.

One large, Grade-A egg offers about 6.2 grams of protein, per the USDA.

Greek Yogurt

Dairy like yogurt (as well as milk) contains two types of proteins, whey, and casein, that provide both fast-acting and slow-acting proteins, Barth says. A fast-acting protein will promote muscle repair and build quicker, while a slower-acting protein promotes longer recovery, she explains. Yogurt, particularly Greek yogurt, is especially high in protein, and its active cultures make it easier to digest than milk. 

One 7-ounce container of plain, low-fat Greek yogurt has about 20 grams of protein, according to the USDA.


Collagen powders often come from a beef source, Kimball says, and it’s something that you consume like a typical protein powder. “Collagen has been shown to support the health of joints, tendons, cartilage, and ligaments,” she explains. That’s important because these structures and tissues support your muscle movement. What’s more, collagen is also a nice source of protein. 

Kimball often recommends consuming collagen in coffee because it dissolves easily. “It’s a good way to make coffee work for you nutritionally,” she says. You can also find collagen in certain protein bars.

One serving of collagen powder might offer about 7–18 grams of protein, depending on the brand. Just like with protein powder, it’s smart to look for an NSF-certified or high-quality pick.


Soy can have a reputation as a lesser-than protein source when compared to animal proteins. But soy proteins (like soybeans, tofu, miso, and soy milk) can build strength and increase muscle mass when combined with resistance training, according to one meta-analysis.

A little over 3 ounces of extra-firm tofu provides about 9 grams of protein, according to the USDA.

Foods to Avoid When Building Muscle

It’s important to remember that all foods can be on the table when you’re working toward a muscle-building goal. But if you’re curious whether or not there are foods that can hinder your progress, here are a few that Barth says to be aware of:

Added Sugar

Foods that are higher in added sugar—desserts, sugar-sweetened beverages, many snack foods—are rich in carbohydrates. But unfortunately, these are lower-quality carbohydrates since they’re low in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, Barth explains. Not to mention, consuming excess added sugar is also linked with the development of fat within muscles and in the liver (among other results), points out an umbrella review. So while you might need some extra carbs to assist in muscle development, you should aim to get most carbs from nutrient-dense sources, like whole grains, legumes, and starchy veggies. 

As with anything, some sugar in moderation won’t entirely inhibit muscle gain, says Kimball, but if your top goal is to build muscle, being aware of foods that contain added sugar and possibly limiting them, depending on your unique goals and needs, is something to keep in mind.

Ultra-Processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods are in a similar bucket to those with added sugar—there are simply better foods that can help you maximize your gains, which can also help with changing body composition if that’s your goal. “I encourage people to look at what you can remove from your diet that doesn’t offer you much nutritionally, and replace it with equal nutrient-dense calories,” says Kimball. For many folks, sources of extra calories that could be good swap-outs include ultra-processed foods, such as fast food, many frozen foods, chips, or snack mixes.


If you’re hoping to focus on muscle-building foods, consider that alcohol increases the risk of fat gain, particularly around your midsection, Barth says. In addition, one review has shown that alcohol consumption, particularly after exercise, impairs muscle protein synthesis.

How to Incorporate Muscle-Building Foods Into Your Diet

Knowing what foods to eat is the first step to building muscle, but you’ll also need to know how to make it happen. Follow these five smart strategies:

Focus on Variety

Do you always stick to salmon when you eat fish? Are you a daily chicken and veggies person? Know that switching things up is beneficial for muscle-growing goals. “People will eat the same thing every day, but seeking out diversity in your diet is important—and it also supplies an array of vitamins [and] minerals,” Barth says. “You’ll see quicker and more efficient results by eating a more varied diet.”

Add a Protein Shake

If you have a higher protein goal that you’re having trouble meeting, Barth recommends drinking protein shakes. An especially good time of day to drink it is before bed. “Liquid is easier to digest, and drinking a protein shake before bed will aid in recovery,” she says. 

Balance out Your Meals

Make sure each meal or snack contains a source of protein, Barth says. She recommends aiming for 20 to 30 grams of protein at each meal, with the goal to have three meals per day. If you’re going more than five hours between mealtimes, incorporating a snack in between is a good idea.

Plan Things Out

Rather than approaching the day with the idea that you’ll increase your protein consumption at some point, determine how you’ll get enough of the macro. Planning out your meals will ensure that you hit your protein targets. “If you’re erratic in planning or not consistent with it, you may find that some days you’ll fall short in protein,” Kimball says. 

Stick With It

Muscle growth happens over time and it can be a long process. “It doesn’t happen overnight. Shifting body composition takes three to six months—and longer—to start seeing changes,” Kimball says. “Be patient and you’ll start to see results. Focus on the process of muscle building and know that progress will come.”

The Takeaway

Muscle growth is a two-step process involving both resistance exercise and adequate protein consumption. The current RDA for protein intake may not be enough for active people, so aim to consume one-half to one gram of protein per pound of body weight each day. Good dietary protein sources include both plant- and animal-based foods, so getting the protein you need to support your muscle-building goals can fit into your everyday diet.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.


Level up your inbox.

Subscribe for a weekly dose of fitness, plus the latest promos, launches, and events.

By providing your email address, you agree to receive marketing communications from Peloton.

For more about how we use your information, see our Privacy Policy.