These protein-rich foods can help you add mass without sacrificing taste.
Michael Rodio and Men's Fitness Editors 1 / 30
1. Omega-3 Eggs
Eggs have been vilified for years as artery-clogging foods. But further research into the role of dietary cholesterol and heart disease shows that for most people, the two are not linked. Eggs have since returned to the spotlight as a health food, especially for building serious muscle. The cholesterol found in eggs yolks serves at the scaffolding for steroid hormones, and the ½ a gram of leucine in each egg is like throwing gasoline on your muscle-building fire.
Nuts are a must for any guy struggling to put on muscle weight. 1 ounce of cashew or almonds contains 150-170 high quality calories. Nuts are the perfect blend of protein, fats, and fiber, allowing you to get the extra calories you need without having them pad your waistline. Nuts are also extremely portable, making them the perfect thing to snack on during the day if you need to increase your calorie intake.
A protein and carbohydrate recovery shake should be the cornerstone of your muscle-building program. Drinking a shake consisting of protein and carbohydrates before your workout sets the stage for optimal muscle growth and nutrient usage. Research from several universities shows that this power nutrition combination puts the brakes on excess muscle breakdown, jacks up protein synthesis, rapidly refills stores of muscle energy, increases blood flow to your muscles, up-regulates creatine transport, and improves your body’s ability to process and use carbohydrates for hours following your workout.
Cottage cheese’s muscle-building powers come from two different components. Cottage cheese contains a high proportion of casein, the slow-digesting dairy protein. When you eat casein, your blood amino acid levels rise slowly and stay elevated for longer than if you would have eaten whey (the other dairy protein). Cottage cheese also contains live cultures—also known as good bacteria—that will help you break down and absorb all the nutrients you need to get bigger and stronger.
Chickpeas should be your anytime carb source of choice. If you are having trouble getting big and staying lean, replace some of the rice and grain in your diet with chickpeas. This versatile bean contains 45 grams of slow-acting carbs per cup along with 12 grams of fiber.
For decades, beef has remained at the top of the list of best muscle-building foods—and for good reason! Beef contains a muscle-building combination of protein like essential amino acids, B-vitamins, and creatine. Beef also contains a mixture of saturated fat, which can support healthy testosterone levels, and monounsaturated fat, for heart heath. As an added benefit, people who eat more red meat report feeling lower levels of anxiety and stress, according to research from the University of Melbourne.
Rotisserie chicken should be your emergency muscle food. Available at almost all supermarkets, rotisserie chickens provide you with readily available ready-to-eat high quality protein in a delicious package. Have one or two breasts, or mix and match light and dark meat—whichever fits your diet.
Lentils should be your secret mass-building weapon. One cup of cooked lentils contains 18 grams of protein and 40 grams of slow-digesting quality carbohydrates. They are also very inexpensive and have a long shelf life. They cook up in just 10 minutes and can be added mixed in with brown rice, sprinkled over a salad, or eaten as a standalone side dish.
Salmon contains both high-quality protein and the long-chain omega-3 fats like EPA and DHA. These omega-3 fatty acids are most well known for their ability to improve heart health, but they also inhibit muscle breakdown while increasing the anabolic capacity of amino acids. If you don’t like eating fish, then make sure to take a fish oil supplement to reap these benefits.
Fermented dairy products like kefir are a little-known magic bullet for muscle building. Kefir is the perfect addition to any muscle-building blender bomb, providing distinct nutritional advantages over water or regular milk. If you usually use water in your shakes, 1 cup of kefir will add 150 calories to your diet. Compared to regular milk, kefir will allow your meal to be more easily digested due to the presence of probiotics (up to 10 billion good bacteria per cup). These healthy bacteria will help keep your digestive track running at peak condition so it can break down and assimilate a maximum amount of calories and nutrients from your meals.
Searching for an even leaner alternative to beef with plenty of flavor? Look to bison. Bison meat contains only 2-3 grams of fat per 3.5-ounce serving—beef has multiple times that, averaging 8-9 grams of fat in a comparable cut. It also has fewer calories per ounce, making it a precious source of protein for guys trying to stay lean.
Like a lot of seafood, scallops are lean, rich in protein, and endlessly useful for cooking. Soft and tasty, one 3.5-oz scallop packs 15 grams of protein with about half a gram of fat. If you live near the coast (or just a high-quality fishmonger), pick up some of these for your next muscle-building meal.
Take the most nutritious food item you can imagine, and there’s a good chance it still pales in comparison to the tiny chia seed. Long heralded by indigenous South American peoples as a source of strength and energy, chia seeds are rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, soluble fiber, potassium, and antioxidants. Toss them in a shake, or put it in a bowl of oatmeal.
Tuna is ultra-rich in protein, and very lean, especially when compared to terrestrial animal protein. If you’re buying tuna steaks, though, aim for sustainably fished tuna, since they are a heavily fished species. On a budget? A single 5-oz can of chunk white tuna (actually albacore, a tuna relative) contains 30 grams of protein.
Some pig products are very fatty—looking at you, bacon—but pork tenderloin is relatively lean and still packs lots of protein, making it a great muscle-building food. It’s also widely available in simple packaging, and is pretty simple to grill up like a master.
Hemp—yes, the stuff related to marijuana—is an endlessly useful plant, and its seeds are no exception. Hempseed (often sold as a protein powder) is not only rich in protein, but also packs healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which have been shown to have a number of healthy benefits. Bonus: It’s highly digestible, making it a great vegetarian alternative to guys who have trouble digesting whey.
Flax ain’t just a pretty flower. Flaxseed is a natural, diet-friendly source of fiber, fatty acids, and protein. Flaxseed has been shown to reduce hypertension, prevent skin cancer, fight depression, and reduce the risk of liver disease. Plus, it’s conveniently packaged in supplement tablets, ground-up powder, and oil forms.
Cheap, widely available, high in fiber, low in fat, and rich in muscle-building protein. Sure, beans require a little bit of culinary creativity, but that makes them even easier to include in your diet. And did we mention they’re cheap? Because they’re cheap.
Now booming in popularity, almond butter has a far better ratio of protein to fat than peanut butter. It’s also a milder-tasting, and like unprocessed almonds (duh) contains Vitamins B2 and E, helping to bolster the immune system.
Yes, wild boar. Unlike their domesticated porcine cousins, these aggressive tuskers are lean, mean, and packed with protein. "Wild animals are athletes, providing lean, dense protein without the marbling you find in factory farmed meat,” says Georgia Pellegrini, a chef and the author of Girl Hunter and Modern Pioneering.
While not technically a grain (it’s actually a seed), quinoa—pronounced KEEN-wah—is a protein-rich, nutrient-packed source of vegetable protein. The three varieties of quinoa (red, black, and white) are terrific substitutes for starchier grains, and each also includes high amounts of crucial muscle-building compounds like iron, magnesium and vitamin B-6.
Like other game meats, venison is lean, protein-rich, and surprisingly tasty. Just 3 oz of venison packs 31 grams of protein with very little fat. Venison is also more widely available than other varieties of game meat—especially if you know some hunters.
The other other white meat. White meat from a turkey is among the leanest animal meat around, and is pretty easy to use in place of chicken in most recipes. Try to get cuts of whole turkey if you can—and if you do turn to deli meat, make sure it’s low-sodium, extra-lean, and free of nasty preservatives. Ground turkey (get the 99% lean variety) is also a great replacement for fattier beef in dishes like meatballs, burgers, or chili.
Shrimp is sweet, cheap, and versatile in the kitchen. You might associate it with holiday get-togethers and snooty cocktail parties, but shrimp is actually a humble source of lean protein in a virtually fat-free package.
Before you think Slim Jim—no Slim Jims!—you should know that honest-to-goodness jerky has been a valuable source of lean protein on the go for thousands of years. Whether you’re lining up standard beef jerky or something more exotic like venison, be sure to look for naturally prepared jerky without preservatives or excess salt.