6 of the Best Muscle-Building Foods

Looking to put on a few extra pounds of muscle? What you do in the gym is most certainly going to help, but its only half the solution. The foods you eat provide all the necessary nutrients needed to help facilitate muscle growth, muscle repair and aid in the delivery of nutrients needed for your muscles to function properly. A diet that is high in protein and provides a moderate amount of carbs and fats is a start, but if you’re not sure where to go from there, make sure you add these 6 muscle-building foods to your plan.

6 Of The Best Muscle-Building Foods


Popeye had it right, spinach (and other foods like beets) are high in nitrates, which can help promote the production of nitric oxide or NO. Dietary nitrates are believed to feed into the nitrate-nitrite-NO pathway, increasing the amount of NO available in the body. Increases in NO cause greater vasodilation of blood vessels, which allows for greater nutrient delivery to working muscles. Nitrates have also been found to boost exercise performance, including improved time to exhaustion, reduced oxygen consumption and improved speed.   Spinach can supply over 250 mg of nitrate per 100 g serving., which is about half a bag.


This dairy protein is on most muscle-building food lists, and for good reason. Whey protein is considered the cream of the crop, when it comes to protein powders due to its high content of essential amino acids, branched chain amino acids and growth factors all needed in the process of muscle building. Ingestion of whey protein results in a sharp and rapid increase in plasma amino acids, making this protein perfect for post-workout supplementation.  Research supports the use of whey protein for increasing muscle mass via increasing protein synthesis, improving recovery following exercise and sustaining immune function during high-volume training periods in athletes. Use whey protein as a convenient source of protein to help meet your daily needs or as part of your pre and post-workout supplementation. Most whey protein powders deliver between 20 to 30 g of protein per scoop.


Another protein isolated from dairy, casein also provides a full complement of amino acids. But instead of super fast absorption, casein is on the opposite side of the spectrum with a slow, steady digestion rate. In fact, clinical tests have shown that it can take casein protein an average of seven hours to be fully digested, making this a great nighttime option. A slow release of aminos means your muscles can stay in a positive nitrogen state, allowing protein synthesis rates – muscle building – to remain on while you sleep. One study showed that supplementing with 40 grams of casein before bed resulted in a sustained increase in amino acid levels improving whole-body protein balance, as well as a 22% increase in protein synthesis rates. You can find casein protein on its own or often combined with whey in a protein blend, Since casein protein is actually made from the curds in cottage cheese, it can also be found in a smaller percentage in non-fat Greek yogurt and even skim milk.


Most of us tend to skip over these nuts in favor of almonds, but cashews are a great alternative. Cashews are a source of saturated fat, approximately 2.2 g per ounce. Saturated fat works as the base for cholesterol, which is the base compound used in the natural production of testosterone. It’s no wonder that research has shown that low-fat diets can lead to lower testosterone levels, greater belly fat and less muscle. Cutting out saturated fat isn’t necessary or helpful if you’re looking to build muscle and burn off body fat. Dietary fat can also help preserve muscle by shifting the body to burn off sugars or fats over protein.  Grab a handful with your next meal, or for real treat try natural cashew butter instead of peanut butter. Blend it in a protein shake, or slap some on a rice cake.


Next to whey protein, red meat perhaps the top muscle-building food. Not only does it deliver more protein per serving than most other meats – roughly 23 grams per three ounces – it’s also full of plenty of other nutrients needed for muscle building. Red meat is naturally high in creatine, which has been shown in numerous studies to be effective for increasing lean muscle, by providing a source of high-energy phosphate to help re-generate ATP. Creatine’s presence in the body also help sstimulate important growth factors and hormones related to muscle building, including testosterone and growth hormone. Red meat is also high in heme iron, which plays a role in oxygen deliver of blood cells, and is high in the energy providing vitamin B12 and B6 and zinc, which has a key role in hormone production. If you’re looking to keep your fats down, choose extra-lean sirloin for the least amount of fat and highest amount of protein.


Protein is the obvious choice for building muscle, but carbs shouldn’t fall far behind. Carbs play a key role in providing the energy we need to lift heavy weights and facilitate recovery. In muscle, carbs are stored as glycogen, which is accessed during a workout. Post workout, muscle glycogen levels tend to be reduced, and they can also be reduced first thing in the morning. During sleep the body uses glycogen up to help fuel the recovery process from exercise. Squash comes in a variety of choices including butternut, acorn, spaghetti and of course pumpkin, and is a great alternative to more traditional starchy carbs. Squash provides about 10 grams of carbs and 1 gram of fiber per 1 cup serving. It’s also full of vitamins and minerals including potassium, iron and magnesium and the antioxidant vitamins A and C.
Campbell B, Krieder RB, Ziengenfuss T, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. JISSN. 2007. 4(8).

Hoon M.W., Johnson N.A., Chapman P.G., Burke L.M. The effect of nitrate supplementation on exercise performance in healthy individuals: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 2013. 3:522–532.

Jones AM. Nitrate Supplementation and Exercise Performance. Nestle Nutrition Institute.

Res PT, et al. Protein ingestion before sleep improves postexercise overnight recovery. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012. 44(8): 1560-9.

Lauren Jacobsen

Lauren is a biochemist with a background in sports nutrition and supplement formulation. Lauren has over 15 years of experience as a trainer, consultant to the supplement industry and nutrition expert. She is also the TV show host of "Body Fuel," a former competitive athlete and regular contributor to various fitness publications.

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