Best food for protein: Our top picks for building muscle

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If you're looking to supplement your training with a protein-rich diet, or just want to raise your daily protein intake, then our list of the best foods for protein is here to help.

Protein is essential to build, maintain, and grow muscle, hence why many gym-goers and fitness enthusiasts turn to some of the best protein powders to supplement their daily intake.

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However, supplements can only take your intake so far, which is why knowing which foods are packed with protein is essential for putting together a well-rounded diet for training.

The potential benefits of protein don't end there though. Several studies have linked protein to reducing appetite by suppressing the hunger hormone ghrelin. Moreover, long-term studies, including one of particular note by Kerstetter et al., have linked protein to improving bone health despite some concerns it may have the opposite effect.

While there are millions of sources of protein to choose from, we've made sure to select a range of complete protein options to ensure you're getting all the essential amino acids you need for a nutritious, protein-rich diet.

Stick around also, because we've answered some of the most commonly asked questions surrounding protein, like what the differences are between a complete and incomplete protein, to help you figure out how protein can benefit you.

Before that though, let's get into our list...

Best Food For Protein

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Eggs

A collection of white and brown eggs.
Credit: Jakub Kapusnak

Nutrition from Nutritionix (per 100g):

  • Calories - 143
  • Protein - 13g
  • Fat - 9.5g
  • Carbs - 0.7g
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Eggs are one of the most nutritious foods available for protein. Alongside the 13g you get per 100g serving, you're also consuming a ton of other nutrients to fulfil a more complete, balanced diet.

For instance, eggs contain vitamin B12 which plays a role in the creation of new red blood cells according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Eggs also contain vitamin A which, as touched on in our list of the best foods for powerlifting, is associated by the American Optometric Association with improved vision and eye health.

Over the years, there have been some concerns over the level of cholesterol in the yolk, leading many to turn to egg whites instead. However, a recent review study by Soliman suggests there's no association between egg consumption, serum cholesterol, and heart-related problems.

Read More: Best Taurine Supplements

Chicken Breast

Three cooked chicken breats
Credit: The Spruce Eats

Nutrition from Nutritionix (per 100g):

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  • Calories - 165
  • Protein - 31g
  • Fat - 3.6g
  • Carbs - 0g

Chicken breast is often a go-to option to increase your daily protein intake for good reason. Per 100g, you get 31g of protein with minimal fat content compared to thighs or wings, making it one of the leanest sources of protein around.

In addition, chicken breasts are said to contain several B vitamins, plus minerals like zinc and selenium, both of which have been linked to improving your immune system.

A study by Shakoo et al. supports this link as they found zinc and selenium play a vital role in fighting infectious diseases, perhaps even COVID-19. Therefore, chicken breast is not just a great source of protein, but could also play a key role in boosting your immune system.

Sirloin Steak

Sirloin steak cut up with broccoli.
Credit: Loija Nguyen

Nutrition from Nutritionix (per 100g):

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  • Calories - 243
  • Protein - 27g
  • Fat - 14g
  • Carbs - 0g

As far as red meat goes, sirloin steak is up there as one of the best sources of protein as you're getting 27g per 100g serving. One of the main talking points though is how calorie-dense it is, making it one of the best foods for bulking in our opinion.

It's not the cheapest option though, and you do have to be careful with how much red meat you consume as the National Institute of Health has linked red meat to an increased risk of heart disease. However, the average adult should be fine to eat around 70g a day according to NHS guidance.

Read More: Best Beef Liver Supplements

Tofu

Tofu in a blue and white striped bowl.
Credit: Sherman Kwan

Nutrition from Nutritionix (per 100g):

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  • Calories - 83
  • Protein - 10g
  • Fat - 5.3g
  • Carbs - 1.2g

Consuming enough protein as part of a vegan diet can be tough, but tofu is one vegan-friendly food that can lend a helping hand. You get 10g of protein per 100g serving, which is impressive considering tofu only contains 83 calories in total.

Unsurprisingly, tofu is free from dairy, making it a great option if you have a dairy intolerance. It's also high in calcium which, according to the NHS, helps you build bones, maintain healthy teeth, regulate muscle contractions, and ensure blood clots normally.

As a result, tofu appears to be a nutrient-rich source of protein that is suitable for a plant-based diet.

Salmon

Cooked salmon with vegetables.
Credit: CA Creative

Nutrition from Nutritionix (per 100g):

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  • Calories - 206
  • Protein - 22g
  • Fat - 12g
  • Carbs - 0g

Per 100g, salmon contains an impressive 22g of protein. Its greatest advantage, however, is that it's an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids are linked to a ton of potential health benefits, with their impact on heart health being one of the most common due to their ability to reduce a type of fat in your blood known as triglycerides.

One meta-analysis by Montori et al. supports this. The study found a statistically significant effect of omega-3 supplementation on lowering triglycerides in type 2 diabetes patients, thus showcasing one potential benefit of salmon beyond its protein content.

Read More: Best Cod Liver Oil Capsules

Peanuts

A collection of brown peanuts.
Credit: Isai Dzib

Nutrition from Nutritionix (per 100g):

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  • Calories - 587
  • Protein - 24g
  • Fat - 50g
  • Carbs - 21g

There are a ton of snacks available to give you a boost in protein; however, we'd argue peanuts are among some of the best.

Although you're unlikely to consume 100g of peanuts, you would gain 24g of protein from it. We'd advise against this though as the fat content is high.

The USDA recommends around 28-30g per serving which isn't much, but this amount is necessary to keep your fat intake to a minimum whilst gaining all the additional nutrients like folate, magnesium, and vitamin E.

Folate is particularly important as it plays an important role in the creation and repair of DNA according to the National Institute of Health. Therefore, the potential health benefits of peanuts go beyond just protein.

Edamame

Edamame in a white bowl.
Credit: Fudio

Nutrition from Nutritionix (per 100g):

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  • Calories - 121
  • Protein - 12g
  • Fat - 5.2g
  • Carbs - 8.9g

Edamame is one of the most protein-rich vegetables in existence, containing an immense 12g of soy protein per 100g serving.

Alongside protein, edamame also contains folate, vitamin K, and fibre, with the latter playing an important role in digestion. There is also strong evidence to suggest fibre can lower the risk of heart disease.

A cohort analysis by Pereira et al. supports this. It concludes that dietary fibre is inversely associated with the risk of coronary heart disease due to improving blood lipid profiles, lowering blood pressure, and improving insulin sensitivity.

Edamame isn't for everyone though, so if you're looking for an alternative, make sure you check out our guide on whether spinach is good for muscle growth.

Read More: Best Vegan Protein Bars

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Protein can be quite tricky to get your head around at times, leading to a ton of questions arising. Don't worry though because we've answered some of the most commonly asked queries right here.

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What is a complete and incomplete protein?

A protein is formed from 20 different types of amino acids, 11 of which our body can create on its own. The remaining nine, however, must be obtained through our diet and are therefore called essential amino acids.

A complete protein is one that contains the nine essential amino acids we need to consume as part of our diet and can be found in food such as fish, meat, eggs, dairy, and soy products.

By contrast, an incomplete protein is one that contains some but not all essential amino acids, hence the term "incomplete". You tend to find incomplete proteins in foods such as nuts, seeds, whole grains, vegetables, and legumes.

Consuming the nine essential amino acids is important as they play an important role in tissue repair, nutrient absorption, and protein synthesis. Therefore, to maintain your body and build muscle, eating sources of complete protein is vital.

When should protein be eaten?

Ideally, protein should be consumed throughout the day to give your body the nutrients it needs to continually repair muscle and tissue fibres as you go about your daily life.

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We'd therefore recommend trying to incorporate some form of protein into each meal you eat to ensure you're reaching an adequate daily intake.

When it comes to training though, you'll definitely want to ensure you're getting some protein in after working out.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends consuming protein any time up to two hours after your workout to help your body repair the broken down fibres in a period often referred to as the 'anabolic window', the period of time after training where your muscles are repairing and recovering and require protein the most.

How much protein should you eat?

The answer to this question is highly debated and is said to vary depending on your age, size, and sex.

However, a general rule of thumb on how much you should consume is around 0.8 – 1.3g per kg of body weight, a range supported by both Havard Health Publishing and the Mayo Clinic.

This isn't set in stone though and might be something you'd look to increase if you're trying to increase your size from weightlifting. Therefore, it might be more beneficial to work out how much is too much protein.

Research by Guoyao Wu suggests that consistently consuming over 2g of protein per kg of body weight might cause long-term health problems such as cardiovascular disease and blood vessel disorders.

So, while it's important to eat protein as part of a balanced diet, it's also important to not over-consume to avoid damaging your body.

Does fruit contain protein?

Most fruits contain only a trace of protein, leading many to turn to vegetables, beans, and nuts to up their protein intake without consuming meat.

That said, there are some fruits that contain more protein than you might think. For instance, guava contains 4.2g of protein per 100g according to Nuritionix.

As far as fruit goes, guava is one of the best, with avocado coming a close second with 4g of protein per 100g serving.

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However, when you consider spinach contains 5.2g and edamame a whopping 12g, fruit simply pales in comparison.

Don't disregard fruit all together though as they tend to contain a ton of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals you need to fulfil a balanced diet.

Read More: Best Protein Bars Available Now