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Both nutrition and physical activity are critical if you want to gain lean muscle. It’s essential to challenge your body through physical activity but without proper nutritional support, your progress will stall.
High protein foods are very important for gaining muscle, but carbohydrates and fats are also necessary sources of energy.
If your goal is to gain lean muscle, you should focus on exercising regularly and eating more calories each day from muscle building foods.
Salmon is a great choice for muscle building and overall health.
Each 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of salmon contains about 17 grams of protein, 1.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids, and several important B vitamins (
Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in muscular health and may even increase muscle gain during exercise programs (
3. Chicken breast
There’s a good reason why chicken breasts are considered a staple for gaining muscle: They’re packed with protein. Each 3-ounce (85-gram) serving contains about 26.7 grams of high quality protein (
Chicken breasts also contain generous amounts of the B vitamins niacin and B6, which may be particularly important if you are active (
These vitamins help your body function properly during the physical activity that’s necessary for optimal muscle gain (4).
What’s more, some research has shown that higher protein diets containing chicken may aid in fat loss (
4. Greek yogurt
Dairy not only contains high quality protein but also a mixture of fast-digesting whey protein and slow-digesting casein protein (
Some research has shown that people experience increases in lean mass when they consume a combination of fast- and slow-digesting dairy proteins (
In addition to 20 grams of protein per 3-ounce (85-gram) serving, tuna contains high amounts of vitamin A and several B vitamins, including B12, niacin, and B6. These nutrients are important for optimal health, energy, and exercise performance (4,
This may be particularly important for older adults. Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids can slow the loss of muscle mass and strength that occurs with age (
6. Lean beef
Some research has even shown that consuming lean red meat can increase the amount of lean mass gained with weight training (
Even when you’re trying to gain muscle, it may be best to choose beef that supports muscle gain without providing too many extra calories.
For example, 3 ounces (85 grams) of 70% lean ground beef contains 235 calories and 16 grams of fat (
However, the same amount of 95% lean ground beef contains slightly more protein, plus only 148 calories and 6 grams of fat (
Shrimp are almost pure protein. Each 3-ounce (85-gram) serving contains 19 grams of protein, 1.44 gram of fat, and 1 gram of carbs (
While healthy fats and carbs are important in your overall diet, adding some shrimp is an easy way to get muscle building protein without too many additional calories.
Half a cup (86 grams) of cooked soybeans contains 16 grams of protein, healthy unsaturated fats, and several vitamins and minerals (
Soybeans are a particularly good source of vitamin K, iron, and phosphorus (
People who menstruate may be particularly at risk of iron deficiency due to blood loss during their cycle (26).
9. Cottage cheese
Like other dairy products, cottage cheese can be purchased with varying fat contents. High fat versions like creamed cottage cheese have more calories.
Choosing which type of cottage cheese is best simply depends on how many extra calories you want to add to your diet. Regardless of which type you choose, it’s a great muscle building snack.
10. Turkey breast
A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of turkey breast contains around 26 grams of protein and almost no fat or carbs (
Having optimal levels of B vitamins could help you gain muscle over time by supporting your body’s ability to exercise (
Although it doesn’t have as much omega-3 fatty acids as salmon, tilapia is another protein-packed seafood item.
A single (87-gram) fillet provides around 23 grams of protein, along with good amounts of vitamin B12 and selenium (
Vitamin B12 is important for the health of your blood cells and nerves, which allows you to perform the exercise you need to gain muscle (32).
Many different types of beans can be part of a diet for lean muscle gain.
What’s more, they are excellent sources of fiber and B vitamins, in addition to being high in magnesium, phosphorus, and iron. For these reasons, beans are a good source of plant-based protein to add to your diet.
What’s more, they may play a role in long-term health and disease prevention (
13. Protein powders
While any good diet should focus on whole foods, there are times when dietary supplements can be beneficial (
If you have trouble getting enough protein from foods alone, you could consider adding protein shakes to your daily routine.
You can find a variety of protein powders online.
Edamame is the term for immature soybeans. These developing beans are found in pods and served in a variety of dishes, particularly those of Japanese origin.
One cup (155 grams) of frozen edamame provides around 18 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber. It also contains large amounts of folate, vitamin K, and manganese (
Among other functions, folate helps your body process amino acids, the building blocks of protein (
In fact, folate may be important for optimal muscle mass and strength, particularly in older adults (40).
While protein-rich foods are a priority for building lean muscle, it’s also important to have the fuel to get active.
Foods with carbohydrates can help provide this energy (
Magnesium plays an important role in the function of your muscles and nerves, both of which are used every time you move (
Like shrimp, tilapia, and lean poultry, scallops provide protein with very little fat.
If you are looking to add protein to your diet without consuming too many calories, these very lean sources of protein may be good choices.
Three ounces (85 grams) of scallops provide around 17 grams of protein and fewer than 100 calories (
17. Lean jerky
When you’re on the go, you may want high quality protein from meat such as lean jerky.
Many different types of meat can be made into jerky, so the nutrition facts vary. Most fat is removed from lean jerky during processing, so almost all calories in jerky come directly from protein.
These animal sources of protein are high in quality and stimulate muscle growth (
Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, are a good source of both carbs and protein.
Each 1-cup (164-gram) serving of canned chickpeas contains around 15 grams of protein and 45 grams of carbs, including 13 grams of fiber (
As with many plants, the protein in chickpeas is considered lower quality than that in animal sources. However, it can still be part of a balanced muscle building diet (
Peanuts contain a mix of protein, fat, and carbs. A 1-ounce (28-gram) serving contains 7 grams of protein, 6 grams of carbs, and large amounts of unsaturated fat (
They also contain higher amounts of the amino acid leucine than many other plant products.
Each 1-ounce (28-gram) serving of peanuts contains around 166 calories (
If you’re having a hard time getting enough calories to drive your muscle gain, eating peanuts could be a good way to get some extra calories and nutrients.
Buckwheat is a seed that can be ground into flour and used in place of traditional flours.
One cup (168 grams) of cooked buckwheat groats contains around 6 grams of protein, along with plenty of fiber and other carbs (
Buckwheat has become a very popular health food due to its impressive vitamin and mineral content. It contains high amounts of B vitamins, magnesium, manganese, and phosphorus (
These vitamins and minerals can help your body stay healthy and able to perform muscle building exercises (
Tofu is produced from soy milk and often used as a meat substitute.
Each half-cup (124-gram) serving of raw tofu contains 10 grams of protein, 6 grams of fat, and 2 grams of carbohydrates (
Tofu is also a good source of calcium, which is important for proper muscle function and bone health (51).
Soy protein, found in foods like tofu and soybeans, is considered one of the highest quality plant proteins (
For all these reasons, foods containing soy protein are great options for vegans and vegetarians.
22. Pork tenderloin
Pork tenderloin is a lean cut of meat that provides 23.1 grams of protein and only 2 grams of fat per 4 ounces (113 grams) (
Some research has shown that pork has effects similar to those of other muscle building foods, such as beef and chicken (
Milk provides a mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fats (
Similar to other dairy products, milk contains both fast- and slow-digesting proteins (
Among other roles, phosphorus helps your body use carbohydrates and fats for energy at rest and during exercise (59).
As with peanuts, almonds should be consumed in moderation due to their high calorie content. Half a cup of blanched almonds contains more than 400 calories (
Similarly to beef, bison provides about 22 grams of protein per 3-ounce (85-gram) serving (
However, some research has shown that bison may be better than beef in terms of the risk of heart disease (
If you like to eat red meat as part of your muscle building diet but also worry about your heart health, you could consider replacing some beef with bison.
26. Brown rice
Consider eating healthy carb sources like brown rice or quinoa in the hours leading up to exercise (
This may allow you to exercise harder, providing your body with a greater stimulus for your muscles to grow.
What’s the right diet if you want to build muscle?
The best diet to build muscle should add 500–1,000 calories per day on top of your current dietary intake.
But this shouldn’t be taken as broad advice for everyone without considering what you are currently eating in terms of calories and protein.
You should eat foods that are rich in complex carbohydrates and high quality protein sources, which can be from both animals and plants (65).
A daily protein intake of 1.6 grams–2.2 grams has been shown to be the most influential factor when trying to optimize the building of muscle mass, accompanied by resistance exercise.
You can reach this protein level by eating high quality protein sources throughout the day. You could also consider supplementing your diet with high quality protein supplements such as whey or casein.
How important is the diet when building muscle?
Your diet is a very important part of building muscle. Higher protein diets are helpful for muscle mass, contributing to muscle gains and greater strength when paired with resistance exercise (
What foods are best for gaining lean muscle?
High protein foods such as chicken, salmon, Greek yogurt, skim milk, and beans are some of the best foods to help you gain lean muscle (67).
What foods build muscle mass fast?
Eggs are a good food to help build muscle mass fast. Whole eggs are better than egg whites.
One study showed that the post-workout muscle building response in participants eating whole eggs was 40% greater than the muscle response of participants consuming an equivalent amount of protein from egg whites (68).
How can I build muscle while eating only three times per day?
To build muscle while eating only three times per day, make sure your meals include more calories than you’re burning, which will create a state of anabolic growth (69).
Strive to hit a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. A registered dietitian, if you have access to one, or a healthcare professional can help you with questions about your specific nutritional needs.
How should I modify my diet to maximize muscle growth?
To maximize muscle growth, you’ll need to eat more calories than you typically do. Eat 1.4–2 grams of protein for each kilogram of your body weight per day (
You should also eat enough carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats to help support muscle growth and recovery.
Numerous foods can help you gain lean muscle. Many of them are high in protein and allow your muscles to recover and grow after you have been active.
It is also important to consume carbohydrates and fats to provide fuel for exercise and physical activity.
What’s more, many of the foods on this list contain the vitamins and minerals your body needs to operate at its best.
To reach your goal of gaining lean muscle, focus on exercising regularly and eating more calories each day from nutritious foods like the ones listed in this article.