When it comes to building strong muscles, protein is king. Any discussion of what to eat for strong, healthy muscles typically starts with a high-protein diet.
“Protein is a major component of cells that help in the formation of hormones, neurotransmitters and enzymes,” explains Sabrina Mottola, a dietitian with L.A. Care Health Plan.
As such, protein is an important macronutrient your body needs every day to support muscle tissue development, but it also plays an important role in strengthening the immune system, controlling blood sugar levels and maintaining overall health.
What Lean Protein Should You Eat?
There are many brands of protein powders on the market that you can choose from, but while these protein supplements may be a good option for people in a hurry or doing intense training, the best quality proteins come from eating real foods.
“Premade protein shakes all day simply aren’t going to cut it,” says Megan Wroe, a registered dietitian and wellness manager with Providence St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, California.
Good sources of lean protein include:
- Lean cuts of red meat.
- Egg whites.
- Plain Greek yogurt.
- Cottage cheese.
How Much Protein Should I Eat?
How much protein you need each day varies from one person to the next based on a range of factors, including:
- Activity level.
- Health goals.
- Medical conditions.
The recommended dietary allowance for protein is 0.8 per kilogram of body weight per day for healthy adults. For example, a 150-pound adult, which is equivalent to 68 kilograms, would need 54.4 grams per day of protein to meet their RDA.
However, many Americans do not consume enough protein. Wroe says she typically advises clients to aim a little higher than the standard RDA for protein to meet their nutritional requirements.
“In working with my clients, I find most people do better with a slightly higher amount of 1 gram of protein per kilogram body weight,” Wroe says. “This increase makes most people feel fuller and is especially better for those who exercise.”
Certain people require more protein than others. These include:
- Athletes and active people. Athletes and very active people typically need 1.2 grams to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, depending on the sport and endurance, Mottola says. This means that a 150-pound person should try to consume between 82 and 136 grams of protein per day.
- Pregnant and lactating people. Pregnant women should aim for 1.1 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. That recommendation increases to 1.3 grams per kilogram of body weight per day for women who are lactating, Mottola says.
- Older adults. People over age 50 start losing about 2% of muscle mass per year, but eating enough protein – a recommended 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day – can help offset some of that natural muscle loss.
Those who are following a vegetarian or vegan diet may need to plan their meals a bit more than people who eat meat and animal products to ensure they’re getting enough high-quality protein at each sitting.
“People who are trying to follow a vegetarian diet should include protein-fortified sources of nondairy milk, soy products, nuts, legumes, peas, lentils and seeds (quinoa and chia seeds),” Mottola says. “Vegetarian proteins are considered to have an incomplete amino acid profile since they are missing or are low in one or more of those needed for humans. However, eating enough of one source or combining two or more plant protein sources will provide you with what is needed.”
While protein is a vital nutrient to ensure your body functions optimally, you can have too much of a good thing.
“There’s only so much protein our bodies can handle at one time,” Wroe says. “Don’t go over 45 grams of protein per meal because it won’t do your body any good.”
Instead of trying to get the bulk of your protein intake all at once, experts recommend spreading it out to ensure your body is able to absorb the nutrient.
“The key factor is to eat a consistent amount of protein throughout the day with every meal since protein is not stored in our bodies like carbohydrates,” Mottola says.
While adding a protein supplement to foods such as oatmeal, smoothies, coffee or milk, can help, protein supplements should not be a replacement for a nutrient-rich meal.
In addition to protein, your body also needs a wide array of other nutrients to build strong muscles. These muscle-supporting nutrients include:
- Calcium. Low- or nonfat milk, plain Greek yogurt and cottage cheese can support muscle growth and strengthen bones. That’s because these foods contain plenty of calcium, a vital mineral that aids in muscle contraction and overall muscle function.
- Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and is also essential for maintaining strong bones and healthy muscles by supporting muscle repair and recovery following injury. While your body makes vitamin D in the skin when it’s exposed to sunlight, this essential nutrient is also present in some foods, including mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light, egg yolks, sardines, salmon (particularly canned salmon with the bones) and vitamin D–fortified dairy products.
- Zinc. Zinc boosts immune system function and can help your muscles repair after exercise. It’s also important in protein synthesis, which is the process during which the protein you eat becomes part of the muscles. Foods high in zinc include red meat, shellfish, eggs, dairy products, chickpeas and beans, nuts and seeds and whole grains.
- HMB. Beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate (HMB) is a metabolite that’s created from the breakdown of leucine, one of the nine amino acids that builds protein molecules. A review study published in Frontiers in Nutrition in 2022 found that supplementation with HMB can significantly improve muscle strength in elderly adults. Foods high in leucine – the amino acid needed to generate HMB – include salmon, milk, Greek yogurt, beef, chicken, eggs, chickpeas and soybeans.
- Creatine. Often sold as a supplement for bodybuilders, creatine is a type of amino acid that builds protein. It’s important in the repair of skeletal muscles and can help support muscle contractions during exercise. Good sources of creatine include milk, seafood and red meat.
A Balanced Diet is Best
It’s easy to think that increasing your protein intake is a surefire way to gain muscle, but it’s important to take a holistic approach to your nutrition.
“We tend to only think about protein for muscles, but don’t forget that the body needs energy to do the muscle-building work and nutrients to absorb and use proteins correctly,” Wroe says.
A balanced diet like the Mediterranean diet is best, Mottola adds, because it’s “one of the best approaches to meet daily protein needs, while also focusing on a heart-healthy lifestyle.”
A balanced diet should include:
- Lean proteins. Lean proteins such as low-fat dairy products, poultry, eggs and fish contain nine essential amino acids, which are easily digested and absorbed in our body.
- Whole grains. Whole grains – such as brown rice, quinoa and oats – are packed with fiber and provide lots of complex carbohydrates that your body can use as fuel to support muscle-building workouts.
- Healthy fats. Healthy fats help with hormone production and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Sources of healthy fats to incorporate into your diet include avocados, almonds, walnuts and olive oil.
- Lots of colorful fruits and vegetables. It seems Popeye may have been right all along – dark leafy greens like spinach can help you grow stronger. This is because brightly colored vegetables and fruits can aid your recovery process. If you’re looking to gain muscle, you not only have to eat right and work out, but you also have to pay attention to your recovery because it’s during recovery periods when your body is able to repair and build muscle fibers. Brightly colored vegetables and fruits can help speed recovery because they contain antioxidants that can help cells repair damage and provide all the nutrients your body needs to boost muscle development.
As you build a healthy diet, it’s important to remain consistent with it to create an overall healthy lifestyle.
“You may falter from time to time, but don’t let that discourage you. Just get back in the saddle again,” Dr. Akash Bajaj, a triple board-certified physician with Remedy Wellness & Anti-Aging in Marina Del Rey, California.
Ultimately, simply consuming extra protein won’t magically make your muscles grow. It takes commitment to maintaining a balanced diet of nutrient-dense foods and, of course, exercise.