Best Protein Food Sources for Building Lean Muscle Mass

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Protein, like carbohydrate and fat, is a macronutrient that our bodies need to provide energy to our cells and muscles. Protein provides four calories per gram and is made up of amino acids, which are commonly referred to as “building blocks” in our body. Our bodies can make thirteen of these amino acids but the other nine must come from our diets. These nine are called “essential” amino acids.

Protein is found in all parts of the body including bone, skin, muscle, and hair. While it is important to achieve a proper balance of all three of the macronutrients in your diet (protein, carbohydrate, fat), not getting the right balance of protein in our diets can be harmful. Too little protein in our diets can lead to loss of muscle mass and growth retardation, while eating too much protein can stress your kidneys and can also promote bone loss. Always check with your physician before modifying your diet for any of the macronutrients.

Protein has a series of functions in our bodies that include cell repair and cell maintenance. It also has a stabilizing effect on blood sugar, unlike simple carbohydrates that send your blood sugar soaring. When your body senses a high blood sugar, it releases insulin, which then sends your blood sugar spiraling downwards prompting you to feed it some quick acting carbohydrate. Hence, the seesaw cycle of high and low blood sugars starts all over again. When eaten together, protein and complex carbohydrates stabilize these seesawing blood sugars. Eating a food that contains both protein and carbohydrate after a workout also helps to refuel your body and to repair muscles that were broken down during the exercise routine.

Protein is found in both animal and vegetable-based foods. Protein from animal sources, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, is referred to as a complete protein because it contains all nine of the essential amino acids. Protein from vegetables, grains and nuts is an incomplete protein because it lacks one or more of the essential amino acids. It is for this reason that it is important to understand how to maintain a vegetarian diet, if that is the direction someone takes. Selecting the right protein, or combination of protein, will ensure the nutritional adequacy of your diet.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) emphasize the importance of creating a healthy eating pattern to maintain health and reduce the risk of disease. Besides the healthy U.S. style eating pattern, they suggest that you add variety into your eating styles, including a healthy Mediterranean-style eating pattern and a healthy vegetarian eating pattern. Varying the protein in your diet will also ensure that you get all of the amino acids that your body needs. Surveys show that Americans don’t eat as much fish as they should so the DGA suggests increasing the variety of protein foods to include seafood in meals twice per week in place of meat, or to substitute with poultry, or eggs, legumes or nuts and seeds in mixed dishes, instead.

Here is a List of Different Protein Foods for Comparison:

Food ItemServing SizeGrams of Protein
Hamburger6 ounces48
Chicken6 ounces43
Fish6 ounces42
Egg1 large6
Cottage cheese½ cup14
Cheddar Cheese1 ounce6
Tofu½ cup10
Lentils½ cup9
Peanut Butter2 tbs8
Broccoli½ cup2
Rice or pasta½ cup2
Almonds1 ounce6
Milk8 ounces8
Soy Milk8 ounces8
Almond Milk8 ounces1

While animal products contain the same amount of protein per serving size, they vary in the amount of fat they contain. It’s best to choose leaner cuts of beef like eye of round, sirloin, extra lean ground beef or flank cuts. Skinless poultry breast cuts (chicken breast, turkey breast) and pork tenderloin are also lean protein choices. Cold water fish, such as salmon and swordfish, are excellent sources of complete protein, while providing omega-3 fatty acids which are beneficial anti-inflammatory agents that can protect against heart disease. Soy and tofu, also referred to as meat alternatives, are a popular choice. In addition to being high in protein, soy based foods contain less saturated fats and are good sources of fiber.

Powdered protein supplements, such as whey are also popular, as are sports bars. These are fortified with soy or whey proteins and should not be used as meal replacements.

Snacks are important as they help to refuel the body. Snacking on vending machine selections can add calories in the form of fats and sugar, and provide little nutrients in the diet so stay clear of them. Be prepared and pack snacks ahead of time or keep them handy in your desk at work. Because protein has a balancing effect on blood sugars, it’s a good choice for a snack. Taken with a complex carbohydrate, like fresh fruit, cut-up vegetables, or 100% whole grain crackers, it can stave off the afternoon crashes, hunger pains, and will keep you energized throughout the day.

Below are some examples of low-fat, high protein snacks and are divided into their sources (vegetable and animal based). They can be eaten alone or combined with complex carbohydrates to provide sustained energy.

Vegetable Sources:

  • 8 ounces of soy milk
  • ¼ cup (about 2 ounces) of tofu
  • 1 ounce of tempeh, cooked
  • ¼ cup edamame (soybeans, fresh or roasted)
  • 1 falafel patty
  • 1 ounce of soy cheese
  • 2 tablespoons of hummus
  • ½ cup of unsalted nuts (22 almonds; 10 walnuts 12 almonds, 24 pistachios, 7 walnut halves)
  • ½ ounce of seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, or squash seeds, hulled, roasted)
  • 2 tablespoons of all-natural peanut or almond butter. Be careful because the nut spreads can contain a lot of calories in fat. A healthier product would be to purchase a non-hydrogenated nut spread where the oil is separated and sitting at the top of the jar. Powdered peanut butters (PBfit and PB2) are also lower in calories and store nicely in a desk at work, or on a hike.
  • ½ cup of legumes (black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, cannelloni, etc.)
  • Plant-based protein powders
  • Seeded sports bars (chia, etc.)

Animal Sources:

  • 8 ounces of non-fat or 1% low-fat milk
  • 1 ounce of low-fat cheese (less that 5 grams of fat per ounce) such as part-skim milk; mozzarella (string cheese), Laughing Cow cheese, fat-free American, soy cheese, Jarlsberg Lite cheese, 50% reduced-fat cheddar cheese.
  • ½ cup of low-fat cottage cheese
  • One container of low-fat Greek yogurt
  • One egg or ½ cup of egg whites
  • Turkey breast, chicken breast, ham, and lean roast beef
  • Turkey jerky
  • Wild Caught Salmon
  • Whey protein powder

If you do grab a sports bar for a snack, check the food label on the back to make sure it contains a significant amount of protein (at least 6 grams) and is high in fiber (4-5 grams).

The amount of protein you need per day depends on age, sex, and level of physical activity. Too much protein taxes the kidneys and liver, which are the organs that breakdown and filter all nutrients in the body.

Remember, it’s important to eat three balanced meals a day, along with the two to three snack choices from the lists above. The key to a healthy diet is to make sure that you are getting an appropriate amount of calories each day as well as to ensure the proper distribution of these calories between the three major macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fat). A registered dietitian can assist you in setting up a personalized menu plan to ensure its nutritional adequacy.

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About Author

Sophia Kamveris

Sophia Kamveris is a registered dietitian and is licensed in multiple states to provide nutritional counseling. She holds a Masters degree in Human Nutrition and has more than twenty years of experience in the health care industry. See my profile page for more information!

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