11 Best Muscle-Building Foods: What to Eat to Gain Muscle

The foods you eat and the type of exercise you include can help you prevent muscle loss.

Grilled Salmon with Tomatoes & Basil

Maintaining muscle is key to maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle at any age.

After age 50, muscle mass, specifically muscle in your legs, decreases by 1% to 2% each year, and strength decreases by 1.5% to 5% per year, per the 2019 revised European consensus of sarcopenia published in Age and Ageing. This age-related muscle loss, called sarcopenia, can be reduced or prevented with two fundamental lifestyle changes: consuming the proper foods and including resistance training.

Here we share foods to include to improve muscle mass, and we look at the impact that resistance training has on our muscular and bone health.

How to Eat to Gain Muscle

The foods you consume have a major impact on your body's ability to maintain or build muscle. Including enough dietary protein plays a big role in building and maintaining muscle mass. A 2018 study published in Nutrients found that in order to gain muscle, individuals would need to consume 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass each day. For someone weighing 150 pounds (68 kg), this would equate to 109 grams of protein each day.

While protein is a key ingredient to muscle maintenance, it is not the only thing to consider. Research, such as a 2019 article published in Frontiers in Nutrition, indicates that we should take a holistic approach and focus on an overall healthy diet pattern. Registered dietitian and culinary expert Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., RD, agrees. "It doesn't matter how much protein you're getting if you're not getting adequate calories overall," says Williams.

By including complex carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fats in your daily diet, you can ensure that your body is receiving the nutrients it needs to maintain and build muscle.

Williams recommends trying to consume four to five small meals at regular intervals throughout the day that each provide approximately 20 to 30 grams of high-quality protein, along with complex carbohydrates and healthy fats, taking care not to exceed 40 grams of protein in any single sitting. "You have to have sufficient carbohydrates and overall energy," says Williams. "Otherwise, the body will break down the protein you are eating to use for energy."

10 Best Muscle-Building Foods


Avocados are an excellent plant-based source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated "healthy" fats.

In addition to helping lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and raise good cholesterol (HDL), avocados have the highest source of protein of any fruit. They are an excellent source of magnesium and potassium, minerals which support muscle recovery. Further, they provide a good source of folic acid, which, according to a 2019 review published in Archives of Pharmacal Research, may have a positive impact on muscle development.


Beans are high in fiber, vitamins, minerals and plant-based protein and low in fat.

They are an excellent and economical source of leucine, one of the three amino acids used by muscles to give energy during exercise and thought to improve muscle growth.


If you are looking for the perfect post-workout meal, you may want to include an egg.

Researchers found that after a resistance workout, those who consumed a whole egg, not just an egg white, experienced increased protein synthesis that may stimulate muscle growth, per a 2021 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

Fatty Fish

Tuna, salmon, snapper and yellowtail are all excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat that has been found to help reduce muscle loss and function and could actually increase muscle mass, per a 2020 article published in Frontiers in Nutrition.

Not a fan of fish? Try a fish oil supplement instead.

Greek Yogurt

Full of protein and gut-healthy probiotics, nonfat plain Greek yogurt is an excellent choice for those looking to maintain or build muscle and reduce body fat.

A 2019 study published in Frontiers in Nutrition found that participants who included nonfat plain Greek yogurt as part of a post-exercise meal saw greater strength, muscle thickness and body composition than those who received a no-protein snack.

Be sure to skip the blended, flavored yogurts, though, as they often have high amounts of added sugar that would negate the potential health benefits.


Whole grains are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates that your body needs for energy. Oatmeal provides a healthy mix of carbohydrates, plant-based protein, fiber and nutrients that will help to keep you full longer between meals.

As with Greek yogurt, remember to skip the flavored oatmeal, as it is often high in added sugar. Go for plain oats instead, and try adding dried fruit for added vitamins and a hint of natural sweetness.


Skinless, white-meat chicken and turkey (think breast versus thigh) provide an excellent source of lean protein, including the essential amino acid leucine, B vitamins and minerals that are key components of building and maintaining muscle.

Including poultry as a part of a vegetable-rich diet has also been found to help reduce the risk of cardiometabolic diseases, per a 2022 review published in Nutrients.

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are a good source of plant-based healthy fats, protein and carbohydrates. Nuts and seeds also have fiber, vitamins and minerals that support many of the body's systems.

While there are health benefits to all nuts and seeds, pumpkin seeds are one of the stars of the show when it comes to muscle health and maintenance. They are high in polyunsaturated fats, leucine, iron, magnesium, folate and vitamin K. Vitamin K has been shown to play a role in muscle maintenance and recovery and bone health, per a 2019 article published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.


Quinoa is a whole grain, like oatmeal, that provides an excellent source of complex carbohydrates, plant-based protein, vitamins and minerals. However, it is one of the only whole grains that is also a complete protein—meaning that it contains all of the nine essential amino acids not produced by the body that must be consumed through food.

Quinoa is full of antioxidants, fiber, iron, folate and magnesium and lysine, an essential amino acid important in synthesizing protein, per a 2019 article published in the International Journal of Food Science.


Long known as the king of plant-based protein, soy-based tofu is a staple in vegetarian and vegan kitchens because of its nutrient density, antioxidant properties, high protein content and versatility.

Research also indicates that protein from soybeans, the primary ingredient in tofu, is similar to whey protein in its impact on muscle growth and offers cardiovascular advantages that animal-based proteins may not offer.

Additionally, soy may provide beneficial properties, such as gut-healthy prebiotics and probiotics and isoflavones to promote bone health.

Chocolate Milk

This may come as a surprise, but chocolate milk provides a good mix of protein and carbohydrates that make it an excellent addition to a post-workout snack.

Williams says, "I love chocolate milk! Just be sure to compare labels and make your choice based on brands that contain less added sugar."

Best Exercise to Build Muscle

In addition to the foods you consume, it is absolutely essential to include resistance training to maintain and build muscle.

Resistance training, often called strength training, is a form of exercise that utilizes opposing forces to make your muscles stronger. Further, it is one of the best ways to keep and build lean muscle to prevent sarcopenia (muscle loss) and osteopenia (bone loss). Strong muscles support the bones, reduce the risk of injury and keep your body moving properly.

By including resistance training and increasing muscle, you may also notice that your weight-loss goals become easier. Muscle tissue burns more calories at rest than fat tissue burns. So by building and retaining more lean muscle mass, you will burn more calories each day, even when at rest.

Resistance Training: How Often and What to Do

American College of Sports Medicine guidelines recommend including resistance training a minimum of two times each week.

If you aren't comfortable in a gym or using added weights, even your body weight can act as resistance. Include exercises like wall squats, body-weight squats, planks, pushups and lunges to get a full-body resistance workout that you can do from the comfort of your own home and without any equipment.

The Bottom Line

Nutrition and exercise work together and complement each other to improve muscle mass and function.

The research is clear: By implementing a balanced diet, including key muscle-building foods and exercise, with a specific focus on resistance training at least two days each week, you can build muscle to feel stronger, move better and enjoy a more active lifestyle at any age.

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