10 Essential Muscle Building Protein Foods

Steve Shaw
Written By: Steve Shaw
March 26th, 2014
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Nutrition
83.1K Reads
10 Essential Muscle Building Protein Foods
Improve your bodybuilding diet with these 10 nutrition-packed protein foods. Article includes 50 tips on how to incorporate each muscle building choice into your eating plan.

It was bodybuilding legend Vince Gironda that said the muscle building process is 90% nutrition. I prefer to look at things a little differently:

Building muscle requires consistent effort in the gym backed by a proper eating plan.

To me training and nutrition are not 2 separate entities that, when added together, equal 100%. Both are necessary. You must maximize your training and your nutrition. One requires the other. Think of them as the yin and yang of bodybuilding,

To look your best, you need to hit it hard in the gym, and back up your training with plenty of nutritionally-rich protein food choices. You can't expect to see quality gym results if you are eating poorly. Sure, you might make some gains, but are they optimal? No.

A quality protein-rich muscle building diet should be comprised of:

  1. Food that tastes good; meals you look forward to.
  2. Plenty of whole foods and fresh ingredients.
  3. Food variety to maximize your macronutrient, amino acid and vitamin and mineral intake.

This article will help you fill up your shopping cart with a wide variety of muscle building protein foods. While this is not a comprehensive list, I do consider the following 10 choices to be some of the best protein sources you can add into your weekly meal plan.

I have also included some simple tips on how to incorporate each ingredient into your eating plan. These foods are listed in no particular order.

10 essential protein foods


#1 - Whole Eggs

Whole eggs, not egg whites. While egg whites are protein-rich, they lack all the amazing nutrition that is found in the yolk.

Whole eggs are one of the most nutritionally dense and balanced foods you can eat. Why wouldn't they be? I hope this doesn't sound off-putting, but it's reality. When you eat an egg, you are consuming an entire entity and not just the meat of an animal. This makes an egg a very well-rounded food source, and a perfect addition to a muscle building diet.

Eggs are also economical, and contain a good mix of proteins and fats. At about 70 calories and 7 grams of protein per egg, you can add in a lot of protein and quality nutrition without adding in a ton of calories.

You need more than protein to build muscle. Don't skip the yolks.

Tip #1 - You can add eggs to your diet in several ways. You can eat them boiled, diced into a salad, or you can make a healthy omelet for breakfast filled with your veggies of choice.

Tip #2 - Annoyed when trying to remove the shells from hard-boiled eggs? Try placing them into an ice bath for 15 minutes after cooking.

Tip #3 - Make egg "protein cupcakes" by placing diced ham (or any meat of choice), cheese and an egg into a greased cupcake baking pan. Bake until the egg is cooked. Cool, top with hot sauce and enjoy! This little cupcakes are very portable and easy to make. Try keeping 8-12 in your fridge at all times. They are nice to have in a pinch when you need a fast protein meal.

Tip #4 - Try making a hash in the skillet. Sauté cubed meat (beef, chicken, etc) and potatoes in butter or olive oil. When cooked, crack in a few eggs and stir well until the eggs finish cooking. Top with cheese and Greek yogurt (optional). This hash can also be placed into Tupperware containers and used for your weekly lunches.

Tip #5 - If you dislike bland boiled eggs, try pickled eggs. Boil eggs, cool and place in an empty pickle jar. Fill with equal parts water and cider vinegar. Add in seasonings, such as diced jalapeno peppers, minced garlic, sliced onion, mustard seeds, etc.

Whey Protein Isolate

#2 - Whey Protein Isolate

In my opinion whey protein isolate is an eating plan essential. It is convenient, and allows you to take in 20+ grams of protein per scoop while also keeping you hydrated. Calories per scoop are typically under 120, and powders can be packed or placed in a shaker and taken just about anywhere - on a hike, to class, or on a long car ride.

Tip #1 - After cooking your oatmeal, add in a scoop of your favorite flavor whey protein isolate and stir. This is a simple and fun way to add flavor to your oatmeal, and protein to your breakfast meal.

Tip #2 - Add calories, healthy fats and extra flavor to your whey shakes by stirring in 1/4 cup of heavy cream.

Tip #3 - Save money by purchasing larger sizes of whey protein isolate. For example, a 5 pound tub is more cost effective (pound for pound) than buying a 2 pound tub. In many cases you can save 10-15% per pound, or more.

Tip #4 - Need a quick, high protein snack or meal? Try a whey shake, a piece of fruit and a handful of almonds.

Tip #5 - Take your whey on the go. Place 10 scoops of whey, along with the scooper, in a sealable Tupperware container. Bring along your favorite shaker, and you have a quality protein meal anywhere you go.


#3 - Beef

This might sound obvious, but beef is tasty, flexible and nutritious. It comes in a variety of forms, from ground beef (which can be made into taco beef or hamburgers) to steaks which are - well - steaks.

Beef is high protein, creatine-rich and packed with iron and vitamin B-12. In fact, beef has 8 times more B12, 6 times more zinc and 2.5 times more iron than a skinless chicken breast.

Tip #1 - Enjoy a good steak? Try mixing a 1/4 cup natural sour cream, 1/8th cup hot sauce and a tbsp of minced garlic into a sauce. Place this sauce on top of your beef. This is quick and easy, packs an amazing taste punch, and adds quality fats into your eating plan.

Tip #2 - If you need extra calories and have a hard time gaining weight, but always seem to feel full, try eating ground beef that has a little higher fat content. This can also save you some money.

Tip #3 - Did you know you can make your own beef jerky using ground beef, seasonings and your oven? You can. Salt, pepper and season 2-3 pounds of ground beef. Lightly coat the bottom of a baking pan with olive oil. Roll the seasoned ground beef on the pan to about a 1/4 inch thickness. Bake at 170 degrees for about 8-12 hours. Remove, cool and cut into strips.

Tip #4 - Don't know what to do with the cheap cut of beef you found at the grocery store? Cube, cook, toss in rice and add in the spicy sour cream sour from tip #1 above.

Tip #5 - Try combining dijon mustard and Worcestershire sauce to make a simple dipping sauce for your beef.


#4 - Salmon

Not only is salmon rich in omega-3 fatty acids, but it's also one of the best seafood protein choices you can add into your muscle building diet. Recent research shows that the bioactive peptides found in salmon may assist with joint cartilage support, insulin regulation, and with the reduction of inflammation in the digestive tract.

It goes without saying that joint health is important to a lifter, as are proper insulin levels. Insulin is a highly anabolic hormone, and it also helps to regulate glucose. Insulin serves as a regulator to muscle cells. Once it "docks" to a muscle receptor, insulin regulates the flow of creatine, amino acids and glucose into muscle tissue.

Salmon is also rich in vitamin B12, B3, selenium and vitamin D.

Tip #1 - To spice up your baked salmon, try mixing a glaze of dijon mustard and a small serving of maple syrup. Coat the top of your salmon with this sauce prior to baking, and apply a second coating halfway through the baking process. This sauce will add very few calories and grams of carbs, but it will add tons of flavor.

Tip #2 - Two words: salmon tacos.

Tip #3 - Salmon goes well with pasta. Trying flaking the cooked salmon into the pasta, and adding a simple garlic and butter sauce.

Tip #4 - Cook the salmon and let it cool. Flake and top with soy, lemon or lime juice, chives, grated ginger and hot sauce. Serve over rice.

Tip #5 - Make a salmon and cheddar cheese omelet with diced tomato and green pepper.


#5 - Shellfish

Clams, crab, mussels and oysters. You don't see these protein options mentioned much in the muscle building world.

Though shellfish are not as rich in omega-3s as salmon and cod, they are still a quality source of these fatty acids. Shellfish are also one of the best sources of zinc, as well as being relatively rich in vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, D, iron, magnesium, calcium and more.

One Pacific oyster contains 4.7 grams of protein and only 41 calories. A small cooked clam has 2.4 grams of protein and only 14 calories. One 3 ounce serving of crab contains a whopping 15.5 grams of protein and only 71 calories.

Tip #1 - Avoid the high sugar processed cocktail sauces. Instead, top your oysters with either lemon juice, pesto with added lemon juice, or Tabasco sauce.

Tip #2 - Combine 8-10 ounces of cooked crab, one large egg, 1/8 cup almond flour, diced onion, diced red bell pepper and dijon, hot sauce and mayonnaise to taste. Form into crab cake patties and bake until golden brown.

Tip #3 - Toss cubed clam into a bowl with fresh spinach. Add mushrooms, diced tomato, and an oil and vinegar dressing.

Tip #4 - Crab legs dipped in garlic butter. Nuff said! Protein, good nutrition and quality fats.

Tip #5 - Try crab with rice. Combine cooked crab with rice, and add in onion, garlic, salt, diced boiled egg, cucumber and the juice of a lime.

Beef Liver

#6 - Liver

Liver? Yes, liver. Most of us have never considered placing this protein source into our bodybuilding diet. Next time you are in the meat department at your local grocery store, take a look. It's there.

Liver is a super food, featuring nearly 20 grams of protein and less than 150 calories per 4 ounce serving. It is abundantly rich in vitamins and minerals, out-performing most fruits, veggies and even red meat by having more phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, vitamins A, D, C, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, folic acid, biotin and vitamin B12.

While not a popular bodybuilding food by any means, liver packs a punch and should be considered.

Tip #1 - Don't like the taste of liver? Try beef liver tabs. The old school bodybuilders knew the importance of this organ meat, and regularly supplemented their eating plan with beef liver tabs.

Tip #2 - Try a "liver and onions" recipe. This is a popular method of cooking liver, and recipes abound on the Internet. 

Tip #3 - Add an ounce of finely diced beef liver to your hamburger patties to increase the nutritional profile.

Tip #4 - Make a muscle building meatloaf by combining diced beef liver, hamburger, eggs and seasonings. This can be sliced into multiple servings and eaten throughout the week.

Tip #5 - To reduce the strong flavor of liver, place it in a bowl with the juice of 2 lemons and 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar. Allow the liver to sit in the refrigerator for 8-12 hours.


#7 - Cheese

Cheese adds a ton of taste, provides you with numerous choices (cheddar, provolone, gouda, pepper jack, etc.), and it generally contains less lactose. Cheese is, in my opinion, one of the most flexible protein foods you can eat. You can add cheese to a salad, or top your beef or chicken with a little cheese to add some extra nutrition, flavor and fats to your diet.

String cheese is also one of my favorite quick protein snacks. It is portable, and can be taken to class, on the road, or nearly anywhere else you decide to venture. 3 pieces of string cheese will add 24 grams of protein and only 240 calories to your diet.

It is also packed with good nutrition, including vitamin K2 which has been shown to be extremely important to your heart, brain and bone health. Cheese is also rich in CLA, a possible metabolism booster and cancer fighter, as well as omega-3 fatty acids and calcium, zinc, and vitamins A, D, B2 and B12.

Tip #1 - Need to add calories to your eating plan but don't want to add another meal, or don't feel like you could possibly eat another serving of meat? Try adding a small serving of shredded cheese to your potatoes, salad, rice, pasta, meat and veggies. A little cheese on cauliflower and broccoli goes a long way.

Tip #2 - Make your own cheese sauce for pasta and meat by combining 1/2 block of cream cheese, 1/4 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt, 1/4 cup water and 4-6 ounces of your favorite cheese into a sauce pan. Cook slowly over a low heat, and spoon over meat or fold into whole wheat pasta.

Tip #3 - Nachos! Have a craving for nachos? Forget the chips and try this. Place any cooked meat (chicken, beef, hamburger, bacon) on a baking pan and top with cheese. Bake briefly until cheese is melted. Top with salsa, jalapeno peppers and sour cream or Greek yogurt.

Tip #4 - Stock up on string cheese, cheese cubes or cheese curds. Keep these handy for times when you need a quick protein snack.

Tip #5 - Make a week of muscle building lunch meals using this simple recipe. Combine cooked hamburger, 6-8 ounces of shredded cheese, and one package of taco seasoning. Mix well and combine with rice. Dish into 5 Tupperware containers and store in the frig.


#8 - Chicken

While chicken has been a bodybuilding and fitness staple protein source for decades, you rarely hear about its nutritional value. Besides being protein rich and lower in fat content, chicken also contains a quality amount of vitamins A, B6, B12, iron and magnesium.

Chicken is one of the best food choices for folks who want to build muscle but need to maximize every calorie they eat. A single 3 ounce breast contains 26.7 grams of protein, and only 142 calories and 3.1 grams of fat.

Tip #1 - Spice up that bland chicken breast with a sauce containing 2 tablespoons of sour cream and 1/4 cup salsa. This adds a mere 75 calories to your meal plan and plenty of flavor.

Tip #2 - You can also try the combination of hot sauce and minced garlic, for an extremely low calorie spicy garlic sauce.

Tip #3 - Make a simple muscle building salad by combining cubed chicken, spinach (or baby arugula), 1/2 cup cooked quinoa, almond slivers, onion, and a homemade dressing of red wine vinegar and olive oil.

Tip #4 - Combine cubed, cooked chicken, salsa and quinoa for a high-protein, nutrient-rich meal. This recipe is easy to make, and perfect for packing into Tupperware containers and taking to work for lunch.

Tip #5 - Make your own healthy chicken strips or nuggets by coating chicken in an egg wash (uncooked eggs in a bowl with seasonings), almond meal, and then pan frying them in olive oil.

Greek Yogurt

#9 - Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt is a very flexible protein source. It can be eaten for breakfast, and tastes great with added diced fruit. It can also be used as a base for simple sauces and salad dressings or on top of your favorite veggies.

Make sure when choosing Greek yogurt you look for a natural brand. Avoid yogurts with additives, preservatives, colorings and chemicals.

A 6 ounce container of plain non-fat Greek yogurt contains 100 calories and 18 grams of protein. A 6 ounce container of full fat plain Greek yogurt contains about 144 calories and 15 grams of protein. Both are decent options, depending of your daily dietary needs.

Greek yogurt is rich in calcium and magnesium, and is a much better choice than conventional yogurt. It is higher in protein, lower in carbs and typically lower in sodium.

Tip #1 - Combine Greek yogurt and lemon juice to create an amazing simple sauce for your salmon.

Tip #2 - Place a dollop of Greek yogurt and some fresh fruit on top of your oatmeal for added protein and creaminess.

Tip #3 - Combine Greek yogurt, protein powder, fresh fruit and ice to make a high protein smoothie.

Tip #4 - Have a sweet tooth? Mix together Greek yogurt, walnuts and a small amount of honey for a nutritious, high protein "dessert" snack.

Tip #5 - Make a healthy salad dressing by combining Greek yogurt, olive oil, minced garlic, and salt and pepper to taste.

Black Beans

#10 - Black Beans

Black beans, to me, are like "bean candy." They taste amazing and I can't seem to get enough of them.

A single cup of black beans contains 227 calories and over 15 grams of protein. They are an excellent source of protein for vegetarian bodybuilders, and a great option for non-vegetarians who want a more well-rounded eating plan.

Black beans are great for digestive track health because of their high indigestible fraction. Research indicates that black bean intake is associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer. The high IF (indigestible fraction) of  black beans may be the reason why.

Black beans are also a good source of numerous minerals, including molybdenum, copper, manganese, magnesium and iron.

Tip #1 - Mix together black beans, rice (or quinoa), salsa and top with a dollop or two of Greek yogurt for a high protein, carb-rich muscle building meal.

Tip #2 - You can reduce cooking time of fresh (not canned) black beans by letting them soak in water overnight.

Tip #3 - Make a creamy, high-protein black bean dip for cut vegetables (a veggie tray) by combining one can of black beans, 1/3 cup of Greek yogurt, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, cilantro, and salt and pepper to taste.

Tip #4 - Make black bean, cheese and beef hamburgers. Simply add a handful of shredded cheese and 4-6 ounces of mashed black beans to a pound of hamburger. Form into patties, cook and serve.

Tip #5 - Make a quick and easy "chili" using black beans, fresh salsa, and a small amount of diced onion. Heat and top with diced jalapeno peppers, shredded cheese and a dollop of Greek yogurt.

Posted on: Mon, 07/13/2015 - 20:27

i am following the 28 day shred plan right now and it calls for 6 egg whites one yolk. Are these tips for bulking or can I use them for shredding also. I am 235 lb and find it hard to hit my protein goals without drinking multiple shakes ? Thanks for the help I have followed your site from day one ! Started in February and I'm down 30 lbs !

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 07/14/2015 - 09:12

Sure. I would just simply increase your portions sizes on meat throughout the day in order to cut down on shakes. If the plan calls for 6oz of meat, shoot for 8oz - if you do that for 2 or 3 meals, you would essentially eliminate the need for at least one shake.

Posted on: Sat, 11/08/2014 - 17:45

When it comes to peeling an egg. After you boil it, immediately crack or shake it inside the pan and put water on it.

Frank ramirez
Posted on: Fri, 10/10/2014 - 18:12

For the string cheese, instead would I be able to eat just straight mozerella cheese from a block of cheese? Or would that have too much fat? Thanks

David Davis
Posted on: Wed, 10/08/2014 - 21:04

No Bacon? Pity!

Jorge Mtz.
Posted on: Sun, 08/03/2014 - 18:11

I only have one question, when is the best time to eat Greek yogurt?

Posted on: Mon, 07/13/2015 - 20:49

Evening. Especially before going to bed. The protein in greek yogurt is working slow, and it is therefore beneficial for you to consume the "slow-working" protein before you sleep. When you sleep, you don't eat (ofc) - but the protein in greek yogurt will prevent the catabolizing of your muscles while sleeping.

Amy Albright
Posted on: Sun, 05/18/2014 - 21:27

I make a lot of hard boiled eggs and finally came up with the solution to make peeling them easy!! Before boiling tap the bottom of each egg on a counter cracking the bottoms, but not so much that the egg leaks out. Just enough to indent the bottom. Place cracked eggs in a pan, cover with water, boil for one minute then cover, remove from heat and let set for 14 min. You will get a perfect hard boiled egg that is easy to peel.

Alejandro Aguilar
Posted on: Sun, 05/18/2014 - 19:29

Awesome and wonderful. My wife and I are both reading this for our ideas not just for my muscle diet but family health too. Thanks again.

Posted on: Tue, 04/01/2014 - 16:01

Hi Steve,
Thanks for another cool article. I am a stereotypical, fifty year old ectomorph body type that as of six weeks ago quit smoking and joined a gym. With the help of this web site where I have purchased my needed Whey proteins, amino acids and other such things, along with nutrition advise like this piece and a personal trainer at the gym, I'm happy to say I've put on over ten pounds in the first month alone! Anyone who wishes to gain weight through a fitness program, listen up... IT DOES WORK! you just need to put in the time and effort to see the results. QUESTION... When I reach my target weight, how much do I cut back on the food intake in general to maintain that weight? Thanks much, keep it up...

Matt D.
Posted on: Tue, 04/01/2014 - 09:04

I have found older eggs peel much better. I let them sit in the fridge for at least a week or 10 days or so, get them in a rolling boil, turn the heat off, cover, let them sit for 12 minutes and then immediately shift them into the ice bath the author mentioned for about 10 minutes.

Posted on: Mon, 03/31/2014 - 23:59

While I've eaten liver before cuz my parents love eating it and my dad always told me to eat it and I would avoid it because of the taste, just trust me, it's really not that bad especially frying with onions and olive oil. Eat it while it's hot though. Add some salt and pepper to it. Or have it in a crusty thin bread as a sanGwhich. But it's not that bad. Just don't overcook it. Can get dry. Greek yogurt w some vanilla protein powder for some sweetness and flavor. Just had black beans few days ago n I don't care for beans, but man, those I could eat! Lol. Nice article. Nice suggestions.

Posted on: Mon, 03/31/2014 - 00:28

hey that info is about cooked black beans ??

Posted on: Sun, 03/30/2014 - 15:54

I've been considering trying liver for a while now. After seeing it in this list I have a bit more drive to try it now.

James B.
Posted on: Fri, 03/28/2014 - 18:30

Thanks Steve for a perfect as always article.
But what about Soybeans? They have more protein than black ones. Also, could you highlight a tilapia?

Posted on: Fri, 03/28/2014 - 10:04

For peeling boiled eggs, adding vinegar to the water when boiling will also help the shells come off pretty easily.

Posted on: Thu, 03/27/2014 - 07:52

Thanks Steve!!! This is a great help! I wasn't aware of the Salmon or Black Beans protein source... gives me new ideas!

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Thu, 03/27/2014 - 10:36

Thanks Tom and stay strong!