Author: Raj Chandler • Fact checked by: Tara D. Thies • March 3, 2021
There is a lot of discussion in the fitness community about exercise, workout plans, sophisticated resistance training equipment, and other tools that will help you achieve your goals. However, none of these tools will be able to help you change your body without the foundation: a proper diet.
Even for those that aren’t participating in bodybuilding – the competitive sport that compares muscle development and overall physique – diet is essential to helping anyone meet their body composition goals.
The core of any bodybuilding eating plan is getting plenty of protein and adequate nutrient-dense calories. There are many different types of foods with high amounts of protein, depending on your dietary tastes and eating restrictions. Learning more about the various high protein options available can help you craft a personalized eating plan that you enjoy.
While advancements in food technology have created some new sources from which you can consume high-quality protein, animal proteins are the key building blocks of the classic bodybuilder diet focused on gaining muscle. There may be a good reason for that: studies indicate that animal protein has more of an anabolic effect on the body when compared to plant proteins. This means animal proteins may be more efficient at helping you promote muscle growth when compared to plant-based protein sources. However, as we'll address in the next section, there are some unique benefits to plant protein.
Chicken breast is a classic staple of bodybuilding diets. Whether bulking or cutting, bodybuilders have been consuming large amounts of chicken breast for decades. It's relatively inexpensive, versatile, and easy for bulk cooking – the practice of cooking a large quantity of meals to be eaten later. Because it's a lean source of protein, chicken breast provides a good amount of protein for relatively few calories. A typical 4oz serving of chicken breast without anything added to it will offer anywhere from 20 to 24 grams of protein at 110 to 140 calories.
Like chicken, turkey breast is a great lean source of protein. It can also be served and prepared in different ways and is great for bulk cooking. Certain types of turkey breast may include a large amount of sodium and nitrates, so be careful to purchase meat products that use natural ingredients with as little filler as possible.
Tuna is one of the most common forms of animal protein and another one of those classic bodybuilder foods. Canned tuna is found in almost every type of food market, but you can also find more premium tuna steak cuts. Because of the mercury content of tuna, certain types of people – children and women who are pregnant or nursing – should limit their consumption.
Salmon is another great high-protein fish to help you build muscle, although it's commonly more expensive than tuna products. Salmon is also high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for heart health and may even be associated with reduced risk of certain types of cancer.
Although animal products may have a slight edge when it comes to muscle building, it's possible to add muscle mass without consuming animal meats. Certain types of animal products have a significant negative impact on the environment, especially commercially raised beef. Additionally, recent research indicates that animal protein sources may help cut down on the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions.
For this reason, many people looking to build muscle will choose to eliminate or at least cut down on animal protein sources. If you don't want to create a high protein diet with a lot of meat in it, there are plenty of plant-based alternatives.
Pea protein powder is made from yellow split peas and does not contain any dairy. Because it’s naturally gluten-free and hypoallergenic (in other words, free from common allergens), pea protein is often the protein source of choice for those with dairy allergies.
While pea protein is not as slow-digesting as casein- another common type of dairy protein- it is absorbed more slowly than whey proteins. That’s what makes pea protein an optimal choice for post-workout recovery, especially for those with whey allergies. Many also find it more satiating than whey or other more conventional types of protein.
Soy is a popular plant-based source of protein because it is one of the complete protein sources, which are typically only found from animals. Recent research also indicates no difference between soy and whey protein when it comes to building muscle. Like pea protein, soy can also be an ideal alternative source for those allergic to whey or dairy.
Mycoprotein is an alternative source of protein that comes from a naturally-occurring fungus called Fusarium venenatum. It offers a meaty texture and is high in protein and fiber but low in fat and cholesterol. Mycoproteins are versatile in meals and excellent for replacing animal meats like chicken and beef.
Lentils, a type of legume, are some of the earliest foods in human history. They are also a common non-meat protein source. In the west, the most common types of lentils available are labeled by color: green, brown, black, yellow, red and orange. Lentils are a great way to consume healthy carbohydrates, an important source of energy. Green lentils in particular also contain many antioxidants that can help the body fight disease, including polyphenol.
Quinoa is another non-meat protein source that has experienced a rise in popularity in recent years, among both bodybuilders and others looking for a great source of protein. Nutritional analysis indicates that quinoa contains a higher level of amino acids than other cereal grains. Because of its texture, quinoa is also a great meat replacement.
Brown rice is another bodybuilding staple that people looking to build muscle are probably familiar with. One nutritional study of college-aged males indicated no difference between the effects of whey protein and rice protein isolate as it related to recovery, soreness, or muscle growth. Brown rice makes a great side dish or base to mix in different meats and veggies.
Dairy products are something of a mixed bag in the world of nutrition. Many people avoid dairy products, as some research indicates a connection between the consumption of dairy and elevated risk of heart disease. However, other data suggest that higher intake of milk, cheese and yogurt were not associated with increased mortality risks. Some studies even indicate that the consumption of fermented dairy products might actually lower your risk of heart disease.
When choosing dairy products, it's especially important to seek options that are natural and minimally processed. It's also wise to choose fermented dairy like cheese or yogurt, since the healthy fats in these products have been shown to have a more positive impact on your blood lipid levels.
Egg whites are a liquid dairy product with the yolk of the egg removed to minimize the saturated fat and cholesterol. Egg whites are a great lean, low-calorie dairy product that allows you to get the flavor and texture of normal eggs. Egg whites can also make a good foundation for a post-workout protein shake or smoothie.
Greek yogurt is one of the best types of dairy you can consume. According to the University of Tennessee's Medical Center, greek yogurt has fewer carbs and roughly twice the protein as normal yogurt, which is ideal for those crafting a weight loss diet that maximizes protein intake and minimizes carbs. And because it has less lactose than normal yogurt, it's easier on the digestive system. Greek yogurt can easily be mixed or flavored with additives like peanut butter, mixed nuts, chia seeds, and other foods.
Another one of those bodybuilder classics, cottage cheese is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance as consumers look for healthier dairy options. Scientific analysis indicates that regular cheese has seven times as much fat as cottage cheese, making it a great choice for a low-fat diet. Cottage cheese also contains essential amino acids like leucine, which are important for building muscle tissue in the body. New research has also found that when consumed shortly before sleep, cottage cheese can be just as beneficial as whey for muscle building and health.
While it's slightly different from the other food items in this list, whey protein is arguably the most traditional bodybuilding food item on this list. It's great as a pre-workout or post-workout meal, relatively inexpensive, and mixes well with other foods. Whey is also low on calories, which is great for those monitoring their calorie intake. Just be aware that unlike casein, another common protein powder, whey is a fast-digesting form of protein. Slow-digesting proteins will keep you full for longer, but fast-digesting proteins like whey deliver protein to your muscles more quickly.
You shouldn't think of this list as an exclusive compilation of things to eat. Instead, allow it to inspire you to create a customized meal plan that hits all your macronutrient targets yet still meshes will with your taste preferences and lifestyle.
You don't have to be a bodybuilder to eat like one. With the right information, a resistance training program, and a commitment to consuming the right amount of protein foods that promote muscle protein synthesis in the body, anyone can change their body composition given enough time. Whether you are competing on stage or just want to drop some body fat, taking diet tips from bodybuilders can inspire you to make an eating plan that helps you unlock the best version of yourself.
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