By now, most men understand the importance of protein in building muscle. When working out, the stress of weight lifting damages muscle fibers. This damage activates a special repair process that eventually forces individual muscle cells to grow. All of this growth requires loads of amino acids, the basic building blocks of life.
But the process of muscle growth requires more than just protein. Weight lifting burns fat and energy in the form of muscle glycogen, so your diet also needs to include a healthy serving of carbs to both replenish muscle glycogen stores and to boost insulin, a hormone that helps shuttle amino acids into the muscles. This means you should not only focus on incorporating protein into your diet, but also pay just as much attention to avoiding unhealthy foods – this combination of attention to your diet will be a winning combo.
So, which foods help you build muscle?
Well, AskMen has already explored foods make the best post-workout meal as well as the best pre-workout food, so in this piece, we’ve decided to focus on which specific foods pack the biggest protein punch.
Here are the top 10 foods for muscle growth.
Reality check: Not all men eat meat. But without meat, how can you get that precious protein? Look no further than quinoa, a protein-packed grain native to South America. Not only is quinoa high in protein, but the protein it supplies is also complete, meaning that it contains all nine of the essential amino acids. This gluten-free food is also easy to digest and is high in fiber, magnesium and iron. No wonder the ancient Incas called quinoa the mother of all grains!
Almonds are another plant-based food absolutely packed full of protein. Just 1/4 cup of almonds contains nearly 8 grams of protein -- that’s nearly 2 grams of protein more than your typical egg! Almonds are also an excellent source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and magnesium. Magnesium is an abundant mineral that’s used in more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body and is specifically known to be involved in energy metabolism and protein synthesis.
8. Cottage cheese
It may sound surprising, but most serious bodybuilders include cottage cheese among their top muscle-building foods. To understand why, simply read the label of your typical low-fat or fat-free cottage cheese. Just 1/2 cup of low-fat cottage cheese packs a whopping 14 grams of protein in only 80 calories with less than 2 grams of fat. Trust us, this one’s a winner.
Although not the best-known muscle-building food, oysters are another secret specialty of weight lifters and bodybuilders alike. Just 100 grams of cooked Pacific oysters yield upward of 20 grams of protein with only five grams of fat. Oysters also provide more zinc than any other food. Like magnesium, zinc is another mineral that’s essential for protein synthesis, making oysters a top food for muscle growth.
6. Chocolate Milk
Ever since we were young lads, men have constantly been reminded of the importance of milk to a growing body. But even as adult males, milk remains just as important. Because milk is an animal food, it provides all the essential amino acids while offering very little fat (especially skim milk). The benefit of milk to muscles is even greater considering that it mixes so well with whey protein. Just take a look at Shamrock Farms Rockin’ Refuel -- which packs 20 grams of protein in 100 percent real milk in delicious chocolate, strawberry and vanilla flavors -- if you want a prime example of a great-tasting, muscle-building beverage.
5. Lean ground beef
Red meats, like lean ground beef, are an excellent source of protein, so completely avoiding them because of the "red" stigma might be a mistake. Just 100 grams of lean ground beef contains upward of 27 grams of protein! Although such a serving is also high-fat (it contains 11 grams of fat and around 200-plus calories) what separates beef from its other meat competitors are all the additional vitamins and minerals it contains. Beef is teeming with vitamin B12, zinc and iron -- all of which are important for muscle growth and development.
Whether served as edamame, tofu or soy milk, the muscle-building benefits of the soybean simply cannot be paralleled by any other plant source. As one of the few plant sources that provide complete protein, soy packs its protein in style. Just one cup of cooked soybeans contains over 20 grams of amino acids. Soy is also stacked with other important vitamins and minerals, making this meat alternative one of the healthiest muscle-building foods around.
Quick and easy to prepare, delicious and fun to eat, eggs are a key dietary component of any muscle-minded male. Each egg comes loaded with around five to six grams of protein at the very low caloric cost of only 60 calories. But it’s not just the amount of protein that makes eggs so special, it’s also the type: Egg protein is considered to be the most readily utilizable protein with the highest biological value of any whole food. This means that the protein in eggs is used most efficiently for muscular growth.
What can we say about chicken that hasn’t already been said? Chicken is the staple muscle-building food. A nice, lean 100-gram slab of this white meat will fill you with a hearty serving of 31 grams of protein with only -- wait for it -- four grams of fat. So, as far as protein-to-fat ratio is concerned, you’re looking at a superstar. Combine chicken’s great taste and its meal versatility and there’s really no arguing that chicken belongs among the top muscle-building foods.
When it comes to building muscle, fish really crushes the competition. Take salmon, for example. Not only is salmon a protein powerhouse yielding around 25 grams of protein per 100-gram serving, but it’s also packed with so many other healthy nutrients that you’d be a fool to avoid it. Salmon is loaded with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s also an excellent source of vitamin D, a current media darling. All in all, fish, such as tuna or salmon, are simply the best.
This article originally appeared on AskMen.com.