Best Protein Sources and Intake for Muscle Growth

Learn the best protein sources and intake for muscle growth, how much protein you need, and tips for plant-based diets. Maximize your gains with these simple tips!

Protein is vital for muscle growth and recovery. Whether you're an athlete or just getting into fitness, knowing the right amount and sources of protein can make a big difference.

How Does Eating Protein Help You Build Muscle?

Your body relies on a steady supply of protein to perform vital processes that keep you alive and healthy. Proteins are involved in nearly every cellular function. They are essential for immune regulation, hormone production, growth, and more.

Proteins are the main component of skeletal muscle, making up 80% of muscle mass. To maintain healthy muscle mass and support muscle growth, you must eat a diet rich in protein. Studies show that consuming more protein than the current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) can help people build muscle mass and preserve muscle mass during weight loss.

Here's what you need to know about eating protein for muscle gains, including why protein is important for muscle growth and tips for increasing your protein intake to help build muscle.

Why Does Protein Matter for Muscle Growth?

Protein provides your body with amino acids, which are known as the building blocks of proteins. When you eat food with protein, your body breaks the proteins into amino acids. These amino acids are then used to build new proteins and other important compounds such as neurotransmitters.

Certain amino acids are critical for increasing muscle mass. For example, valine, leucine, and isoleucine, collectively known as branched-chain amino acids, are especially important for muscle maintenance and growth.

Your body depends on a consistent intake of amino acids through protein-rich foods to maintain its muscle mass and prevent muscle breakdown. People who want to build muscle require more protein than those maintaining their muscle mass.

Muscle hypertrophy, which is the enlargement of muscle mass, can only occur when there’s a positive net protein balance. This means the building of new muscle exceeds muscle breakdown.

In contrast, muscle atrophy, or deterioration, occurs when there’s a negative protein balance, which can happen when following a diet that doesn’t contain enough protein.

Following a high-protein diet and participating in resistance training is effective for preventing muscle loss and promoting muscle gain.

How Much Protein Do You Need Per Day?

You need to consume protein every day to meet your body’s needs. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is set at 0.8 grams per kilogram (g/kg) of body weight (0.36 grams of protein per pound (g/lb)). While the RDA is often thought of as the "ideal" protein intake recommendation, it’s actually the minimum amount necessary to prevent muscle loss and meet the body’s amino acid requirements.

Though taking in the RDA may help sedentary people maintain their muscle mass, it’s not enough for active individuals and those who want to pack on extra muscle.

Research suggests that physically active people, such as those who regularly exercise, should take in between 1.2-2.0 grams per kilogram (g/kg) of protein per day (0.54-0.9 grams per pound (g/lb)) to maintain healthy muscle mass.

How Much Protein Do You Need to Build Muscle?

While people who are physically active need to take in more protein than the current RDA to maintain their muscle mass, those who want to put on muscle have even higher protein requirements. Experts suggest that people trying to build muscle may need to take in more than 2.0 g/kg of protein per day (0.9 g/lb).

For example, people aiming to maximize muscle growth by pairing increased protein intake with resistance exercise should aim to take in between 1.6 to 2.2 g/kg (0.72 to 1 g/lb) of protein per day.

Those trying to maintain or build muscle while also losing body fat have even higher protein needs. Some experts recommend between 2.3 and 3.1 g/kg (1 to 1.4 g/lb) of protein per day.

Eating more protein-rich foods and adding a source of protein to every meal and snack can help you boost your overall protein intake.

Though specific protein-rich foods and certain amino acids have been shown to be especially effective for supporting muscle growth, most experts agree that your total protein intake is what matters most for muscle growth.

Animal proteins are categorized as complete proteins, meaning they deliver all nine of the essential amino acids your body needs to function. Most plant-based proteins are incomplete because they’re missing or low in one or more essential amino acids. This is why plant-based proteins are known to have lower muscle-building potential than animal-based proteins. Additionally, plant-based foods generally contain less total protein per serving compared to animal foods and have lower digestibility, which is why animal proteins are generally thought to be superior for muscle protein synthesis.

That said, it’s entirely possible to build muscle on a plant-based diet as long as a variety of plant-based proteins are consumed and appropriate supplementation is maintained.

Good Sources of Protein

Whether you’re following an omnivorous or plant-based diet, there are plenty of protein-rich foods to enjoy. Here are some of the best sources of protein you can eat:

Animal Proteins

  • Eggs: 6.28 g per large egg
  • Chicken breast: 31 g per small skinless chicken breast
  • Canned salmon: 19.6 g per three-ounce serving
  • Whey protein isolate: 25 g per ounce
  • Cottage cheese: 23.5 g per cup
  • Shrimp: 20.4 g per three-ounce serving
  • Greek yogurt: 19.9 g per seven-ounce serving

Plant-Based Proteins

  • Tofu: 8.67 g per three-ounce serving
  • Hemp seeds: 9.48 g per ounce
  • Pea protein: 24 g per ounce
  • Edamame: 18.5 g per cup
  • Tempeh: 19.9 g per 100g serving
  • Lentils: 17.9 g per cup

Consuming a varied diet that contains both plant and animal proteins is generally recommended. However, following a plant-based diet has been linked with many health benefits, including lower rates of heart disease and certain cancers.

If you’re following a vegetarian or vegan diet, it’s important to include a variety of protein sources to ensure you’re meeting your daily protein requirements.

Tips for Consuming Protein for Muscle Growth

If your goal is to gain muscle mass, follow these evidence-based tips:

  • Consume enough protein daily: Aim for a daily protein intake between 1.6 to 2.2 g/kg (0.72 to 1 g/lb) if you want to maintain your body weight while gaining muscle.
  • Increase protein intake during weight loss: People trying to lose weight while maintaining or gaining muscle mass need higher daily protein intake, between 2.3 and 3.1 g/kg (1 to 1.4 g/lb).
  • Space protein-rich meals: Space your protein-rich meals at least three hours apart to best stimulate muscle growth.
  • Post-workout protein: Though total protein intake is most important, supplementing with protein after resistance training may be most effective for supporting muscle gains. Aim for around 20 g of high-quality protein, such as whey protein, after resistance exercise.
  • Include protein in every meal: Eating a protein-rich snack or meal that provides around 20 g of protein after a workout can help you reach your body composition goals.

Can You Have Too Much Protein?

Though it was once thought that high-protein diets are harmful to the kidneys, heart, and bones, research shows that healthy high-protein diets are generally safe for most people.

In fact, diets providing more than four times the RDA for protein have been shown to be safe for physically active people. Though more research is needed, there’s currently no evidence that high-protein diets are harmful to your health.

High-protein diets have been shown to benefit body composition, bone health, and heart health.

However, diets high in specific types of protein may negatively impact health and increase disease risk. For example, diets high in red and processed meat have been linked to colon cancer, heart disease, and several other health risks.

Additionally, though high-protein diets aren’t dangerous for people with normal kidney function, they could accelerate kidney function decline in people with kidney disease.

While well-rounded high-protein diets are safe for most healthy people, it’s important to understand that your protein needs depend on multiple factors, such as your body weight, age, and activity levels. This is why it’s best to base your protein intake on your specific needs and health goals. For example, while 1.2 to 2 g/kg (0.54 to 0.9 g/lb) of protein per day is likely sufficient for physically active people looking to maintain their muscle mass, protein needs may far exceed 2 g/kg (0.9 g/lb) in athletes and people who want to put on muscle mass while losing body fat.

If you’re unsure how much protein you should eat per day to meet your body composition goals, a knowledgeable healthcare provider, like a registered dietitian, can help design a high-protein diet specific to your needs and goals.

Other Factors for Building Muscle

In addition to increasing your protein intake, adding strength training to your wellness routine is important for building muscle mass.

Studies show that resistance training increases muscle protein turnover and stimulates muscle protein synthesis. However, to prevent muscle breakdown and promote muscle protein synthesis after strength training, you must maintain a positive net protein balance by providing your body with protein-rich foods.

If you add in resistance training without taking in sufficient protein, you won’t reach your body composition goals. This is why combining consistent resistance exercise with a higher protein intake is so important for building muscle mass.

A 2023 study including 40 healthy older ex-military males found that those who participated in three weekly strength training sessions paired with

How Does Eating Protein Help You Build Muscle?

Protein is essential for muscle growth and repair. It provides the building blocks, known as amino acids, that your body needs to create and maintain muscle tissue. When people search for information on protein and muscle growth, they often have specific questions. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions and their answers.

How Much Protein Do I Need to Build Muscle?

The amount of protein you need depends on your activity level and goals. For muscle building, experts recommend consuming between 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. If you're highly active or looking to gain muscle, you might need even more, around 2.0 to 2.2 grams per kilogram. This higher intake ensures your muscles have enough protein to repair and grow after exercise.

What are the Best Sources of Protein for Muscle Growth?

The best protein sources for muscle growth include both animal and plant-based options. Animal proteins like chicken, beef, fish, eggs, and dairy are complete proteins, meaning they contain all essential amino acids. Plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, tofu, and quinoa are also excellent, though they may need to be combined to ensure you get all essential amino acids.

Can I Build Muscle with Plant-Based Protein?

Yes, you can build muscle with plant-based protein. The key is to consume a variety of plant-based proteins to ensure you get all essential amino acids. Foods like lentils, chickpeas, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, and chia seeds are excellent sources. Combining different plant proteins throughout the day can help meet your protein needs.

Is Protein Timing Important for Muscle Growth?

Timing your protein intake can be beneficial. Consuming protein after a workout helps repair and build muscle. Aim to eat a protein-rich meal or snack within 30 minutes to two hours after exercising. This period is often referred to as the "anabolic window," where your body is particularly efficient at using protein to build muscle.

Can You Gain Fat from Eating Too Much Protein?

While protein is less likely to be stored as fat compared to carbohydrates or fats, consuming too many calories from any source, including protein, can lead to weight gain. It's essential to balance your overall caloric intake to avoid unwanted fat gain.

How Does Protein Help with Muscle Recovery?

Protein helps repair and rebuild muscle tissues that are broken down during exercise. Consuming protein after workouts provides your muscles with the necessary amino acids to recover and grow stronger. This process is crucial for muscle recovery and overall performance improvement.

Are Protein Supplements Necessary for Muscle Growth?

Protein supplements, like whey or plant-based protein powders, can be convenient for meeting your protein needs, especially if you find it challenging to get enough protein from food alone. However, they are not necessary if you can meet your protein requirements through a balanced diet.

What are the Side Effects of Consuming Too Much Protein?

Consuming too much protein can lead to potential side effects such as digestive issues (bloating, constipation), and in some cases, increased risk of kidney damage in individuals with pre-existing kidney conditions. It's crucial to balance protein intake with other nutrients and stay within recommended guidelines.

Can High Protein Intake Harm My Bones?

Contrary to some beliefs, high protein intake does not harm bones. In fact, protein can support bone health by increasing calcium absorption and promoting bone density, especially when combined with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

How Does Protein Intake Differ for Athletes and Non-Athletes?

Athletes typically have higher protein needs than non-athletes due to the increased muscle repair and growth demands from their training. While non-athletes might maintain muscle mass with 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, athletes might require up to 2.0 grams per kilogram to support their activity levels.


Understanding the role of protein in muscle growth can help you optimize your diet for better results. Whether you're an athlete or someone looking to get fit, balancing your protein intake with your activity level and overall nutrition is key to success.

Eating the right amount of protein is crucial for muscle growth. Share your thoughts below, spread the word, or explore more articles on our website for more tips!