Protein isn’t just for Arnold and bodybuilding devotees. Whether your goal is simply look and feel leaner or carry groceries with ease, you’re going to need to eat protein in order to improve your strength. Protein is essential to muscle growth because it’s full of amino acids, which are critical to the process of building and maintaining muscle.
But when you’re trying to gain muscle, not all protein sources are created equal. “Protein exists in lots of different foods, but the quality of the protein in those foods varies,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition expert, author of Eating in Color and host of You Tube’s The Milk & Honey Kitchen with Frances. “The variation is due to the availability of Essential Amino Acids (EAA) and the digestibility of proteins.”
In order to compare the quality of different protein sources, food scientists came up with a standard for scoring proteins, dubbed the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS). While diet and individual needs will vary, this list rounds out the most stellar starting points.
9 Great Protein Sources to Build Muscle Now
Dairy, Eggs, and Soy
The tie for best muscle-building protein goes to eggs, soy and dairy (specifically, the whey protein and casein derived from milk). All of these sources score 1.0 on PDCAAS, which is the highest score a protein can achieve, says Largeman-Roth. Let’s take a closer look at each of these winners:
Dairy’s muscle-building powers stem from whey protein and casein, both of which are often sold in powdered forms and are frequent additions to protein powders and shakes. When purchasing these supplements, it’s best to look for formulations with no fillers or artificial flavors. The only downside? High-quality whey and casein protein powders tend to be expensive, says Largeman-Roth.
Eggs aren’t just a great protein source — they’re also a great deal. “At seven grams of protein and 80 calories per egg, [they’re] an excellent, cheap and easy-to-cook protein source,” says Largeman-Roth.
Soy scores a perfect 1.0 on the PDCAAS scale, however some research suggests it should be consumed in moderation. (And if you’re one of the many people with a soy allergy, you should steer clear entirely.)
It’s likely no surprise that meat is one of the best protein sources around (although it might be surprising that it doesn’t top the list). Beef, for example, has a PDCAAS score of 0.92. It also packs a whopping 23 grams of protein into a three-ounce, 207-calorie serving (not to mention iron and other minerals), says Largeman-Roth. The main downsides to meat are that it tends to be more expensive than many of the other sources on this list (especially if you opt for healthier organic varieties). Also, frequent meat consumption is a no-go if you’re concerned about your eco-footprint.
While different types of seafood have different PDCAAS scores (just like different types of meat), overall, seafood is “an awesome protein source,” says Largeman-Roth. Tuna, for example, has a score of 0.9. It’s also low-calorie and very affordable. Many types of fish also boast high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which have powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds pack a surprising amount of protein into very small packages. A one-ounce serving of almonds boasts six grams of protein and four grams of fiber, in addition to vitamin E and calcium, says Largeman-Roth. But perhaps the best protein source in this category is also the least well known. Sachi Inchi seeds (aka Inca peanuts, often an ingredient in vegan protein bars and powders) land a 0.87 on the PDCAAS scale. A one-ounce serving boasts nine grams of protein and six grams of fiber.
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This category includes everything from beans to lentils to peas to peanuts — but not all legumes provide readily accessible protein. For example, chickpeas score 0.78 and yellow split peas (which are often used to make the pea protein powder) score 0.64, whereas peanuts score a more modest 0.52, says Largeman-Roth. Still, legumes are considered a healthy protein source overall.
Honorable Mention: Hemp Protein
While hemp doesn’t yet have a PDCAAS score, “It’s a great addition to any diet,” Largeman-Roth says. “It’s rich in omega-3s and fiber and also contains protein.” The only downside? To reach the same protein levels that you’d gain from three ounces of beef, you’d have to consume around seven tablespoons (or 414 calories) of hemp protein, says Largeman-Roth.
So if four out of the five best protein sources consist of animal products (i.e. dairy, eggs, meat and seafood), does this mean that vegans are out of luck when it comes to strength gains? And what about all the vegan athletes who have gained so much media attention over the past few years?
Largeman-Roth explains: “There are amazing, delicious, and high-quality sources of animal-free protein, but you generally need to eat a larger volume of them to get the same grams of protein that you would from a three-ounce serving of meat.” So while it is possible to gain muscle while going meatless or being vegan, you’ll just need to be much more aware of your dietary needs. Plan your meals and snacks ahead (we’re loving these homemade protein bars) in order to consume enough protein to facilitate muscle growth.