Despite what some fitness influencers might try to tell you, there is no one “magic food”, “perfect diet” or “proprietary supplement” that will instantly pack on pounds of lean muscle, or melt away body fat.
Building lean muscle takes a lot of hard work.
Your training program needs to be challenging enough to provide a signal to your muscles that they need to grow.
And while it’s true that you can eat whatever you want and still lose weight if you’re in a calorie deficit (like the guy who famously lost weight while eating only McDonald’s), there are certain foods that will make you look and feel your best and others that increase the risk of muscle loss.
To help you improve your food choices, I’ve made a list of the 16 foods that will help support your body composition goals of losing fat and gaining muscle.
- High-protein foods encourage muscle growth and fat loss by helping you burn more calories per day and increasing satiety.
- Fiber-rich foods improve digestion and assist with feeling full to help with losing fat and improving your health.
- There are two key supplements that can improve your ability to lose fat and build muscle at the same time if implemented correctly (more on this below).
Protein is the single most important macronutrient for building muscle because the amino acids in protein are the building blocks of all of the lean tissue in your body.
Of the 22 amino acids that exist, 9 cannot be produced by your body and must be consumed in your diet; these are the essential amino acids.
Eating a variety of protein sources that contain these essential amino acids is crucial for building lean muscle.
In addition to contributing directly to muscle growth, protein can help you to burn fat. Protein is the most satiating nutrient, so it can help to keep hunger at bay even when you are consuming fewer calories, which helps you lose fat.
Also, building lean muscle helps with burning fat because the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, even at rest. So, the two goals (building muscle and burning fat) actually go hand in hand.
You can also check out our more specialized targets in the article “How Much Protein When Cutting?”
High-protein foods are foods that provide the majority (at least 80%) of their calories from protein and provide at least 10 grams of protein per serving.
Here are some high-protein foods to help you build lean muscle and burn fat:
- Related: Best Single Macro Foods (Complete List + PDF Download)
1. Egg Whites
Egg whites top the list for protein-packed foods with 99% of their calories coming from protein.
This makes them a great way to add protein to your diet without any additional calories from carbs or fat, which makes them a great choice when you’re trying to build muscle and lose body fat at the same time.
One cup of egg whites has 125 calories, 26 grams of protein,1.8 grams of carbs, and 0.4 grams of fat.
My favorite thing about egg whites is that they’re versatile; You can scramble them, use them in omelets, hard boil them and add them to salads, stir them into your oatmeal, or add them to a protein shake.
- Related Article: The 7 Most Effective Ab Exercises For A Flat Stomach, According To Experts
Tuna is another staple for bodybuilders, so if you’re looking to build muscle and be lean like a bodybuilder, tuna is a great choice.
Tuna is a high-quality protein with essential nutrients like vitamin B12, vitamin B6, niacin (vitamin B3), and selenium. These B vitamins are involved in energy metabolism, to help you burn fat and give you energy for your workouts.
Tuna is naturally low in fat, so if you get fresh tuna or canned tuna packed in water, it will help with your muscle mass while you lose body fat.
If you are looking to bulk up instead, opt for tuna packed in oil to add extra calories.
For example, 1 can of tuna packed in water will have 120 calories and 26 grams of protein, but 1 can of tuna packed in oil will have 280 calories and 20 grams of fat and 24 grams of protein.
You can easily make a tuna sandwich, or add tuna to a salad or stir fry.
- Related Article: How To Build Muscle In 30 Days: The Ultimate Workout Plan
3. Chicken Breast
Chicken breasts (skinless) are another high-quality lean protein source for building lean muscle.
Each 4 oz serving provides 25 grams of protein for only 120 calories (86% of calories from protein).
Like tuna, chicken breasts are also a good source of niacin (vitamin B3), selenium, vitamin B6, and phosphorus. The B vitamins are important for metabolism, helping you to burn calories and lose fat.
With so many ways to prepare chicken breasts (grilling, baking, poaching, and roasting are all great options), you can easily add them to any meal.
I like grilled chicken on my salad, or roasted chicken and vegetables for dinner.
4. Lean Beef
Extra-lean ground beef is actually considered a “mixed macro” food (rather than solely a protein source) because its calories come from both protein (69%) and fat (31%).
The protein in beef is great for building muscle and is considered to be “on par” with whey protein supplements, which are considered the gold standard for building muscle.
Beef is also a natural source of creatine, a molecule that is used as an energy source and linked to muscle growth (covered in the Supplements section, below).
Plus, the fat content in lean beef helps to supply more calories, which can help to ensure you’re consuming enough calories to build muscle.
You can cook ground beef into patties or meatloaf, or brown a package and add it to pasta sauces, soups, stews, and chilis, or make a Big Mac salad.
Fiber adds volume to food without adding calories because fiber is not absorbed by the body, so it can help you feel full on fewer calories, making it easier to stick with a calorie deficit for fat loss.
Fiber also helps you to burn more calories because, similar to protein, it has a higher thermic effect of food, meaning that it costs the body more energy to break down. So you’re burning more calories per day simply by eating higher-fiber foods.
Fiber does not have muscle-building properties on its own, but it’s a critical component in helping you feel your best by promoting better digestion and nutrient absorption (due to better gut health).
The American Heart Association recommends an intake of 25-30 grams of fiber per day for healthy adults.
Important note: Because fiber slows down digestion, it is NOT a good choice for meals or snacks immediately before or after training. It’s best to consume your fiber-rich foods at meals or snacks away from your training sessions.
5. Whole Grains
Whole grains like brown rice, oatmeal, whole wheat, whole rye, and bulgar are all excellent sources of dietary fiber.
Start your day with oatmeal or whole grain toast, and have brown rice or another grain with lunch or dinner.
6. Beans and Legumes
Beans and legumes actually pull double duty: they are a great source of plant-based protein and of dietary fiber.
Plant proteins have a favorable effect on lipid (fat) metabolism, so these foods help with building lean muscle and losing fat.
There are so many different types of beans and legumes, you are sure to find several that you like.
Here are some of my favorites:
- Black beans: great in a breakfast burrito along with egg whites
- Kidney beans: the perfect addition to a beef chili
- Chickpeas: pair them with chicken as a salad topper
Related Article: 15 Beans & Legumes With The Most Protein (Complete List)
Berries are high in water content and high in fiber; these two factors make them very filling for a small number of calories, which is helpful for fat loss.
Additionally, berries are high in antioxidants, which help to reduce cholesterol.
This study showed that women who ate a low-calorie diet containing fruit improved their cardiovascular risk more than women who ate the same low-calorie diet without fruit, even when weight loss was the same.
Add some sliced strawberries to a salad, or stir a handful of blueberries into oatmeal or yogurt.
8. Leafy Greens
Leafy greens might be low in calories, but they are packed with nutrients (like vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, iron, and calcium) and are high in fiber.
Vitamin C helps boost your immune system so that you’re less likely to get sick, magnesium is a key mineral for muscle recovery after your workouts, potassium is an electrolyte to maintain hydration levels, iron is important for healthy blood and energy levels, and calcium helps with strong teeth and bones.
So, there are lots of ways that these greens are involved in giving you the nutrients you need to train hard and recover well so that you can build lean muscle, while also keeping you feeling energized and satiated as you lose body fat.
You can add leafy greens to most meals, but my favorite ways to include them are in omelets, salads, bowls, or stir-fries.
It might sound strange to consider eating fat to lose fat, but we do need a certain amount of fat each day to support cellular function and hormones like testosterone, which is critical for building muscle.
Similar to protein’s essential amino acids, there are essential fatty acids from dietary fat that the body needs to function optimally.
My general recommendation is for 20-35% of total daily calories to come from fat.
That said, it’s important that the fats we eat come from minimally processed whole-food sources. These healthy fats balance inflammation in the body, and the whole foods that contain them provide other beneficial nutrients, as well.
Fat is slow-digesting, which makes it satiating, and research has shown that there are fat sensors in the mouth and the small intestine that can help regulate appetite when fat is eaten. This makes eating fat helpful for losing fat.
9. Fatty Fish
Fatty fish like salmon, sardines, or mackerel are at the top of my list of healthy fats for building lean muscle and losing fat because they are a source of dietary protein AND a source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Regular consumption of fish and fish oil supplements is linked to a lower risk of cardiac disease and death.
Most exciting for me as a competitive athlete, supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids promotes muscular recovery, meaning that you can recover faster and train harder, which promotes muscle growth.
You can roast, poach, or pan-fry fish to serve with any meal. I personally like the convenience of canned fish for a portable meal or snack.
- Related Article: 27 Fish With The Most Protein (Complete List)
10. Olive Oil
Olive oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which help to reduce inflammation and optimize muscle recovery.
Extra-virgin olive oil in particular is higher in antioxidants and helps to reduce “bad” cholesterol and lowers the risk of heart disease.
Olive oil is a perfect choice for drizzling on salads or on cooked vegetables. You can even add it to a protein shake (but don’t have this shake immediately before or after your workout, since fat is slow-digesting).
Avocado is a great choice because this fruit is high in both fat and fiber, which are two important nutrients for muscle building and fat loss.
This whole food option is also high in:
- Potassium, which helps to preserve muscle mass
- Vitamin B, which is a key factor in muscle protein synthesis (a precursor to muscle growth)
- Vitamin C, which reduces age-related muscle loss
So, avocados are satiating to help you stick with a calorie deficit to lose fat AND they contain beneficial nutrients for muscle-building and muscle retention.
My go-to way to enjoy avocado is slices on multigrain toast, but you can also mash an avocado with a little lemon juice and salt to make a simple guacamole.
12. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are sometimes mistaken as good sources of protein, but they provide the majority of their calories from healthy poly- and monounsaturated fat.
Nuts and seeds are rich in essential minerals and micronutrients, such as iron, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus also found in leafy greens.
Nuts and seeds are very calorie-dense (providing a high number of calories in a small serving size) so it’s important to be mindful of your portion size.
For example, just one ounce of nuts or seeds has close to 200 calories.
Mixed Macro Foods
I’ve already touched on a few mixed macro foods, including lean ground beef (a great source of protein for muscle-building, while also providing satiating fat) and fatty fish (a great source of omega-3 fatty acids for muscle recovery, while also providing protein for muscle-building).
Here are two more foods that don’t fit neatly into the categories above, but are great choices for building lean muscle and burning fat.
Whole eggs combine the protein of egg whites with a nutrient-dense egg yolk that is high in fat, to make it filling and nutritious.
One large egg has 78 calories, 6 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat, and <1 gram of carbs.
Additionally, whole eggs are high in choline, which helps with the conversion of fat in the liver for energy (fat-burning) and the communication between your brain and muscles (which helps with performing exercise and therefore is good for muscle-building).
Consider adding 1-2 whole eggs along with your egg whites, or having an egg salad sandwich on whole-grain bread, or a sliced hard-boiled egg with veggie sticks or on a salad.
Quinoa can be confusing because while it’s commonly referred to as a whole grain, it’s technically a seed. However, for dietary purposes, it’s nutritionally more like a whole grain.
Quinoa has some unique advantages compared to whole grains:
- 1 cup of cooked quinoa has about 8 grams of protein, which is double the amount of protein in 1 cup of brown rice
- Quinoa is a complete protein, meaning it has all 9 essential amino acids, whereas many plant-based proteins are incomplete proteins (they do not provide all 9 essential acids); the protein in brown rice is incomplete
- 1 cup of cooked quinoa contains about 5 grams of fiber, which makes it a high-fiber food
- Quinoa is naturally gluten-free
Quinoa’s higher protein, fiber, and fat content make it slower-digesting, meaning it will keep you full for longer and help with fat loss, while at the same time providing you with the amino acids needed for building lean muscle.
Cook and enjoy quinoa similar to any other whole grain. It can be mixed with dried or fresh fruit and cinnamon for a sweet option or served as a savory side dish like rice.
Once you’ve got a foundation of minimally processed whole foods for building muscle and burning fat in place (like those listed above), then you can consider a few basic supplements to assist with your goals.
As the name implies, supplements are meant to be supplemental to an existing balanced diet and are not meant to replace whole food choices.
Whey protein and creatine are both linked to improving muscle size and strength and also for weight loss, so they are great choices for building lean muscle and burning fat.
- Related Article: 30 Ways To Increase Protein Intake Without Protein Powder
15. Whey Protein Powder
Whey protein powder is a convenient way to help people meet their daily protein requirements, and it’s one of the highest-quality proteins due to its amino acid profile (including the amino acid leucine) that stimulates muscle protein synthesis (a precursor to muscle growth).
But, beyond muscle-building, did you know that the leucine in whey protein is also linked to higher satiety? This means it’s helpful for weight loss since it keeps you feeling full for longer periods.
To make the most of these hunger-suppressing and muscle-building benefits, consider using whey protein for up to one-third of your daily protein requirement.
Creatine supplementation has been shown to help reduce your body fat percentage, by both increasing lean muscle and decreasing fat mass.
This meta-analysis showed that creatine supplementation combined with resistance training decreases fat mass by 0.5kg more than resistance training alone.
I recommend creatine monohydrate, which is the most widely studied form of creatine.
You can start creatine with a loading phase of 20 grams per day for 3-7 days, or just jump straight into 5 grams of creatine per day.
You can even combine our two supplement recommendations, by purchasing protein powder that has creatine in it, or by mixing creatine with protein powder yourself.
- How Long For Creatine To Work? (1-Week & 1-Month Results)
- Does Creatine Help You Lose Weight? (What Science Says)
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About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.
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