6 Muscle Building and Recovery Foods

Woman's back in the fitness room.Research has shown that athletes have greater protein requirements than the general population to meet muscle growth and recovery needs. High quality protein sources rich in essential amino acids are especially emphasized as they cannot be produced by the body.

The branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) leucine, isoleucine, and valine are essential amino acids that demonstrate a unique ability to promote muscle growth and have shown to increase strength, muscle hypertrophy (growth), and recovery after exercise [i]. Leucine is the most important BCAA as it plays a significant role in building muscle and preventing breakdown .

If you are an athlete that regularly engages in high intensity exercise, you will benefit from foods rich in BCAA. If you are unable to consume enough protein rich foods, either supplement BCAA or consume them as part of a whey protein powder before (or during) and after your exercise sessions.

We recommend the following top 6 foods rich in BCAA: Chicken, turkey, lean beef, turkey, wild salmon, tilapia, eggs & dairy products. The amount of the BCAA, leucine required to maximize muscle building after strength training is 2-3 g [iii].

skinless chicken breastsChicken and Turkey: Both provide the body with the same amount of protein per 3 oz.  Chicken however, supplies the body with a higher amount of BCAA.  To meet the 2-3 g leucine requirement for maximizing muscle growth, consume 6 oz of either chicken or turkey (see the table below for details).


BeefLean Beef: Beef is not only an excellent food for muscle growth, but is also rich in the bioavailable form of iron known as heme iron.  Athletes who suffer from low iron stores are at risk for iron deficiency anemia, which has shown to negatively affect athletic performance, especially endurance exercise [iv]. To promote muscle building, consume about 6 oz of beef.


TilapiaWild Salmon and Tilapia: Both excellent foods for muscle growth, with 6 oz providing the body with a sufficient amount of leucine. Salmon is a cold water fatty fish rich in the omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) which have shown to reduce inflammation in athletes.  A study in 2009 [v] demonstrated that supplementing with the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA for six weeks has shown to benefit exercise-trained men by decreasing resting levels of the inflammatory biomarkers after exercise.


Egg yolk (1)Eggs & Dairy products. To meet the body’s leucine requirements, you would have to eat 6 whole eggs in one day which is not realistic for most people.  Eating eggs along with other high quality protein sources will meet the muscle’s need for growth. Consuming a whole egg (as opposed to just the egg white) is incredibly beneficial as the yolk is rich in vitamins and minerals, as well as omega 3 fatty acids. Furthermore, to benefit from immune enhancing probiotics, choose yogurt or kefir as your dairy source.  If you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian athlete and feel that you are not getting enough high quality whole protein sources, you may want to consider supplementing with whey protein as it is an excellent source of BCAA.

The table below outlines the protein and BCAA content of high quality food sources for athletes.

Food Serving Protein BCAA Leucine Isoleucine Valine
Chicken 3 oz 24 g 3.3g 1.5 g 0.9 g 1.0 g
Lean Beef 3 oz 25 g 3.1 g 1.4 g 0.8 g 0.9 g
Turkey 3 oz 24 g 2.6 g 1.4 g 0.6 g 0.7 g
Wild Salmon 3 oz 22 g 3 g 1.4 g 0.8 g 0.9 g
Tilapia 3 oz 22 g 3 g 1.4 g 0.8 g 0.8 g
Egg 1 large 6.3 g 1.3 g 0.5 g 0.3 g 0.4 g

Table adapted from [vi], [vii].

3oz is approximately the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand

By Holistic Sports Nutritionist Nilo Ghajar-Williams

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[i] Jackman S.R., Witard O.C., Jeukendrup A.E., & Tipton K.D. (2010).  Branched-chain amino acid ingestion can ameliorate soreness from eccentric exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 42(5), 962–970.

[ii] Smith H.J., Mukerji P., & Tisdale M.J. (2005).  Attenuation of proteasome-induced proteolysis in skeletal muscle by{betafinal }-hydroxy-{beta}-methylbutyrate in cancer-induced muscle loss. Cancer Research, 65, 277–283.

[iii] Wilson J.M., Wilson S.M.C, Leonneke J.P, Wray M., Norton L.E., Campbell B.I., Lowery R.P., & Stout J.R. (2012).  Effects of amino acids and their metabolites on aerobic and anaerobic sports.  National Strength & Conditioning Association, 34(4), 33-48.

[iv] Roussell M., (2014).  What are the best BCAA food sources.  Retrieved from: www.bodybuilding.com

[v] Bloomer R.J., Larson D.E., Fisher-Wellman K.H., et al. (2009). Effect of eicosa- pentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid on resting and exercise-induced inflammatory and oxidative stress biomarkers: a randomized, placebo controlled, cross-over study. Lipids Health Dis., 36(8).  Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19691834

[vi] Roussell M., (2014).  What are the best BCAA food sources.  Retrieved from: www.bodybuilding.com

[vii] USDA (2014).  Retrieved from: http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/