Meat Free Ways to Fuel Strong Muscles

7 Meat-Free Ways to Fuel Strong Muscles

Article by: K. Aleisha Fetters

Illustration by: Cynthia Park

Strong muscles run on protein. But that protein doesn't have to come from meat. And, sometimes, it actually shouldn't.

“Protein is the key ingredient for muscle building, and while the idea of eating animal protein may be the first thing on our minds, it is also important to seek out meat-free sources of protein," says Rania Batayneh, a nutritionist who holds a master's of public health and wrote “The One One One Diet: The Simple 1:1:1 Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss."

After all, 2017 research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that it's the total amount of protein that you get that matters for your muscles (not source!). Meanwhile, according to previous research in JAMA Internal Medicine, getting your protein from plants is linked with lower mortality.

That's because, non-meat protein sources contain nutrients that pork chops and chicken breasts just don't, Batayneh says. Think: fiber, calcium, vitamin D and phytonutrients (healthful chemical compounds found in plants).

These nutrients support not only overall health, but also running performances and fitness results. For example, calcium is vital to healthy muscle cell signaling and contractions. And phytonutrients promote post-run muscle recovery, she explains. So, when choosing where you'll get your protein, it's important to consider a food's entire nutrient profile and how it will help you reach your individual fitness and muscle-strengthening goals.

Here, nutritionists share seven meat-free foods that will help you build strong muscles and get the most out of every run:

1. Eggs

Fun fact: Eggs are the number-one bioavailable source of protein. That means that your body can absorb and use protein from eggs better than it can protein from any other source, explains Chicago-based registered dietitian nutritionist Vicki Shanta Retelny, author of “Total Body Diet For Dummies." She explains that the exact blend of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) contained in a food significantly impacts how much of its protein your body is able to absorb and turn into muscle. High vitamin and mineral levels also help the body more efficiently take in and use protein, she says. Eggs have both.

In addition to all that protein—one large egg contains 6 grams—eggs are rich in vitamins B12 and D, which are linked with high energy levels and muscle health, Batayneh adds. Go ahead and eat the egg yolk—that's where you'll find the bulk of these health-boosting nutrients, she says. Multiple studies show that eggs (and other high cholesterol foods) do not increase your risk of heart disease and have a minimal effect on blood cholesterol levels.

2. Cottage Cheese

All dairy (milk, Greek yogurt, cheese, etc.) is packed with muscle-supporting calcium, vitamin D and protein. However, cottage cheese deserves a special place in your eating plan, Retelny says. A single cup of 1 percent low-fat cottage cheese contains 26 grams of protein—that's more than Greek yogurt.

What's more, the majority of cottage cheese's protein occurs as casein protein. A slow-digesting form of protein, casein keeps your muscles supplied with muscle-building amino acids for much longer than whey does, she explains. (Whey is another form of protein contained in dairy that hits your bloodstream faster.) Research published in Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise shows that, eaten as a bedtime snack, casein may help you build muscle all night long.

3. Black Beans

A single cup of the magical fruit contains 39 grams of protein, and alone meets your daily recommended intake of fiber. Black beans belong to a group of high-protein, high-fiber foods called pulses, which also includes chickpeas, lentils, other beans and peas, explains St. Louis-based registered dietitian, yoga teacher and longtime vegetarian, Alexandra Caspero.

She adds that, because pulses are low in calories but high in protein and fiber, they are especially great for runners who have weight loss as a goal. Both protein and fiber increase feelings of satiety, or fullness, while also slowing the digestion of carbohydrates to prevent blood sugar spikes—and fat storage, she explains.

4. Almonds

“These nuts contain the most protein of all of the tree nuts, plus they contain the most fiber per serving, too," Retelny says. A 1-ounce serving (23 almonds) contains 6 grams of protein and 3.5 grams of fiber. “Almonds are a versatile snack and easier to digest for many people, especially those with an allergy to peanuts," she adds.

However, it's important to remember that they are in high in fat. While the bulk of these fatty acids are unsaturated and heart-healthy, a gram of fat contains nine calories. That's why a handful of almonds contains 164 calories. Eat up, but cap intake at one serving per day, she recommends.

5. Quinoa

Grains might be known for being rich in carbs, but this ancient whole grain (that just so happens to be gluten free) is as great a source of protein as it is carbs. A cup of cooked quinoa contains more than 8 grams of protein.

“Quinoa contains every amino acid, and is particularly rich in the amino acid lysine, which promotes healthy tissue growth throughout the body," says Batayneh, the nutritionist and author of “The One One One Diet."

Lysine is critical to your body's production of collagen, which helps keep your bones as well as tendons and cartilage strong, she explains. Bonus: A cup also contains 5.2 grams of heart-healthy fiber.

6. Tofu

Like quinoa, soy is a complete protein source, meaning it contains all of the muscle-building amino acids you can only get from food, Caspero says. Some of the most important ones are the branched chain amino acids, which play a massive role in triggering muscle growth she says. Tofu is an awesome food for anyone using it to replace meats like chicken or pork.

A quarter-block of tofu contains more than 9 grams of protein. It also comes with 40 percent of your recommended daily intake of calcium, which aids in muscle cell signaling, as well as almost 35 percent of women's and 77 percent of men's daily iron needs, to help keep your energy levels up and muscles fueled.

7. Seitan

Like tofu, seitan is a great meat substitute. However, because it's basically condensed gluten, the protein contained in wheat, it weighs in with an amazing 21 grams of protein per 1/3 cup. It's also low in fat and carbs, so it's more or less a protein shake in solid form.

That said, if you have Celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, you'll need to avoid seitan for the sake of your symptoms, Caspero says.

How Much Protein's In That?

Here's how 100 gram servings of seven meat-free foods stack up to the famous chicken breast in the protein department.

Egg 12.58 grams protein

1% Cottage Cheese 11.50 grams protein

Black Beans 21.25 grams protein

Almonds 21.15 grams protein

Cooked Quinoa 4.40 grams protein

Tofu 8.08 grams protein

Seitan 24.71 grams protein

Chicken Breast 31.02 grams protein

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