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Building Muscle

Building muscle requires more than eating protein foods

To build muscle, you need to eat high quality protein and enough calories from carbohydrate and fat so that you do not burn protein for energy. You also need to do regular strength training and get enough rest and recovery between workouts.

Protein basics

Let’s go back to the basics about why protein is so important.


- helps build, repair and maintain muscle

- keeps your immune system strong

- helps to control blood sugar levels

- keeps hair, nails and skin healthy

- slows down digestion allowing a steady stream of nutrients to flow into your blood and making you feel full longer

Choosing quality protein

Protein is made of building blocks called amino acids. Some of these amino acids are not produced by our body, so we need to get them through food. These are the essential amino acids. Animal products, such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs and milk products, contain high quality protein because they have all the essential amino acids in the correct proportions. High quality protein is the best protein for building, repairing and maintaining muscle.

Plant proteins are incomplete proteins meaning they are low in, or lack, one or more of the essential amino acids. Some plants, such as quinoa and soy, provide complete protein, but in smaller amounts than animal sources. You need to eat more of these foods to get the same amount of high quality protein as contained in animal products. For example, you would have to eat 3½-4 cups (875–1000 ml) of quinoa to equal the amount of protein in a 75 gram (2½ oz.) cooked chicken breast.

How much protein do I need?

The current Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is 0.8 g/kg body weight each day, or 44–62 grams of protein for a person weighing 120–170 pounds (55–77 kg), respectively. Protein requirements are higher for endurance- and strength-trained athletes and pregnant and lactating women. Recent research now suggests the current protein recommendations should be significantly higher for adults. Learn more about protein basics through Protein for Active Canadians:

The key is having 20–30 grams of protein at meals

Eating twenty to thirty grams of high quality protein at each meal is optimal for building muscle. People over fifty years old should aim for 30 grams at each meal.

Protein-rich foods - Food Group Food Protein Content (g)

Meat and Alternatives

Beef sirloin steak cooked, 75 g (2 1/2 oz) 26g

Chicken, skinless, breast, cooked, 75 g (2 1/2 oz) 22g

Pork tenderloin, cooked, 75 g (2½ oz.) 21g

Tuna, canned light, drained, 75 g (1/2 cup) 21g

Tofu, firm, raw, 150 g (3/4 cup) 17g

Eggs, whole, cooked, 2 large 12g

Kidney beans, boiled, 175 ml (3/4 cup) 11g

Almonds, 60 ml (1/4 cup) 8g

Milk and Alternatives

Cottage cheese, 250 ml (1 cup) 30g

Yogurt, Greek, 175 ml (3/4 cup) 18g

Cheddar cheese, 50 g (1½ oz.) 12g

Milk and flavoured milk, 250 ml (1 cup) 9g

Yogurt, 175 ml (3/4 cup) 9g

Soy beverage, fortified, 250 ml (1 cup) 7g

Grain Products

Bread, whole wheat, 1 slice (35 g) 5g

Oats, quick, prepared, 175 ml (3/4 cup) 5g

Pasta, whole wheat, cooked, 125 ml (1/2 cup) 4g

Quinoa, cooked, 125 ml (1/2 cup) 3g

Rice, brown, cooked, 125 ml (1/2 cup) 3g

Vegetables and Fruit Potato, with skin, cooked, 125 ml (1/2 cup) 2g

Broccoli, cooked, 125 ml (1/2 cup) 2g

Butternut squash, cooked, 125 ml (1/2 cup) 1g

Banana, raw, 1 medium 1g

*Canada’s Food Guide servings were used for each food.

**Grams of protein are an estimate based on the Canadian Nutrient File.

Maximizing protein synthesis

To maximize protein synthesis, aim to eat 20 grams of protein within three hours of exercise, the sooner after exercise the better. Studies have shown that drinking milk as a recovery beverage after resistance exercise increases the body’s ability to make new muscle when compared to having a soy protein or carbohydrate drink. It is thought that the combination and amount of protein and carbohydrate in milk may be key to reducing muscle damage caused by strength training.

Ron Luciuk, Personal Trainer, Heavens Fitness Ltd.

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