Last updated on November 29th, 2023.
If you are interested in packing on a little muscle ahead of pool season, it is likely that consuming more protein has shown up at the top of even the most rudimentary diet and exercise plans. When digging a little deeper, you will probably have stumbled upon “amino acids” and their role in protein synthesis. But what are amino acids, and what foods contain them?
Amino acids are the building blocks that form proteins, which aid in healthy muscle growth and repair. There are 9 essential amino acids that must be consumed through diet, with foods such as animal meat, eggs, and dairy products being the most “complete” protein sources that contain all of these essential amino acids.
If animal sources are not part of your diet, please be aware that there are many types of foods that contain some of the essential amino acids. When consumed together, they can help you achieve muscle growth. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about which foods contain amino acids to help with muscle growth!
What Is An Amino Acid?
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Proteins are linked chains of amino acids. In the same way that letters of the alphabet are linked together to form unique words, specific combinations of amino acids form unique proteins.
Which Amino Acid Is Best For Muscle Growth?
Of the 20 total amino acids, there are 9 “essential” amino acids. These amino acids are not produced by the body and must be consumed through diet. These 9 essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. This is one of the things personal trainers need to know because knowing just how amino acids affect the body is essential to overall health.
Although each of these essential amino acids plays an important role in muscle growth, there are three, known as the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), that are synthesized mostly in the muscle itself and not in the liver or kidneys like the other amino acids. These 3 BCAAs are leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
Each of these BCAAs is absolutely essential for muscle growth and repair. While nutritionists and dieticians are somewhat split on exactly which BCAA is the best for muscle growth, many believe that leucine, with its role in enhancing strength performance, is the best overall amino acid for promoting muscle growth.
What Food Has All 9 Essential Amino Acids?
Foods that contain all 9 of the essential amino acids are known as “complete” proteins. It is critical to consume a healthy portion of complete proteins each day to achieve your muscle building goals.
Unfortunately for those following vegan and vegetarian diets, animal-based foods are overwhelmingly the best source of complete protein. Red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products are all examples of complete proteins.
For non-animal based protein sources, quinoa is often viewed as a superfood that has all 9 essential amino acids, though hardcore muscle-builders do not feel it has them in high enough quantities to stack up against animal-based sources.
Other non-animal sources of essential amino acids, such as nuts, seeds, legumes, and some vegetables, lack at least one essential AA and must be consumed concomitantly to ensure the body is getting optimal levels to promote muscle growth. Due to their lack of all 9 essential amino acids, these foods are referred to as “incomplete” sources of protein.
9 Foods With Amino Acids to Fuel Muscle Growth
Now that you know a little bit about what amino acids are and their role in forming proteins to aid in muscle recovery and growth, let’s take a more detailed look into 9 specific foods that have amino acids to enhance muscle growth. Taking a certification from the National Council on Strength and Fitness will get you to understand nutrition for your body composition.
1. Animal Meat
Yes, there are numerous concerns about consuming beef. Animal cruelty. Environmental factors. Astronomical cost.
However, there is no denying that a lean beef steak is the most complete source of protein on the planet, chalk full of amino acids that you can’t get in the same quantities from a single source anywhere else.
If beef is out of your budget, poultry is a great alternative. It is also loaded with amino acids that will put muscle growth into overdrive. And for those hardcore bodybulding types, a cold chicken breast is far less disgusting to eat after a hard gym session than a cold beef steak.
Pork is a distant third to beef and poultry mainly due to the higher fat content and the fact that you can never really trust what pigs are eating.
When consuming any of these animal meat sources, always try to go with fresh, organic cuts as opposed to processed varieties.
Fish is another complete protein source that fits into more diet types than animal meats. While the amino acid content in fish isn’t as high as it is through animal sources, it does have some other benefits, such as being a considerably leaner protein source and providing essential fatty acids.
As breakfast meats such as bacon and sausage are generally low quality sources of animal protein, eggs are the best way to get your essential amino acids in the A.M.
A single egg contains 6 grams of protein, with their nutritional profile not altered based on the way you prefer to cook them.
All dairy products are complete sources of protein, so if you are not a milk person, you can get your essential aminos from cottage cheese or sliced cheese.
The benefit to milk is that it makes for quick consumption, is full of nutrients and allows you to immediately start building back muscle in that all-important 45-minute window following a workout.
Just be aware that most people are lactose intolerant to some degree, so don’t be surprised if increased dairy consumption leads to some stomach problems.
Although an incomplete protein source, almonds do contain some essential amino acids, specifically lysine and methionine. The huge benefit to using almonds as an amino acid source is that they contain high levels of insoluble fiber–a nutrient absent in basically all complete protein sources but essential for a healthy body.
As mentioned, quinoa is listed as one of the only non-animal complete protein sources. However, it will not contain amino acids in the same quantity as animal sources.
The major perk of quinoa is its overall balanced nutritional profile. It contains a little bit of just about everything and should be eaten in large quantities by vegetarians looking to gain muscle.
7. Peanut Butter
Peanut butter makes this list because of its convenience. It lacks all 9 essential amino acids but does contain some, making it a strong choice for vegetarians. Just be sure to try and consume recipes low in sugar and hydrogenated oils.
Beans are another incomplete protein source that should be a staple in the diets of non-meat eaters. Like quinoa, beans have a well-rounded nutritional profile, with especially high levels of fiber.
Chickpeas make this list because hummus is a great way to get some amino acids while also consuming your fibrous vegetables. Instead of dipping broccoli or celery in ranch, use hummus to aid in muscle building.
Consume These Foods With Amino Acids and Watch Your Muscles Grow
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, which is essential for the repair and growth of muscles. Most of the complete protein sources that contain all of the essential amino acids come from animal products. However, there are many other foods that contain some amino acids, so use the aforementioned list to find your ideal combination of AA-containing foods to help your muscles grow as fast as possible! Learn about the benefits of HIIT training for athletes to effectively achieve your muscle growth goals.