Gabrielle Kassel is a New York based writer who has a deep affinity for weight-lifting, living mindfully, and the em-dash. She has been published at Women’s Health Magazine where she worked on the online editorial team, Feather Magazine where she was a contributing health writer, and ICE NYC where she works as the social media editor. In her free time she can be found reading self-help books, making soup, and practicing hygge.
If losing and maintaining a healthy weight is 80% food and 20% exercise, then hitting the gym isn’t even half the battle. However, for those of us who would rather Netflix and Chill than Workout and Fuel, we are not suddenly off-the-hook from our sweat routines. Instead of simply caring less about if we work out, it is time to start caring more what we eat and drink to fuel up for and recover from our workouts.
After hitting the gym 90 minutes to 2 hours a day 5 days a week for two-ish years, I had hit a muscle growth plateau: I was not getting any stronger. However, it had never occurred to me that my eating habits could be to blame. Welp, spoiler alert: All the squats and bench presses in the universe won’t get us very far unless we're consuming muscle-building material—and that means lean, rich, complete protein.
While I knew my diet was higher and fiber and vitamins than protein and fat (I eat a plant-rich and fruit-filled diet), I had a hard time finding sources online that pointed me in the right direction beyond the expected: eat fish, lean meat, chicken, and whole grains. There may be an abundance of sources for men trying to gain muscle-weight, but the same sources are not as readily available for women. So I have put together a go-to list of less-obvious protein sources for women trying to maximize those gains.
1. Eggs. Surprise, surprise. For all the trendy foods that come and go, eggs will always remain a staple, they are simply the “biggest bang for your buck”. For just 70-90 calories each, these suckers contain all nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein), plus branched-chain amino acids, which Research shows helps to reduce muscle damage in the body. Also, if your goal to maximize your weight-room effort, do NOT throw away that yolk. I repeat do NOT throw away the damn yolk. The yolk is where all the vitamin D, fatty acids, and half the protein are stored. #doitforthegains
2. Avocado. Avocados are full of monosaturated fats which help our muscles repair and B vitamins which kick our metabolisms into high-gear. We need all of them for sustained energy, muscle cell signaling, and, finally, muscle growth.
3. Nuts. This #gains spotlight is on almonds and cashews, which contain 150(ish) calories per ounce, and are full of fiber, fat, and protein. These snack-baggie approved food will helps us get those extra healthy calories, without making us gain weight in the “unwanted ways” (bra bulge and back pudge, we’re looking at you). While I don’t recommend eating nuts the way I eat popcorn at a rom-com (i.e. mindlessly), a heaping handful of these little guys will keep you satisfied.
4. Chickpeas. Two words: versatile bean. Finally, a health food that comes in a can! This bean contains 45 grams of slow-acting carbs per cup along with 12 grams of fiber. It’s the perfect replacement for rice and taste amazing in curry sauce, on salads, and murdered into hummus (lol).
5. Chia Seeds. So tiny! So mighty! These tiny black seeds expand to hold up to nine times their weight in liquid, filling you up with protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and fiber, helping you rebuild muscles, and fight inflammation. BOOM! Warning: if you overeat these little guys you can be prepared for bloat. Why is that? They contain a staggering amount of fiber, which can help keep you from getting backed up…. but if we increase our protein intake without increasing our fiber intake, constipation becomes a serious threat.
6. Greek Yogurt. Flavor: plain (sorry, but those flavored ones sneak in a lot of sugar). An average serving (depending on the brand) can have 12 to 17.3 grams of protein. People (like me, hi) who have lactose intolerance may also find Greek yogurt easier to digest because of the bacterial breakdown of the milk’s sugars. Greek Yogurt is also full of probiotics which keep our bellies healthy and happy. Try adding a banana or drizzle of honey to help sweeten up this post-workout snack.
7. Almond Butter. If you’re wondering why almond butter is on the list but peanut butter is not, it’s because almond butter has a better fat to protein ratio than peanut butter. When it comes to almond butter I recommend you have a heart-to-heart with yourself before taking spoon to jar. Does your workout really require that you refuel? If you went on a 15 minute walk, stretched for half an hour, or did light strength-training activity for a half hour or less, make sure that your body wants and needs to be re-fueled. Ask yourself: am I hungry? Is my body craving protein? Or I am simply in the habit of eating of eating after my workouts?
8. Oatmeal. Grab this low-processed carb that is known for its low glycemic index (GI) value. Why is a low glycemic index important? Because it has a a good macronutrient profile, is full of fiber, helps you feel full for longer, and helps promote fat burn. For max results (#gains), choose whole oats. They’re digested more slowly than quick cooking or instant oatmeal.
9. Blueberries. No, it’s not for the protein… truthfully they don’t have any protein. But! They contain more antioxidants than just about any other foods! Remember, muscles don’t grow DURING the weight-lifting session. They grow as they REPAIR themselves after your workout. Antioxidants will allow help those muscles repair themselves. (Note: if you are interested in getting those antioxidants, and are tired AF, grab a cup of green tea- it will give you some antioxidants and caffeine).
10. Soy Milk. Confession, it's an acquired taste. But the way it mix protein, whole carbs, and fiber will keep your muscles fed with amino acids for hours on end. Plus, because it is low in calories (80 calories per cup), it’s the perfect drink for that lean muscle mass. Soy milk is naturally lower in sugar content than regular milk; cow's milk has about 12 grams of sugar per cup as opposed to only 7 grams in soy milk. Soy milk also has 30% of our calcium needs per day and a high portion of antioxidants.
11. Kimichi. Healthy gut= healthy life! This fermented veggie dish is packed with probiotics, which are vital to a healthy gut. Why should you care about having a healthy gut? Because the healthier the mix of bacteria in our guts, the better our nutrient absorption. So we should load up on this sweet-and-sour side dish because it could help us absorb more amino acids for muscle building.
12. Beets. According to the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics eating beets an hour and fifteen minutes before exercising improves performance, reduces perceived levels of exertion, and decreases the amount of oxygen that adults’ bodies need to complete a workout. The result of this is that you can push yourself harder, lift heavier, and grow bigger muscles. However, beets are also a good post-workout snack because they are high in immune-boosting vitamin C, fiber, and essential minerals like potassium which is essential for healthy nerve and muscle function. What’s a better way to fight the germs left behind from the person who used the elliptical machine before you than using purell and eating beets? ;)
13. Spirulina. This weird blue-green algae is flooded with protein. Just two tablespoons pack eight grams! So add it to anything you would typically eat post-sweat. Gram for gram, spirulina is literally the single most nutritious food on the planet. Furthermore, In two studies, spirulina was shown to enhance endurance, significantly increasing the time it took for people to become fatigued. Another study in college athletes found that spirulina supplementation increased muscle strength, but did not have any effect on endurance. Convinced? You should be.
14. Oranges. Vitamin C plays a key role in muscle growth and is a potent antioxidant. Choose oranges and other whole citrus fruits over even 100 percent fruit- juice. That way, you’ll benefit from the fruit’s fiber, too.
15. Sweet Potatoes. Whether you want to bulk up or lose weight, working this fiber-rich vegetable into your diet will help you reach your fitness goals. (Again, #doitforthegains). My favorite way to eat these babes is mashed sweet potato or baked sweet potato chips.
16. Edamame. Available fresh or frozen, edamame can be boiled whole, then shelled and eaten as a snack or added to stir fries, soups or salads. Edamame have much of the same nutritional benefits as other soy products such as tofu or soy milk.
17. Water. When we’re working out for 90 minutes or less, H20 is the perfect way to hydrate. The best way to make sure you’re getting enough fluids: weigh yourself before and after exercise. Then drink two and a half cups of fluid for every pound you’ve lost.