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Best Protein Sources

Bodybuilders are well known for having strict diets. It is commendable that they are able to maintain such discipline in food intake, but does that mean that they also have to miss out on variety? In this article, we will have a look at the commonly eaten meats here in Australia, as well as their nutrient composition to determine whether or not they are suitable for a bodybuilder’s diet. We then have a look to see whether supplementing is necessary. A lot of the information here is applicable whether your goal is to become huge, or if you’re a little on the chubby side and want to lose a few kilos.

Nutrients in Meat for Bodybuilding

The composition of meat differs from cut to cut, as well as cooking method. It would not be feasible to include every cut of meat, from every species of animal, and from every cooking method. So instead, this table is a summary of some of the more commonly eaten cuts, in their raw form (unless otherwise indicated), as well as the nutrients that may be of interest to bodybuilders.

  Fully trimmed sirloin beef steak Lean chicken breast Lean pork loin chop Fully trimmed lamb loin chop Kangaroo loin fillet Canned tuna in water Atlantic salmon fillet
Energy (KCal/100 g) 124 105 110 173 95 101 202
Protein (g/100 g) 23.9 22.3 23.2 27.9 21.4 17.2 20.7
Fat (g/100 g) 3.2 1.6 1.8 7.1 0.9 1.8 13.3
Saturated fat (g/100 g) 1.2 0.5 0.7 2.8 0.3 0.8 4.1
(mg/100 g)
6 12 11 8 3 NA 7
(mg/100 g)
2.18 0.4 0.46 1.84 3.4 NA 1.1
(mg/100 g)
27 28 26 29 26 NA 25
(mg/100 g)
3.74 0.7 1.29 2.71 2.3 NA 0.31

NA = Not analysed. All values sourced from FSANZ (2010).

Lean Meats for Bodybuilders

The energy contents of these meats are largely reflected by the amount of inseparable fat. For example, kangaroo is a very lean meat, with very little to no intramuscular fat (fat in between muscles), consequently, it has a much lower energy content compared to lamb, a meat with high levels of intramuscular fat. Comparing very lean meats like kangaroo, tuna, pork, and chicken, we can see that there is little difference between their energy content. The protein contents of those of these meats are fairly similar, averaging in the low 20s. Lamb contains the most protein, but we need to be wary about picking lamb as our favourite meat because it is also very high in fat.

Low fat meats include chicken, pork, kangaroo, and tuna. The proportions of saturated fats within these meats are even lower, not even reaching 1 g/100 g. Some cuts of beef can be quite low in fat (eg. topside and round), and consequently, the mince made from these cuts are also low in fat. So if you were to use this to make a burger, it could still be a healthy and tasty choice for the health conscious. Calcium is highest in chicken and pork, most likely as a result of the way these animals being raised on calcium supplemented diets. Not surprisingly, iron is highest in the red meats, ie. beef, lamb, and kangaroo. This is also true for zinc. Magnesium is fairly consistent across all species.

Meats Recommended for Bodybuilders

From this we can see that there is more to life than just chicken breast. Tuna, lean pork, kangaroo, and even beef can make its way into a bodybuilder’s diet. Just make sure you trim the meat of as much fat as possible (very easy with the right chicken, pork, and roo cuts). If you're looking for a beef mince, look for a "low fat", "lean", or "Heart Smart" labeled product. Generally you can tell how much fat there is in the mince by the presence of white flecks. Kangaroo is probably the most standout meat listed here. It has a protein content comparable to all others, while also having the benefit of being a red meat (hence high iron level), without having the drawback of fat. However, kangaroo meat may also be the most pricey of the above. Lamb probably should be eaten just as treat because of its high fat content. Salmon is a popular seafood, and compared to all other meats, has the highest levels of omega 3 fats. It is surprising to see the relatively high saturated fat content of salmon. This may be a result of raising these animals through aquaculture instead of being wild caught. Because of the high levels of saturated fat, Australian salmon, like lamb should probably be only consumed occasionally, instead of being a staple. To meet your requirements, an omega 3 supplement (eg. Fish oil) is a cheap and easy alternative. If you’re in a bulking phase and would like to get your hands on an energy dense meat, and do not mind the fat, then lamb and salmon may be suitable for regular consumption. These two are significantly higher in energy than any of the other meats listed, and may prove valuable for a short bout of weight gain.

Protein Supplements vs Meat

If we take chicken as an example, a 100 g serving gives 22 g of protein. We know from our recommended protein intake article that an 80 kg novice bodybuilder is recommended to consume 160 g of protein. That equates to 700 g of chicken breast, which is a sizeable, but not impossible amount. The only issue is that, it may be difficult to prepare this amount of meat and find the time to eat it every day, while fitting it in with work or school. This is where a protein supplement comes in very handy. A popular blended protein powder contains 24 g protein/serve. This can effectively eliminate the need to eat 100 g of meat.

Protein may not be too unrealistic to achieve through eating meat alone, but when we get to the micronutrients, things start to get ridiculous. The above meats contain on average 26 mg magnesium. Some studies have shown that magnesium may have testosterone boosting and ergogenic effects, but for this to happen, doses need to be as high as 640 mg/day for an 80 kg person (Brilla et al, 1992). This equates to approximately 2.5 kg meat, which is starting to become impractical. How do you find room for carbs and other non-meat based nutrients if you’re stuffing yourself full of chicken breast every meal? Also, lets not forget about the bigger boys out there. Superheavy weight body builders are over 100 kg. Is it expected for them to eat over 3 kilos of chicken breast every day to get their daily magnesium requirements?

And what about creatine? Creatine is arguably one of the most popular supplements for bodybuilders and athletes. Meat (especially red meat) is indeed the main natural source of creatine. However, it is known that red meat contains only 350 mg creatine/100 g (Williams, 2007). Typically, 5 g creatine is consumed per day for strength and weight building. This would equate to over 1.4 kg of red meat. Not too bad, you think? What about creatine loading? This is typically done at 20 g/day, which means over 5.7 kg of read meat per day. Good luck with that! So in this case, not only are creatine supplements the sensible choice, they are also also considerably cheaper.

Protein Supplements are Economical & Convenient

Finally, cost is an issue that must be taken into consideration. Of the above mentioned meats, chicken and canned tuna would be the cheapest, ranging from approximately $1 to $1.50 per 100 g serving, depending on your retailer. A popular blended whey protein supplement can retail for as low as $1 per serve (keeping in mind one serve gives you approximately the same protein as 100 g meat). When we start to explore the other meats, things start to get really expensive. The above mentioned meats (beef, pork, lamb) can retail for around $2 per 100 g, which is twice as expensive as a good quality whey protein. It is important to note that the intention of this article is not to encourage people to swap out their entire meat intake for supplements. Rather, the aim was to show that, first of all, there is more to life than just chicken breast. Changing up your diet day to day can really make things more enjoyable and makes the diet more sustainable in the long haul. However, at the same time, swapping out a few portions of meat for supplements can save you a lot of time and money, while also topping up your nutrient requirements.

Brilla and Haley (1992), Effect of magnesium supplementation on strength training in humans. J Am Coll Nutr, 11: 326-329.
FSANZ (2010), NUTTAB 2010 Online Searchable Database.
Williams (2007), Nutritional composition of red meat. Nutrition & Dietetics, 64: S113–S119

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