Fish and seafood are great sources of protein. Here are the top five types for building lean muscle and the best ways to prepare them.
Seafood is packed with protein, supercharged fats, and key vitamins and minerals. But it’s important to choose well so you don’t contribute to destructive fishing practices or eat fish contaminated by mercury and other toxic compounds.
These choices provide plenty of nutritional perks, are low in harmful chemicals, and get a thumbs-up from Mother Nature.
Also called black cod, sablefish from the deep waters of the north Pacific have pearly white, buttery flesh with a similar texture as halibut. It’s exceptionally high in healthy omega-3 fats, containing nearly 500 milligrams for each 1-ounce serving.
Researchers at Saint Louis University found that omega-3 fatty acids can dampen the inflammation associated with certain types of exercise, such as weight training.1 Studies also show that omega-3 fatty acids act as anabolic agents in the body by activating muscle protein synthesis.2 The meat is also rich in the potent antioxidant selenium and includes plenty of protein to show your muscles some love.
Currently, wild sablefish populations in the waters off of Alaska are healthy due to stringent catch limits, and are harvested using sustainable fishing methods such as bottom longlines which result in little bycatch. So look for fresh or frozen sablefish at your local fishmonger labelled “wild Alaskan.”
How to Cook Sablefish
Similar to halibut, cod, and tilapia, slabs of sablefish can be steamed, broiled, poached, baked, seared in a skillet, or tossed on the grill. It’s particularly delicious when dressed with fresh salsas and reduction sauces.
Good Alternatives to Sablefish: Pacific halibut, Alaskan lingcod.
Protein Per Ounce: 5.8 grams
2. Rainbow Trout
A good substitute to farmed salmon, rainbow trout has a delicate flavor that’s slightly sweet. The protein found in trout and other fish is abundant in the essential amino acids needed to instigate lean-body-mass repair and growth. As with sablefish, trout delivers solid amounts of omega-3 fats to help fend off coronary woes. It’s also a good source of niacin, a B vitamin necessary for the conversion of the food you eat into usable energy.
Much of the rainbow trout at U.S. fishmongers is farmed in Idaho, where closed containment aquaculture systems are widely used to prevent escapes and contamination of surrounding waterways. For this reason, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program gives farmed rainbow trout a Best Choice rating.
How to Cook Rainbow Trout
Any recipe calling for salmon can work wonderfully with trout fillets. A foolproof method is to simply season fillets with salt and pepper, then roast at 400 degrees F for 12 minutes, or until the flesh just starts to flake easily. Serve with lemon wedges.
Whole, cleaned trout can also be stuffed with aromatics like herbs or lemon slices and placed on the grill or in the oven. Smoked trout is a tasty addition to sandwiches and salads.
Good Alternatives to Trout: Wild Alaskan salmon, arctic char.
Protein Per Ounce: 6.8 grams
3. Canned Sardines
Like jewelry and Kristen Bell, sardines prove that great things can come in small packages. Sardines are full flavored and meaty (unlike much of the mass-produced canned tuna on store shelves), and harbor impressive amounts of protein, omega-3 fats, and vitamin D.
Gym rats should take heed of a recent Korean study that discovered that higher intakes of vitamin D can help quell the muscle damage and inflammation resulting from working out.3
In response to heavy fishing off the coasts of countries such as Greece, Morocco, and Spain, populations of sardines in the Mediterranean Sea appear to be on the decline. So when possible, seek out Pacific sardines from the United States or Canada. Scooped up from north Pacific waters, the delicious and nutrient-dense canned sardines from Wild Planet are hard to beat.
How to Eat Sardines
Canned sardines work great on sandwiches, in pasta dishes, or strewn over pizza. You can also enjoy them straight from the can.
Good Alternatives to Sardines: Anchovies, smelt.
Protein Per Ounce: 6.9 grams
As it turns out, mussels can give you muscles. While low in calories, mussels are rich in protein and muscle-friendly omega-3 fatty acids. Each bite also delivers iron, an essential mineral for delivering oxygen to your working muscles.
These shelled wonders also contain a strikingly high amount of B-12, a vitamin your body uses to make DNA, the genetic material in all cells. So at only about $3 per pound, the “poor man’s oyster” provides a huge nutritional bang for your buck.
The majority of mussels available on the market are farmed, but unlike farmed salmon, there’s nothing fishy about mussel farming. Cultivated mussels do not require fishmeal to grow, meaning there’s no net loss of ocean protein, and they clean the surrounding water they’re reared in.
And, unlike many of the shrimp or salmon feedlots of the sea, mussel farms rarely involve antibiotic use. There’s also little concern about the meat becoming contaminated with harmful compounds like mercury.
How to Cook Mussels
Even the most culinary challenged can quickly put a plate of perfectly cooked mussels on the table. Simply rinse a pound or two and place in a large saucepan along with a cup or two of liquid, which could be anything from broth to coconut milk to white wine or even beer.
Then, simmer until they pop open, discarding any that remain shut. You can also find smoked canned mussels in the canned fish aisle of most supermarkets. They’re excellent served on crackers.
Good Alternatives to Mussels: Clams, oysters.
Protein Per Ounce: 6.7 grams
While tilapia remains a much more popular seafood choice than freshwater catfish, in-the-know cooks understand that the latter has more flavor. Each 3-ounce serving supplies about 16 grams of muscle-building protein as well as a range of other important nutrients, including selenium, thiamine, vitamin B-12, and the bone-building mineral phosphorus. It’s also one of the most budget-friendly fish options.
Catfish gets a bad rap as a bottom feeder, but almost all of the product on the market is farmed. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program gives U.S. farmed catfish a green light for sustainability; the fish are raised in closed, inland ponds using re-circulated water. Thus, there’s no worry about pollution of surrounding waterways.
How to Cook Catfish
Rubs and marinades work well with catfish, which can then be grilled, pan seared, or baked in the oven. Chunks of catfish also work great in fish stews.
Good Alternatives to Catfish: Tilapia, U.S. cod.
Protein Per Ounce: 5.2 grams
|Fish Or Seafood||Calories||% Fat||% Protein|
|Bass (Small & Largemouth)||104||2.6||18.8|
|Clam (meat only)||82||1.9||14.0|
|Crab (cooked, steamed)||93||1.9||17.3|
|Fish Sticks (frozen)||176||8.9||16.6|
|Herring (Bismark) (pickled)||223||15.1||20.4|
|Lake Herring (Cisco)||96||2.3||17.7|
|Mussels (meat only)||95||2.2||14.4|
|Oyster (meat only)||66||1.8||8.4|
|Scallop (Bay and Sea)||81||0.2||15.3|
|Trout Rainbow (Steelhead)||195||11.4||21.5|
|Canned in oil (including liquids)||288||20.5||24.2|
|Canned in water (including liquids)||127||0.8||28.0|
|Whitefish, Lake (freshwater)||155||8.2||18.9|
- Jouris, K. B., McDaniel, J. L., & Weiss, E. P. (2011). The effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on the inflammatory response to eccentric strength exercise. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 10(3), 432.
- Smith, G. I., Atherton, P., Reeds, D. N., Mohammed, B. S., Rankin, D., Rennie, M. J., & Mittendorfer, B. (2011). Dietary omega-3 fatty acid supplementation increases the rate of muscle protein synthesis in older adults: a randomized controlled trial. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 93(2), 402-412.
- Choi, M., Park, H., Cho, S., & Lee, M. (2013). Vitamin D 3 supplementation modulates inflammatory responses from the muscle damage induced by high-intensity exercise in SD rats. Cytokine, 63(1), 27-35.