Looking for extra gains? Try insects.

TL;DR: Gains, gains, gains. Crickets come as a close second in the battle for richest and healthiest animal-based protein sources!
Photo by John Arano on Unsplash
Girl holding up a barbell
Fish, edible insects, beef and chicken: which animal-based food source gets you the best results?

Protein intake 101

If you want to build muscle and get stronger, it's all about your protein intake right? Although the mere intake of amount of protein already solves about 90% of the puzzle, there is a little more to it. First of all there is the golden rule as to how many grams you need. The recommended daily intake lies at about 0.8g per kg of bodyweight. Building muscle of course, requires more than this and you should go up to somewhere between 1.6 and 2.2g per kg of bodyweight - the precise and optimal number is still unknown [1]. Also importantly to note here is that these 2.2 grams are plenty and that more will not get you bigger muscles or the results faster - on the contrary: it might even work against your goals as excess protein is usually stored in the body as fat [2].

Having the right amount of grams gets you the base covered. But it's the details that make you gain that little extra in the end as well. And the details are in the quality and content of the protein: amino acids. When you eat protein, your body breaks it down into individual amino acids that are used to repair and grow muscle fibre - i.e. makes you grow muscles and strength [3]. Out of 20 amino acids that you need to build muscle, there are nine so-called essential amino acids that your body does not produce and you can thus only get from food [4]. Food sources containing all nine of these are called complete protein sources and are in general only animal-based foods.

Finally, there is the story of minerals and vitamins. Every food contains these, and some help your muscles more than others. Let's list the ones that are especially helpful if you're looking for some gains [7, 8]:

  • Calcium. This is not just for strong bones as you were certainly told when you were young. Calcium contains myosin and actin that your muscles need for energy and muscle contraction.
  • Magnesium. The fact that magnesium helps you sleep better is reason enough to ensure you get enough of this mineral. After all, sleep and rest are essential for muscle recovery and growth. Magnesium also promotes muscle relaxation and prevents cramps.
  • Iron. Your body uses iron to make hemoglobin, which is used by red blood cells to carry oxygen from your lungs to anywhere in the body. Yes, that also means you need iron to give your muscles the oxygen they need.
  • Potassium. Hopefully you're not too familiar with them, but cramps are not uncommon when you're exercising. The reason? You're probably not getting enough potassium. This mineral transports nutrients and water to your muscles and is a key electrolyte in muscle contraction.
  • Vitamin B12. Remember that iron helps carry oxygen to your muscles? One of the primary building blocks of red blood cells is cobalamin, or: vitamin B12! This makes B12 maybe even more important than iron as it assists in creating the red blood cells that are used to carry the oxygen but also metabolize protein and fats for use in muscle building and repair.
  • Vitamin D. Hard to get but oh so important! Apart from the sun, there are not many natural source of enough vitamin D for us [6]. It improves our immune function, strengtens our bones and helps to build healthy hormones like testosterone, which is linked to muscle maintenance and growth.

Do insects win the muscle-building battle?

If you're not new to edible insects, you know that eating edible insects comes with many health benefits. They are rich in protein, improve your gut health, and are full of vitamins - to keep you awake for example. Now that you know what it's all about to get those extra gains and overcome your plateau, let's compare edible insects with other sources of protein you probably consume.

Data shown below stems from a research that has compared protein, amino acids, vitamins and mineral contents of Mexican orthoptera (the family of insects under which grasshoppers and crickets also fall) compared to common food sources [5]. Out of all insects, we primarily use the Acheta Domesticus (the "house cricket") to compare, since it's the one that is mostly used here in Europe.

  • PROTEIN POWER. Per 100 grams of dried product, crickets contain 65% of protein, while beef and chicken are not far behind with 54% and 43%. Fish, however, seems to be the clear winner here with a protein content of 81%! For the vegetarians among us: beans and lentils are at about 25%.
  • AMINO ACIDS. Amino acids are measured in mg/g and the amount of essential amino acids per gram are basically the same for insects, fish and chicken: 40mg. Only beef stands out a little here with 47mg. There are only three plant-based food sources that are complete protein sources: soy, quinoa and buckwheat. Plant-based protein sources such as beans for example, only have 6-13 mg of essential amino acids.
  • VITAMINS. Similarly as to chicken, beef and fish, the vitamins you get are very dependent on which insect you're eating. Crickets have a lot of vitamin B12 and even a bit of vitamin C (on the same level as watermelon). Grasshoppers are richer in the other B vitamins and have vitamin A, but less B12 than the cricket. Beef also contains high amounts of all B vitamins and truly shines if you're lacking B12 as well. But when it comes to vitamins, fish is definitely the winner. Fish not only contains high levels of vitamin B (B2, B3, B6 and B12), but is also one of the few foods that's high in vitamin D, and contains vitamin A and E. A true vitamin booster!
  • MINERALS. Edible insects are packed with them! As mentioned before, we are on the hunt for calcium, magnesium, iron and potassium. The advantage that insects have over chicken, beef and fish here, is that you're eating the whole animal. This means that you're not just eating muscle and fat, but also bones and organs of the cricket, which give you a lot of calcium, iron and zinc for example. One research shows that crickets contain almost three times the amount of iron, two times the amount of magnesium, and 30 times (!) the amount of calcium compared to beef [9]. The only other animal-based protein source that comes close to these calcium levels is canned fish because it usually also has bones in it. Potassium, on the other hand, is the easiest to be found in fish, and less in insects, beef or chicken.
Pan with roasted crickets and some additional goodies
Incorporate crickets in your diet to get the maximum out of your workouts!

Conclusion

If we would assign a winner to every building block to build muscle, we would get the following score:

  1. Protein: fish
  2. Amino acids: beef
  3. Vitamins: fish
  4. Minerals: crickets

Fish not only has the highest protein content, but is also full of important vitamins. The next closest contender though? Definitely crickets. That fish is one of the healthiest protein sources around is nothing new. And what this comparison shows best is actually the importance of diversity in your diet again. We don't wanna prove here that from tomorrow on all you should be eating is crickets for breakfast, lunch and dinner or that crickets are the fastest way to more muscles. But incorporate them in your diet to get the best eco-friendly complete protein source around and keep that important mineral-intake up. This will not only reduce your carbon footprint, but also lead to better results in the gym!

  1. Kris Gunnars (October 1, 2020). Potein Intake - How much Protein Should You Eat per Day? Healthline. Accessed April 3rd, 2021 at: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-much-protein-per-day#muscles-strength
  2. Katherine Marengo (April 13, 2020). Are There Risks Associated with Eating Too Much Protein? Accessed April 3rd, 2021 at https://www.healthline.com/health/too-much-protein#risks
  3. Brock Armstrong (August 3, 2019). Do Amino Acids Build Bigger Muscles? Scientific American. Accessed April 26th, 2021 at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-amino-acids-build-bigger-muscles/
  4. Jilian Kubala (June 12, 2018). Essential Amino Acids: Definition, Benefits and Food Sources. Healthline. Accessed April 21st, 2021 at https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/essential-amino-acids
  5. Blásquez, J. R. E., Moreno, J. M. P., & Camacho, V. H. M. (2012). Could grasshoppers be a nutritive meal. Food and Nutrition Sciences,3(2), 164. DOI: 10.4236/fns.2012.32025
  6. Taylor Jones (December 18, 2019). 7 Healthy Foods That Are High in Vitamin D. Healthline. Accessed April 25th, 2021 at https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/9-foods-high-in-vitamin-d
  7. Tiffany Ayuda (February 28, 2018). The Top 11 Nutrients Your Body Needs to Build Muscle. Daily Burn. Accessed April 25th, 2021 at https://dailyburn.com/life/health/top-nutrients-build-muscle/
  8. Matt Valentine (August 14, 2018). 9 Nutrients Your Body Needs to Get Fit and Build Muscle. Goalcast. Accessed April 25th, 2021 at https://www.goalcast.com/2018/08/14/nutrients-body-needs-to-build-muscle/
  9. Magara, Henlay JO, et al (2020). Edible Crickets (Orthoptera) Around the World: Distribution, Nutritional Value, and Other Benefits—A Review. Frontiers in nutrition, 7. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2020.537915