Amino acids, like leucine, help your body grow, repair body tissue, and more. Your body can make a lot of amino acid types, but not all of them. The ones your body can’t make are called essential amino acids (because it’s essential to get them through food). Leucine is one of those essential amino acids.
Looking to add some food with lots of leucine to your menu? We’ve got you.
15 foods high in leucine
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends getting 39 milligrams (mg) of leucine per kilogram of your body weight each day. Some foods can make it easy to reach your daily leucine needs, including:
- Cottage cheese
- Navy beans
- Pumpkin seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Sesame seeds
Why’s it so important to get enough of this amino acid? Leucine helps to:
- repair muscle
- stimulate wound healing
- regulate protein synthesis (creation of protein molecules)
Leucine per serving: 3440 mg per cup (raw lentils)
Lentils are part of the legume family, and they come in lots of varieties. The nutrient profile can differ depending on what type of lentil you choose, but all lentils contain lots of protein and fiber.
According to a research review, lentils are a great source of prebiotics. (That’s a type of carb that your body can’t fully digest, but your gut bacteria love to eat). This keeps our gut microbial environment healthy and may help prevent gut-associated diseases.
Leucine per serving: 3080 mg per cup (chopped or diced chicken breast)
Fire up the grill or get to baking. Chicken is a versatile protein source, so feel free to experiment with different cooking styles and flavors.
Chicken provides lots of protein, but not too many calories. That makes it an attractive food if you’re looking to lose or maintain weight. A research review suggested that combining poultry with a diet rich in veggies can help reduce your risk of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and type 2 diabetes.
Leucine per serving: 2480 mg per cup (Spanish peanuts)
Peanuts! Get your peanuts here! Eating a cup of this crunchy snack can provide protein, fiber, and heart-healthy unsaturated fats.
One large study found that the participants who ate peanuts and tree nuts at least twice per week and walnuts at least once per week lowered their risk of cardiovascular disease by 13 percent to 19 percent. They also lowered their risk of coronary heart disease by 15 percent to 23 percent.
Leucine per serving: 2370 mg per cup (2 percent low fat cottage cheese)
Cottage cheese tends to be a staple food item for active folks thanks to its high protein content. The majority of its protein comes from casein. (That’s a slow digesting protein that can feed your body amino acids over a longer period of time.) Whether you eat casein protein in the morning or at night daily, a small study with 13 male participants suggested that it can help to increase muscle mass.
It’s creamy consistency makes cottage cheese the perfect substitute for ricotta cheese in lasagna or stuffed pasta shells. It also pairs well with berries, nuts, or seeds as a filling breakfast.
Leucine per serving: 1820 mg per 3-ounce serving (ground beef)
Experts generally recommend eating red meat in moderation, but it can still be part of a balanced diet. Beef’s main component is protein, but it can also include other important nutrients, like fat.
Beef is also an excellent source of iron, especially heme iron. That can help prevent anemia and iron deficiency. Your body can absorb heme iron more efficiently than nonheme iron (what’s found in plant foods). Heme iron could also help your maintain iron stores and recover hemoglobin levels.
Leucine per serving: 1670 mg per cup
Whether you pop open a can of navy beans or cook them from their dry state, they’re the perfect addition to soups, salads, and more.
Not only do navy beans have lots of leucine, they’re also a great source of fiber, protein, and other micronutrients. A small study with 14 participants who were overweight found that those who consumed 5 cups of navy beans per week had reduced waist circumference. They also experienced lower metabolic risk factors, like cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Leucine per serving: 1370 mg per 3-ounce serving (wild Atlantic salmon)
Now things are getting fishy! Salmon has a laundry list of benefits it brings to the table due to it’s healthy fats, protein, and B vitamins.
One of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA is salmon. These fats are essential and may help improve inflammation, blood pressure, and arterial function. They also go straight to your brain and may prevent decline in memory and cognition, especially if you enjoy them at least once per week.
Leucine per serving: 1060 mg per 7-ounce serving (plain, low fat Greek yogurt)
Skip the sugary flavored yogurt and reach for the plain, Greek versions. Not only are you getting more protein and leucine, but you’ll quiet down your rumbling tummy. An old, small 2013 study with 15 women found that participants who snacked on high protein Greek yogurt felt less hungry and more full compared to those that went with the lower protein yogurt.
Your gut will also thank you for snacking on a yogurt that contains probiotics. According to a research review, the live bacteria cultures can influence our gut microbiome and improve intestinal health (like constipation and diarrhea).
Leucine per serving: 794 mg per cup
Although you might associate oats with oatmeal, they’re also found in products like granola. You can use oats for baking and even add them to smoothies.
Oats are a great source of dietary fiber, especially beta glucan. Research has linked eating beta glucan with many health benefits, like improving heart health, blood sugar levels, and even kidney health.
Leucine per serving: 686 mg per ounce
When you’re carving up your next Jack-o-lantern, save the pumpkin seeds. They taste great as a solo snack, but also pair well in granola, trail mix, or baked goods.
Pumpkin seeds come with a variety of nutrients. They’re a rich source of magnesium, a nutrient that’s commonly lacking in western diets. Magnesium helps support muscle and nerve function, plus it might improve your slumber. An small 2012 study with 46 participants found that older adults dealing with insomnia had improved sleep efficiency and duration when receiving 500 mg of magnesium daily.
Leucine per serving: 648 mg per 3-tablespoon serving
These seeds come from the Cannabis sativa plant, but they don’t contain THC or CBD. The FDA recognizes hemp seeds as safe and recommends using them as a source of protein, carbohydrate, or oil. They’re great if you need a plant-based alternative to meat or dairy.
Why are these nutritious seeds an important vegetarian protein option? They’re one of the few plants that contain all nine essential amino acids. They also contain an ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (3-to-1). That may help prevent chronic disease, according to a research review.
Leucine per serving: 616 mg per cup
Soybeans are used in a wide variety of foods like tofu, soy milk, and soy protein. They contain high amounts of phytoestrogens, which are a type of plant estrogen that works similarly to human estrogen. Although this has stirred up a lot of controversy about health outcomes (especially in men), a meta-analysis of 38 studies found that hormone levels in men weren’t affected when they ate soy foods.
These plant estrogens found in soy may also be good for your bone health. One study with women suggested that soy could help to reduce or prevent bone loss that comes along with osteoporosis.
Leucine per serving: 545 mg (1 large egg)
Fry up an egg for a tasty breakfast or hard-boil it for a portable high protein snack. Either way, you’ll get lots of leucine along with B vitamins, selenium, and some vitamin D.
Eggs also contain carotenoids, an antioxidant, which gives their yolk that yellow color. A research review showed that giving your body enough carotenoids is important to keep your peepers 👀 healthy.
Leucine per serving: 347 mg per 1-tablespoon serving (dried spirulina)
This bluish-green algae grows in different bodies of water and is packed full of protein, B vitamins, and iron. A research review stated that spirulina pigment has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that fight against oxidative stress.
All it takes is a simple sprinkle of spirulina into a smoothie or juice to add a nice green color and a boost of benefits. You might notice a bit of an earthy smell and taste, but this can usually be masked by other flavors if you’d prefer.
Leucine per serving: 122 mg per 1-tablespoon serving
Next time you whip up some stir fry or your favorite pasta dish, add a few tablespoons of sesame seeds. It’ll provide a crunch and nutty flavor. You can also shop for sesame seed butter (aka tahini). That’s often used to make hummus and other sauces.
While you’re enjoying that satisfying crunch of sesame seeds, you’re also receiving beneficial plant compounds called lignans. According to a research review, the antioxidant properties of these little seeds may help to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Leucine is one of nine essential amino acids that are important to help our body grow and repair itself. Thankfully, it’s easy to add more of them into your diet, with a wide variety of options that can satisfy any type of eating pattern. Along with the benefits of leucine, all of these food sources provide other beneficial vitamins and minerals that may protect against chronic disease.