You may know creatine as that powder your gym buddies scoop into their pre-workout. It’s an amino acid that naturally exists in your body and plays a key role in producing energy for short bursts of intense activity.
There’s a reason athletes from CrossFiters to bodybuilders use the stuff. Supplementing with creatine has potential benefits for lifting — and your overall health — including your brain, blood sugar, and ability to fight diseases. But if you’re not interested in supplements, you can get your creatine in food.
Foods with creatine are often high in protein and other nutrients, so you may already be including them in your diet. High-creatine foods come from animal sources including red meat, seafood, and some dairy. But if you don’t eat meat or dairy, don’t despair — for vegans who want to know how to increase creatine naturally, there’s a trick for you, as well. It starts with the science of amino acids — so let’s dive in.
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If you want to get natural creatine, the good news is that this amino acid is already stored in your body in your skeletal muscles. Your body forms more creatine by combining three other amino acids: arginine, glycine, and methionine. (1) When you ingest creatine, it goes into your cells as creatine phosphate, a phosphagen.
Having more phosphagens in your system can boost your level of ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, also known as energy’s currency. (2) When you do high-intensity exercise, including powerlifting or sprinting, your ATP is getting you through it. When ATP burns out — in two or three seconds — having stored phosphagens can help to keep you going a bit longer.
Whether you want more creatine to increase your training gains or reap other health benefits, let’s look at some sources of creatine.
Natural Sources of Creatine
Creatine is a carninutrient, which means it’s only available to adults through animal foodstuffs. (1) It’s estimated that human levels of creatine were higher in Paleolithic times than today because humans were mostly eating animal-based food. (1) The original paleo diet was rich in creatine.
Infants that receive milk through breastfeeding or milk-based formula get some natural creatine. (1) For adults that eat meat, you can add foods high in creatine to your diet including red meat, poultry, and seafood. If you are vegetarian, there is some creatine in cheese and a little less in milk. Unfortunately for vegans, there aren’t any foods that contain creatine that you can eat.
However, vegans can still encourage creatine synthesis in their bodies by ingesting foods with the amino acids arginine, glycine, and methionine. (1) Eating certain seeds and beans with these amino acids is how to get creatine naturally.
Creatine can also be ingested through supplements. For vegans looking to boost their creatine levels, supplements may be the most efficient way. You can opt for vegan supplements containing natural ingredients.
Although it’s not food per se, supplements are the biggest sources of creatine for vegans.
The potential benefits of creatine range from increasing training gains to overall health. Studies consistently suggest that increases in intramuscular creatine concentration can help boost strength, muscle growth, and recovery. (3) It’s also been shown to improve your brain health and fight other diseases. (3)
May Boost Strength Gains
When it comes to creatine and strength, the benefits come are all about high-intensity, short-duration exercise. Think about hitting your one-rep max on a deadlift or doing a short, fast sprint. Research shows that creatine intake enhances training adaptations. (3) These adaptations allow you to do more work. More work can lead to strength gains in the long run. (3)
This is due to the quality of your training improving. When you have more energy from more ATP, you may be able to lift a little heavier, for a little bit longer, and maintain your perfect form. Add all those little improvements together and they create a big impact on your entire training cycle.
May Increase Muscle Growth
If your fitness goal is hypertrophy, many studies have shown that supplementing with creatine can help you build muscle mass. (4) However, most studies are on taking creatine supplements in conjunction with your training program.
Therefore, to reap the maximum benefits of creatine for muscle growth, you’ll want to make sure you’re using it in tandem with strength training. This way, all that extra potential energy has somewhere to go — directly into fueling those muscle-building workouts.
May Improve Recovery
Getting adequate creatine in your diet has been shown to enhance post-exercise recovery, as it helps to replenish your glycogen stores after training. It may help reduce inflammation, decrease soreness, and prevent injury. (3)
Research shows this may work when you include creatine supplements in your pre-workout. If you’re looking to avoid supplements, you can opt for a natural pre-workout alternative by ingesting a small meal, smoothie, or snack.
You can include some natural creatine sources in your pre-workout meal, but allow yourself time to digest. If you’re having a post-workout meal, that may be a better time to include some creatine in meat. Getting protein and carbs in your post-exercise nutrition is shown to promote recovery, so it may be a good spot to try adding some food with creatine as well. (5)
May Improve Glucose Management
Aside from training benefits, creatine may offer other health boosters. Research has shown that creatine intake — specifically when combined with exercise — may improve glucose metabolism in both insulin-resistant individuals and nonresistant folks, as well. (6)
If you have diabetes and want to try out adding some food with creatine to your diet to help manage your blood sugar, it’s always best to consult with a doctor first.
May Boost Brain Health
While 80 percent of creatine is stored in your skeletal muscles, 20 percent of creatine is stored in your brain. Recent research suggests that creatine may be beneficial to brain health when it comes to cognitive processing, brain function, and recovery from trauma. (8)
Research on creatine and brain health notes that the optimal creatine intake protocol is still to be determined. (8) So, including foods that have creatine in your diet may help boost your brain health, but more research is needed.
May Fight Other Diseases
In addition to exercise, studies consistently show the benefits of creatine supplementation for fighting other diseases, in addition to diabetes.
The conditions include neurodegenerative diseases like muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, brain and heart ischemia, and adolescent depression. (3)
What foods have creatine in them? Lots of them — but they are all from animal sources. From red meat to poultry, fish, and dairy, below is a creatine-rich food list.
But before you start drawing up your shopping list, a few notes:
Although creatine can also be found in other animal foods not listed here, the following food sources of creatine contain at least two grams (or more) of creatine per serving.
The creatine amounts listed per kilogram below are in uncooked meat and fish. When you cook them, they may lose a lot of their creatine. (9) The exact amounts are not confirmed by research, and different methods of cooking may affect it.
One might assume that the exact amount could be between the milligrams in cooked food and grams in uncooked food. Since this is imprecise, if you want to track and increase your creatine, creatine supplements may be the most straightforward approach.
Supplements remain the best source of creatine for vegans, but there’s still a natural way to source creatine for them, as well.
Here are foods with relatively high levels of creatine (and vegan foods that have components of creatine).
Different cuts of red meat have some of the highest creatine levels you can get in animal products.
Ground beef has 2.5 grams of creatine per raw kilogram of meat and approximately 511 milligrams per cooked serving. (9) A three-and-a-half-ounce serving of ground beef will also give you 26 grams of protein and 11 grams of fat. (10)
One solid, natural creatine source is chicken, which provides a solid, natural source of creatine. Chicken breast contains 2.2 grams of creatine per raw kilogram and approximately 443 milligrams per cooked serving. (9) A serving of four ounces of chicken breast has 25.4 grams of protein and 2.96 grams of fat. (12)
Chicken thighs contain 2.5 grams of creatine per raw kilogram and an unknown amount per cooked serving. (9) A serving of three ounces of chicken thighs has 24.8 grams of protein and 8.2 grams of fat. (12)
Herring has the highest amount of creatine of any seafood. It’s a nutrient-dense fish that is also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. Herring contains 6.5 to 10 grams of creatine per raw kilogram and approximately 938 milligrams per cooked serving. (13) A three-ounce serving of herring has 15.3 grams of protein and 8 grams of fat. (14)
Fish like salmon, tuna, cod, and others are also great creatine natural sources.
Salmon contains 2.5 to four grams of creatine per raw kilogram and approximately 511 milligrams per cooked serving. (13) A three-ounce serving of salmon provides 17 grams of protein and five grams of fat. (15)
While dairy sources have much lower creatine than meats and seafood, they still may be a viable option for vegetarians.
Does milk have creatine? Not much — unless we are talking about infants drinking breast milk or milk-based formula. (1)
Parmesan cheese, however, may contain 2.9 grams of creatine, making it the highest-rated cheese source in terms of creatine. A 100-gram serving of parmesan cheese also contains 28 grams of protein and 27 grams of fat. (18)
Other cheeses may contain two or three grams of creatine per 100-gram serving, as well.
There is no natural vegan food with creatine in it. However, vegans can eat foods that are high in the amino acids needed to stimulate creatine synthesis in the body: arginine, glycine, and methionine. (1)
First on the list come pumpkin seeds, which contain arginine and glycine. (19) A 28-gram serving of pumpkin seeds provides 5.27 grams of protein, 5.5 grams of fat, and 15.3 grams of carbohydrates. (20)
The daily requirement for a cisgender man is reported to be two grams of creatine per day. Half of that comes from an omnivore diet, and the other can be synthesized in the body. (1) Generally speaking, people of any gender should get one to two grams of natural creatine per day. (3)
If you’re interested in taking creatine for your fitness goals, you may want to take a little more, whether that’s through ingesting more foods that have creatine or a supplement.
Creatine for Strength
The recommended amount of creatine supplementation is three to five grams per day or 0.1 grams per kilogram of body mass per day. (31) If your goal is strength and you’re training consistently with the principles of progressive overload, you’re going to want to keep that baseline of creatine in your system.
Creatine for Muscle Growth
If you’re taking creatine as part of a hypertrophy-based program, you may have heard of creatine loading, where you’ll rapidly scale up the level of creatine in your body. There are a few ways to do this to increase muscle creatine stores in your body.
Research shows the most effective method here is to ingest five grams of creatine (or 0.3 grams per kilogram of body weight) four times a day, for five to seven days. (3)
When your muscle stores are fully saturated, you can decrease to three to five grams of creatine per day to maintain them. Some studies show that larger athletes may need from five to ten grams of creatine per day to maintain their muscle creatine stores. (3)
It’s difficult to get up to ten grams of creatine a day through food alone, and if you are trying to increase your muscle creatine stores you may have an easier time adding a supplement — especially if you are vegan.
Creatine for Endurance
Another method of creatine loading is to ingest three grams of creatine a day for 28 days. (3) This can lead to a gradual increase in your muscle stores, and won’t have as quick an effect on exercise performance or training adaptations as the four times-a-day method. (3)
If you’re okay with waiting a bit longer, you can try out this method, as it might be more feasible and less expensive. Some studies say that creatine loading isn’t even necessary to increase stores of creatine. (32) In that case, it’s generally safe to try out three grams a day to improve your endurance.
Creatine for Recovery
Go Fish or Go Supplement?
There are many animal-based foods with creatine to choose from. However, depending on the method by which you cook your meat or seafood, the amount of creatine lost in the process is unknown. Still, it is possible to get natural creatine from food, and you can likely reach the daily suggested amount of one to three grams through your diet.
If you want to take creatine to help you build muscle or increase your strength gains, you’re looking at five to even ten grams a day, and supplements are going to give you more bang for your buck. If you’re vegan, you can eat plant-based foods with amino acids to encourage creatine synthesis in your body. But again, supplements may be more efficient.
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