What Is a Bodybuilding Diet?

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In This Article

Here's what you need to know about diet and nutrition for weight training and bodybuilding: It’s not all that different from a normal, healthy athlete’s diet, except for some emphasis on quantity and meal timing in various training phases. This, however, is where detail becomes very important.

What Experts Say

"The bodybuilding diet can be centered around healthy whole foods such as veggies, oatmeal, lean proteins, and some healthy fats, but the meal plans are typically very regimented. They require a lot of planning and meal prep. Additionally, the cutting phases can be difficult to follow."
Kelly Plowe, MS, RD

Background

Weight training and bodybuilding nutrition are sciences like anything else. There's biology and biochemistry and physiology, with rules and a base of evidence. Selling supplements, most of which are not needed, has become such a huge business in the commercial weight training and bodybuilding industry that it is almost impossible to know if you are getting an objective evaluation of a bodybuilding diet.

Although diets like Atkins, South Beach, and Ornish have become popular, the consensus among dietitians and nutritionists is that a healthy diet is less stringent in requirements and more balanced across the major nutrients. In general:

  • Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds; some lean meats, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy products; and mono and polyunsaturated oils
  • Limit intake of saturated fat, cholesterol, salt, alcohol, added sugars and sugary foods
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Maintain a normal weight
  • Exercise regularly

People who exercise have different requirements because the more you exercise, the more you have to eat to sustain that level of activity. This also applies to casual exercisers, but it may not apply to you if fat loss is one of the reasons you took up weight training. In this case, you need to create an energy deficit; which means that the energy (or calories) you consume in food is less than the energy you expend in exercise and daily living. Your weight training, in this case, is to assist with fat loss while attempting to maintain muscle.

When you lose weight, you need to hold onto muscle and bone while shedding fat. This is tricky because the body is not used to breaking down some tissue (fat) and building up other tissue (muscle) at the same time. Breaking down is called catabolism and building up is called anabolism, as in "anabolic steroids." This is a contradictory process. But weight training helps maintain muscle while losing fat.

How It Works

If you weight train for sports, weightlifting competition, bodybuilding, or as a way to maintain fitness or appearance now that you’ve reached an ideal weight, you will probably be interested in gaining muscle and maintaining low body fat with a bodybuilding diet.

To build extra muscle, you need to eat in excess of what you currently eat, and work out with weights on a regular basis. How much muscle you can gain, how quickly and with what definition is largely determined by your genetics and age. But everyone at almost any age should be able to gain some muscle and strength with weight training. Proper nutrition is a crucial element in the muscle building process.

Overeating is not a good idea if you are already overweight. Get fit first, because when you overeat for the purposes of gaining muscle you also gain some fat. Let’s say you are a slender guy of six feet (180 centimeters) and 154 pounds (70 kilograms) and you want to bulk up with extra muscle and eventually stabilize at a low percentage of body fat. Here is how you would do it:

  1. Overeat. Increase your daily intake of energy (calories) by about 15 percent. It should not be all protein but the extra protein you consume, either in supplements or protein foods, should be low in fat. Stay close to the current guidelines for protein requirements for weight trainers. Hiring a sports dietitian with some experience in weight training is also an option.
  2. Train with weights. Commence a solid weight training program targeting all the main large muscle groups such as the arms, legs, shoulders, chest, back, and abdominals. The extra energy you consume will fuel muscle growth as the exercise stimulates growth.
  3. Cut, lose, and shed. After you bulk up with extra muscle and fat, you need to lose much of that fat while maintaining the muscle. Gaining fat is somewhat inevitable during this process but you should be especially careful to eat healthy food at this time. Fast foods should be kept to a minimum. Eat healthy but big.

In step 3, cut back your energy intake by the 15 percent you added previously. Because you're now not the lean guy you once were, you may have to eventually eat slightly more to maintain that extra muscle, but that comes later. Bodybuilders do this to prepare themselves for competition: They put on muscle and some fat by eating, then they strip off the fat, leaving the muscle to show through. It’s called "cutting."

What to Eat

Compliant Foods

  • Lean protein

  • Fruits and vegetables

  • Whole grains

  • Healthy fats

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Sugar and added sweeteners (in excess)

  • Refined carbohydrates (in excess)

In the cutting phase, the bodybuilding diet should be low in fat, around 20 percent. Maintain protein intake to help protect muscle while cutting excess fat and carbohydrates, particularly added sugar and sweets and white flour products. Keep up the supply of antioxidants with fruit, veggies, and whole grains. Aim for these proportions of macronutrients:

Bulking phase

  • Protein: 15 to 20 percent
  • Fat: 20 to 30 percent
  • Carbohydrate: 50 to 60 percent

Cutting phase

  • Protein: 20 to 25 percent
  • Fat: 15 to 20 percent
  • Carbohydrate: 55 to 60 percent

In either phase, don’t exceed 1 gram per pound of body weight of protein (2.2 grams/kilogram). A little more probably won’t hurt a healthy person, but chances are, based on the science of protein requirements for athletes, it won’t help either. It will only cost you in expensive supplements or food. Any hint of kidney disease and you would need to be cautious about excessive protein intake. Consult your doctor for advice if this applies.

Some male weight trainers shovel in the protein in the form of shakes, supplements, and the occasional whole turkey without figuring out how much is useful or even how much they are ingesting. The American College of Sports Medicine estimates the requirements for strength trainers at 1.6 to 1.7 grams per kilogram body weight per day (about 0.8 grams per pound).

You need to eat sufficient food and carbohydrate to sustain your activities. Too little carbohydrate, and your body will break down your muscle for glucose and reverse all those hard-gotten gains. Don’t believe advice that says carbohydrates are fattening. Instead, modify your carbohydrate intake for the better by avoiding refined flours, sugars, sweets and other quickly absorbed or processed carbohydrates when you are not exercising intensely.

Recommended Timing

For elite athletes, sports nutritionists and coaches take eating very seriously, because a few fractions of a second in a sprint or a few seconds in longer races can mean the difference between a gold medal and a “thank you for coming.” Even in the amateur ranks, you can maximize your workout by eating in a way that makes the most of your hard work. Meal timing is an important part of this.

Pre-Exercise Meals

Some weight trainers do better with six smaller meals a day rather than three larger meals. Don't fret about this; it doesn't suit everyone. However, always eat breakfast.

Weight trainers don’t usually expend the amount of energy in training that endurance athletes do, so they don't have to be as acutely aware of the intake of carbohydrate required to fuel such effort. For example, a marathoner or triathlete may require 7 to 10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight per day (3 to 5 grams per pound). This is a lot of carbohydrates—equivalent to more than 32 slices of bread for a 150-pound athlete.

These principles for meals prior to exercise (training or competition) are generally supported by sports nutritionists and have been modified for the strength athlete.

  • Eat meals low in fat and fiber with some protein and carbohydrate. Fiber can and should be part of a healthy diet in other meals.
  • Experiment and find your tolerance for various foods before and during exercise. This is important because many of us react differently to fiber, foods like beans, milk, various fruits and so on.
  • Eat your main meal three to four hours before exercise.
  • Eat a smaller meal one to two hours before exercise.
  • Within an hour of activity, liquids such as sports drinks and gels, protein shakes, or foods that are not too heavy may be best.
  • A very small percentage of people get a reactive blood glucose drop (hypoglycemia) if they eat a high-carbohydrate meal. Adding protein to the meal can prevent this.
  • Running sports seem to produce intestinal discomfort more than stationary or supported sports like weight training, swimming or cycling; so the pre-meal variety can be greater if you’re not a runner.

Eating During Exercise

Unless you do extreme sessions for considerably longer than an hour, include intense cardio or strength-endurance weights programs, or ate poorly in the hours leading up to the session, you probably don't need anything other than water during a workout. Don't let your blood and muscle glucose get too low, or cortisol and other hormones will start to break down your muscle. But you don't need expensive supplements to protect you from catabolic cortisol surges. All you need is carbohydrates from a sports drink, gel, or bar.

Post-Exercise Meals

How you eat to recover from exercise is one of the most important principles in exercise nutrition. Glucose, or glycogen, is the athlete’s and exerciser’s main fuel. You get it from carbohydrate foods and drinks. If you don’t refuel sufficiently after each session, glucose stores in muscle can get depleted. This can lead to fatigue, poor performance, and even immune system suppression and infection. What's more, inadequate refueling after your session won't take advantage of that hard muscle work by giving those muscles an anabolic boost that repairs and builds.

Weight trainers do not use as much glucose fuel as higher intensity or longer duration aerobic sports like track and endurance running and cycling. But even so, it pays to keep those glycogen stores topped up if you want to be at your best in training. Low numbers of repetitions with heavy weights develop strength, whereas lighter weights and more repetitions build muscle size and endurance. The latter is likely to expend more energy.

Consume 10 to 20 grams of high-quality protein within 30 to 60 minutes of a weights session. Research has shown that an intake of 6 to 12 grams of essential amino acids, which is equivalent to 10 to 20 grams of a complete protein, promotes enhanced muscle recovery and rebuilding after a workout. One gram per kilogram body weight (about 0.5 grams/pound) of carbohydrate taken with the protein may assist this anabolic boost. Some trainers call this a protein "shooter." Options that meet these requirements include 17 fluid ounces of flavored low-fat milk; 1 cup fruit salad with 7 ounces of flavored yogurt; or a large glass of nonfat milk with two slices of bread and honey or jam (no butter).

Resources and Tips

Don't worry too much about the finer detail of calculating quantities if you don't wish to. The detail is there for those who can use this precision, but most people don't. Experience and getting to know how your body works is probably more important, as well as trial and error. Here's what matters most:

  • Eat some protein and carbohydrate about 30 minutes before a workout session.
  • For sessions considerably longer than an hour at moderate to high intensity that include cardio, consume a sports drink during the session.
  • Eat some protein and carbohydrate immediately or within 30 minutes of the end of the workout.
  • Don't use protein supplements excessively. You can get the required amount of quality protein from lean chicken, fish, soy, skim milk and some red meat.
  • Eat a healthy diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fruit, vegetables, beans, whole grains and quality monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in nuts, seeds, and oils.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to replace water lost. Beverages like tea and coffee are fine for this. The diuretic effect of these drinks has been overstated.

Modifications

Move carbohydrate quantity up or down according to your weight and energy levels as you train or compete. These are estimates of daily carbohydrate requirements for weight trainers. Intensity of exercise over time increases quantities required, and these estimates only apply to days of exercise. Choose the lower numbers if you're doing light exercise. Choose higher rates if you mix cardio sessions with weights.

  • Casual activity: 3 to 4 grams/kilogram/bodyweight (divide by 2.2 for pounds)
  • 30 to 60 minutes of exercise per day: 4 to 6 gm/kg/bw
  • 60 to 90 minutes of exercise: 5 to 7 gm/kg/bw
  • 120 minutes or more of exercise: 6 to 9 gm/kg/bw

If you do more than one session each day, eat a post-exercise snack every hour until regular meals resume. Few weight trainers choose to do two weights sessions a day, but some do an early session of cardio and a later session of weights or vice versa.

A word about dietary supplements: They are big business. Some work, some don't, some affect performance negatively, some are hazardous and some are illegal and will get you banned in international sport. In fact, many are a waste of money and a con. Protein powder supplements, particularly whey-based supplements, do have a role to play for busy weight trainers. But cheaper solutions may be available.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Balanced nutrition

  • Effective

Cons

  • Complicated

  • Can promote unhealthy behaviors

Pros

Balanced Nutrition

A bodybuilding diet aligns with all the general advice for a healthful diet: A balanced mix of macronutrients and plenty of micronutrients from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Even in the bulking phase, the idea is to bulk up by eating more, but sticking with mostly healthy choices. Similarly, in the cutting phase, the goal is to cut out less nutrient-dense foods, not slash calories extremely and give up nutritious foods.

Effective

Those committed to this eating plan will probably see the results they're looking for, since they are likely quite conscientious about exercise, meal timing and planning, and choosing foods that deliver lots of nutritious value.

Still, no matter how committed you are, there is no such thing as a perfect diet, especially when you are trying to encourage your body to do two contradicting things (burn fat while retaining muscle). There are some downsides to the bodybuilding diet.

Cons

Complicated

It's definitely not easy to figure out macronutrient balances, time your meals and snacks precisely, and tailor everything you're doing so it works for you and not the person next to you at the gym.

Unhealthy Behaviors

Sometimes these do-it-yourself bodybuilding diets can lead to unhealthy habits, as in this case study about over-consuming protein and this one about over-supplementing. Consuming too much of certain macronutrients (such as protein) or micronutrients (such as zinc) can lead to health risks, sometimes long-lasting ones. And eating an unbalanced diet can affect sports performance, which does not help you reach your goals. Talk to your physician or a qualified nutritionist about any supplements you plan to take.

How It Compares

While the bodybuilding diet is fairly unique in its goals, it shares techniques with several other eating plans. It also shares advice with generally accepted nutrition guidelines.

USDA Recommendations

The USDA's MyPlate plan calls for a balanced mix of fruit, vegetables, protein, grains, and dairy products, as does the bodybuilding diet, especially in the bulking phase. The cutting phase is a little lower in fat than the USDA suggestion.

Similar Diets

These diets all share some of the same goals or principles, but may accomplish them differently.

Bodybuilding Diet

  • General nutrition: This diet supports eating a balanced mix of nutritious foods in order to get sufficient proportions of fats, protein, and carbohydrates.
  • Safety: The risks here are too much protein (which can cause kidney problems, among other side effects) and too many supplements.
  • Practicality: It's not particularly easy to follow this diet, due to all the mathematical calculations needed and the extensive meal planning, prep, and timing that is required.
  • Sustainability: The cutting phase of this diet can be challenging to stick with, because it's a fight between what you want your body to do (lose fat, keep muscle) and what it wants to do (keep fat, lose muscle).

Weight Gaining Diet

  • General nutrition: Experts advise sticking with healthy, nutrient-rich foods as part of a weight-gaining diet (rather than loading up on caloric, but not nutritious, foods such as candy, chips, and soda). They may also suggest eating five or six smaller meals a day rather than three larger ones. All of this is similar to the advice for the bulking phase of the bodybuilding diet.
  • Safety: Especially if they heed the advice to favor nutritious foods, this diet is generally safe for people who need it—for example, people who take certain medicines that suppress appetite or cause weight loss.
  • Practicality: Eating healthy, whole foods is not as convenient as ordering pizza or hitting the drive-through. So even though the goal is weight gain instead of weight loss, this is not necessarily a quick and easy option.
  • Sustainability: Although it can be difficult for people with decreased appetite, this diet is safe to follow for long periods of time if it's necessary.

Five-Factor Diet

  • General nutrition: On the 5-Factor Diet, followers consume all five factors at every meal: protein, healthy fat, carbs, fiber, and fluid (a sugar-free beverage). So the diet is based on sound nutritional advice.
  • Safety: Experts agree this diet is safe for most people and promotes healthy habits.
  • Practicality: This diet also recommends five meals a day, and requires more meal planning and prep than some people are used to. So it can be time-consuming. But it doesn't require supplements or any mathematical calculations (except counting to five).
  • Sustainability: This diet should be effective for weight loss and can be used for maintenance as well.

High-Protein Diet

  • General nutrition: Since protein can build muscle, many people looking to lose weight and/or add muscle will turn to a high-protein diet—getting 20 percent or more of their calories from protein. As long as they also consume sufficient carbohydrates and healthy fats, this can be a nutritionally balanced diet.
  • Safety: Depending on the protein sources and the rest of the diet, this eating plan can be safe for many people. But anyone with kidney or heart disease should use caution and check with their doctor before starting a new diet.
  • Practicality: There are many different approaches to high-protein diets, and some are more complex or rigid than others. Depending on your lifestyle, this could make them difficult to comply with.
  • Sustainability: Similarly, if a diet is hard to adhere to, it is hard to keep at it for a long time and to maintain weight loss. To help with this, many popular high-protein plans have maintenance phases.

A Word From Verywell

Precision nutrition for exercise can be complex and that’s why exercise physiologists and sports nutritionists are of great value to sporting teams and athletes. Even though keen amateurs and weekend warriors don’t have to worry too much about the split second in a race or the inch of bicep in a bodybuilding competition like the pros do, we can still eat well for our activity by following the basics of sports nutrition. If you need help sorting it all out, consult a doctor or dietitian who has experience working with athletes.

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