What Is a Bodybuilding Diet?

bodybuilding diet

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff 

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

Many people who weight train for sports, weightlifting competitions, bodybuilding, or to improve their level of fitness are often drawn to a bodybuilding diet to gain muscle and maintain a lower percentage of body fat.

A typical bodybuilding diet involves increasing your overall protein and calorie intake and incorporating regular strength training into your workouts. Diet and nutrition for weight training and bodybuilding is not all that different from a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods.

The exception with a bodybuilding diet is the emphasis on quantity and meal timing during various phases of weight training. Many proponents of a bodybuilding diet also rely on dietary supplements to build muscle, but nutrition experts typically recommend getting your nutrition from whole foods whenever possible.

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

What Can You Eat?

Those following a bodybuilding diet need to ensure they're getting enough fuel from carbohydrates to sustain their workouts. Without enough carbohydrates, your body starts to break down muscle for glucose to convert to energy.

The bodybuilding diet emphasizes lean protein to protect and build muscle. It also encourages getting plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables and nutrient-rich complex carbohydrates.

Followers of this plan should choose whole grains and avoid refined flours and sugars. Refined carbohydrates are quickly digested by the body and can rapidly spike your blood sugar and insulin levels.

While some people on a bodybuilding diet follow a regimented eating pattern, it's not necessary for everyone. Depending on what your goals are, it's possible to build muscle and burn fat by simply following a balanced diet and listening to your body's natural hunger cues.

But if you're interested in following a typical bodybuilding diet protocol, here's some additional guidance for fueling your workouts.

  • Fuel up before workouts: Eat some carbohydrates about 30 minutes before a workout session.
  • Refuel during cardio: For workouts that include cardio and are considerably longer than an hour at moderate- to high-intensity, you may need to refuel with gels or a sports drink during the session.
  • Use the 3:1 ratio: Eat some protein and carbohydrate immediately after or within 30 minutes of the end of the workout. Use the 3:1 carbohydrates to protein ratio. A good example is chocolate milk.
  • Limit dietary supplements: 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. However, if you're cutting, protein supplements may be helpful to meet your protein needs if you have decreased your caloric intake.
  • Eat healthy fats: Eat a healthy diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fruit, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and quality monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (found in nuts, seeds, and oils).
  • Drink plenty of fluids: Replace the water you lose to sweat. Beverages like tea and coffee can be helpful, but drinking plenty of water can ensure you stay properly hydrated.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) estimates the protein requirements for strength trainers at 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (about 0.5–0.8 grams per pound). Some individuals may require an intake of up to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.

What You Need to Know

People who exercise have different requirements for macronutrients and calories because the more you exercise, the more energy that is required. This also applies to casual exercisers, but not necessarily to those who are trying to lose weight.

The bodybuilding diet is not an ideal eating plan for those who are overweight since additional calorie consumption is key to the program. However, strength training can still be incorporated into a healthy weight loss program. When the body starts to break down fat (catabolism) and build muscle (anabolism, as in "anabolic steroids"), weight training can help maintain muscle while losing fat.

For those looking to build muscle, how much you gain, how quickly, and with what definition is largely determined by your workout routine and frequency as well as genetics and age. But everyone at almost any age should be able to gain some muscle and strength with weight training.

Another crucial element of the muscle-building process is proper nutrition. To build muscle and maintain a low percentage of body fat, you could follow this typical bodybuilding diet protocol:

  • Eat (about) 15% more: Expect an average of a 2-pound muscle weight gain for men and 1-pound muscle weight gain for women. The adjustment for individual calories, protein, and fat distribution is best conducted with the help of a sports dietitian and personal trainer. The caloric distribution during off-season should be 55%–60% carbohydrate, 25%–30% protein, and 15%–20% fat.
  • Train with weights: Begin 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 help you build muscle as the exercises stimulate growth. Limit the volume of aerobic exercises and instead increase intensity.
  • Burn fat: Most research indicates protein intake should be between 1.2–1.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. However, a regimen such as cutting calories by ~15%, cutting carbohydrates to 23-25%, and then increasing protein intake to 1.8 to 2.7 grams per kilogram of weight isn't uncommon, and may yield better results.

Bulking Phase and Cutting Phase

There are essentially two phases to a bodybuilding diet: the bulking phase and the cutting phase. To prepare themselves for competition, bodybuilders first put on muscle and some fat by eating more (bulking). Then they burn the fat, which leaves the muscle to show (cutting).

During the building phase, followers typically increase their calorie intake by about 15%. In the cutting phase, they eliminate the 15% that was added, and keep their diet relatively low in fat at around 20%.

In either phase, protein intake stays at 1.2 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight or more. However, with decreased carbohydrate intake, an increase of protein is required to maintain muscle. The ranges of protein may increase to 1.8 to 2.7 grams of protein per kilogram of weight.

Macronutrient Ratios

Bulking Phase

  • Protein: 15%–20%
  • Fat: 20%–30%
  • Carbohydrate: 50%–60%


Cutting Phase

  • Protein: 20%–25% (or more, depending on carbohydrate intake)
  • Fat: 15%–20%
  • Carbohydrate: 55%–60% (or as low as 23%-25%, if tolerated)

Carbohydrate Modifications

Depending on your weight, muscle-building goals, energy levels, and carbohydrate cutting tolerance, you might increase or decrease carbohydrate ratios during the two phases of bodybuilding. Weight trainers don’t usually expend the same amount of energy in training that endurance athletes do. A marathoner or triathlete may require 7 to 12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight per day.

On light exercise days, err on the lower end of the carbohydrate recommendations. If you do a combination of cardio sessions with weights, you'll likely need more.

  • Casual activity: 3–4 grams per kilogram of body weight
  • 30–60 minutes of exercise: 4–6 grams per kg of body weight
  • 60–90 minutes of exercise: 5–7 grams per kg of body weight
  • 120 minutes or more of exercise: 6–9 grams per kg of body weight
What to Eat
  • Lean protein

  • Fruits and vegetables

  • Whole grains

  • Healthy fats

  • Protein powder supplements

What Not to Eat
  • Sugar and added sweeteners (in excess)

  • Refined carbohydrates (in excess)

  • Fast food and ultra-processed food

Sports nutritionists and coaches take eating very seriously, particularly when it comes to elite athletes. Even amateur athletes can maximize their workouts by fueling properly.

Meal timing is an important component of this. To obtain adequate protein intake in a day, weight trainers fare better with six smaller meals a day with consistent protein intake of 20-30 grams at a meal per day rather than larger meals with higher protein intake.

Pre-Exercise Meals

Eating prior to exercise, whether it's training or competition, is generally supported by sports nutritionists.

  • Eat meals low in fat and fiber with some protein and carbohydrates. 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-rich foods like beans, or milk, various fruits, and so on.
  • Eat your main meal 3 to 4 hours before exercise to give your body plenty of time to digest.
  • Eat a smaller meal 30 to 60 minutes before exercise to make sure you have energy for your workouts. If this isn't tolerated, eat 1 to 2 hours before exercise..
  • Within 20 to 30 minutes of exercise, consume 1.5 to 3 cups of liquids like sports drinks and gels, protein shakes, or water.
  • Avoid intense cardiovascular exercise after you eat to avoid intestinal discomfort.

Eating During Exercise

Unless you do extreme sessions for considerably longer than 60 to 90 minutes of intense cardio or strength-endurance weights programs, you probably don't need anything other than water during a workout. For exercise lasting longer than 60–90 minutes, you'll need carbohydrate and electrolytes, as in a sports drink, gel, and/or a 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 will remain depleted and unprepared for the next workout.

This can lead to longer-term muscle fatigue and weakened performance. What's more, inadequate refueling after your session won't take advantage of all that hard muscle work to give those muscles an anabolic boost that repairs and rebuilds.

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 up if you want to be at your best in training.

Carbohydrates play an important role in this, particularly immediately following exercise with a ratio of 3 grams of carbs for every 1 gram of protein. 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).

Consume close to 20 to 30 grams of high-quality protein within 60 minutes of a weight training session. The closer your protein intake to the workout, the better.

Protein Powder Supplements

Supplements have become a big business in the commercial weight training and bodybuilding industries. While many weight trainers significantly increase their protein intake in the form of shakes and supplements, particularly whey-based supplements, they often lack expert guidance on the appropriate amount.

Keep in mind that dietary supplements are largely unregulated by the FDA. When evaluating supplements, look for a third-party stamp such as USP or NSF.

Those at risk for kidney disease need to be extra cautious about their protein intake. Anyone considering protein powder supplements or very high protein intake should consult their healthcare provider or a nutritionist for personalized advice and regular check-ups of kidney function.

Sample Shopping List

What you'll eat on a bodybuilding diet will vary depending on your individual goals and weight training program. The following shopping list offers plenty of suggestions for getting started. Note that this is not a definitive shopping list and there may be other foods that work better for you.

  • Lean animal protein (sirloin steak, lean ground beef, pork tenderloin, chicken and turkey breast, turkey bacon)
  • Fresh or frozen fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, halibut, shrimp)
  • Dark, leafy greens (kale, spinach, arugula, bok choy)
  • Vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, cucumbers, sweet potatoes)
  • Whole fruits (bananas, apples, mixed berries, pineapple, avocado)
  • Legumes (black beans, lentils, soybeans, tofu, chickpeas, prepared hummus)
  • Whole grains (pasta, bread, brown rice, quinoa)
  • Nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds)
  • Nut butters (peanut butter, almond butter, sunflower seed butter)
  • Dairy products (yogurt, milk, cheeses, cottage cheese)
  • Healthy oils (olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil)
  • Eggs
  • Whey protein powder

Sample Meal Plan

The following meal plan follows the six-smaller-meals-a-day protocol during the building phase of the bodybuilding diet, which is more nutritionally balanced than the cutting phase. This well-balanced three-day plan includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods with adequate protein to help build muscle and complex carbohydrates for sustained energy. Some meals include a glass of milk, which is helpful for muscle growth.

Note that this meal plan is not all-inclusive and if you do choose to follow a bodybuilding diet, you may find that meals with different macronutrient ratios work better for you. If you need more calories to fuel your workouts, you can always adjust this menu by adding more carbohydrates.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Balanced nutrition

  • Effective

Cons
  • Complicated

  • Impractical

  • Can promote unhealthy behaviors

As with all diets, a bodybuilding diet has its drawbacks, particularly since you are asking your body to do two contradicting things: burning fat while retaining muscle. Review the pros and cons associated with this eating plan to help inform your decision.

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, nutritious choices are encouraged to promote healthy weight gain. Similarly, in the cutting phase, the goal is to cut out less nutrient-dense foods rather than restrict calories.

Effective

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

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. As such, this plan may not be realistic for some people to stick with.

Impractical

It's not particularly easy to follow this diet, due to all the mathematical calculations needed and the extensive meal planning, prep, and scheduling that is required.

Promotes Unhealthy Behaviors

Sometimes bodybuilding diets can lead to unhealthy habits, as in a case study regarding the adverse effects of consuming too much protein. Additionally, the cutting phase of this diet can be challenging to adhere to because what you want your body to do (lose fat, keep muscle) is incongruent with what it wants to do (keep fat, lose muscle).

Following an imbalanced diet can adversely affect sports performance. Some aspects of a bodybuilding diet may create an unhealthy relationship with food and lead to body image issues.

Is the Bodybuilding Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

While the bodybuilding diet is fairly unique in its goals, it shares similar characteristics with other healthful eating plans. Since protein can build muscle, many people looking to lose weight and/or add muscle turn to a high-protein diet. The bulking phase of the bodybuilding diet is also similar to a weight-gaining diet, which also recommends consuming a variety of nutritious foods to put on weight.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises a balanced mix of fruit, vegetables, protein, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and healthy fats. The bulking phase adheres to these guidelines, but the cutting phase is slightly lower in fat than the USDA's recommendation's for a healthy eating pattern.

The bodybuilding diet is not recommended for those who are overweight. To lose weight 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. But you can still lift weights during a weight loss plan and build muscle tone.

Regardless of whether your goal is to lose, gain, or maintain weight, it can be helpful to know how many calories you should be consuming each day. This calculator can give you an estimate.

When compared with federal guidelines for a well-balanced diet, the bulking phase of bodybuilding diet is closely aligned. However, the cutting phase restricts fat intake to 20% of daily calories whereas the USDA recommends up to 35% of daily calories from total fat.

Health Benefits

When well-balanced, a bodybuilding diet rich in nutrient-dense whole foods could potentially help to promote overall health. Diets that limit processed foods and focus on whole fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats and nuts have been shown to prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer, and cognitive decline.

The protein emphasis on a bodybuilding diet is also beneficial. Research has shown an association between high-quality protein intake and enhanced muscle recovery and rebuilding following a workout.

Health Risks

Consuming too much of certain macronutrients (such as protein) or micronutrients (such as zinc) can lead to health risks, sometimes long-lasting ones.

Research shows that excess protein intake, particularly animal protein, beyond the recommended daily allowance may cause kidney problems. Similarly, overconsumption of protein supplements, particularly whey protein, has been associated with kidney and liver damage and other health concerns.

Lastly, the cutting phase of a bodybuilding diet may not be appropriate or safe for those who have had or are at risk for developing an eating disorder.

A Word From Verywell

Precision nutrition for exercise can be complex. That’s why exercise physiologists and sports nutritionists are of great value to sporting teams and elite athletes. While regular exercisers don’t have to worry about a split second in a race or an extra inch of bicep in a bodybuilding competition, they can still benefit from eating well.

Following some of the basics of sports nutrition and adhering to a healthy, balanced diet is a smart choice for any training plan, workout regimen, or weight loss goal. If you need personalized advice, consult a doctor or dietitian for guidance.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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