Bodybuilding is about building your muscles through weightlifting and eating right. Regardless if you do it for your own enjoyment or for competition, bodybuilding is a lifestyle that involves time spent both in the gym and out.
Your diet is a key factor in your success at the gym. Eating the wrong food can lead to poor results. This article provides an overview of what to eat and what not to eat when following a bodybuilding diet.
The Two Phases of Bodybuilding – Bulking and Cutting
Unlike with powerlifting, bodybuilding is judged based solely on the competitor’s physical appearance, not strength.
Bodybuilders therefore strive to build and maintain a muscular, symmetrically balanced physique.
This is why many bodybuilders begin with an off-season diet and then transition to an in-season diet. These are known as the bulking and cutting phases, respectively.
The bulking phase is a period where bodybuilders consume a high-calorie, protein rich diet. During this phase the goal is to build as much muscle as possible by lifting weights.
Next, the cutting phase focuses on losing fat while keeping the muscle mass that was gained during the bulking phase. This can be accomplished by making specific adjustments to diet and workouts for a 12-26 week period.
To maintain and build muscle, bodybuilders work out regularly, engaging in both resistance training and aerobic exercise.
Resistance training creates gains in both the size and strength of the muscles. Greater muscle strength is closely linked to a lower death rate from various critical illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, and kidney disease.(1)
Aerobic exercise is a common way for bodybuilders to minimize body fat and improve heart health. It also significantly lowers the risk for heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the US.
Bodybuilders not only focus on exercise but also their diet. Bodybuilders typically plan their meals in a way that supports and maintains their fitness goals.
A healthy eating lifestyle that includes the right amounts of high-nutrient foods from all major food groups can dramatically decrease your risk of developing chronic diseases.(2)
Caloric and Macronutrient Requirements
Competitive bodybuilders have two goals: to increase muscle mass during the bulking phase and to decrease body fat during the cutting phase. Therefore, more calories will be consumed in the bulking phase than during the cutting phase.
How Many Calories Are Necessary?
To determine your daily calorie needs, it’s easiest to weigh yourself at least three times per week. You can then record what you eat with a calories tracking app.
If your weight does not change, then note your current daily caloric intake as your maintenance calories. This means that you aren’t losing or gaining any weight, just maintaining it.
It is recommended that you increase your caloric intake by 15% during the bulking phase.(3) So if you normally consume 3,000 daily maintenance calories, then you should increase your calories to 3,450 calories per day (3,000 x 0.15 = 450) when bulking.
However, if you are transitioning from a bulking phase into a cutting phase, your maintenance calories will need to be decreased by 15%. Using the above example, that means you would consume 2,550 calories daily rather than the 3,450.
As you gain or lose weight during the bulking and cutting phases, you’ll need to fine-tune your calorie intake on a monthly basis at minimum to adjust to any weight changes.
For continued progress, increase your caloric intake when you gain weight during the bulking phase. Reduce your caloric intake when you lose weight during the cutting phase.
It is recommended that you do not lose or gain more than 0.5 to 1% of your body weight each week during either phase. This will help prevent losing muscle gains during the cutting phase, or gaining excess body fat in the bulking phase.(4)
After determining how many calories you require, you can calculate your macronutrient ratio. This is the ratio of the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats you consume.
Your macronutrient ratio doesn’t change, unlike your caloric requirements during the bulking and cutting phases. Carbohydrates and protein contain four calories per gram, while fat has nine.
The following macronutrient ratio is recommended for both the bulking and cutting phases:(5)
- Protein – 30-35% of caloric intake.
- Carbohydrates – 55-60% of caloric intake.
- Fat – 15% to 20% of caloric intake.
However, more recent research suggests the following distribution of macros may also provide good results:(6)
- 2.3–3.1 grams protein per kilogram of lean body mass.
- 15–30% of calories from fat.
- All other calories from carbohydrates.
Number of meals per day
The debate over the number of meals a person should eat each day is somewhat of a controversial subject within the bodybuilding community.
Some research suggests that an individual can consume between 3 to 6 meals daily. Researchers noted that the timing of workout sessions and meals showed no impact on retaining muscle or reducing fat.(7)
Which Foods to Eat and Which to Limit
Diet is just as important as training for bodybuilding. Your muscles will grow stronger and healthier, and recover faster, if you eat the right foods in the right amounts
On the other hand, you will receive less-than-stellar results by consuming the wrong foods, or not eating enough of them. These are the foods that you should be focusing on and those to only eat in moderation or abstain from altogether.
Fundamental Bodybuilding Foods
You don’t have to change the foods you eat during the bulking or cutting phases. It’s usually the quantities that matter.
Focus on eating the following foods:(8)
- Meat, Fish and Poultry – Sirloin steaks (preferably grass-fed), bison, lean ground beef, pork tenderloins, chicken breasts, tuna, cod, tilapia, and salmon.
- Fruits – Apples, oranges, bananas, peaches, pears, cantaloupe, and grapes.
- Vegetables – Broccoli, spinach, kale and other leafy greens, asparagus, tomatoes, mushrooms, green beans, peppers, and zucchini are all good options.
- Starchy Vegetables – Corn, potatoes, green peas, black-eyed peas, and lima beans.
- Beans and legumes – Chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, butter beans, pinto beans, black beans.
- Grains – Oatmeal, cereals, crackers, bread, rice, and popcorn.
- Dairy – Yogurt, cheese, low-fat milk, and cottage cheese.
- Nuts and Seeds – Almonds, walnuts, Chia seeds, sunflower seeds, and Flax seeds.
- Healthy Oils – Flaxseed oil, olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil.
Foods to Avoid
You should eat a wide variety of foods, but there are certain foods you should limit or avoid altogether, such as:
- Sugar – Foods containing sugar have a lot of calories, but very few nutrients. You know what foods they are: cookies, candy, cakes, donuts, ice cream, and sugary beverages like sodas and sports drinks.(9)
- Alcohol – Consuming alcohol can adversely affect your ability to build muscle or lose fat, especially when drinking in excess.(10)
- Fried foods – Fried food can cause inflammation and, if consumed frequently, lead to many health conditions. Fried chicken, fried fish, french fries, tater tots, onion rings, and chicken strips are some examples.(11)
You may want to limit these foods, as well as avoiding certain other foods prior to your workouts that can hamper digestion and cause an upset stomach during exercise. Some examples include:
- High-Fat Foods – Meats that are high in fat, foods with heavy sauces, butter, and creams are not recommended.
- Carbonated Drinks – Sugar-free sodas or sparkling water.
- High-Fiber Foods – Cruciferous veggies (like broccoli and cauliflower) and beans.
Many bodybuilders use nutritional supplements. Some are more effective than others.
Some of the best supplements for bodybuilders include:
- Protein Powder – Protein powder can be a convenient and simple way to increase your intake of protein.
- Creatine – Creatine gives your muscles the energy they need to get in those extra reps. There are many brands available, but creatine monohydrate is the considered to be best.
- Pre-Workouts – Preworkout supplements help prevent fatigue and make it easier to exercise harder for longer.
- Legal Steroids – A wide-ranging category of supplements that include testosterone boosters, HGH supplements, and natural steroid alternatives. Unlike anabolic steroids, these products are made with all-natural ingredients intended to mimic the effects of performance-enhancing drugs.
You may also find a multivitamin or mineral supplement beneficial if your goal is to reduce body weight during the cutting phase.
Example Bodybuilding Diet
Bodybuilders’ diets are often described as boring, repetitive, and restrictive.
Traditional bodybuilding diets are often limited in food choices and offer little variety within and between food groups. This can lead to a low intake of essential vitamins and minerals.
Because of this, it is important to include variety in your diet, especially during cutting phases when you are restricted on calories. To support optimal muscle growth, all meals and snacks should contain between 20-30 grams of protein.(12)
Your food intake will be far greater during the bulking phase as opposed to the cutting phase. The cutting phase allows you to enjoy the same foods as when you’re bulking, but the portions will be smaller.
Here’s a one-week sample bodybuilding diet menu:
- Breakfast: Poached eggs, oatmeal, and fruit
- Snack: Protein shake
- Lunch: Grilled chicken breast, baked sweet potato, and a spinach salad
- Snack: Hard-boiled eggs and carrot sticks
- Dinner: Baked fish, brown rice, and green beans with
- Breakfast: Protein pancakes with light-syrup, strawberries, and peanut butter
- Snack: Hard-boiled eggs and a banana
- Lunch: Sirloin steak, sweet potato and a mixed-greens salad with vinaigrette
- Snack: Protein shake and almonds
- Dinner: Turkey breast and pasta with marinara
- Breakfast: Yogurt, walnuts or almonds, granola, blueberries
- Snack: Protein shake
- Lunch: Broiled fish with broccoli and a mixed-greens salad
- Snack: Egg white omelet with mushrooms and bell peppers
- Dinner: Chicken breast, sweet potato and a side salad
- Breakfast: Turkey breast, scrambled eggs, cheese and salsa wrapped in a whole-grain tortilla.
- Snack: Yogurt and granola.
- Lunch: Chicken breast, baked potato with sour cream and broccoli.
- Snack: Protein shake and mixed berries.
- Dinner: Stir-fry with chicken, eggs, broccoli, peas and carrots
- Breakfast: Mixed berries and vanilla Greek yogurt with granola
- Snack: Beef jerky with mixed nuts
- Lunch: Salmon with lemon juice, black beans and asparagus
- Snack: Protein shake and cantaloupe
- Dinner: Ground beef with corn, green beans, brown rice, and green peas
- Breakfast: Scrambled eggs with cheese, peppers, and whole wheat bread
- Snack: Protein shake
- Lunch: Sliced grilled chicken breast with bell peppers, onions, and pinto beans over a spinach salad
- Snack: Orange and walnuts
- Dinner: Sirloin steak with asparagus and a sweet potato
- Breakfast: Greek yogurt with berries and granola
- Snack: Ground turkey with celery and carrot sticks
- Lunch: Sliced grilled chicken breast over spinach with almonds and strawberries
- Snack: Protein shake
- Dinner: Shrimp stir-fry with broccoli, onions, and peppers over brown rice
Adverse Effects of Low Body Fat
Preparing for a bodybuilding competition requires that competitors reach a very low percentage of body fat. Male competitors normally aim for a body fat percentage in the 5-10% range, and women in the 10-15% range.(13)
Maintaining a low body fat percentage with low caloric intake has been shown to reduce sleep quality, adversely impact mood, and hamper the immune system during the days and weeks prior-to and after a competition.(14) As a result, it can affect your ability to function from day-to-day, make you more vulnerable to illness, and negatively impact those around you.
When it comes to bodybuilding, muscularity and leanness are the primary criteria, not athletic performance. To achieve the bodybuilder look you desire, it is important to work out regularly and pay attention to what you eat.
The bulking and cutting phases that bodybuilders use are usually divided into two . During these phases your calorie intake changes while your macronutrient ratio stays the same.
You should eat nutrient-dense food, between 20 and 30 grams of protein for each meal, and limit alcohol consumption and deep-fried and high-sugar foods. This will ensure that you receive all the nutrients your body requires to build muscle and improve overall health.