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Building a Bodybuilder Diet

Let’s face it, looking good is among the top reasons people work out and the bodybuilding diet is key to achieving that goal. We spend a lot of time reviewing and choosing the best strength training gear, but how much attention is spent on nutrition? Many a gym-goer will admit they don’t care how much they bench press, they want to improve their health and overall appearance. When it comes to health, wellness, and appearance, there’s no question nutrition rules the day.

Quick Points

  • Know the Terms: The nutrition world has more vocabulary than nuts in a trail mix.
  • Know the Numbers: A 250-pound person needs different calories than a 125-pounder.
  • Know the Foods: Marshmallows or broccoli….there is a right answer.
  • Know the Supplements: Supplements are a tool, not a substitution.

Many a professional bodybuilder will tell you that six-pack abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym. What that means is no matter how hard you work out, if your body fat percentage is too high, those abs will never see the light of a day spent at the beach. As a rule, men must be under 6% bodyfat and women below 15% before the six-pack is visible. Meanwhile, it takes food to build muscle, and there is a time to bulk up.

When I compete as bodybuilder in the NPC, I enter a season about 200 to 210 pounds. By show time, I’ve cut down to 175 pounds. My workout in the gym just doesn’t change that much relative to the menu which produces the before-and-after judges see on the stage. What do bodybuilders eat? The better question is “How much of what do bodybuilders eat?”

Healthy bodybuilders calculate their protein, carbohydrates, fat, micronutrients, and water consumption to the gram. There’s a reason Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) and personal trainers are hired for professionals and movie stars. Protein is such a critical component of these folks’ diets that supplementation is a given. You can find a review of the Best Protein Powders on the market discussed here.

One option to consider is using a meal prep service like Blue Apron, which we’ve reviewed here. That said, the approach is so different to what mainstream dieters use that the brief introduction detailed here should be good enough to get you started. Keep in mind that bodybuilders and fitness models spend months prepping for one event. Always keep your health a priority and avoid trying to lose too much too fast.

Know the Terms: Components of a Bodybuilding Food Plan

Bodybuilders use a macronutrient approach to dieting instead of the simpler calorie-based plans. This is consistent whether choosing a low-carb/low-fat plan or high-protein/high-fat model like the Keto Diet. The macronutrients are proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.

Proteins contain four calories per gram. The building blocks of muscles and bones, they also make up hormones and enzymes which regulate body function. Proteins are comprised of long chains of amino acids. The human body requires 20 different amino acids to function properly, nine of which it must obtain from food as it can’t make them on its own. Below in our section on supplements we’ll get more into that as well as our review here of the Best BCAAs.

Carbohydrates are sugar molecules and are used as quick energy for the body and also equal four calories per gram. You’ve probably heard the terms good and bad carbs, which actually refer to complex and simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are long chains of sugar molecules found in beans and other vegetables. These chains require effort for the body to break down. Simple carbohydrates such as table sugar and some fruits are much shorter chains, and in some cases one molecule. These speed through the body like lightening and provide quick bursts or energy. The key to carbohydrate management is understanding that energy not burnt in exercise will be stored as fat.

Dietary fats are a nutrient which provides longer, stored energy for the body and equal nine calories per gram. You’ve probably heard the term saturated fats, which are those which remain solid at room temperature. These include butter, lard, full-fat milk, and high-fat meat. Unsaturated fats tend to be liquid at room temperatures, and we find these in fish and vegetable oils.

A pound of body fat is roughly worth 3,500 calories. Notice that bodybuilding-style diets are designed to hit a certain number of grams per day of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. You can calculate the calories involved by multiplying those grams by four, four, or nine, respectively. But as everyone’s goal is a little different, so will be their macros, as calories are not equal when looking to alter the body.

Know the Numbers

There’s a reason many folks go to professionals for the creation of a personalized plan. But the fact is, you can do a lot of it yourself by knowing your own numbers. Online calculators abound online, but here are the basics of what you’ll need to calculate everything:

  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): Represents the number of calories required per day to maintain the body. This is calculated using Age, Sex, Height, and Bodyweight.
  • Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE): This represents the number of calories required daily to maintain body weight when exercise is considered. Two people may have the same height and weight but very different activity levels. This makes a world of difference in terms of caloric burn.
  • Activity Level: The usual breakdown is Sedentary, Light Activity, Active, and Very Active. This is coupled with the number of days one exercises and the level of intensity and minutes they spend at it.

Using myself as an example, here’s how it works.

  • Age: 46 years
  • Sex/Gender: Male
  • Height: 5’10”
  • Weight: 185 pounds
  • Activity Level: Very Active, 7 days per week exercising about 120 minutes per day
  • BMR = 1,727 calories per day
  • TDEE = 3,618 calories per day

To create a bodybuilding diet I would then select:

  • 15%: Fat Loss, requires 3,075 calories per day, Maintenance is 3,618 calories per day, Lean Gain is 3,980 calories per day
  • 20%: Fat Loss, requires 2,894 calories per day, Maintenance is 3,618 calories per day, Lean Gain is 3,980 calories per day
  • 25%: Fat Loss, requires 2,714 calories per day, Maintenance is 3,618 calories per day, Lean Gain is 3,980 calories per day

Then we select how vigorous we want to be with the macronutrients here, whether for fat loss, maintenance, or the gaining of lean muscle. We can select 1.0, 1.15, or 1.25 grams of protein per pound of muscle; and then 0.35, 0.40, 0.45 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight. This means if I wanted a 20% Fat Loss diet I’d need to consume 231.3 grams of protein, 325.8 grams of carbohydrates, and 74 grams of fat per day.

Customization comes into play here and one can adjust this strategy to a Low Carb model, a Ketogenic (higher fat and protein) model, or a Low Fat model. This mean we need to know our own Bodyfat Percentage and the Lean Body Mass (LBM), which is the total bodyweight minus the weight of the body fat. To get the body fat weight, multiply the total body’s weight by the body fat percentage.

Remember, everyone’s numbers will be different based on personal variables and activity level. If a pair of body composition scales is needed, check out our review of the Best Body Composition Scales here.

clear scale with blue measuring tape

Know the Foods

Bodybuilding food plans focus on macronutrients because a calorie is not a calorie when it comes to bodybuilding and fitness modeling. Consider a 2,000 calorie diet of marshmallows versus a 2,000 calorie diet of broccoli. Six-hundred grams (1.32 pounds) of marshmallows represents 2,001 calories, 480.8 grams of carbohydrates, and 20 grams of protein. It would take 5,900 grams of raw broccoli (13 pounds) to equal 2,002 calories, with 21.8 grams of fat, 391.8 grams of carbohydrates, and 166.4 grams of protein. There’s no question, when planning to build muscle and lose fat, broccoli is a clear winner over marshmallows.

As a general rule, all proteins carry some degree of fat. Below is a breakdown of common go-to foods for bodybuilding diets:

  1. Chicken Breast (8 oz.): 2.8 grams total fat; 0 grams carbs; 52.4 grams protein, 249 calories
  2. Beef Sirloin broiled (16 oz.): 26.3 total fat; 0 grams carbs; 138.6 grams protein, 829 calories
  3. Atlantic salmon (raw, 8 oz.): 24.6 grams total fat; 0 grams carbs; 45.1 grams protein, 415 calories
  4. Sweet potato baked in-skin (8 oz.): 0.3 grams total fat; 36.7 grams carbohydrates; 3.6 grams protein, 159 calories
  5. Green beans (8 oz.): 0.3 grams total fat; 16.2 grams carbohydrates; 4.1 grams protein, 70 calories

Know the Supplements

When a diet is planned out to the letter and gram, dietary supplements can come in handy. Proteins are comprised of amino acids, and each one helps carry out a specific function. Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body and must come by way of food, or supplements. These include: Histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Three of these are termed branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and include: Leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These amino acids have been shown to decrease muscle fatigue and alleviate soreness during exercise. You can read our full review here of the Best BCAAs, most of which are dissolved into sports drinks.

And with the volume of protein being consumed by bodybuilders, you know protein supplements are a necessity. Most powders can be dissolved into a drink and come in measures of 30 grams per scoop. You can read our full review of the Best Protein Powders here.

In It To Win It

Whether you’re an iron addict with barbells in the basement, or a cardio fan, learning about nutrition can make all the difference in the world. It’s literally impossible to build muscle out of marshmallows and one can’t run off three pizzas a day. If you’re serious about getting stage-ready, professional coaching is recommended. Always keep safety in mind, particularly when cutting weight. The good news about an informed approach to nutrition is that it negates the need for drugs or other cheats.

The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people not try to lose more than one to two pounds per week. The same idea holds true with gaining weight if muscle-building is the goal. One pound per week averaged over a year is 52 pounds. The fact is, with knowledge of nutrition and exercise combined, there’s very little one can’t do with their body.

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