Bodybuilding Diet: What to Eat, What to Avoid, and Meal Plan
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Bodybuilding is a sport centered around building your body’s muscles through weightlifting.
Equally as important, eating the right diet allows you to recover from your workouts and provides the nutrients your muscles need to grow.
This article explains what to eat and avoid on a bodybuilding diet and provides a sample bodybuilding diet meal plan for building muscle.
Bodybuilding focuses on training and growing your body’s muscles.
It’s different from performance sports like powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting as the athletes are judged on appearance rather than strength and athletic ability.
Many bodybuilders start with a bulking or growing phase followed by a cutting phase.
The bulking phase — lasting from a few months to years — generally consist of eating a high-calorie and high-protein diet with intense and heavy weightlifting to build as much muscle as possible.
The cutting phase focuses on reducing body fat while maintaining the muscle developed during the bulking phase through specific diet and exercise changes over several months.
Peak week follows the cutting phase during which bodybuilders and other competitive physique athletes manipulate their carbohydrate intake to bring their best look to the stage.
After a competition, many bodybuilders slowly increase calories over several weeks to months using a reverse dieting strategy to prevent rapid fat gain.
Calories and macronutrients
Your calorie needs and proportion of macronutrients — carbs, fats, and protein — differ depending on if you’re bulking or cutting and your experience level as a bodybuilder.
During the bulking phase, it’s recommended to consume 200–500 more calories than you need to maintain your weight (1).
More advanced bodybuilders should stay closer to the lower end of this range to avoid excess fat gain since they’re closer to their natural genetic ceiling for building new muscle compared with beginner bodybuilders.
Even then, a bulking phase may not be needed since you can still gain muscle without a large calorie surplus or any surplus at all through what’s known as body recomposition.
However, body recomposition becomes more difficult for those with an optimized training and nutrition program.
When transitioning to a cutting phase, you would decrease your maintenance calories by 10–20%, meaning you would eat 2,400–2,700 calories daily instead of 3,300–3,600 calories.
You can estimate your maintenance calorie needs by using an online calorie calculator.
As you gain weight in the bulking phase or lose weight in the cutting phase, you will need to adjust your calories monthly for continued progression.
During either phase, you should not gain or lose more than 0.25–0.50% of your body weight per week (1, 2, 3).
This will ensure that you don’t gain too much fat during the bulking phase or lose too much muscle during the cutting phase.
After you calculate the number of calories you need, you can determine your macronutrient ratio, or the percent of calories you eat from carbs, fats, and protein.
Protein supports muscle recovery and growth while carbs and fats help fuel your workouts.
Fat supplies nine calories per gram while protein and carbs provide four.
Your diet should consist of (3, 4):
- 15–20% of your calories from fat
- 25–30% of your calories from protein
- 55–60% of your calories from carbs
Unlike the differences in calories between the bulking and cutting phase, the macronutrient ratio stays the same.
Here is an example of the macronutrient ratios for a cutting and bulking phase for a bodybuilder whose maintenance calories are 3,000 :
A more advanced bodybuilder
Bodybuilding diet foods
Diet is just as important as training for bodybuilding.
Eating the right foods provides your muscles with the calories and nutrients they need to recover from workouts and grow larger.
At the same time, eating too much of the wrong foods can derail your training and results.
Here are foods to eat and foods to limit:
Foods to eat
The types of foods you eat vary slightly between the bulking and cutting phase. Higher calorie foods like full-fat dairy and fattier cuts of meats tend to be preferred during the bulking phase for the extra calories they provide compared to their leaner counterparts.
Foods to eat include (3):
- Fruits: apples, bananas, berries, grapes, melons, peaches, pears, etc.
- Vegetables: asparagus, broccoli, cucumbers, mushrooms, peppers, salad greens, spinach, etc.
- Starchy vegetables: corn, potatoes, green peas, and lima beans.
- Grains: bread, cereal, popcorn, oatmeal, and rice.
- Dairy: cheese, cottage cheese, milk, and yogurt.
- Meats and poultry: chicken breast, eggs, ground beef, steak, pork tenderloin, and venison.
- Seafood: crab, cod, salmon, scallops, shrimp, and tilapia.
- Seeds and nuts: almonds, chia seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, and walnuts.
- Beans and legumes: black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, and pinto beans.
- Oils: avocado oil, canola oil, macadamia nut oil, and olive oil.
Foods to limit
Several types of foods can be detrimental to your training and muscle growth, particularly when eaten in excess.
However, you may choose to follow a more flexible dieting approach like the 80/20 diet, where you can indulge 20% of the time.
Foods to limit include:
- Fried foods. These foods tend to promote inflammation, which can be harmful to your health and bodybuilding goals. Examples include fried fish, french fries, onion rings, and chicken strips (5).
- Processed meats. Processed meat is meat that has been smoked, salted, cured, salted, or smoked. Examples include bacon, hot dogs, salami, pepperoni, and lunch meats (6).
- Added sugars. Foods with added sugar like soda, desserts, and other sweets contribute excess calories from sugar but few nutrients.
- Alcohol. drinking alcohol in excess can blunt muscle protein synthesis, which is the process of building muscle mass (7).
One-day sample bodybuilding diet menu
It’s important to incorporate variety into your diet to prevent boredom and to ensure your nutritional needs are being met.
Each meal or snack should consist of 20–30 grams of protein to optimally support muscle building (3, 8).
Here is a sample one-day bodybuilding diet menu:
- Breakfast: scrambled eggs with peppers and oatmeal topped with sliced strawberries
- Snack: cottage cheese and blueberries
- Lunch: sirloin steak with a baked potato and asparagus
- Preworkout: a banana and almonds
- Postworkout: two scoops of whey protein powder
- Dinner: salmon with rice and broccoli
Many bodybuilders take supplements to increase their exercise performance and muscle gains, but not all supplements are helpful (9).
The best bodybuilding supplements include:
- Creatine. Creatine is one of the most effective and safest bodybuilding supplements. It increases muscle strength and size. Creatine monohydrate is the best form of creatine, like this product from NutraBio (10).
- Caffeine. Caffeine increases alertness and decreases fatigue, which has been shown to improvements in muscle strength and power. Coffee, tea, and most pre-workout supplements contain caffeine (11).
- Protein powder. Supplementing your diet with protein powder is an efficient and cost-effective way to meet your daily protein needs. Whey protein powder is especially beneficial for muscle growth and when consumed around your workout (12).
- Citrulline. Citrulline is an amino acid that increases your body’s production of nitric oxide, which is important for the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to muscles. Many pre-workouts contain citrulline (13).
- Beetroot powder. Beetroot powder is rich in dietary nitrates, which like citrulline, increases nitric oxide production and exercise performance. You can buy beetroot powder online here (14).
The bottom line
Bodybuilding is a sport judged on muscularity and aesthetics rather than muscle strength or athletic performance.
It requires intense training and a special focus on diet.
While your calorie needs will vary depending on whether you’re bulking or cutting, your macronutrient ratio remains the same.
Your diet should be varied, include 20–30 grams of protein with each meal and snack, and be limited in fried foods, processed meats, added sugars, and alcohol.