Bodybuilding is centered around building your body’s muscles through weightlifting and nutrition.
Whether recreational or competitive, bodybuilding is often referred to as a lifestyle, as it involves both the time you spend in and outside the gym.
To maximize your results from the gym, you must focus on your diet, as eating the wrong foods can be detrimental to your bodybuilding goals.
This article explains what to eat and avoid on a bodybuilding diet and provides a one-week sample menu.
Bodybuilding differs from powerlifting or Olympic lifting in that it’s judged on a competitor’s physical appearance rather than physical strength.
As such, bodybuilders aspire to develop and maintain a well-balanced, lean, and muscular physique.
To do this, many bodybuilders start with an off-season followed by an in-season way of eating — referred to as a bulking and cutting phase, respectively.
During the bulking phase, which can last months to years, bodybuilders eat a high-calorie, protein-rich diet and lift weights intensely intending to build as much muscle as possible.
The following cutting phase focuses on losing as much fat as possible while maintaining muscle mass developed during the bulking phase. This is achieved through specific changes in diet and exercise over 12–26 weeks.
Summary: Bodybuilding training and dieting are typically divided into two phases: bulking and cutting. The goal of the bulking phase is to build muscle, whereas the cutting phase is dedicated to preserving muscle while losing body fat.
Benefits of bodybuilding
There are several health benefits associated with bodybuilding.
To maintain and build muscles, bodybuilders exercise frequently, performing both resistance and aerobic training.
Resistance training increases muscle strength and size. Muscle strength is highly correlated with a lower risk of dying from cancer, heart and kidney disease, as well as several other critical illnesses.
Aerobic exercise, which bodybuilders regularly implement to reduce body fat, improves heart health and significantly lowers your risk of developing or dying from heart disease — the number one killer in America.
In addition to exercise, bodybuilders also focus on their nutrition.
With careful planning, bodybuilders can eat in a way that not only supports their efforts in the gym but keeps them healthy too.
Following a healthy eating pattern, including nutrient-dense foods from all food groups in appropriate amounts, can significantly lower your risk of chronic diseases.
Summary: Bodybuilders exercise regularly and may eat well-planned and nutrient-dense diets, both of which offer many health benefits.
Calorie needs and macronutrients
The goal for competitive bodybuilders is to increase muscle mass in the bulking phase and reduce body fat in the cutting phase. Hence, you consume more calories in the bulking phase than in the cutting phase.
How many calories do you need?
The easiest way to determine how many calories you need is to weigh yourself at least three times a week and record what you eat using a calorie tracking app.
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If your weight stays the same, the daily number of calories you eat is your maintenance calories — in other words, you’re not losing or gaining weight, but maintaining it.
During your bulking phase, it’s recommended to increase your calorie intake by 15%. For example, if your maintenance calories are 3,000 per day, you should eat 3,450 calories per day (3,000 x 0.15 = 450) during your bulking phase.
When transitioning from a bulking to a cutting phase, you would instead decrease your maintenance calories by 15%, meaning you would eat 2,550 calories per day instead of 3,450.
As you gain weight in the bulking phase or lose weight in the cutting phase, you will need to adjust your calorie intake at least monthly to account for changes in your weight.
Increase your calories as you gain weight in the bulking phase and decrease your calories as you lose weight in the cutting phase for continued progression.
During either phase, it’s recommended not to lose or gain more than 0.5–1% of your body weight per week. This ensures that you don’t lose too much muscle during the cutting phase or gain too much body fat during the bulking phase.
Once you establish the number of calories you need, you can determine your macronutrient ratio, which is the ratio between your protein, carbohydrate, and fat intake.
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Unlike the difference in your calorie needs between the bulking and cutting phase, your macronutrient ratio does not change.
Protein and carbs contain four calories per gram, and fat contains nine.
It’s recommended that you get:
- 30–35% of your calories from protein
- 55–60% of your calories from carbs
- 15–20% of your calories from fat
Here’s an example of the ratio for both a bulking and cutting phase:
- Calories: 3,450
- Protein (grams): 259–302
- Carbs (grams): 474–518
- Fat (grams): 58–77
- Calories: 2,550
- Protein (grams): 191–223
- Carbs (grams): 351–383
- Fat (grams): 43–57
These are general guidelines, so it’s best to consult with a registered dietitian to determine your individual needs based on your goals to make sure your diet is nutritionally adequate.
Summary: Recommended calorie intake, but not your macronutrient ratio, differ between the bulking and cutting phase. To account for weight changes, adjust your calorie intake each month.
Bodybuilding nutrition: Foods to eat and avoid
Like training, diet is a vital part of bodybuilding.
Eating the right foods in the appropriate amounts provides your muscles with the nutrients they need to recover from workouts and grow bigger and stronger.
Conversely, consuming the wrong foods or not consuming enough of the right ones will leave you with subpar results.
Here are foods you should focus on and foods to limit or avoid:
Foods to eat
The foods you eat don’t need to differ between the bulking and cutting phase — usually, it’s the amounts that do.
Foods to eat include:
- Meats, poultry, and fish: Sirloin steak, ground beef, pork tenderloin, venison, chicken breast, salmon, tilapia, and cod.
- Dairy: Yogurt, cottage cheese, low-fat milk, and cheese.
- Grains: Bread, cereal, crackers, oatmeal, quinoa, popcorn, and rice.
- Fruits: Oranges, apples, bananas, grapes, pears, peaches, watermelon, and berries.
- Starchy vegetables: Potatoes, corn, green peas, green lima beans, and cassava.
- Vegetables: Broccoli, spinach, leafy salad greens, tomatoes, green beans, cucumber, zucchini, asparagus, peppers, and mushrooms.
- Seeds and nuts: Almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and flax seeds.
- Beans and legumes: Chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, black beans, and pinto beans.
- Oils: Olive oil, flaxseed oil, and avocado oil.
Foods to limit
While you should include a variety of foods in your diet, there are some you should limit.
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- Alcohol: Alcohol can negatively affect your ability to build muscle and lose fat, especially if you consume it in excess.
- Added sugars: These offer plenty of calories but few nutrients. Foods high in added sugars include candy, cookies, doughnuts, ice cream, cake, and sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda and sports drinks.
- Deep-fried foods: These may promote inflammation and — when consumed in excess — disease. Examples include fried fish, french fries, onion rings, chicken strips, and cheese curds.
In addition to limiting these, you may also want to avoid certain foods before going to the gym that can slow digestion and cause stomach upset during your workout.
- High-fat foods: High-fat meats, buttery foods, and heavy sauces or creams.
- High-fiber foods: Beans and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli or cauliflower.
- Carbonated beverages: Sparkling water or diet soda.
Many bodybuilders take dietary supplements, some of which are useful while others are not.
The best bodybuilding supplements include:
- Whey protein: Consuming whey protein powder is an easy and convenient way to increase your protein intake.
- Creatine: Creatine provides your muscles with the energy needed to perform an additional rep or two. While there are many brands of creatine, look for creatine monohydrate as it’s the most effective.
- Caffeine: Caffeine decreases fatigue and allows you to work harder. It’s found in pre-workout supplements, coffee, or tea.
A multi-vitamin and mineral supplement may be helpful if you’re limiting your calorie intake to reduce body fat during your cutting phase.
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Summary: Include a variety of nutrient-rich foods across and within all the food groups in your diet. Avoid or limit alcohol, foods with added sugars, and deep-fried foods. In addition to your diet, whey protein, creatine, and caffeine can be useful supplements.
One-week sample menu
The diets of bodybuilders are commonly described as restrictive, repetitive, and boring.
Traditional bodybuilding diets typically contain limited food selections and little variety among and within food groups, which can lead to an inadequate intake of essential minerals and vitamins.
For this reason, it’s important to incorporate variety into your diet to ensure your nutritional needs are being met — especially during a cutting phase when you eat limited calories.
Each meal and snack should contain 20–30 grams of protein to optimally support muscle building.
When you’re in a bulking phase, your food intake will be much higher than when you’re in a cutting phase.
You can enjoy the same foods in the cutting phase that you would when bulking — just in smaller portions.
Here is a sample one-week bodybuilding menu:
- Breakfast: Scrambled eggs with mushrooms and oatmeal.
- Snack: Low-fat cottage cheese with blueberries.
- Lunch: Venison burger, white rice, and broccoli.
- Snack: Protein shake and a banana.
- Dinner: Salmon, quinoa, and asparagus.
- Breakfast: Protein pancakes with syrup, peanut butter, and raspberries.
- Snack: Hard-boiled eggs and an apple.
- Lunch: Sirloin steak, sweet potato, and spinach salad with vinaigrette.
- Snack: Protein shake and walnuts.
- Dinner: Ground turkey and marinara sauce over pasta.
- Breakfast: Chicken sausage with egg and roasted potatoes.
- Snack: Greek yogurt and almonds.
- Lunch: Turkey breast, basmati rice, and mushrooms.
- Snack: Protein shake and grapes.
- Dinner: Mackerel, brown rice, and salad leaves with vinaigrette.
- Breakfast: Ground turkey, egg, cheese, and salsa in a whole-grain tortilla.
- Snack: Yogurt with granola.
- Lunch: Chicken breast, baked potato, sour cream, and broccoli.
- Snack: Protein shake and mixed berries.
- Dinner: Stir-fry with chicken, egg, brown rice, broccoli, peas, and carrots.
- Breakfast: Blueberries, strawberries, and vanilla Greek yogurt on overnight oats.
- Snack: Jerky and mixed nuts.
- Lunch: Tilapia fillets with lime juice, black and pinto beans, and seasonal veggies.
- Snack: Protein shake and watermelon.
- Dinner: Ground beef with corn, brown rice, green peas, and green beans.
- Breakfast: Ground turkey and egg with corn, bell peppers, cheese, and salsa.
- Snack: Can of tuna with crackers.
- Lunch: Tilapia fillet, potato wedges, and bell peppers.
- Snack: Protein shake and pear.
- Dinner: Diced beef with rice, black beans, bell peppers, cheese, and pico de gallo.
- Breakfast: Eggs sunny-side up and avocado toast.
- Snack: Protein balls and almond butter.
- Lunch: Pork tenderloin slices with roasted garlic potatoes and green beans.
- Snack: Protein shake and strawberries.
- Dinner: Turkey meatballs, marinara sauce, and parmesan cheese over pasta.
Summary: Vary the types of foods in your diet and consume 20–30 grams of protein with each meal and snack.
Things to keep in mind
For the most part, bodybuilding is a lifestyle associated with several health benefits, but there are some things to know before doing bodybuilding.
Low levels of body fat can negatively affect sleep and mood
To prepare for a bodybuilding competition, competitors achieve extremely low levels of body fat, with men and women typically reaching body fat levels of 5–10% and 10–15%, respectively.
This low level of body fat, combined with the low-calorie intake, has been shown to decrease sleep quality, negatively affect mood and weaken the immune system in the weeks leading up to a competition and even several weeks after.
Consequently, this can decrease your ability to function each day, negatively affect those around you and leave you more susceptible to illness.
Risks of anabolic steroid use
Many, but not all, muscle-building supplements are advertised by bodybuilders who use performance-enhancing drugs, such as anabolic steroids.
This misleads many bodybuilders into believing that they can achieve the same muscular look by taking the advertised supplement.
In turn, many bodybuilders, especially those at the beginning of their journey, develop unrealistic expectations of what can be accomplished naturally, which may lead to body dissatisfaction and eventually the urge to try anabolic steroids.
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However, anabolic steroids are very unhealthy and linked to several risks and side effects.
In addition to being illegal to possess in the US without a prescription, using anabolic steroids can increase your risk of heart disease, decrease fertility and result in psychiatric and behavioral disorders like depression.
Summary: When preparing for a competition, make sure you’re aware of the possible side effects. Also, understand that the physiques you see in supplement ads may not be realistically achieved without the use of anabolic steroids, which are very unhealthy.
Bodybuilding is judged on muscularity and leanness rather than athletic performance.
Achieving the desired bodybuilder look requires regular exercise and special attention to your diet.
Bodybuilding dieting is typically divided into bulking and cutting phases, during which your calorie intake will change while your macronutrient ratio remains the same.
Your diet should include nutrient-dense foods, 20–30 grams of protein with each meal and snack, and you should restrict alcohol and deep-fried or high-sugar foods.
This ensures you get all the important nutrients your body needs for building muscle and overall health.