A bodybuilding diet is designed to build muscle and reduce body fat. No standard bodybuilding diet exists; bodybuilders consume diets ranging from vegan to ketogenic, though most bodybuilders do try to eat ample protein. The internet contains many bodybuilding websites and communities that offer suggestions for diets to achieve the desired results. What distinguishes all bodybuilding diets is close attention to amounts of food consumed, composition of diet, and timing of food intake along with a regular strength-building exercise program.
Many scholars believe bodybuilding diets began with the ancient Greeks, whose gods, like Hercules and Apollo, were often portrayed as quite muscular. This influenced ancient Greek society to emulate the concept of a perfect physique. The same desire for physical perfection can be found in ancient Rome and Egypt. The modern era of bodybuilding began in the late 1800s in England; German strongman Eugen Sandow is credited with being the first professional bodybuilder of the modern era. He was a featured attraction at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago for his feats of strength. He opened a chain of 20 weight training studios in England and published a magazine that included tips on diet. Sandow's own diet was high in calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
The objective of a bodybuilding diet is to help the body build muscle, which is done by lifting weights, and to lose body fat so that muscles are easier to see under the skin. Energy intake and macronutrient composition vary widely, depending on what an individual wants to achieve, training plans for the day, competition schedule, and any other factors that might affect physical prowess.
A bodybuilder's diet might contain 2,500–5,500 calories per day for men and 1,500–3,000 calories daily for women, depending on the type and level of exercise. The body burns up to 50 calories per day for every pound of muscle, so adding 10 pounds of muscle can burn up to 500 extra calories each day. Bodybuilders must constantly adjust their caloric intake to account for differences in muscle mass.
The ratio of protein, carbohydrates, and fat in a bodybuilding diet depends on program and individual. Some programs recommend 40% of energy from carbohydrates, 40% from protein, and 20% from fats. Others suggest a ratio of 40% of calories from protein, 30% from carbohydrates, and 30% from fat. Ketogenic diets can contain as little as 5% energy from carbohydrate and 75%–80% from fat. Ratios can vary from day to day. Many bodybuilders include nutritional supplements and protein powders in their diets. People who follow bodybuilding diets often have a thorough knowledge of hormones, metabolism, and the processing of nutrients, and pay obsessive attention to details such as fructose content of foods and which muscles they work on the days that they eat carbohydrates. Many use spreadsheets to plan out their nutrition, exercise, and supplementation.
The three main components of a bodybuilding diet are the three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
CARBOHYDRATES. Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the body in many bodybuilding diets, though many other bodybuilders consume low-carbohydrate diets that do not depend on carbohydrates for energy. Many bodybuilders find that carbohydrates are helpful for aerobic exercise and high-volume weight training and muscle recovery.
The amount of carbohydrate in a bodybuilder's diet can range widely depending on the diet the individual is following. Many bodybuilders favor diets with 40%–60% carbohydrates, but others train successfully on diets with much lower carbohydrate content. Some favor a ketogenic diet, which is very low in carbohydrate, certainly less than.11 lb. (50 g) per day and ideally below.044 lb. (20 g). Others prefer a vegan diet, which includes no animal products.
Carb cycling is a common practice among bodybuilders. In carb cycling, a person varies the amount of carbohydrates eaten during the week. Some days are low-carb, and other days are high-carb refeeding days, meant to restock stores of glycogen in the muscles. Carb cycling is said to speed up weight loss while building lean muscle mass. Some practitioners go in and out of ketosis, a state in which the body uses ketone bodies for fuel instead of glucose, which is commonly achieved on low-carb, high-fat diets. They may even test blood glucose or ketone levels to monitor them.
Eating carbohydrate causes the pancreas to release the hormone insulin, which helps regulate blood glucose (sugar) levels. Insulin tells the cells to absorb glucose and to store it as fat in muscle or in the liver as glycogen. Insulin also tells cells to remove amino acids from protein and store them in muscle cells, which can aid in recovery and repair following strength-building exercise. Bodybuilders may time their carbohydrate consumption to manipulate insulin levels to maximize muscle building and inhibit the breakdown of muscle, while trying to avoid insulin's fat-storing effects. Some bodybuilders even periodically inject themselves with supplemental insulin to aid in muscle recovery; this practice requires very careful attention to carbohydrate consumption and can be dangerous if done incorrectly.
The body breaks all carbohydrates down into glucose and releases it into the blood; the speed at which this process occurs varies depending on the type of carbohydrate and the presence of fat and protein in the stomach. This rate of absorption is a factor in maintaining energy levels, reducing body fat, and maintaining overall health.
Carbohydrates are often referred to as either simple or complex. A bodybuilding diet can contain both simple and complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates have a chemical structure composed of three or more sugars. They provide energy that is sustained over time. Simple carbohydrates have a chemical structure composed of one or two sugars and provide quick, but short-lasting, energy. Simple carbohydrates are found in fruit and sugary foods such as candy, juice, and sports drinks. Many bodybuilders eat simple carbohydrates immediately after working out (within 30 minutes) to aid in faster recuperation and repair of muscles and to replace glycogen. Complex carbohydrates are found in whole-grain bread, pasta, cereal, beans, and most vegetables. Bodybuilding diets often favor these as steady fuel throughout the day.
Two other ways bodybuilding diets classify carbohydrates are glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load. The GI measures the quality rather than the quantity of carbohydrates found in food. Quality refers to how quickly blood sugar levels are raised following eating. The standard for GI is white bread, which is assigned an index value of 100. Other foods are compared to the standard to arrive at their ratings. The higher the GI number, the faster blood sugar increases when that particular food is consumed. A high GI is 70 and greater, a medium GI is 56–69, and a low GI value is 55 or less. Various factors affect the glycemic load of a specific meal, such as how the food is prepared (boiled, baked, sautéed, or fried, for example), how it is stored (e.g., ripeness) and what other foods are consumed with it. Foods that are readily broken down and absorbed by the body are typically high on the GI. Foods that are digested more slowly, such as those high in fiber, have a lower GI value.
In 1997, epidemiologist and nutritionist Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health developed the glycemic load as a more useful way of rating carbohydrates compared to the glycemic index. The glycemic load factors in the amount of a food eaten whereas the glycemic index does not. The glycemic load of a particular food or meal is determined by multiplying the amount of net carbohydrates in a serving by the glycemic index and dividing that number by 100. Net carbohydrates are determined by taking the amount of total carbohydrates and subtracting the amount of dietary fiber. For example, popcorn has a glycemic index of 72, which is considered high, but a serving of two cups has 10 net carbs for a glycemic load of seven, which is considered low.
Protein is found in meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, tofu, and soy products. Whey protein is a popular supplement among bodybuilders. It can be difficult to consume large amounts of protein from whole food sources, so bodybuilders add whey powder to shakes that they can drink when they get out of bed in the morning, after workouts, or before bed.
FATS. Fat in a diet is needed to maintain a healthy metabolism. The four types of fat are saturated, trans, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated. Artificially created trans fats are known to be unhealthy, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. These fats were formerly common in packaged prepared foods. They have been banned in many countries, and in 2016 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded that there was no longer a consensus that trans fats were generally recognized as safe. In the US food manufacturers have been phasing these fats out of their products. Sources of saturated and trans fats are butter, whole milk products, fried foods, shortening, and coconut, palm, and other tropical oils. Meat with visible fat is also a source of saturated fat. The healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are considered to be beneficial in the diet, are found in avocados, nuts, fish, flaxseeds, and olive, and in various vegetable oils.
The benefits of a bodybuilding diet are health and appearance. The bodybuilding diet promotes increased muscle mass, which increases metabolism. Paying careful attention to diet makes it more likely that an individual will eat mindfully instead of grazing on high sugar/fat snacks without thinking about it. Strength training is good for most people and can even boost muscle mass in elderly people who are not actually bodybuilders.
When monitored by a health professional, a bodybuilding diet can be a healthy method for increasing strength and body mass. Caution should be used in regard to nutritional supplements, especially protein powders. Using steroids, human growth hormone, testosterone, insulin, and other injectable supplements as training aids can be dangerous and should be done only with extreme caution.
A 2015 study concluded that a high-protein diet is not dangerous for most healthy people and does not produce the loss of bone mass or kidney damage that has often been posited. There has been much concern that a high-protein diet can cause kidney damage, but this effect seems to be a concern only for those with existing kidney disease. In healthy people, excess protein is broken down into amino acids and glucose. Very high protein intakes over a prolonged period may cause nausea and dehydration. Drinking more water can counter the dehydration problem.
Because exercise is a main component of the diet, people with arthritis or back, knee, or other joint problems should discuss the fitness regimen with their physicians before starting exercise. Making major changes to an individual's diet should be done in small incremental steps so the body can adapt to the changes. A sudden reduction or increase in calories can cause the body to store or hoard fat.
The rigorous and regular exercise component of this diet is a risk to people with heart disease or certain other health problems. Individuals with these conditions should consult their physician before starting the diet. A bodybuilding diet is not recommended for women who are pregnant or nursing.
High doses of dietary supplements can be dangerous at worst and ineffective at best. A bodybuilder should do careful research before consuming any supplement. Whey protein does seem to be effective, according to research from 2017. Whey is the liquid portion of milk. It is high in amino acids that make it a complete protein, and it is easily absorbed. Whey supplements are said to increase insulin sensitivity, decrease appetite, and aid in protein synthesis.
Eating large amounts of food can lead to weight gain, and some of that gain can be from fat. Individuals following a bodybuilding diet should pay close attention to physical changes and adjust their diets if needed.
Bodybuilding diets are generally accepted by the medical and bodybuilding communities as being safe and effective in helping increase muscle mass and decrease fat. No general standard for the exact ratio of protein, carbohydrates, and fats has been established.
Protein is the basic nutrient for repairing muscle that is broken down during weightlifting and for muscle maintenance and growth. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) per day for protein is 0.8 g/kg. Research shows, however, that weightlifters need a greater amount of protein than other individuals. Depending on an individual's activity level, a bodybuilder's need for protein is greater than the RDA, but not more than 1.5–2 g/kg. Research indicates that muscles double the rate of protein synthesis following exercise and that the rate remains elevated for at least 24 hours. Research in 2017 found that protein intake after strength training could help with muscle recovery. A paper published in 2018 reported that high-carbohydrate intake aided bodybuilders during preparation for competition.
See also Calories ; Carbohydrates ; Fats ; Fiber ; Glycemic index diets ; Insulin ; Ketogenic diets ; Metabolism ; Protein .
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Ken R. Wells
Revised by Amy Hackney Blackwell, PhD