A good bodybuilding diet plan shouldn’t be much different from any healthy diet.
Despite what you may have heard, you don’t need to glut yourself with cartloads of high-calorie food and protein shakes to build muscle, or eat 5-to-7 small, unsatisfying meals per day or avoid “unclean” foods to lose fat.
Instead, an effective bodybuilding diet plan is simply a structured way of eating that allows you to consistently lose fat or build muscle while eating foods you enjoy.
You do this by controlling your calorie and macronutrient (protein, carb, fat) intake in a way that supports your goals, and by making wise food choices that help you meet your calorie and macronutrient targets and stay healthy.
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A bodybuilding diet plan is simply a diet plan that’s geared toward either helping you lose fat while maintaining muscle, or build muscle while minimizing fat gain. That’s it.
But what about meal prep? What about meal timing? What about supplements, and drinking raw eggs, and “good” and “bad” foods?
We’ll get to all of that in a moment, but for now, just know that most of this is unnecessary frippery. You can eat most of the same foods you normally eat while following a bodybuilding diet as long as you know how to properly plan your meals.
Bodybuilding consists of using diet and training to build muscle and lose fat, and a bodybuilding diet plan is a way of eating that supports one of these two goals.
Bodybuilders typically employ one of two kinds of diets at any given point:
- Bodybuilding bulking diets, which provide an abundance of calories to support muscle growth.
- Bodybuilding cutting diets, which restrict calories to promote fat loss.
The reason bodybuilders need to alternate between two different diets, is that gaining muscle and losing fat require two different nutritional strategies.
Gaining muscle requires that you eat slightly more calories per day than you burn (this is known as a calorie surplus). Losing fat requires that you eat slightly fewer calories than you burn (this is known as a calorie deficit).
Aside from calories, bodybuilders also carefully manage their intake of protein, carbs, and fat, which are referred to as macronutrients or macros while cutting and bulking. While calories dictate whether you gain or lose weight, your macronutrient intake heavily influences whether you gain or lose fat or muscle.
Specifically, high-protein, high-carb, moderate-to-low fat diets tend to be best for maintaining muscle mass while minimizing fat gain (more on this in a moment).
Food quality—or what you eat—also matters to an extent. While no individual food will make you gain or lose muscle or fat, the quality of your diet can heavily influence your overall health and your ability to stick to a diet plan.
For example, if you get most of your calories from refined carbs and fat and protein supplements (breakfast cereal, protein shakes, candy bars, etc.), you’re going to be extremely hungry while cutting and are likely to overeat while bulking.
What’s more, it’s also likely that you’ll eventually develop nutrient deficiencies that can make your efforts to lose fat and build muscle more difficult (for instance, zinc deficiency can dampen metabolic rate by several hundred calories per day). While you don’t need to only eat “clean” foods, you still want to make sure most of your calories come from whole, minimally processed fare.
Finally, most bodybuilders create a meal plan that delineates what, when, and how much they’ll eat to consistently meet their calorie and macronutrient targets every day. This basically looks like a spreadsheet with the foods they’ll eat, what time they’ll eat them, and the calorie, protein, carb, and fat content of the foods.
At bottom, bodybuilding diets are just a more structured approach to managing your food intake. The same way creating a budget helps you manage your finances, following a bodybuilding diet plan helps you manage your calorie and macronutrient intake to improve your body composition.
To create a bodybuilding diet plan, you first need a few tools:
- A digital food scale. Learn to use its basic functions, like switching between units and taring, because you need to be precise with your food intake.
- An app or website for looking up the nutritional information of food. I recommend you use the USDA’s FoodData Central, or a nutrition tracking app such as MyFitnessPal, Cronometer, or MyMacros+.
- Food storage containers. You don’t necessarily need these, but it makes storing and transporting meals much easier and more time-efficient.
- Optional: A digital bathroom scale. This allows you to precisely measure how your diet is impacting your body weight (and thus whether you’re gaining or losing weight).
Should you follow a bodybuilding bulking diet and focus on gaining muscle as quickly as possible, or a bodybuilding cutting diet to strip some fat and then bulk?
The long story short is if your body fat percentage is too high, your number-one priority should be getting lean, not gaining muscle, and if it’s relatively low, you should focus on gaining muscle, not getting even leaner.
Specifically, use this flowchart to decide if you should cut or bulk:
If you want to learn more about whether you should cut or bulk, check out this article:
Next, you need to determine how many calories you should eat per day to either lose fat (cut) or build muscle (bulk).
There are two ways of doing this:
- Enter your gender, weight, height, age, activity levels, and physique goal in the Legion Macronutrient Calculator, which then computes how many calories and grams of protein, fat, and carbs you should eat per day.
- Multiply your body weight in pounds by 16 to 18 to build muscle, or 10 to 12 to lose fat.
The first method is slightly more accurate than the second, but also requires the use of the Legion Macronutrient Calculator and takes a few seconds longer. The second method is a good rule of thumb to know if you ever want to quickly calculate your target calorie intake on the fly.
That said, both methods tend to produce similar results. What’s more, you should look at the results of both methods as rough starting points, not immutable benchmarks. In other words, don’t get too wrapped up in the exact number, as you’ll likely need to adjust your calorie intake anyway.
After determining how many calories you should eat to lose fat or build muscle, it’s time to determine how many of those calories should come from protein, carbs, or fat.
The Legion Macronutrient Calculator computes this for you automatically, but it’s worth knowing how it works so you can do the math yourself, too.
Here are the macronutrient ratios I recommend when bulking:
- Protein: 30% of calories
- Carbs: 40 to 50% of calories
- Fat: 20 to 30% of calories
And here’s what I recommend when cutting:
- Protein: 40% of calories
- Carbs: 30 to 40% of calories
- Fat: 20 to 30% of calories
Whether you opt for the lower or higher ends of the ranges for carbs and fat depends on your personal preferences. If you prefer to eat more high-carb foods, go with more carbs. If you prefer to eat more high-fat foods, go with more fat.
Next, you need to convert your calories of protein, carbs, and fat into grams. Once again, I recommend you use the Legion Macronutrient Calculator to do all of the math for you (you can also manually adjust your macronutrient ratios to suit your preferences).
If you choose to do the math on your own, though, just remember that each gram of protein and carbs contains four calories per gram, whereas each gram of fat contains nine calories per gram.
For example, let’s say that you’re following a bodybuilding cutting diet, and your target calorie intake is 2,000 calories per day. To set your protein intake, you’d multiply your calorie intake (2,000) by 40% (0.4), which equals 800 calories per day. As each gram of protein contains four calories, you’d divide 800 by 4, which gives you 200. Thus, you’d want to eat 200 grams of protein per day.
Repeat the same process to figure out how many grams of carbs and fat you should eat (but remember to divide your fat calories by 9 instead of 4).
After puzzling out your macros, you have two options as to how you “hit” them every day:
- Tracking on the fly.
- Meal planning.
Tracking macros on the fly involves entering the foods you eat throughout the day into a calorie tracking app or spreadsheet. Although this method is often popular among beginners (because it sounds simple and easy), it quickly becomes a burden.
You inevitably waste time debating over what to eat and working out how much you can eat and you increase the likelihood of mistakes, like forgetting to log every food or mistakenly logging more or less than you actually ate.
Instead, a much better strategy is meal planning, which is exactly what it sounds like: planning exactly what, when, and how much you’ll eat throughout the day to meet your macronutrient targets every day.
You can learn all about how to create a meal plan in this article:
(And if you’d like help creating your bodybuilding meal plan, check out our custom meal planning service).
Regardless of which method you choose, keep in mind that you don’t need to perfectly hit your macronutrient targets every day. If you’re bulking, try to be within 10% of your macronutrient targets, and 5% while cutting.
For example, if your goal is to eat 200 grams of protein per day, try to eat at least 180-to-220 grams per day while bulking or 190-to-210 grams per day while cutting.
After creating your meal plan, all you need to do is prepare your meals and eat ‘em. 🙂
While this article is about bodybuilding diet plans, it’s worth mentioning the other side of the coin: training.
Unless you’re following the right strength training program, no diet plan will help you build an appreciable amount of muscle. And even if your main goal is to lose fat, you’ll lose fat faster, maintain muscle better, and be happier with how you look and feel if you also lift weights.
If you want to learn more about how to lift weights to lose fat and build muscle, check out these articles:
- The Definitive Guide to the “Push Pull Legs” Routine
- The Best Way to Lose Weight Fast with Exercise
- How to Find the Best Workout Split for You
When creating a meal plan, it’s helpful to have a list of potential bodybuilding food options to build your meals. Here are some of the best high-protein, high-carb, high-fat, and high-fiber foods for bodybuilding.
Why high-fiber, you wonder?
For one thing, getting enough fiber is an important part of a healthy diet. Second, many high-fiber foods, such as many fruits and vegetables, are rich in micronutrients even though they’re low in macronutrients, so they’re worth including in your meal plan.
- Venison (deer, elk, etc.)
- Egg white
- Cottage cheese
- Low-fat yogurt
- Greek yogurt
- Protein bars
- Whey protein
- Casein protein
- Rice protein
- Pea protein
- Soy protein
- Soy yogurt
- Plant protein powder
- Black rice
- Brown rice
- Wild rice
Legumes & Tubers
- Black-eyed pea (cowpea)
- Black bean
- Cannellini bean
- Chickpea (garbanzo bean)
- Cranberry bean
- Fava bean
- Great northern bean
- Lima bean
- Mung bean
- Navy bean
- Pinto bean
- Red bean
- Red potato
- Sweet potato
- White potato
- Olive oil
- Salad dressing
- Peanut, almond, cashew, or other nut butters
- Peanuts, almonds, cashews, and other nuts
- Flax, pumpkin, sesame, and other seeds
- Whole milk
- High-fat yogurt or cottage cheese
- Whole egg (although eggs are often thought of as a source of protein, most of the calories come from fat)
- Fatty meats and fish (short rib, farmed salmon, etc.)
- Beet greens
- Bell pepper
- Bok choy
- Brussels sprout
- Collard green
- Mustard green
- Swiss chard
- Water chestnut
Despite what many supplement companies claim, protein powder and bars don’t directly cause muscle growth. Instead, they support muscle growth by making it more convenient to meet your daily protein target of 0.8-to-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, which does boost muscle growth.
Creatine is a natural compound made up of the amino acids L-arginine, glycine, and methionine that boosts muscle and strength gain, improves anaerobic endurance, and reduces muscle damage and soreness from your workouts.
If you want a 100% natural source of creatine that also includes two other ingredients that will help boost muscle growth and improve recovery, try Recharge.
Many of us can’t shake the cobwebs without our morning cup of jitter juice, but this powerful compound is a lot more than a mere pick-me-up.
If you want a tasty source of caffeine that also contains five other ingredients that will boost your workout performance (and no other harsh chemicals), try Pulse. (And if you prefer to get your caffeine from other sources like coffee, try caffeine-free Pulse.
Citrulline malate is the amino acid L-citrulline bound with malic acid, a natural substance found in many fruits that’s involved in the creation of cellular energy.
If you want a stimulant-free pre-workout drink that includes clinically effective doses of both beta-alanine and citrulline malate as well as four other ingredients that will boost your workout performance, try Pulse.
Fish oil is exactly what it sounds like: oil obtained from fish.
Fish oil contains two nutrients that are crucial to our health and well-being called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), also known as omega-3 fatty acids.
Research shows that maintaining sufficient EPA and DHA intake helps our body in many ways, including . . .
- Reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes
- Accelerating muscle growth
- Enhancing fat burning
- Decreasing systemic inflammation
- Improving mood, memory, and cognitive performance
- Helping prevent weight gain
- Reducing muscle soreness after exercise
If you want a high-potency, molecularly distilled fish oil with added vitamin E and lemon oil to prevent oxidation, rancidity, and “fish oil burps,” try Triton.
+ Scientific References
- Beck, T. W., Housh, T. J., Schmidt, R. J., Johnson, G. O., Housh, D. J., Coburn, J. W., & Malek, M. H. (2006). The acute effects of a caffeine-containing supplement on strength, muscular endurance, and anaerobic capabilities. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20(3), 506–510. https://doi.org/10.1519/18285.1
- Astorino, T. A., Rohmann, R. L., & Firth, K. (2008). Effect of caffeine ingestion on one-repetition maximum muscular strength. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 102(2), 127–132. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-007-0557-x
- Astrup, A., Toubro, S., Cannon, S., Hein, P., Breum, L., & Madsen, J. (1990). Caffeine: A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of its thermogenic, metabolic, and cardiovascular effects in healthy volunteers. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 51(5), 759–767. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/51.5.759
- Stokes, T., Hector, A. J., Morton, R. W., McGlory, C., & Phillips, S. M. (2018). Recent perspectives regarding the role of dietary protein for the promotion of muscle hypertrophy with resistance exercise training. In Nutrients (Vol. 10, Issue 2). MDPI AG. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10020180
- Maxwell, C., & Volpe, S. L. (2007). Effect of zinc supplementation on thyroid hormone function: A case study of two college females. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 51(2), 188–194. https://doi.org/10.1159/000103324
- Helms, E. R., Aragon, A. A., & Fitschen, P. J. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: Nutrition and supplementation. In Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (Vol. 11, Issue 1, p. 20). BioMed Central Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-20
- Roberts, B. M., Helms, E. R., Trexler, E. T., & Fitschen, P. J. (2020). Nutritional Recommendations for Physique Athletes. Journal of Human Kinetics, 71(1), 79–108. https://doi.org/10.2478/hukin-2019-0096