Ever since Arnold Schwarzenegger captivated audiences with the docudrama Pumping Iron, fitness enthusiasts have had a fascination with the world of bodybuilding. Pioneers like “The Arnold” brought lifting weights and consuming copious amounts of protein to the masses, and as a result, many trends in fitness have followed in the footsteps of bodybuilding.
It’s definitely no surprise that would be the case, as these muscle-bound and lean physiques seem to epitomize the hyper-masculine body—the real-world superhero. And one common area people have looked to bodybuilding for guidance is in nutrition.
But is there a downside to following this bodybuilder protocol? Can a bodybuilder diet make you fat?
“Fitness mimics bodybuilding,” Mike Roussell, Men’s Health nutrition advisor and author of The Metashred Diet, said on episode 11 of The Weekly BJ Podcast. But there are aspects of a bodybuilding diet that may limit results or even lead to weight gain. It seems counterintuitive—after all, this type of eating has created some of the leanest physiques on the planet. So how exactly does this work?
First, let’s touch upon what a typical bodybuilder diet would look like. It usually follows certain principles, though no two diets are exactly alike. Perhaps the most popularized aspect is meal frequency.
Bodybuilders spend hours at the gym building large amounts of muscle mass, and they support that with regular feedings—this usually means six meal times a day. Of course, these aren’t runs to Burger King. Bodybuilders typically have protein at every meal, some consisting of shakes. Full meals will usually consist of a lean animal protein such as a grilled chicken breast or piece of fish, vegetables, and perhaps a starch such as sweet potatoes or rice. Dietary fat intake is usually strictly controlled, and this is done by steaming, broiling, or boiling much of the food.
The Metashred Smoothie:
Now that that’s out of the way, what about that style of eating could cause an average gym goer to get a little thicker around the middle? Well, there are a few things.
1. Calories: Most fitness enthusiasts—even the one who are really into it—don’t spend hours at the gym training a body part. They have limited time to work out, and as a result, they simply aren’t expending the same amount of energy as a bodybuilder. Six meals a day can add up quickly. If you aren’t perfectly portioning out every meal, you could easily go over your maintenance or fat-loss totals and find yourself in a surplus.
2. Meal frequency: Somewhere along the line it became established that eating frequently (as in every two hours or so) would rev up your metabolism, like stoking a fire. But scientific evidence doesn’t necessarily support this. “Meal frequency does not boost metabolism,” Roussell said.
In fact, too much protein intake can cause your body to build up a tolerance. That means you won’t effectively utilize dietary protein as opposed to if you spaced out your meals more. Roussell suggests waiting at least two hours to eat after a liquid protein, like BCAAs or a shake, or four hours after a solid meal.
3. Carbohydrates: No, they aren’t the devil, but if you want to get shredded, intake needs to be monitored. Again, these massive dudes are using up a ton of energy, and their carbohydrate intake requirements will be higher than the average lifter. Roussell suggests keeping your starchiest carbs contained to your post-workout meal or in the morning. And if you aren’t satisfied with the results, eliminate the starchy carbs from breakfast.
4. Longevity: Do you want to eat chicken breasts and broccoli forever? Even bodybuilders cycle their diet, eating more calories during the off season to pack on muscle, and then changing their diet to shed pounds of body fat for competitions. It’s a tough lifestyle that requires a lot of commitment, and most of us are more interested in staying reasonably lean year round instead of swinging between gaining and losing weight. Plain and simple, bodybuilders ultimately have different goals, and their lives revolve around getting up on stage at sub-10 percent body fat.
But there definitely are takeaways from a bodybuilding diet that can help the average person build muscle and burn excess body fat.
1. Protein: Most of us don’t eat enough of it. But if you want to feel satisfied after a meal and have the proper nutrients to build muscle, you want to consume at least 30g per meal. This number will trigger your body’s ability to optimally synthesize protein, and is the minimum amount needed to for a satiety response. In other words, you are more likely to be satisfied eating four meals with 30g minimum of protein, than 6 to 8 meals with less protein.
2. Planning: Bodybuilders plan out their meals, leaving nothing to chance. Whether it be meal prep for the week, or keeping protein powder at the office so you aren’t stuck trying to sneak lunch out of the office candy jar, a little planning goes a long way. Bodybuilders also keep things simple, which leads to consistency. People want variety in their minds, but they tend to prefer simplicity when it comes to real life nutrition plans, according to Roussell.
3. Hydration: They drink a lot of water. You should too. For one, liquid calories do not satiate, said Roussell, so it’s easy to get into a caloric surplus with liquid calories. Studies have also shown that drinking water with meals reduces overall calorie intake. And while there’s no scientific standard regarding the amount of water you should drink. the general recommendations are nine glasses a day for women and 13 for men. (This also includes the water in drinks like tea and coffee.)
4. Portion sizes: Just like bodybuilders plan, they track. You don’t have to be obsessive, but keep an eye on portion sizes to help you monitor your caloric intake.
5. Food choices: Sticking to lean meat and vegetables as the centerpiece of your meal is a great fat loss strategy. And grilling or broiling them versus frying them will save calories. Basing your intake of grains and starchy vegetables on your activity level will help keep you on track.
So here’s the deal: If you aren’t a bodybuilder, a textbook bodybuilding diet is most likely not for you. Not only is it not practical, but it’s part of a very specific lifestyle. You can’t extract the diet from the lifestyle and expect it to have the same effect. However, there are aspects of a bodybuilder’s diet you can learn from and apply to your own diet if you are looking to shed fat and build muscle.