Your diet can make or break your results at the gym. It’s important to eat a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods across different food groups. Limit or avoid alcohol, foods with added sugars, and deep-fried foods.

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.

During the bulking phase, which can last months to years, bodybuilders eat a high calorie, protein-rich diet and lift weights intensely with the goal of building 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 involves specific changes in diet and exercise over 12–26 weeks.

The easiest way to determine how many calories you need is to weigh yourself at least 3 times a week and record what you eat using a calorie tracking app.

If your weight stays the same throughout the week, the amount of calories you eat is considered your “maintenance” level. You’re not losing or gaining weight but maintaining it.

Aim to increase your calorie intake by about 15% during your bulking phase. For example, if you eat 3,000 calories daily to maintain weight, you should eat around 3,450 calories daily (3,000 x 0.15 = 450) to bulk.

Decrease your maintenance calories by about 15% to transition from a bulking to a cutting phase. In this example, you would consume 2,550 calories per day instead of 3,450.

Plan to revisit your calorie goals every month 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.

It’s important to avoid losing or gaining more than 0.5–1% of your body weight per week. This ensures you don’t lose too much muscle during the cutting phase or gain too much body fat during the bulking phase.

This is the ratio between your protein, carbohydrate, and fat intake. Protein and carbs contain 4 calories per gram (g), and fat contains 9.

Your macronutrient ratio will stay the same regardless of whether you’re in a bulking or cutting phase. A typical diet includes:

  • 30–35% calories from protein
  • 55–60% calories from carbs
  • 15–20% calories from fat

It’s best to consult a registered dietician to determine your individual needs and ensure your diet is nutritionally adequate.

Using the calorie example outlined in the previous section, your macronutrient ratio might look like the following:

Bulking phaseCutting phase
Protein (g)259-302191-223
Carbohydrates (g)474-518351-383
Fat (g)58-7743-57

You can usually eat the same foods while bulking or cutting — it’s the amount, not the content, that fluctuates.

Do what you can to prioritize the following foods:

  • 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: Sweet potatoes, corn, green peas, green lima beans, and cassava
  • Vegetables: Broccoli, leafy 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

While it’s important to eat a variety of different foods, there are some you should limit when bulking and cutting:

  • Alcohol: Alcohol can negatively affect your ability to build muscle and lose fat, especially if consumed 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.

Before going to the gym, you may want to avoid foods that can slow digestion or cause stomach upset during your workout. This includes:

  • High fat foods: Fatty 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 to help support their overall fitness. However, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional before adding anything new to your routine.

If you haven’t already, talk with a primary care physician or other clinician about:

  • Whey protein: Adding whey protein powder to smoothies or shakes can be a convenient way to increase your protein intake.
  • Creatine: Creatine can give your muscles the energy to perform an additional rep. While there are many brands of creatine, creatine monohydrate is considered the most effective.
  • Caffeine: Caffeine can help decrease fatigue. Pre-workout supplements, coffee, and tea are often high in caffeine.

Traditional bodybuilding diets typically contain limited food selections and little variety among and within food groups, leading 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 met — especially during a cutting phase when you eat limited calories.

A typical week of meals might look like the following:


  • Breakfast: Scrambled eggs with mushrooms, oatmeal, and a pear
  • 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 light 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 a peach
  • Dinner: Ground turkey and marinara sauce over pasta, with a side of cauliflower


  • Breakfast: Chicken sausage with egg, roasted potatoes, and an apple
  • Snack: Greek yogurt, strawberries, and almonds
  • Lunch: Turkey breast, basmati rice, and mushrooms
  • Snack: Protein shake and grapes
  • Dinner: Mackerel, brown rice, asparagus, and salad leaves with vinaigrette


  • Breakfast: Ground turkey, egg, cheese, and salsa in a whole-grain tortilla
  • Snack: Yogurt with granola and a pear
  • Lunch: Chicken breast, baked potato, sour cream, and broccoli
  • Snack: Protein shake and mixed berries
  • Dinner: Stir-fry with shrimp, egg, brown rice, bell peppers, peas, and carrots


  • Breakfast: Blueberries, strawberries, and Greek yogurt on overnight oats
  • Snack: Jerky and mixed nuts with an orange
  • 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 beans


  • Breakfast: Ground turkey and egg with corn, bell peppers, cheese, and salsa
  • Snack: Can of tuna with crackers and an apple
  • Lunch: Tilapia fillet and potato wedges with steamed broccoli and cauliflower
  • Snack: Protein shake and pear
  • Dinner: Diced beef with rice, black beans, bell peppers, onions, cheese, and pico de gallo


  • Breakfast: Eggs sunny-side up and avocado toast with fresh fruit
  • Snack: Protein balls with almond butter and an orange
  • Lunch: Pork tenderloin slices with roasted garlic potatoes, green beans, and carrots
  • Snack: Protein shake and strawberries
  • Dinner: Turkey meatballs, marinara sauce, and parmesan cheese over pasta, with a side of sautéed kale

Bodybuilders frequently exercise to maintain and build muscles, performing resistance and aerobic training.

Resistance training increases muscle strength and size. Muscle strength is linked with a lower risk of dying from cancer, heart disease, 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 leading cause of death in America.

In addition to exercise, bodybuilders also focus on their nutrition.

Following a healthy eating pattern, including nutrient-dense foods from all food groups in appropriate amounts, can significantly lower your risk of chronic diseases.

For the most part, bodybuilding is a lifestyle associated with several health benefits, but there are some things to know before embarking on this journey.

Low levels of body fat can negatively affect sleep and mood

To prepare for a bodybuilding competition, competitors develop extremely low body fat levels, with males and females typically reaching body fat levels of 5–10% and 10–15%, respectively.

A low level of body fat, combined with 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.

These effects may also last for several weeks afterward.

Anabolic steroids can have adverse effects

Many, but not all, adverts for muscle-building supplements involve bodybuilders who use performance-enhancing drugs, such as anabolic steroids.

This misleads many people into believing they can achieve the same muscular look by taking the advertised supplement.

In turn, many bodybuilders, especially those beginning their journey, develop unrealistic expectations of what they can accomplish naturally. This may lead to body dissatisfaction and, eventually, the urge to try anabolic steroids.

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 mental health conditions like depression.

Bodybuilding focuses on muscularity and leanness rather than athletic performance. Achieving the desired look requires regular exercise and special attention to your diet.

Dieting typically involves bulking and cutting phases, during which your calorie intake will fluctuate while your macronutrient ratio remains stable.

Your diet should include nutrient-dense foods and plenty of protein. You should also limit alcohol, added sugars, and deep-fried foods.