Bodybuilding Nutrition Guide

Diet Tips From a Bodybuilding Nutrition Coach

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: April 4, 2024

I’m guessing you’ve been working out for a while and know your way around the gym. But you’ve probably also realized that you must know how to navigate the kitchen to reach your full bodybuilding potential.

Unfortunately, knowing how to eat for a muscular physique has become confusing because every bro on the internet has an opinion. As a natural bodybuilder and certified nutrition coach, I’m here to help you simplify your diet to unlock additional muscle growth and strength gains.

In this straightforward guide, I will teach you the fundamentals of nutrition in easy-to-understand language and give you a practical framework you can use today.

Bodybuilding Nutrition

Why Nutrition Matters

When I started resistance training as a teenager, I focused solely on lifting weights and getting huge. I thought I would continue building muscle as long as I got stronger, and that worked for a while.

But once the newbie gains wore off, I hit an inevitable plateau in strength and muscle mass. That’s when I realized nutrition is as fundamental to bodybuilding as lifting weights. I’m sure you’ve had a similar epiphany in your own strength training journey.

Over the years, I read every bodybuilding nutrition book I could. I took what I learned and experimented with different diets for bulking and cutting. Eventually, optimizing nutrition enabled me to become a competitive bodybuilder and coach other athletes.

Now, I will walk you through the simple nutrition framework I use to transform my body and get results for my clients.

Bodybuilding Nutrition Pyramid

Bodybuilding nutrition doesn’t need to be complicated! And you don’t have to starve yourself or only eat chicken and rice to get a natural bodybuilder’s physique. The solution is to get back to the basics.

We’ve all seen the food pyramid, which shows how much of each food group to eat. While the recommendations are outdated, I like the idea of using a pyramid to establish priorities.

So, I decided to create a bodybuilding nutrition pyramid showing the relative importance of different aspects of your diet. Proper nutrition boils down to these four fundamental concepts:

  1. Calorie Balance
  2. Protein/Macros
  3. Food Choices
  4. Meal Timing

Each piece plays a role in your health and fitness, but they’re not equal. So, I built this pyramid to show the relative importance of each diet component.

Bodybuilding Nutrition Pyramid

In my engineering career, I used another visual aid called a priority matrix. The horizontal axis represents the task’s difficulty, while the vertical axis shows the payoff for completing it.

Plotting each task on this diagram helps you compare the relative “return on investment” and decide what to work on.

Bodybuilding Nutrition Priority Chart

Maintaining a proper calorie balance is a simple yet highly effective strategy that is absolutely essential for weight loss or muscle gain. Therefore, it should be a top priority.

Additionally, getting enough protein is crucial for building and maintaining lean muscle mass. Counting macros is more challenging than counting calories, but the return on investment generally makes it worthwhile.

We all know eating healthy foods is beneficial for overall health, and a nutritious option is relatively easy. So, food choices should also be a key consideration when prioritizing your dietary habits.

On the other hand, micromanaging the composition and timing of meals can be challenging and offers a relatively minor payoff. Therefore, you should give this aspect lower priority.

If your diet goes off track, I recommend focusing on the more essential aspects first.

Bodybuilding Nutrition Plan

Next, I will explain how to incorporate each of the four pillars of bodybuilding nutrition into your daily diet.

1. Create a Calorie Deficit or Surplus

Energy balance is the difference between the number of calories burned and the number of calories consumed. It’s the most important factor in reaching fitness goals.

When you consistently eat fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight. This is called a calorie deficit, and it’s necessary to burn fat during a cutting phase. But if you don’t eat enough, you will lose muscle and crash your metabolic rate.

Conversely, when you consistently eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight. This is called a calorie surplus, and it’s required to gain muscle during a bulking phase. But if you eat too many calories, you’ll gain excess fat.

The idea of calories in vs. calories out is easy to understand. But knowing how many calories you should eat isn’t as easy, and hitting your target requires tracking your food intake.

Furthermore, figuring out how much you should eat can be tricky because it depends on several factors, including your current body composition and eating habits, as well as your activity level and fitness goals.

Once you know your daily calorie balance, half the battle of reaching your goal is consistently hitting your target. If you’re having a hectic day and can only do one thing to stick to your diet, hit your calorie target.

Find Your Goal-Specific Calorie Intake.

Bodybuilding Nutrition Calorie Balance

2. Get Enough Protein & Carbs

When it comes to macronutrients for bodybuilding, protein is king because it contains essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscle. Therefore, adequate protein intake is critical in a bodybuilding meal plan.

However, the standard advice of eating 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight isn’t always accurate. Studies suggest 0.74 g/lb is optimal for muscle gain and that there are no additional benefits above that1.

Carbohydrates are probably the most polarizing macronutrient in the fitness world. However, carbs are neither good nor bad. They are simply a source of energy your body uses for intense activities like weight training.

Think of your body as a hybrid car that runs on gasoline and electricity. Carbs are the gas that gives you immediate acceleration, while fat is the electricity that provides sustained energy.

Eating enough carbs to fuel your workouts and replenish your energy levels is necessary. Similarly, you need a certain amount of dietary fat to fuel normal bodily functions. Your ideal macronutrient ratio depends on your energy demands, fitness goal, and body composition.

But ultimately, the total calories matter more than the source of energy. For instance, you won’t lose weight on a low-carb diet if you consistently overshoot your calorie target! Likewise, you won’t build muscle on a high-carb diet if you aren’t also in a calorie surplus.

Find Your Personal Macro Targets

Bodybuilding Nutrition Macros

3. Make Healthy Food Choices

With regard to food, quality is nearly as important as quantity. The saying “garbage in—garbage out” applies to diets as it applies to anything else.

A bodybuilding diet should contain nutrient-dense foods that provide your body with the sustenance it needs to repair and grow from training. That means eating a balanced diet of primarily whole foods while reducing highly processed junk foods.

Healthy foods include high-quality protein from lean meat, complex carbohydrates like whole grains, and healthy fats. Check out my free Healthy Grocery List for examples of specific food items.

Dietary supplements such as whey protein powder can be part of a balanced diet. However, it is best not to rely on shakes or powders for all of your nutritional needs.

Bodybuilding Nutrition Food Choices

4. Understand Meal Timing

Meal timing, or nutrient timing, refers to coordinating meals around one’s daily sleep and activity schedule. However, this is another controversial topic in bodybuilding, and studies are mixed on its significance.

One reason for the ambiguity is that nutrient timing is insignificant if you don’t dial in calories, macros, and foods first. Because of this relative importance, I made meal timing the small triangle at the top of the bodybuilding nutrition pyramid.

After you solidify the nutritional foundation, strategically timing your meals and what you eat for each meal can give you an edge. When implementing nutrient timing, it’s also important to consider your fitness goal.

For example, most meals will contain carbohydrates and protein for muscle gain. Conversely, a fat loss plan would concentrate the carbohydrates around the workout while other meals would be low-carb.

Bodybuilding Nutrition Meal Timing

Bottom Line

When it comes to bodybuilding nutrition, simple is often better. Eat the right amount of good foods, and adjust your macros and meal times to fit your goals. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that!

  • Prioritize calorie balance and protein intake

  • Eat whole foods with minimal processing

  • Adjust carbs and meal times with your fitness goals

  • Keep it simple and stick to the basics!

Bodybuilding Meal Plan

It’s normal to feel a little confused by all this nutrition information at first. But don’t worry—you can get a plan that does all the math and calculations for you!

With a Custom Bodybuilding Meal Plan, you answer a few questions and receive a personalized meal plan based on your body type, lifestyle, and goals.

You can choose from over 50 delicious recipes formulated to fit your macros, so there’s no counting or tracking required!

bodybuilding meal plan
  • Transform your body with goal-specific calories & macros

  • Easily plan meals with a daily menu built around your schedule

  • Simplify meal prep with delicious recipes formulated to fit your macros

  • Make better food choices with a grocery list right on your phone

  • Get instant access to your online dashboard

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