In natural bodybuilding, food is one of the most important factors. The things you eat determine what happens to your body: does it gain weight, does it lose it, and what changes produce these weight changes?
Today we’re looking at the role of things like calories in natural bodybuilding and the approach you should take towards them.
Many people talk about reaching the calories, getting the calories in, but what does it mean? How important is it to reach the amount of calories you’ve set for yourself in your diet plan – is it simply a matter of getting in a certain amount of calories without caring which food you consume?
We will see in this article if there is a big difference between getting in healthy food calories or bad food calories to build muscle, whether good healthy food is important in bodybuilding and if junk food is fine to eat when bodybuilding.
We’re going to unravel the mysteries of how people talk about weight, body composition, and calories in Natural Bodybuilding.
Table of Contents
The Problem: Can You Gain Weight with Clean Foods?
I see plenty of bodybuilders and physique trainees who eat plenty of food – bad food – and it doesn’t seem to stop them gaining weight. They still get bigger, they get great results, and improve consistently. What’s the deal? It’s easy to get frustrated about this kind of process when you’re struggling to gain weight and think you’re doing everything right.
This is even more common amongst “hardgainers” and younger guys trying to get big. They’re frustrated because they’re eating pallets of chicken and rice but don’t seem to get results, while guys with “dirty” diets keep getting bigger and stronger.
What we’re going to talk about today also involves a focus on your own goals – and the balance between health and size. It’s important to keep in mind that health and gains don’t always overlap – especially when we talk about food. You can get bigger and stronger to improve your joint health while giving your digestive or metabolic systems “bad” food.
Health isn’t just one measure and there are different factors that might compete – and conflict – in your diet. As we’ll see, high-calorie diets often require you to make this choice and put you at odds with what you think are ‘healthy’ foods.
To answer the question, can you gain weight with clean food? Yes you can gain weight without eating junk food, you’ll just need good knowledge of how to do that which we will talk about further below.
What Does “Getting/reaching Your Calories In” Mean?
When we talk about reaching in the calories, we’re talking about making sure you’re eating enough. This is relative to what your diet plan – and your goals – require. The right foods for me aren’t always the right foods for you, and so on, because we have different needs. But generally, getting your calories in means eating enough to give your body the fuel it needs to do a few simple things:
- Maintain the muscle and other tissues you already have
- Fuel muscular recovery and growth after exercise
- Support continuing, improved performance in exercise
This is why I always tell skinny guys and girls to track their calorie needs. Using a TDEE calculator is key because most “hardgainers” just aren’t eating enough – or don’t know how much they should be eating – to gain healthy weight.
When you hear your mate saying “gotta get the calories in” it’s basically slang meaning “make sure you eat enough”. Failing to eat enough hamstrings these 3 key processes and leaves you struggling to gain weight, make heavy lifts, leaves you disillusioned with your lack of gains, or maintain your strength and mass on a cut.
It’s about regulating your diet to your goals, and not compromising your results because you don’t want to eat more. For some bodybuilders, that specifically means get more calories by whatever means (food choices) necessary.
Most people fail their bulking diets because they’re not willing to eat enough foods to reach their calories.
They’re stuck in the weight loss diet mindset of keeping calories low and eating ‘clean foods’.
Who Needs to Get Their Calories In – and Why?
Everyone should “eat enough” – whether that’s for a better weight cut, maintaining weight, or gaining it.
Beginners and intermediates who are bulking to try and gain weight want better quality muscle mass, stronger lifts.
For beginners or intermediate there is no excuse at all not to reach this amount of calories with the healthiest food possible, because if their need is only 2500 calories, it’s not hard to reach this amount with healthy food.
Advanced people who need to get the calories in will struggle more, because it’s sometimes up to 4000 calories a day. That’s why we see so many lifters ending up adding loads of fast foods in their diets, because it’s hard to reach this number of calories required.
The more calories you consume, the more you have to be diligent with your food – it’s just harder to maintain and needs deliberate effort to eat – even when full! Which usually makes eating clean harder.
So everyone is concerned, if after reflecting on your goals the right calorie count for you is 3000 calories, you should reach these calories in. It’s just harder for those who need to consume a high calorie count.
This leads us to the most important question most guys have when they try to eat a lot and gain muscle mass…
Should I Eat Unhealthy Foods to Gain Muscle Mass?
The real conflict is between “clean” and “dirty” bulks. The difference is the types of foods that these diets use – especially their willingness to use junk food and ‘luxury’ foods to push the calorie count up.
First, understand why this question matters. Junk foods are usually called that because they have 2 characteristics:
- They are very high in calories relative to what they contain and their volume (space they take up)
- They are typically not very nutrient-dense (protein, vitamins, and minerals per calorie/ rather high in sugar and saturated fats)
These are easier to bulk with because they contribute more calories and don’t produce as much “fullness” as healthier foods. It’s important to remember that these are unhealthy for most people – who typically eat too much – and not for everyone. They’re unhealthy because they typically push you over your calorie needs and replace better foods.
When we’re gaining weight and want to eat some junk food, these foods shouldn’t replace healthier ones, which are more nutrient-dense, but can be added on top of them. That’s one way to go, which is better than a full junk food diet. Unhealthy foods are typically high in sugar and fat, while low in protein, and thus don’t fit into most diets and I don’t recommend turning to junk food to reach your goals.
If they’re added to a healthy diet, they can be used to add more calories when struggling, especially if you’re already rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals for the day. Still, it’s not your best option, you could instead add well manufactured, healthy powder gainers, or healthy smoothies that are easy to drink rather than go to burger king.
Unhealthy foods can make sense when bulking because you’re putting weight gain over food-clean-ness. You’re using them to meet your personal goals, and that’s a choice, but that’s also taking over your general health goals in the long term.
We have to commit to calorie-intake, and it can get dirty sometimes. You don’t need to be 100% optimal with your health. If you’re exercising hard and eating some junk food – instead of making it the basis of your diet – you’re going to be fine.
If you’re eating junk foods on top of a healthy diet, it’s better than just eating junk food. Especially when you’ve got 1000 calories to eat and you’re already full. It helps with muscle gain, but may not be the most healthy.
Doing it with good food is harder, but also more rewarding if you can achieve it. There’s no need to be a stickler about clean foods – it’s not that simple – but you always want to make the best choices possible – you just don’t need to harshly fixate on healthiness during a bulk. Cleaner foods are better, but chewing your way through 4000 calories of rice, chicken, and fish is not easy. Results reward the dedicated, but remember that you’re only human.
We will see at the end of this article how you can stay balanced and also enjoy flexible dieting without punishing yourself from enjoying some good times.
Why Do Elite Bodybuilders Eat Junk Food, Sometimes?
You’ll see a lot of bodybuilders eating a lot of junk food. This is important to pay attention to but shouldn’t be your main inspiration.
As mentioned above, the more advanced natural bodybuilders or elite bodybuilders need to eat a ton to maintain and grow muscle mass during a bulk, and are much stricter with their diets during a cut. This is an important way to meet their calorie needs because these big, muscular guys typically need 5,000+ calories to gain weight reliably – their TDEE is usually very high because they’re heavy and muscular.
They’re also performing far more exercise than the average person. This means they have huge calorie needs.
You’ll also see these ridiculous meals in elite bodybuilders more often because they are on steroids more often. These both increase the amount of calories required (due to more muscle-building impetus) and a greater “tolerance” for poor quality foods. Almost anything these people eat will turn into muscle mass because of the “chemical enhancement”.
It’s also pertinent that these people are not eating or training for health. Even if some pretend to do so… Their livers are already taking a kicking and they’re singularly dedicated to the building of muscle mass during a bulk. In this industry, it’s sometimes right to think the amount of unhealthy foods you can eat is often closely related to how single-mindedly you’re pursuing muscle mass, over health.
Should You Just Focus on Calories In and Calories Out (CICO)?
If we strictly talk about adding muscle mass, not caring about your overall health, it’s better to reach the calories with bad food than not at all BUT it’s obviously better to do all that with good healthy food.
Muscle wise, it’s definitely better to reach those calories, even with junk food, than eating only 2000kcal when you actually need 3500kcal to start bulking. It might not be great for your functioning health like your blood health, your organs, but you’ll still put on muscle.
As mentioned though, if we’re talking middle to long term, you could have better performances, better muscle results if you had done all that process with healthy food.
So the best thing we would want to do is actually be able to reach those calories without having to eat daily junk food, so both your muscles and health are improving at their best!
What are the Long-Term Differences Between Clean and Dirty Bulking?
The differences between using and abusing unhealthy foods shows up in the long-term. Short-term use is all about making up your calories during an intense training block or bulking phase, and that’s ok. But long-term use starts to look like just having a sloppy, careless diet.
I wouldn’t consider short-term junk food reliance unhealthy or dangerous. It’s not like steroid use. However, remember that this is a crutch for difficult situations when hard bulking and part of flexible dieting, not a habit you should promote.
Remember: bulking isn’t just an excuse to eat whatever you want. You still need to moderate your diet and make sure it does fit your macronutrient goals. It’s not free-reign to eat like an idiot.
While short-term junk food use isn’t going to cause health problems, it can start to cause issues when used in excess or chronically. These may increase inflammatory markers, harm blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and promote deficiency in essential vitamins or minerals.
You want to try and reduce the unhealthy-ness of your junk foods. You should be making better and better choices over time and trying to limit your need to eat junk to meet your calories. This is the point of dieting overall and the consistent improvement comes from better high-calorie meals, better accordance with a diet plan, and more regular eating.
Junk food is permissible not recommended. Use it when you need it, treat yourself occasionally, but don’t make it the staple in your diet. High-calorie healthy foods like fatty meats and fish, avocados, nuts, seeds, cultured dairy, beans, pulses, and wholegrains are all great sources of healthy calories.
These foods are more nutrient-dense and offer more “bang for your buck” in terms of both health and performance. These add up over time and slowly shifting to better foods will show up in your health, mood, and results with muscle, fat, and performance.
How do I reach my calorie count with healthy food? Flexible dieting
As seen above, if you’re a beginner or intermediate and only require a low amount of daily calories, it will be easy to reach the calorie count with healthy food. If you need more because you’re advanced or just very active in your life, then it will be harder, that’s what we will help you do in this chapter.
As mentioned above, the best thing you could do is get/reach your high calorie count with healthy food! But you understand that it’s tough to do so. That’s why we end this article with the solutions.
Flexible dieting means you don’t fully prevent yourself from eating the food you like. As mentioned above, you can have a balanced diet with a moderate amount of “luxury foods”. For example, your diet will be 80/90% from healthy food, and the last 10/20% could just be things you enjoy which aren’t particularly considered healthy (fast food, pizzas… whatever dirty food you’re into).
You just have to match the calorie count in the end between your healthy food and “guilty” food pleasures. You don’t need to feel guilty if they’re within this proportion of your whole diet. If you go above the calorie count you can always implement harder training or some cardio, or just remember that it’s a small part of a whole week’s eating.
The whole point of a diet is to layer up quality foods and prioritise the things that provide better health and wellbeing. Once you know what you need – from a TDEE and macronutrient breakdown – you can focus on the proportions of your diet and “layers” individually.
Here is what we’re going to see now so you can make this flexible diet for yourself:
-How to make a diet by understanding some solid basics. The basic needs of protein, (healthy) fats, carbs, vitamins&minerals with what micronutrients repartition for each.
-How to reach extra calories when on a high calorie count diet with: quality supplements, healthy fat foods, junk food. How meal prepping and quality supplements can help you reach your calories healthily if you have a smart plan.
Calorie Basics: establishing a foundation
Start with calories because they control your weight. When you eat more calories than you use, you gain weight, and vice versa. Calorie surplus (more than you need) and deficit (less than you need) product weight gain and loss, respectively.
This is the main lever you use to promote muscle-and-weight gain or fat loss – the two key pillars of bodybuilding. Your calories need to serve your purpose and they’re your top priority for changing your body – which is why you should use junk food to meet your calorie needs if you’re chasing bodybuilding (not just health) goals.
Typically this means adjusting your calorie goal and using high-calorie foods, while eating more often to prevent over-fullness and maintain a surplus.
Muscle Gains: Protein choices
Protein is the most important nutrient for determining what your weight gain or loss is made of. Is it fat or muscle that you’re gaining? Are you losing fat, or are you breaking down important muscle tissue to drive your weight loss?
Protein – typically from meat, seafood, dairy, and high-quality plant foods – will be the foundation for a better body. It’s the driving force behind muscle-building and muscle-sparing, keys to a good bulk and cut respectively.
Muscles are made of protein and the amount you consume in the diet is key to driving muscle recovery and growth. It also supports tendon and ligament health, which are dependent on collagen – an important, high-strength, elastic structure made of proteins.
Diets rich in protein are better for all the things that we look for in bodybuilding:
- Better muscle-gain during a bulk or cut
- Better muscle-sparing during a cut
- Less fat-accumulation when gaining weight
- Better metabolic health
- Improved digestion and nutrient-release over time
- Less hunger
- Better fat-loss
- Healthier tendons and joints
- Better bone density
- Improved recovery between workouts – and thus performance
These are the best possible results! Protein is the most important priority once you’ve made sure that you’re getting the right number of calories for your goals. They should come from whole foods – typically meat, seafood, and dairy – and be the centrepiece of your meals.
When establishing your diet plan, you want to stick to 1.5 to 2g of protein per kg of bodyweight.
Carb Choices: Energy and Growth
Carbs are your second macronutrient priority. They are the energy for your muscles and your movements, with a key role in supporting exercise and recovery. Carbs are your fuel and they are key to getting your calories in. You can usually find high-quality, calorie-rich carbs to boost your intake.
For most people, changing carb intake is the number one way to improve weight gain or loss. It’s the lever that is easiest to adjust and typically makes up the bulk of your calorie-intake, since carbs are energy and proportional to the energy needs you have. They’re just closely tied to energy needs and availability.
By eating more carbs per meal – and more carb-rich meals per day – you can easily go from 2000 to 4000 calories. Foods like potatoes, rice, wholegrains, beans, and pulses all offer a great mixture of carbs and other nutrients. They’re also relatively easy to digest and let you eat, digest, and eat again in a reasonable timeframe.
Mastering your carb-intake makes a weight gain or loss diet super easy. It’s the secret that most people miss out on and stumble over in their muscle-gain or fat-loss diets.
You should not try to calculate the amount of carb grams per kg of bodyweight, like proteins or fat. After you calculate both proteins and fats, you will just be able to logically use the rest for the carbs.
Nutrient Sources: Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are your next priority when deciding on what to eat – either in a diet plan or meal. Proteins and carbs do most of the heavy lifting while the third macronutrient – fats – are usually best found in the sources mentioned above – seafoods and whole plant foods.
Vitamins and minerals are typically found in whole plant foods and they’re the reason we need to eat our greens. Vegetables – and specifically those with dark green hues – are a great place to go for vitamins and minerals. Foods like broccoli, collard greens, chard, and cabbage are great sources of a wide range of essential nutrients.
These aren’t key to your weight gain, but they do support the healthy processes that support your health, recovery, and metabolic wellbeing. They underlie the things you chase in bodybuilding – you can’t build muscle if you’re ill.
Eat your vegetables and you’ll grow up big and strong (and will reduce your cancer risk, among others).
Relying on high quality fats
Junk foods are often high-calorie because they contain many low-quality fats. Ice cream and baked goods are two of the main culprits. They’re rich in low-quality saturated fats, at 9 calories per gram, and they make it easy to eat many calories.
This can be useful when you’re trying to gain weight, but shouldn’t be relied on. There’s a reason that these items are typically considered unhealthy: a mixture of carbs and fats.
These produce more AGEs in your body – a type of inflammatory compound you want to reduce. Other low-quality fat sources like hot dogs and poor quality meat-products should also be avoided.
These are even easier to avoid: just use a better, less-processed version. Replace a fast food burger with a homemade one using steak mince – it’s literally that easy.
My 3-step guide to fats and junk foods is simple and effective, with a little practice:
- Use savoury foods, not sweet ones, for your extra calories
- Try to cut down on take-away and fast food junk foods
- Replace as much as possible with slightly healthier options, as often as possible
It sounds obvious, but changing your focus to savoury, and then to homemade, is all it takes to sate the cravings with better fats.
Supplements: Calories Without Junk Food
Before you’d even start relying on junk foods to meet your calorie needs, consider using additional food supplements. Things like whey protein and various forms of carbohydrates are designed to be mixed into powders and offer an easier, healthier calories than those processed, MSG-rich chips.
Things like mass gainer are popular, but you can do the same with a cheap protein – either whey or a plant blend – and a carb source. Things like rice flour are a great DIY mass gainer ingredient that can help you gain serious weight without the health challenges of junk foods.
You can also blend up whey with other ingredients – like steel cut oats, bananas, and spinach – to produce a simple and effective mass gainer shake. Not only is this not unhealthy but actually offers some great nutrients.
Don’t let junk food be your first choice!
Meal prepping once all is clear for you and that you have built your diet and set your goals as mentioned in the chapters above. Take Sunday afternoon or night to make your weekly food.
Should You Eat Junk Food for Muscle Gain?
One thing which is important is to make sure you try and reach your calories, on a bulk or on a cut, with good quality foods. The idea is to give yourself some lee-way rather than just throwing off the focus on quality foods and nutrients entirely. Your food serves your muscle-building and health goals best when they are nutrient-rich and healthful.
Your desire for muscle-growth and health will compete sometimes. What matters is making the choice between these two that reflects your priorities: if you’re chasing muscle growth, you’ll be able to compromise on food source quality to ‘get your calories in’.
Flexible dieting is about focusing on your calories and macronutrients primarily, as they’re the main factors affecting your weight and body composition. Health builds on top of these factors when it comes to vitamin and mineral intake, as well as food source.
Muscle wise, it’s better to eat more calories than not. Junk food doesn’t particularly impact your muscle growth short term/middle term if you train hard and hit your macros. Just remember that’s not a carte blanche to eat whatever you want and ignore the importance of food in your diet, muscle quality, and health!
When Should I Use Junk Food to Reach Calorie Needs?
If you’ve read the article, the answer is very moderatly. Up to 10/20% in your diet if you want to stay healthy and in balance. Now if we’re talking about when during the week/days you should consume this junk food, at the start of the day, you probably shouldn’t start with junk food. The idea is that junk foods and ‘dirtier’ foods are there to help you reach calorie goals when you’re struggling. Typically, that’s going to involve later in the day, during work schedule problems, and when you’re travelling.
You have to allow yourself a little tolerance in these scenarios because you’re not going to have the prep time and perfect conditions to get everything right. If it comes to vacations or other exceptions where you can’t eat healthy, can’t eat according to your plan, I would suggest you reach your calorie count with whatever you can find. The foods aren’t going to be perfect, but they’ll offer a way to maintain size, strength, and muscle quality in the short-term.
As ever, this is proportional to your goals. If you’re looking for size, eating enough calories is not negotiable. However, if you’re training for health first and foremost, just focus on food quality and ignore calories in the short-term. It’s just about aligning your diet with your personal goals.