No matter how experienced you are with bodybuilding, there’s time to reinvent your diet. Tweaking, polishing, and reorienting your diet is a way to improve your results whether you’re a seasoned competitor or taking your first steps into the gym.
Bodybuilding training is tough, and the discipline to produce amazing results is not a simple task either. But here we don’t want to say it’s 30% training, 70% diet – or whatever percentages you use to divide these two. We actually believe training is the most important, because without training there is no muscle built, but nutrition is also very important if you want to build serious mass in the long run or show a great physique at a lower bodyfat.
So we don’t split them and try to compare these two super important factors for muscle growth – we go 100% training and 100% diet – because the two are constantly interacting.
Your diet fuels your training, and your training shapes your dietary needs. It’s the foundation for every result you chase – whatever your specific competitive or health and fitness goals.
We’ve talked about diet in the past but today we’re using original bodybuilding foods as examples of great habits you should be working on. We’re not just going to highlight foods you should be eating, because that’s useless if we don’t identify why they’re popular, helpful, or practical.
So, we’re going to use a range of foods as lessons on what you can and should be doing with your diet.
By the end of this article, you’re going to have 2 major lessons: things you could be eating, and the reasoning behind those choices.
Why is dieting important for bodybuilding and physique change?
The way I like to explain diet is as a bridge from effort to results. You put effort in through training, and unless you’re a beginner phase, it doesn’t just become results. If that was the case, you’d get bigger immediately with every curl like some sort of video game character (that’s how Mafia works).
The point is that the results also come when you rest, recover, and let your body prepare itself for future exercise. Diet is one half of the rest, recover, and grow equation – along with sleep. Diet is particularly important because it offers the raw materials and energy your body needs to actually produce tissue and give you energy and strength to smash it at the gym.
If you get your diet wrong, you will break down muscle and other important tissues to meet these needs. This is what happens with overtraining and detraining, your body uses existing muscle and protein-rich tissues for energy or spare parts.
Diet is the controlling factor in whether you gain weight or lose it – and what that weight is (fat or muscle).
Locking in with a proper diet is a strange experience for many casual gym-goers. They start noticing gains that seemed impossible before, or simply breaking long, stagnant plateaus. This is the “magic” of recovering and training in a proper balance.
The best thing you can do as a beginner to improve your 3-4 workouts a week is to improve your sleep and diet 7 days a week. This is a bit boring to guys who want to live in Bodybuilding.com or Gymshark style training montages – but it’s how serious mass and conditioning happen.
Bodybuilding can be boring from the outside. It’s not about diet hacks and 8-hour arm days (RIP Rich Piana), but getting the basics right consistently until you are big and strong, and you get to look glamorous and sexy.
All the cool, glamorous, showy-off stuff comes from eating right 7 days a week and getting a good 8-10 hours of sleep. And if bodybuilding looked boring from the outside at first, it then becomes an exciting process – because you actually make progress.
Too many people want to implement exciting and gimmicky methods that sound exciting but don’t bring them results which makes the process boring. Progress makes bodybuilding exciting, and getting the basics of training and dieting right will help you make that progress.
Good and Bad Diets
As we just mentioned, you always have a diet – it’s just a good or bad one.
When your diet doesn’t match your exercise or your needs, you suffer some pretty intense issues. The first one is already highlighted: if you’re not eating enough, interesting carbs, fats, and proteins – you’re going to break down tissues to meet the shortfall.
Just like how your body turns bodyfat into energy when you’re under-eating calories, it turns muscle, connective tissues, and bone into essential minerals for survival if you’re deficient.
This usually means protein rich diets for bodybuilding and sports – so that you don’t cannibalise your muscle just to maintain and recover, as well as a balanced diet with healthy carbs, fats, vitamins and minerals, to avoid any deficiencies.
This shows up elsewhere – in other high-risk tissues like the tendons and ligaments. Cartilage is rich in collagen, a protein source that will be recycled and detrained if you slack on your protein intake. Bone has a similar problem with protein but also minerals – which can be leeched out of bone if your diet is inadequate.
These two major types of tissue (connective and bone tissues) being detrained means massive injury risk. Poor diet over a long period of time is closely related to both training-related “overuse” injuries and catastrophic injuries like falls, fractures, and even degenerative diseases.
So, yeah, you could say diet is quite important.
Slightly less mortally-worrying, but still important, is the obvious one: you just won’t get better. Poor diet means plateauing in the gym and on the scales as your muscle-gain or fat-loss are drastically halted by a diet not meeting your needs for your goals.
“Hardgainers” know the pain of looking at the scale for the 4th week in a row and seeing the same number. For weight loss, this is less difficult, but tends to happen when people don’t adjust their diet or have poor tracking and habits.
This is a gut-wrenching feeling of disappointment in yourself and your self-management. It sucks to suck – and it can feel very rough when you plateau and don’t make progress, especially during the first few years of training (when habits are the worst and least consistent anyway).
Diet helps you control your progress, health, and injury risk. I can’t stress enough just how important it is – most aspects of your life depends on good diet, sleep, and exercise. From your health to your physique to your performance at work to your risk of mood disorders.
Everything in life is better when your diet is on point, everything in life is worse when your diet sucks.
Your Diet Drives Muscle Gain and Fat Loss
I always talk about using diet as a driver towards your results – and those results almost always fall into 2 categories for bodybuilding:
- Gaining mass as muscle and other useful tissues
- Reducing bodyfat % by burning fat while maintaining/gaining muscle
These are the two processes you have to master to get good at bodybuilding. Natural bodybuilding, in particular, has to run a fine balance because it’s harder to do both of these processes without steroids. Gaining weight (muscle) is slow and grindy, while losing weight is a dangerous balance of trying not to lose muscle mass.
Diet is your direct control to both of these processes. It lets you choose if you’re gaining or losing weight, and whether that weight is muscle or fat. It’s the set of habits that most closely controls your results in bodybuilding and helps you connect cause (exercise) and effect (physique change).
The foods we discuss today are going to be set out as muscle-building foods and fat-burning foods. These are very vague categories (on purpose) and there’s a ton of overlap…
A List of Interesting Foods for Each Macronutrient: Protein, Carbs, and Fats for Bodybuilding
The reason for overlap between high-quality foods for bulking and cutting is that good dieting – for weight loss or gain – is about a balanced diet of interesting proteins, carbs, fats sources. Sometimes they’re low calorie, sometimes they’re high calorie, and weight loss/gain diets often use both!
We can get a bit more detailed, too, on what makes an amazing food for bodybuilding. There’s a lot to be said for a simple but consistent criteria for foods – and it helps you choose your own foods and design your own diet.
1) Salmon (Fatty fish and seafood)
Salmon/fish counter photo
Fatty fish is the best food for humans, and we will not be argued out of this. Salmon is the best example, packed with vitamins A, D, and E. It’s also rich in protein per serving with relatively low calories so you can combine it with whatever you want – on a cut or bulk alike.
The omega-3 fats in salmon and other fatty fish are also great for everything from hormonal health to metabolism to mental health. There’s nothing not to love about Salmon and fatty fish. While white fish are popular already (like Tilapia), fatty fish are a perfect choice for any diet – and that includes natural bodybuilders looking for a great, healthy, powerful protein source.
Other fatty fish include mackerel, anchovies, sardines, tuna, and swordfish. You can also expand this out to numerous types of seafood like mussels (for muscles, of course) and oysters. Seafood is great and you’re going to be healthier for finding a place for it in your diet.
2) Chicken Breast (and muscle-building meats)
Chicken breasts, turkey and red meats
Obviously, most bodybuilders live on a steady diet of chicken breast. The reason for this is that it’s a lean protein, offering a bunch of protein without too much fat. This means you can control your fat and protein intake separately – perfect for the high-protein muscle-building bodybuilding diets we all use.
Poultry is the most obvious example. Turkey is another great example of a ‘dry’ meat, offering a high protein count with very few calories. This is why chicken and turkey are so popular – they work for cutting and bulking alike, all depending on what you eat them with.
You can also find this in red meats, however. Low-fat steak mince is a low-fat, high-protein option packed with various vitamins and minerals. You just need to make sure that your meats are reared on a good diet and that you combine them with dark green veggies (for digestive health). This means better nutrient intake while getting delicious, muscle-building foods into your diet.
Venison is an excellent example of a balance between nutrient-dense red meats and their “drier”, leaner poultry alternatives. Just select your meats for best effect and remember there’s more to a food than just protein!
Eggs are great as a rare overlap between 3 major categories you want to focus on: highly digestible protein, healthy fats, and a range of micronutrients. With a rich content of vitamins and minerals, eggs present more than just a protein source – but also a place to get healthy, smaller nutrients.
This is made better by how flexible eggs are in the diet and the various ways you can cook and eat them. Eggs and their whites can be separated for more protein purity, they can be scrambled or made into an omelette with other ingredients, or hard-boiled as a high protein (if stinky) snack.
This is the key we want to focus on: eggs are convenient for cooking and digesting, as well as their macronutrient profile. The flexibility of a food is a great benefit, and you should look to foods that fit into your diet in a range of meals and offer a boost of nutrients when you need them.
It’s good to have options and eggs are exactly that. They’re adaptable, healthy, and incredibly enjoyable and easy to use. They won’t sit heavy in your stomach, and they suit small breakfast and post-workout meals perfectly.
The classic bodybuilding breakfast isn’t complete without eggs. Many bodybuilders are built on years of oatmeal and scrambled eggs for breakfast. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for you
4) Oats (and wholegrains)
Oats, rice, quinoa
Oats are the carbs we like the most here at Natural Flex. They’re one of the most important food staples for bodybuilders looking to get the best nutrients out of their carb intake – packed with essential minerals like zinc, magnesium, and others.
Oats are on this list because they show that wholegrains are an important part of the diet. They’re a type of carb, which is an essential food group for driving maximum muscle gains and is essential in preventing muscle breakdown in weight-loss diets.
Wholegrains are about eating full, unprocessed carbs at priority. Rolled oats are the clear best example, offering a mixture of fiber, vitamins and minerals, high-quality carbs, and a little protein. This is what a great carb source looks like – and it also happens to be flexible (just like eggs) with both savoury and sweet oatmeal options.
Other high-quality wholegrains actually include brown rice (for slow absorption), white rice (for faster carb intake), quinoa, and others. The goal is to improve the nutrient-density and role of the most plentiful calorie source in your diet with wholegrains.
5) Sunflower Seeds (Nuts and Seeds)
Nuts, seeds (sunflower)
Ask anyone who has ever tried a Keto diet or low-carb, high-fat diet: nuts and seeds are amazing. They’re some of the most nutrient-dense snack foods around – and amazingly versatile. You can combine them with other foods like Greek yoghurt, fruit, and even grains (in bread, e.g.).
Sunflower seeds are a great example because they combine high-quality fats, protein, and fiber. These are 3 of the most important factors in a healthy diet, and that’s important for natural bodybuilders looking to build muscle in a healthy way.
This is the role of nuts and seeds in general: a nutrient-dense calorie source for building muscle and staying full. They’re great hand-snacks during a cut when you’re trying to make better choices and still get plenty of nutrients in. On a mass-gainer diet, you’re going to use peanuts and other easy-to-eat nuts and seeds to drive better muscle gains as they’re quite high in calories.
Nuts and seeds are amazing as a healthy fat- and protein-source. If you’re a bodybuilder or fitness enthusiast, you need a high-quality source like this to drive hormonal health, nutrient levels, and to control hunger.
6) Cottage Cheese (Cultured dairy)
cottage cheese, greek yoghurt, kefir, cream cheese
Cottage cheese is popular with bodybuilders for its protein content alone, but also has a wide range of secondary benefits. It’s a high-quality, cultured dairy product – a category of foods that we should all get more familiar with.
This family also includes things like Greek yoghurt, which offers an excellent source of protein and healthy fats. Like yoghurt, cottage cheese is also versatile enough to be used as part of sweet or savoury food.
Other cultured dairy like kefir and cream cheeses are also rich in protein and other key nutrients while being suitable for savoury and sweet meals alike. This variety and nutrient profile makes them a key player in better health, wellbeing, and results.
You can even extend this out to some hard cheeses. Emmental, for example, is protein-rich and delicious – a major upgrade on cheddar for getting your protein and enjoying melted cheese in a healthy way!
7) Blueberries (Dark berries and nutrient-dense fruit)
Blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, currants
Blueberries are some of the best fruits out there. They offer a deep blue pigment called anthocyanin that is also a powerful antioxidant. It also directly improves muscle gains, according to a number of studies, making it one of the best compounds for bodybuilding.
Blueberries are also a great combination with yoghurt and other foods. It’s rich in sugar and fiber alike, supporting short-term energy levels and making a yoghurt+blueberry combo one of the best pre-workout and post-workout snacks to replenish protein levels.
Other dark berries offer excellent benefits. Currants, cranberries, blackberries, and others all offer potent plant-based nutrients that affect a wide range of health factors. Berries are arguably the healthiest group of fruits as well as being delicious and easy to combine with each other and other bodybuilding foods.
8) Spinach (Leafy greens)
You will never be too old to eat your greens. Spinach is a dark leafy green, the most powerful and nutrient-dense group of vegetables out there (at least by calorie).
Spinach is a great example because it’s rich in iron, as well as a host of other vitamins and minerals. Leafy greens are all potent for their high concentration of nitrates, as well, which support better blood vessel health.
They’re low in calories, super high in micronutrients, and easy to work into just about any meal. A handful of spinach will wilt down to almost nothing in your meals, providing the easiest and most effective way to increase your nutrient intake without changing anything high-effort in your diet!
9) Potatoes (Tubers and root vegetables)
Potatoes, sweet potatoes, tubers
Potatoes get a bad reputation because the way most people eat them is unhealthy. However, a good baked potato is one of the easiest carb sources around for simple starches – a key group for fuelling exercise and muscular recovery and growth.
By not frying your potatoes, you make them a much healthier food source. Classic combinations like a tuna baked potato is all it takes to start incorporating easy, useful carbs into your diet in a way that makes perfect sense for bodybuilding.
This is where things like digestibility and food turnover become important. It’s about what you can eat comfortably, digest, and use. It’s also about how your food supports the multiple meals bodybuilding usually demands, and how versatile they are.
Unprocessed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other tubers are perfect here. They represent a part of the diet that can help drastically improve muscle gains and performance in the long run
10) Kidney Beans (Beans and pulses)
Kidney beans, mung beans, black beans, chickpeas
Beans and pulses are probably the best type of carbohydrates for bodybuilding – as well as any other type of performance. They’re rich not only in high-quality starches but also contain protein and a wealth of vitamins and minerals.
Foods that do more than one thing in your diet are a great choice to get the most from your nutrition choices. Each meal can do more if the ingredients are well-structured and planned. Beans are the best example of a protein, carb, and micronutrient source all in one.
Kidney beans aren’t the only example – and they might not even be the best – but they’re the place most people start. Alternatives like mung beans, black beans, and even chickpeas offer easy and convenient ways to bulk up those winter dishes with high-quality nutrients.
Make sure you soak, drain, and cook beans properly. Many people worry about Phytates (which may block iron uptake) but they’re denatured when cooking.
11) Liver (Organ meats – and moderation)
Liver, heart, kidney
Small amounts of liver, heart, and kidney can be great additions to your diet.
Offal – organ meats – have gone out of fashion in recent years. However, liver is a great example of how non-meat animal foods can be rich in important nutrients. Small, infrequent use of these foods can provide powerful, highly-bioavailable forms of vitamins like A and E. These support health and wellbeing, while liver and heart are also great sources of protein.
The trans fat content of these foods can be very high, so they’re best combined (e.g. with leaner meats) to provide nutrients and flavour. They’re powerful in the right kind of quantities, even if you’re new to them. Others, like heart and kidney, are less fatty but offer excellent protein and vitamins/minerals.
In moderation, these can make a powerful addition to a bodybuilding diet. Take the time to review the portions you should be adding to your diet. Too much of anything is bad for you, but some foods are perfect accompaniments or irregular additions. Liver is just one great example!
Our Final Thoughts
I hope today’s article has allowed you to change your perspective on a few popular foods and build a better understanding of how bodybuilding dieting works. The more you know, the more you can do, and the better sense of control you will have over your body and how it changes.
This kind of lesson-based discussion is a great way to tie together examples and principles. It’s important to remember that “the best bodybuilding foods” are just good examples at the front of a wide range of possible choices. Nobody cares if you eat chicken or turkey – the role they play is the same, and that is why discussions like this matter here at Natural Flex.