In the past article, we discussed appropriate levels of caloric intake to reach your goals. This article will cover what to consume in order to make up your daily caloric intake. We will discuss this in terms of macronutrients and food sources. Prior to beginning I would like to emphasize that these recommendations likely are not appropriate for everyone; however, they should cover the vast majority of people. I would recommend using these as a starting point and assuming you fall into the majority.
What are macronutrients?
The food we eat is made up of 3 macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Protein and carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram while fat contains 9 calories per gram. The combination of the 3 macronutrients make your caloric intake. The optimal quantities of each may differ slightly based upon an individual’s goals so we will discuss macronutrient quantities for fat loss and lean bulking separately.
Macronutrient Guidelines for Fat Loss
Adequate protein intake during a fat loss phase is important to reduce muscle loss while dieting. Multiple studies have observed increased muscle mass retention while dieting in individuals with higher protein intakes compared to those with a lower protein intake control group [1, 2]. In addition, the existing literature suggests that protein needs are increased as dieting athletes get leaner in order to preserve muscle mass . However, this does not necessarily mean that more is better. As you increase protein intake, you will reduce the amount of carbohydrates and fat you are able to consume without running out of calories for the day.
Based on all of these considerations, an intake of 1 – 1.3 g / lb is most likely sufficient for dieting bodybuilders in order to retain as much muscle mass as possible.
Dietary fat intake is typically thought to be important in order to prevent declines in anabolic hormone levels. A reduction from 40% to 20% of calories from fat has been shown to result in a decrease in testosterone levels; however, data from dieting resistance-trained athletes has suggested that maintaining adequate carbohydrate intake at the expense of fat intake may preserve more muscle mass while dieting . Moreover, data from natural bodybuilders during contest prep suggest that anabolic hormone levels drop, regardless of fat intake [5, 6].
Taking all of this together, a fat intake of 20-30% of calories is likely optimal during dieting
and possibly getting as low as 15-20% of calories from fat during later stages of contest prep when calories are low in order to allow for adequate protein and carbohydrate intake.
Carbohydrates are commonly eliminated during fat loss stages; however, this is not optimal for muscle mass retention, as described above. While carbohydrates will often need to be reduced during a fat loss stage, there is likely a threshold at which reducing further will result in decreased performance during workouts and increased muscle loss while dieting .
A practical way to include carbohydrates into a fat loss plan is to set carbohydrate intake as the remainder of calories left after protein and fat needs are accounted for.
Macronutrient Recommendations for Lean Bulk
Macronutrient recommendations for lean bulking are similar to macronutrient distribution during a fat loss phase with a few exceptions:
– Protein intake when in a caloric surplus will not need to be as high as during a deficit. A protein intake of 0.8 – 1.0 g/lb is likely sufficient during a lean bulk [3, 4].
– Since overall caloric intake will be higher, fat intake should remain between 20 – 30 % of calories.
– Carbohydrates will still make up the remainder of caloric intake. This will result in a higher carbohydrate intake than during a fat loss phase since overall caloric intake will be higher when lean bulking than during a fat loss phase.
Table 1. Macronutrient distribution during fat loss and lean bulk phases
|Fat Loss||Lean Bulk|
|Protein||1.0 – 1.3 g/lb||0.8 – 1.0 g/lb|
|Carbohydrate||Remaining Calories||Remaining Calories|
Table based off of Helms et al. 
Dietary fiber refers to carbohydrates that are not able to be digested by human digestive enzymes that travel to the large intestine where they are fermented by gut microbes into a variety of products, including short chain fatty acids which can be absorbed by the body and used for energy. Many people do not include fiber in calorie/carbohydrate counts; however, since fiber is fermented into short chain fatty acids and used for energy, it does have caloric value and should be counted. It is also worth noting that fiber has a number of health benefits including: increased satiety, reductions in the rates of glucose absorption following a meal, reductions in cholesterol, prevention of constipation, and support of healthy intestinal cells. In addition, consumption of certain types of fiber can increase the number of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine which may have further health benefits .
The current recommendation for fiber intake is at least 14g per 1000 calories consumed. However, too much fiber can be detrimental. High intakes of fiber can interfere with absorption of minerals such as magnesium, zinc, and iron and cause gastrointestinal distress. The upper limit to fiber intake without observing these symptoms has not been established and likely differs from person to person.
Many bodybuilders significantly restrict food choices or follow a set meal plan. While this may work in the short-term, it is not sustainable long-term. In fact, a rigid dieting approach, such as a strict meal plan, has been shown to be correlated with overeating and an increased prevalence of eating disorders [8, 9]. Therefore, I prefer to use a flexible dieting approach of tracking macros rather than following a meal plan. I also encourage clients to stop looking as individual foods as “good” or “bad”, but rather look at an entire diet as “good” or “bad” since we eat a mixed diet made up of many different foods rather than individual foods.
In my opinion, the following make up a good diet:
– Appropriate caloric and macronutrient intake
– A fiber intake of at least 14g/1000cals
– Consumption of a variety of foods from all food groups unless you have a medically diagnosed reason to exclude an individual food
– Fitting in other foods you enjoy as long as all of the points above are met.
Many individuals view using a flexible dieting approach as an excuse to eat as many foods low in vitamin/mineral density as possible; however, this should not be the goal. A flexible diet should contain a variety of foods from all food groups along with other foods you enjoy fit into your daily macros. I’ve seen ratios such as 80:20 or 90:10 nutrient-dense food to other foods thrown around and that is probably a good approach in my opinion.
Ultimately, the best approach for an individual is one that allows them to hit their macronutrient, vitamin, mineral, and fiber needs while eating a variety a foods they enjoy.
Take Home Points:
– Macronutrient needs differ between lean bulking and fat loss phases; however, no macronutrient, food, or food group should ever be eliminated unless there is a diagnosed medical reason to do so.
– Using a flexible dieting approach is more sustainable long-term.
– Eat a variety of foods from all food groups (unless you have a medically diagnosed reason not to) in order to hit your macro numbers in order to ensure you are meeting your vitamin, mineral, and fiber requirements.
1. Mettler, S., N. Mitchell, and K.D. Tipton, Increased protein intake reduces lean body mass loss during weight loss in athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2010. 42(2): p. 326-37.
2. Walberg, J.L., et al., Macronutrient content of a hypoenergy diet affects nitrogen retention and muscle function in weight lifters. Int J Sports Med, 1988. 9(4): p. 261-6.
3. Helms, E.R., et al., A systematic review of dietary protein during caloric restriction in resistance trained lean athletes: a case for higher intakes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, 2014. 24(2): p. 127-38.
4. Helms, E.R., A.A. Aragon, and P.J. Fitschen, Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 2014. 11: p. 20.
5. Rossow, L.M., et al., Natural bodybuilding competition preparation and recovery: a 12-month case study. Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 2013. 8(5): p. 582-92.
6. Maestu, J., et al., Anabolic and catabolic hormones and energy balance of the male bodybuilders during the preparation for the competition. J Strength Cond Res, 2010. 24(4): p. 1074-81.
7. Slavin, J., Fiber and prebiotics: mechanisms and health benefits. Nutrients, 2013. 5(4): p. 1417-35.
8. Smith, C.F., et al., Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite, 1999. 32(3): p. 295-305.
9. Stewart, T.M., D.A. Williamson, and M.A. White, Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite, 2002. 38(1): p. 39-44.
Bodybuilding 101 Series
Part 1 – Bodybuilding 101: Article #1: Series Intro And Goal Setting
Part 2 – Bodybuilding 101: Article #2: Determining Caloric Intake
Part 3 – Bodybuilding 101: Article #3: Macronutrients and Food Sources