By Jim Brewster [Estimated read time: 8 Minutes]
It’s been said that bodybuilding is 80% nutrition. That seems a little steep to me but there’s no denying the fact that what you eat is every bit as important as your training and supplementation. After all, your body uses the calories you provide to fuel your training, grow new muscle, and all the daily requirements your body must meet just to stay alive.
We need essential amino acids from protein in our diet to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, and all living cells in the body are dependant on this macronutrient for survival.
When you break it down like that, you begin to see the critical importance of what you are putting in your body.
So, what foods should you buy for optimal results?
I’m glad you asked! This article will list the best foods from each macronutrient group, so you’ll know what should be on your next shopping list.
Top Foods for Bodybuilding
High Protein Foods
Protein – the most essential macro-nutrient as far as muscle growth is concerned. What you may not realize is that about 70% of the dry weight of your body is made of protein. Your body uses protein, in the form of infinite chains or sequences of amino acids, to conduct thousands of daily bodily functions. Once those needs are met, any remaining available protein can be used for such things as building muscle tissue.
You should be taking in at least 1 to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight evenly divided throughout the day and most of that really needs to be from whole-food sources. Discussed in another article, protein powder is a great supplement but it’s just that: a supplement. Eat well first, then supplement wisely as needed to help meet daily protein requirements.
Fish: Tuna, sea bass, flounder, cod. I personally can’t deal with fish but I will eat a can of white albacore tuna as long as it’s very low in sodium. Many bodybuilders eat a ton of tuna, because it’s high protein, super cheap and easy to use. But you don’t have to limit yourself to just that one item. In fact, that’s part of the point of this article – get some variety in your meal plan!
Greek Yogurt: Plain, low-sugar, flavor it yourself. This is a great source of quality protein and without fruit and extra sugar mixed in, it’s naturally low in sugar. Makes a great breakfast or snack and you can flavor it however you like – cinnamon, bananas and cinnamon, apple slices and cinnamon, oats, almonds, even a scoop of chocolate whey turns this into a delicious dessert.
Turkey: Lean, ground turkey. This is a great source of low-cost, low-fat protein, makes a great burger!
Chicken: Skinless, boneless chicken breast is a bodybuilding staple, low fat and high in protein, you can do anything with chicken. Season it and add it to brown rice and you have a classic muscle-meal; add in some nuts for variety.
Lean Beef: The primary problem with beef is the fat content, otherwise it’s a great source of protein. What are the leanest choices? 95% lean ground beef, top round, top sirloin and sirloin tips to name a few.
Eggs: Another bodybuilding staple, whether you’re using real eggs or liquid egg. Take 4 whites and 2 yolk and make an omelet, add in some lean turkey and veggies and you have a great breakfast!
High Carbohydrate Foods
The two key points to remember when it comes to carbs are: you want simple, fast digesting carbs in the morning and also post workout and you want primarily slow digesting carbs at all other times of the day.
Another key point is that your body uses stored carbohydrate for energy, the issues of carb intake and fat gain really revolve around this concept, the average person eats way too many carbs, often “junk” sources that are also too high in processed sugar, often along with a high fat content, yet are nowhere near active enough on a consistent basis to burn off the excess calories, which will be stored as body fat.
Carb intake should be based on food quality, digestion speed and how active you are. The average bodybuilder trains hard enough to cover these needs, as long as you monitor your body fat levels, carbs are important to success. Eat enough and you have the energy to fuel your workouts (at the cellular level, this is not the same as the energy you get from your pre-workout) as well as what you need to recover and grow.
To help control carb intake, I advocate the use of the Glycemic Index to help determine ideal carb choices. The glycemic index (GI) is a system of measuring how much of a rise in circulating blood sugar a carbohydrate triggers–the higher the number, the greater the blood sugar response. So a low GI food will cause a small rise, while a high GI food will trigger a dramatic spike. A GI of 70 or more is high, a GI of 56 to 69 inclusive is medium, and a GI of 55 or less is low.
All bodybuilding staples, each of these are slow digesting:
- Sweet Potatoes – 44 GI
- Brown Rice – 55 GI
- Oats – 58 GI
- Bananas – 62 GI
- Cantaloupe – 65 GI
Breads – I advocate two kinds of bread, one is P28 high protein bread, which provides 14grams of protein, 12 grams of carbs – with only 3 grams of sugar – per slice and if you can find it, low carb whole wheat bread – low carb meaning 13 grams or less per slice.
Post-Workout/Morning carb sources – We all know these are the key times for fast-digesting carbs, so what are the best choices? While you may think fruit is a fast digesting carb, the sugar in fruit (fructose) does not digest as fast as other simple sugars. Still, fruits like those listed below digest fast enough to be part of a good breakfast, although I advocate the use of fruit added Greek yogurt, the added sugar digests very fast, it tastes great and the yogurt is a great source of protein.
When it comes to your post workout shake, many guys simply go with dextrose or maltodextrin powder, purchased as a supplement. These two sources are fast digesting and work exceptionally well as part of a shake containing whey protein – a fast digesting protein source. You can use fruit added Greek yogurt as well.
Food High in Healthy Fats
Often considered the “bad guy” when it comes to body fat storage, the truth is that it’s the combination of excess intake of unhealthy fats and excess sugar that contributes to fat storage in the body. In actuality there are different kinds of fat and your goal as a bodybuilder, of course, is to focus on a limited intake of “healthy” fats.
The four major types of fat:
Monounsaturated fats/Polyunsaturated fats (including Omega-3s) – Unsaturated fats are considered “good” fats and eating foods that are rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat has positive health benefits, such as improving blood cholesterol levels and lowering your risk of heart disease.
Trans fats – Small amounts of naturally-occurring trans fats can be found in some foods, such as meat and dairy products, however it’s the artificial trans fats that are considered unhealthy. These artificial trans fats raise your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lower your HDL (“good”) cholesterol as well as increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Saturated fats – Saturated fats are mainly found in tropical oils, dairy, and animal products such as red meat. As well, some fish also contains saturated fat. Organizations such as the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association contend that eating saturated fat from any source increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Monounsaturated fat foods:
- Natural/Organic peanut butter (containing just peanuts and low salt)
Polyunsaturated fat foods:
- Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout)
Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat, Omega-3 fatty acids play a major role in cognitive function (memory, problem-solving abilities, etc.), heart health and joint health.
The different types of omega-3 fatty acids:
EPA and DHA – Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are essential fatty acids that have considerable research backing their benefits. These are the most common omegas and are found primarily in fish.
ALA – Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)is a plant source, research indicates that it’s a less potent form of omega-3 than EPA and DHA, although it’s a good source for those that do not like fish or fish-source supplements.
Foods High in Omega 3’s:
- Salmon (especially wild-caught king and sockeye)
- Tuna (not canned)
As you can see, there is a little more to fat than many people may realize. Regardless, however, fat content should remain reasonably low, about 20% or less of total calories. Remember, fats are very calorie-dense at 9 calories per gram as opposed to 4 calories per gram for protein and carbs. If you like fish, you can go a long way right there, otherwise, you’re looking at various types of nuts which can be a great snack or part of a meal that may also include chicken and a slow carb source.
So there you have it. When it comes time to shop again, pick several foods from each list, this will give you the ability to make up interesting and varied meals, rather than simply eating chicken and rice, or canned tuna, or worse yet, something less than healthy because you aren’t sure what you should be eating. You can find a ton of healthy recipe ideas online, for me, for any food label or recipe idea, it’s about sugar content, both by itself and to total carb content, sodium content and of course the types of fat.