I think you will agree with me when I say: It’s really hard to know what’s important when setting up a natural bodybuilding diet plan.
There’s just too much information out there and it everyone has a different opinion. Because of this, it can get overwhelming when you’re looking for answers, but it doesn’t have to be.
Our natural bodybuilding diet guide has everything you need to set up an effective plan. Don’t just listen to the biggest guy at the gym. Take an evidence-based approach to your nutrition and follow our step-by-step guide.
Download the Bodybuilding Diet Cheat Sheet including ONLY the important info and guidelines to set up your diet!
Step 1: Calculate Your Calorie Needs
Your first focus should be controlling the energy balance equation when setting up a natural bodybuilding diet. Whether it’s bulking, cutting, or contest prep a natural bodybuilder needs to figure out how many calories they need to maintain weight before they start.
There are many things that affect the energy balance equation, which makes our calorie needs a moving target. The best we can do is estimate our requirements because you will never truly know it. We can always adjust the number once we have an idea of how many calories we need.
How to Calculate Calorie Needs:
- Predictive equations like Mifflin St. Jeor and Harris-Benedict multiplied by an activity factor
- Multiplying body weight by 10 and then multiplying it by an activity factor from 1.3-2.3 depending on activity level
- Indirect calorimetry (estimates energy expenditure by CO2 production and O2 consumption)
- Tracking calories and taking daily weights to monitor the trend (if scale doesn’t change in two weeks, you’re very close to maintenance)
Of the four methods, tracking calories and body weight is a nice balance of accuracy and practicality. It may take longer to figure out how many calories you need, but it’s the true number.
Recommended Diet Tracking Apps:
Step 2: Choose Your Goal
Now that you know how many calories it takes to maintain your weight, the next step for setting up a natural bodybuilding diet is to choose a goal. Each diet will look different depending on if your goal is muscle building, fat loss, or contest prep.
Goal: Muscle Building
If you’re a natural bodybuilder, you know how hard it is to gain muscle. It takes many years to build a respectful physique. Because of this, you must be strategic with your diet to keep the excess fat gain to a minimum.
The following weight gain recommendations are based on natural muscle building potential. This rate of gain will ensure a good part of the weight gained is muscle (if paired with a smart training program).
Recommended Weight Gain Ranges:
Beginner (less than 1 year of training): 2-3 lbs/month
- Add 250-375 calories to your maintenance calories and adjust up or down based on how the scale is moving.
Intermediate (1-3 years of smart training): 1-2 lbs/month
- Add 125-250 calories to your maintenance calories and adjust up or down based on how the scale is moving.
Advanced (3+ years smart training): Less than 1 lb/month
- Add 125 calories to your maintenance calories and adjust up or down based on how the scale is moving.
* Women are less than half of these values because they can’t put on as much muscle.
The scale might not be the best way of measuring muscle building progress if you’re a woman or an advanced natural bodybuilder. Instead, focus on your physique and the visual improvements you see in the mirror.
Ultimately, muscle growth is determined by your genetics but aiming for the weight gain ranges above are a good place to start for a natural bodybuilder. Some may need significantly more calories than I recommended to reach the desired rate of weight gain, but it all depends on your metabolism.
Goal: Fat Loss
If the goal of you natural bodybuilding diet is fat loss, you need to reduce maintenance calories until you reach a weight loss rate of 0.5-1.0% per week. Higher rates may be acceptable for short-term dieting (2 months) but outside of this scenario, I would stick with 0.5-1.0%. This rate will help preserve lean mass and strength in the gym to ensure the majority of weight you lose is from fat tissue.
For example, you weigh 200 pounds and want to lose 0.5-1.0% of your weight each week (1-2 pounds). Let’s assume a pound of fat is 3500 calories, which isn’t totally true but makes things easy. This mean to lose 1-2 pounds per week, your deficit would need to be 500 to 1000 calories per day.
- 200 (body weight) x 0.5-1.0 (weight loss % rate) = 1-2 pounds (weekly weight loss)
- 1 pound of fat = 3500 calories and 2 pounds of fat = 7000 calories
- 3500 and 7000 / 7 (days in a week) = 500 to 1000 calorie deficit per day
The whole deficit doesn’t need to come from diet alone. You can and should create some of that deficit with cardio and extra activity.
Just like with muscle building, the goal is to get the scale moving at a certain rate with calorie control. You want the weight loss trend to move in the right direction and at the right pace. You can do this by looking at weight averages over time.
Watch our video on how to set up a fat loss diet plan here:
Goal: Contest Prep
A natural bodybuilding diet during contest prep is going to look much different than during a general fat loss phase. When you try to get extreme levels of conditioning, the body tends to fight back.
Contest prep is an individualized approach and each person’s diet can look drastically different. Because of this, I can’t give specific recommendations. You can get close to stage level conditioning with the fat loss figures above, but not all the way. Things tend to get interesting during the final months and weeks and you will have to adjust based on how your body is responding to diet and cardio.
Step 3: Calculate your Macro Targets
Now that you know your calorie needs, the next step in setting up a natural bodybuilding diet is to calculate your macro targets. The recommendations below are based on the available evidence. Keep in mind they are general recommendations and will need to be adjusted for each person but are a good place to start.
You will set protein and fat targets based on body weight, figure out how many calories that takes up, and fill in the remaining calories with carbs.
Want to figure out your macros?
Use our IIFYM Macro Calculator and get a starting point for your nutriton.
The first place we start is by setting our protein intake. Protein is the most important place to start because an adequate intake will optimize the muscle building process and preserve muscle while in a caloric deficit. Protein isn’t typically used for energy like carbs and fats but when it is, it yields 4 calories/gram.
Researchers have found that intakes of 1.2-2.2g/kg (0.6-1.0g/lb) are enough for athletes most of the time, but energy deficits and hard training may increase needs.  A systematic review of protein intakes during caloric restrictions suggests that lean, resistance training individuals likely need 2.3-3.1g/kg (1.0-1.4g/lb) of fat-free mass. 
Keep in mind these needs are based on fat-free mass so an individual that is 200 pounds and 10% body fat could need protein in the range of 190-250g/day. This would be their protein needs during a diet. Natural bodybuilders in a caloric surplus don’t need as much protein and can easily get away with 1.0 g/lb of current body weight.
For general trainees, we recommend a protein intake from 0.6-1.0g/lb. A protein intake of 1.0-1.4g/lb of fat-free mass might be more appropriate for lean natural bodybuilder during contest prep. Take the number most appropriate for you and calculate your protein needs. Multiply that number by 4 (there are 4 calories in a gram of protein) and write it down for later.
Recommended Protein Sources:
- Chicken breast
- Turkey breast
- Low fat pork
- Lean beef
- Other lean meats
- Mostly any fish
- Eggs and egg whites
- Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Low-fat dairy products
- Whey protein
The next step in a natural bodybuilding diet plan is setting our fat target. Fat is the most calorie-dense macronutrient at 9 calories/gram. Fat’s main role is to provide and store energy (body fat), support normal hormone production, assist in the absorption of certain vitamins (A, D, E, K), provide cushioning for organs, maintain cell membranes, and provide palatability.
The USDA currently recommends an intake of 20-35% of calories for fat. This is a good recommendation for the general public but may not leave enough calories for protein and carbs in a natural bodybuilding diet, especially during contest prep.
We recommend a natural bodybuilding diet have a fat target of 15-30% of total calories or 0.3-0.5g/lb. This will leave enough room for other macronutrients and keep a natural bodybuilder clear of a deficiency.
For example, let’s our 200 pound bodybuilder and say his calorie needs based on his goal of muscle building is 3000 calories per day.
- If he chose to set fat based on a percentage, he would need 50-100 grams of fat per day (3000 x 0.15 = 50, 300 x 0.3 = 100)
- If he chose to set fat based on his body weight, he would need 60-100 grams of fat per day (200 x 0.3 = 60, 200 x 0.5 = 100)
There’s a large range because you can adjust the amount based on preference. Some people enjoy eating less fat and more carbs, while others enjoy the opposite. Whatever you choose, take your fat grams and multiply it by 9 (fat is 9 calories per gram) and add it to your protein calories from the last section.
Recommended Fat Sources:
- Olive oil
- Flaxseed oil
- Sesame oil
- Egg yolks
- Nut butters
- Fatty fish (like salmon)
Fat Intake and Testosterone Levels
Some say a natural bodybuilding diet should have more fat because it’s beneficial to hormone levels. One study found higher fat diets (approximately 40% fat) increased testosterone levels when compared to diets lower in fat (approximately 20% fat). 
There are many factors that affect one’s testosterone level besides fat, like one’s sleep, stress level, and training program. We don’t even know if an increase in testosterone within the physiological range has an effect on muscle building.
It’s important we don’t get hung up on one macronutrient and disregard the benefits of others. If we consumed 40% fat, that wouldn’t leave much room for protein and carbs.
Now that protein and fat targets are set and you know how many calories they take up, you can calculate carbs. Along with fats, carbs are an important source of energy for our bodies and they provide 4 calories/gram. Their primary functions include providing and storing energy, building macromolecules, sparing protein from being used as energy, and assisting in fat metabolism.
When setting up a natural bodybuilding diet plan, we recommend the majority of one’s carbs come from unrefined sources up until a certain point. For example, if a bodybuilder’s carbs were 500 grams/day and they consumed it only from unrefined sources, they would have too much fiber and be uncomfortable from gas and bloating. Once a natural bodybuilder has reached their fiber goal, it may be wise to eat more refined carbs to minimize GI discomfort.
Fill your remaining calories (what you have left after setting protein and fat) with carbs. For example, let’s say you have 1600 calories remaining. You would be allowed to eat 400 grams of carbs per day. (1600 / 4 = 400) The reason we fill in carbs last is to keep them as high as possible while eating adequate protein, sufficient fat, and losing or gaining weight at the desired rate.
Recommended Carb Sources:
- Sweet potatoes
- Regular potatoes
- Brown rice
- Whole grains
Fiber is an important part of a natural bodybuilding diet plan, but it tends to be overlooked often. The average American only consumes around 15 grams per day, which is around half of the recommendation (38 grams/day for men and 25 grams/day for women 50 and under).
Eating enough fiber can delay gastric emptying, lower cholesterol levels by binding cholesterol in the gut, and help control blood sugar levels by slowing the absorption of sugars. Fiber also helps keep you regular and has a satiating effect (keeps you full for longer).
We recommend getting 14 grams of fiber per day for every 1000 calories consumed. A simple way to make sure you hit this goal and get enough vitamins/minerals is to eat 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables/day. This may sound like a lot but can typically be met by having a fruit or vegetable with each meal.
Water is an essential nutrient for our bodies. Every cell, tissue, and organ depend on it to function properly. Water lubricates our joints, regulates body temperature, carries nutrients (including vitamins and minerals), and removes toxins from the body. No matter the type of athlete, it’s essential to properly hydrate and avoid dehydration.
A practical strategy to make sure you’re hydrated is to monitor the color of your urine. This will tell a lot about your hydration status. Consume enough water to keep it clear to light yellow throughout the day.
Want to figure out your macros?
Use our Macro Calculator and get a starting point for your nutriton.
Step 4: Set Your Meal Frequency
There’s a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to meal frequency, which makes it hard to know what is truly important. I often see people start here but they are making a huge mistake because it has a small impact on results compared to previous steps. Meal frequency isn’t going to make or break a natural bodybuilding diet.
Meal Frequency and Metabolism
How many times have you heard you should eat 6 meals a day to stoke the metabolic furnace? I’ve heard this claim countless times without much data to back it up.
One researcher found increased thermogenesis in dogs  and humans  with more frequent feedings, but many other studies have failed to see the same results. [6-11] At this point, it seems total calorie and macronutrients have an effect on metabolism and not meal frequency.
Meal Frequency and Protein Synthesis
Meal frequency doesn’t seem to alter one’s metabolic rate, but there is some evidence for eating multiple small meals to maximize protein synthesis. [12-14] Based on this, it may be a good idea to spread your protein intake evenly throughout the day to maximize muscle building. This can be achieved through a meal frequency of 3-5 protein rich meals per day spaced roughly ever 4-5 hours.
Another important aspect of meal frequency is adherence to the diet. Nearly everyone can stick to 3 meals a day (breakfast, lunch, dinner) but some enjoy a more frequent meal pattern. Satiety must also be considered when choosing a meal frequency. For example, if calories are low it may be wise to eat less frequent to allow for larger meals.
Based on the available evidence, we recommend a meal frequency that fits an individual’s lifestyle yet maximizes any benefits of increased protein synthesis. This falls anywhere between 3-5 protein rich meals spread evenly throughout the day or a meal roughly every 4-5 hours.
Pre/Post Workout Nutrition
If you’re following a meal frequency of 3-5 meals, any benefits of pre/post- workout nutrition will likely be covered because of how the meals are spaced throughout the day.
If possible, we recommend consuming 0.2g/lb protein and 0.4g/lb carbs pre- and post-workout. Each meal should be consumed within 1-2 hours of either side of the workout.This will maximize any muscle building benefits and provide energy for training and recovery.
For our 200 lb bodybuilder, this would equate to 40g protein and 80g of carbs both pre- and post- workout.
Step 5: Choose your Supplement Stack
When it comes to a natural bodybuilding diet plan, supplements are going to be the icing on the cake. Many people mistakenly rely too heavily on supplements when they begin bodybuilding thinking they make a huge difference, but they don’t. Don’t get me wrong, the right supplements will make a difference, but it will only be a few percent.
Below is an effective supplement stack for a natural bodybuilder. These supplements have quite a bit of research showing their benefit and can be included in a natural bodybuilding diet with the goal of muscle building or fat loss.
Natural Bodybuilding Supplement Stack
- Whey Protein: Use whey protein as a convenience supplement to help reach your daily protein targets.
- Fish Oil: To reap all of the possible benefits from fish oil, we recommend you consume about 3-4 grams of EPA and DHA (that’s not 3-4 grams of fish oil).
- Vitamin D: Many people are deficient and will see benefits from taking vitamin D. 1000-5000 IU/day scaled to sun exposure should help you reap all the possible benefits.
- Creatine Monohydrate: Take 3-5 grams/day as long as you want to receive benefits. Creatine doesn’t need to be cycled.
- Caffeine: Take 3-6 mg/kg of body weight about 60 minutes before exercise to reap all the benefits.
* If you are interested in learning more about supplements, examine.com is an amazing resource for non-biased information.
Get the Natural Bodybuilding Diet Cheat Sheet
I made a free cheat sheet for you that will help you put these strategies into action. It outlines — step-by-step — how to set up your diet with the specific nutrition recommendations from this article.
Download the Bodybuilding Diet Cheat Sheet including ONLY the important info and guidelines to set up your diet!
- Helms ER, Aragon AA, Fitschen PJ. Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014;11:20.
- Helms ER, Zinn C, Rowlands DS, Brown SR. 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):127-38.
- Dorgan JF, Judd JT, Longcope C, et al. Effects of dietary fat and fiber on plasma and urine androgens and estrogens in men: a controlled feeding study. Am J Clin Nutr. 1996;64(6):850-5.
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- Ohkawara K, Cornier MA, Kohrt WM, Melanson EL. Effects of increased meal frequency on fat oxidation and perceived hunger. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2013;21(2):336-43.
- Kinabo JL, Durnin JV. Effect of meal frequency on the thermic effect of food in women. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1990;44(5):389-95.
- Hill JO, Anderson JC, Lin D, Yakubu F. Effects of meal frequency on energy utilization in rats. Am J Physiol. 1988;255(4 Pt 2):R616-21.
- Iwao S, Mori K, Sato Y. Effects of meal frequency on body composition during weight control in boxers. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 1996;6(5):265-72.
- Garrow JS, Durrant M, Blaza S, Wilkins D, Royston P, Sunkin S. The effect of meal frequency and protein concentration on the composition of the weight lost by obese subjects. Br J Nutr. 1981;45(1):5-15.
- Areta JL, Burke LM, Ross ML, et al. Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. J Physiol (Lond). 2013;591(9):2319-31.