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The Best Diet & Nutrition Plan For Natural Bodybuilders

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  • The Best Diet & Nutrition Plan For Natural Bodybuilders

    Don't Eat Like A Steroid User

    Steroids and other performance enhancing drugs don't compensate for a continuously bad diet. You can still get fat when taking drugs. But they do change your physiology and can compensate for some serious dietary "mistakes."

    For example, an enhanced lifter could diet on minimal calories and not lose muscle because the drugs would mostly protect his or her muscle mass. And if a person takes growth hormone, T3, clenbuterol, or even DNP, he could do the opposite: eat a surplus of food and still get leaner.

    He could also ingest 400 grams of protein per day and benefit because of the huge increase in protein synthesis (using the ingested protein to build muscle). Ironically, while an enhanced lifter will benefit from a huge protein intake, he can also do better than natural lifters with a very low protein intake.

    How? Anabolic drugs decrease protein breakdown, especially steroids like trenbolone and dianabol which are actually more anti-catabolic than anabolic.

    While a lot of enhanced bodybuilders know a lot about nutrition, many will simply give the natural lifter the same diet that works for them and their substance-using clients. This rarely turns out great.

    Natural lifters have different requirements, not just in the gym but in the kitchen too. So let's get into those requirements. If you're natty, you'll see how to set up your diet for leanness and gains. But first, let's get into the science.


    Every diet that makes you lose fat works via caloric deficit. Removing a nutrient from your diet (carbs or fat) doesn't make you lose fat if you're consuming a caloric surplus.

    For losing fat, calorie consumption is the most important factor. I've known plenty of keto dieters and intermittent fasting proponents who've not been remotely lean despite eating that way for a year or more. It's not that keto doesn't work for fat loss; it's that if you consume a caloric surplus while eating keto you'll gain fat, just like with any eating style.

    That said, calories are NOT the only important factors, especially if you're interested in improving body composition (ratio of muscle to fat).


    Many believe nothing is more important than calorie expenditure. They'll even say things like insulin sensitivity and thyroid hormone levels doesn't matter. I've even read one evidence-based expert (that I have the utmost respect for) say that insulin won't ever make you fat.

    Technically, they're right. Insulin facilitates the entry of ingested nutrients into their respective storage facilities muscle, liver, and fat cells. Insulin doesn't make you store more nutrients than you ingest. It can't. So, in a way, those who say that are correct: it's the caloric surplus that makes you fat, not the insulin itself.

    But if your insulin is elevated above a certain point you won't mobilize (burn) fat as efficiently. If your body has produced a lot of insulin after a high-carb meal, it'll stay elevated for longer. You'll remain inefficient at mobilizing fat for a longer period of time. Insulin's overproduction is what prevents efficient fat loss.

    And it affects muscle too. Muscle growth actually benefits from insulin production, especially if your muscle cells are more insulin sensitive than your fat cells. If they are, then you'll be better at partitioning nutrients toward muscle cells.

    Did you catch that? Insulin isn't always bad. It's important for muscle growth. If all it did was make people fat and it didn't help muscles grow, then bodybuilders wouldn't be injecting it. But they are. This should be a strong sign to keto dieters that the goal of maintaining low insulin levels isn't ideal if you want to build muscle.

    Insulin itself is anabolic and anti-catabolic. How? By directly increasing mTOR activation and your muscle's nutrient uptake, and also indirectly by increasing IGF-1 released by the liver.

    So even though caloric intake is key in gaining or losing weight (and losing fat/gaining muscle), insulin and insulin sensitivity are also important.


    People are confused by cortisol and its role when it comes to leanness. On one hand, it's a hormone that should increase fat loss. It plays a role in the breakdown of stored energy (glycogen, fat, protein) for fuel. As the stress hormone it gets your body ready to deal with a stressful situation like running away from a tiger. Energy mobilization is one of the most important elements of dealing with stress.

    Furthermore, cortisol increases the body's release of adrenaline by helping with the conversion of noradrenaline into adrenaline. Adrenaline increases energy mobilization too. It also increases energy use.

    Charles Poliquin often claimed that cortisol makes you fatter. He specifically said that elevated cortisol makes you store more fat on your belly and lower back. Sadly, this idea of spot-storing body fat discredited him in the eyes of some coaches. And the evidence-based crowd dismissed the impact of cortisol on fat loss/fat gain.

    Here's the thing: Cortisol is a mobilization hormone. And when it's released acutely and not chronically it does help with fat loss.

    However, if it stays elevated chronically it can hurt your fat loss efforts. How? Mostly by reducing the conversion of the T4 thyroid hormone (mostly inactive in regard to metabolic rate) to the T3 thyroid hormone (which has a big role in setting metabolic rate). The more T3 you have, the higher your metabolic rate will be and the easier it'll be to lose fat.

    Chronic cortisol elevation decreases the conversion of T4 into T3. And that's how it can decrease metabolic rate over time.

    That's important for natural lifters because if you use a form of dieting (and training) that leads to excessively high levels of cortisol, you run the risk of slowing down your fat loss efforts in the long run.

    Excessive caloric deficits can lead to chronic cortisol elevation, and so does complete deprivation of carbs. Think about it. Cortisol's first function is maintaining a stable blood sugar level. So when blood sugar drops down (when carbs or calories are too low) cortisol and glucagon are released to bring it back up. Cortisol is also released to mobilize other fuel sources.

    So the greater the caloric deficit, and the lower the carbs, the more you risk increasing cortisol.

    For an enhanced lifter, this isn't a huge problem because the anabolics can compensate for the increase in catabolism from the cortisol by the increase in anabolism from the steroids. And if they take fat-loss drugs, the impact of cortisol on metabolic rate also doesn't matter that much, especially if they take synthetic T3 like Cytomel.

    But for a natural lifter, chronic cortisol elevation can not only slow down fat loss in the long run, but also make it harder to gain muscle or even maintain it while dieting down. This will be important when we talk about the optimal caloric intake for dieting or gaining.

    Your Starting Caloric Intake

    Start at 11 calories per pound of body weight on a fat loss diet, and 16 calories per pound of body weight on a muscle growth diet.

    So if you're a 185 pound lifter, you'd start with a caloric intake of 2035 if your goal is losing fat, and 2960 if you're trying to build muscle.

    Depending on your activity level these might change. Someone who's very active (working construction) will need a higher caloric intake even when trying to lose fat, whereas someone who has a very high body fat will need a lower number. For example, if you weigh 330 pounds with 40% body fat, a 4000 calorie intake might be too high by 700-800 calories. That's why the real key is making weekly adjustments to the caloric intake.

    Also, if you're serious about making optimal changes in body composition it's important to measure your food. It sucks and it's tedious, but how can you adjust calories by 250 if you don't know how much you're eating already? Not to mention, most people tend to underestimate their caloric intake when they don't measure it.

    Adjusting Caloric Intake

    The real key is the weekly adjustment to your intake. If your goal is to lose fat you want to lose the optimal amount of fat. Too little and you'll lose motivation; too much and you'll increase the risk of losing muscle and have crappy workouts.

    As for muscle growth, you can't force-feed muscle onto your body if you're natural. Yes, consuming a caloric surplus will increase your capacity to build muscle, and you can increase protein synthesis via mTOR activation when you consume enough carbs and protein to spike insulin. But your capacity to build muscle is limited by your natural physiology. The "bulking" approach doesn't work well for the natural lifter.

    What about the enhanced lifter? Bulking can work great for them. Anabolic steroids and other drugs increase protein synthesis by a large margin. This means they can build muscle faster and to a greater extent that the natural person.

    To build muscle you need not only protein but also a lot of energy. This is why, when you're enhanced, your muscle growth will be closely related to your calorie and protein intake. And the higher your dose of steroids is, the more additional food will be beneficial. This is even more true among bodybuilders taking growth hormone.

    Secondly, enhanced bodybuilders who use growth hormone, certain steroids, and fat-burning drugs like clenbuterol won't get as fat from the excess calories as natural lifters.

    Yes, an enhanced lifter can get fat when he eats like an idiot, but he has more leeway than the natural athlete. A natural lifter should be more precise.

    Weight Loss Expectations

    You should weigh yourself every 7 days after waking up. Shoot for a weekly loss of around 2-3 pounds. Of course use your judgement. If you're a lean individual or a small person, losing 1-1.5 pounds per week might be satisfactory.

    And on the first week you might drop more because of lowered glycogen stores and water. But generally speaking, the 2-3 pound drop per week when you have a normal (or highish) body fat is what you should be shooting for. This kind of drop won't lead to muscle loss and you should be able to keep training hard.

    This drop in weight is fast enough to achieve a significant change in a reasonable period. If you lose 2 pounds per week for 12 weeks, that's 24 pounds of fat off your body. You'll look like a completely different person.

    Reasons Weight Loss Would Stall

    As your fat loss progresses and weight decreases, it's possible that the caloric intake that initially allowed you to lose 2-3 pounds per week now won't lead to any loss.

    Why? Several possible reasons:

    1 You're carrying less weight around.

    If you lose 10 pounds, your daily energy expenditure decreases, especially if you're someone who's physically active. That's because fat is extra weight you carry around all day. Carrying extra weight increases the amount of energy you use for locomotion and physical tasks.

    2 Subconsciously lowering NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis).

    NEAT is every physical activity you do aside from intentional exercise, like walking to your job, climbing stairs, and carrying groceries. When you lower your caloric intake your body will try to decrease caloric expenditure.

    As you lose more fat, you can become lazier and you won't even notice it. You decrease your NEAT by moving a little less every day, in the gym and out.

    3 Lowered metabolic rate.

    While you won't have a huge drop in metabolism like many believe, there can be a slight drop. Loss of some muscle is a possible cause, but more likely it's from excess cortisol which is released to mobilize more stored energy. And if cortisol production becomes chronic and excessive, it can lower the T4 to T3 conversion, decreasing metabolic rate a bit. Not by much, maybe 3-5%. But this is enough to halt your progress.

    If fat loss stalls it means that you're no longer in a caloric deficit. Either you spent less energy by being less physically active, or your metabolic rate has decreased. But if you want to continue progressing the answer is simple: you need to drop calories down.

    If my average client drops 2-3 pounds in the week, we stick with the same caloric and nutrient intake in the next week.

    If they don't drop weight, we decrease the caloric intake by a factor of 1. This means that instead of multiplying your body weight by 11, you multiply it by 10. If the next week you drop 2-3 pounds, you stay there. If your weight still doesn't drop, you decrease it by another factor of 1 (bodyweight x 9).

    If you gain some weight (and didn't cheat) then you might decrease your intake by a factor of 1.5 or even 2.

    If you lose 1-1.9 pounds it's a judgment call. Normally when it's closer to 1 we'll drop caloric intake by a factor of 0.5 or 1. If it's closer to 1.9, we keep calories the same the week after.

    Note: Protein intake should not be decreased. The drop in calories should come from an equal ratio of carbs and fat. So if you need to lower your daily calories by 250, cut 125 calories from carbs and 125 from fats.

    Carbs have 4 calories per gram, so 125 calories from carbs would be 30 grams. Fat has 9 calories per gram, so 125 calories of fat is 14 grams. So you'd cut carbs by 30 grams and cut fat by 14 grams per day.

    Caloric Intake for Optimal Muscle Growth

    If you gain more than a certain amount of weight, you're likely adding a significant amount of fat. When you're natural you can't force your body to build muscle faster than your physiology allows.

    Dr. Fred Hatfield had a table indicating how much muscle you could build per week. For men it averaged out to 0.25 to 0.5 pounds (for women it's about half that).

    That's accurate for the majority of people. And as you get more experienced, it's even lower than that. An average man can hope to add 40-50 pounds of muscle above what would've been his normal adult weight. This is pure muscle we're talking about; you can gain more "weight" than that, of course.

    There are exceptions. People who are genetically gifted to build muscle (lower myostatin expression, naturally higher testosterone and IGF-1 levels, as well as having the ACTN3 RR gene variant) can build more. People who are exercise non-responders (opposite of what I just mentioned) might be lucky to gain 15 pounds of muscle over their lifting lifespan.

    Adding muscle without gaining any fat certainly is possible. It requires a humongous amount of precision and control over every variable stress, rest, food intake, training, NEAT, etc. And even when all these are accounted for, it can make the process slower.

    While we don't want to get fat while trying to add muscle, adding a little bit might makes it easier to build muscle. It's not because fat makes you more muscular, but because eating enough guarantees you're getting plenty of nutrients to fuel muscle growth.

    When trying to add muscle we're shooting for a weekly increase of 0.5-1 pound of scale weight. This will give you minimal fat gain though there will be some water weight gain, increases in muscle glycogen, and fat.
    • If you gain between 0 and 0.49 you should increase calories by a factor of 1. For example, you could go from body weight x 16 to body weight x 17.
    • If you DROP weight then you should increase intake by a factor of 1.5-2.
    • If you gain more than 2 pounds decrease caloric intake by a factor of 0.5.
    • If you gain between 1 and 1.9 pounds it's a judgment call. You can either stay at the same level or decrease intake by a factor of 0.25-0.5.
    If you need to increase calories, increase protein, carbs, and fat equally. If you need to add 250 calories per day you'd add 84 calories from protein (21g), 84 calories from carbs (21g) and 84 calories from fats (9g).

    Protein Intake

    High protein intake is the second most important element of making a positive change in your physique, both during a fat loss phase and during a growth period.

    During a muscle-building phase, a greater proportion of what you gain will be muscle (instead of fat) when you eat a higher percentage of protein. During a fat loss phase, eating a greater amount of protein will allow you to maintain muscle or even gain it, which means most of the weight you lose will come from fat.

    But here's the kicker: When you're natural, it's not just about consuming as much protein as you can. You have a limited capacity to add muscle mass. So adding too much protein won't be of much use and could even reduce the anabolic impact of protein through an increase in deamination and an increase of the conversion of amino acids into glucose.

    Enhanced lifters don't really have that problem because the anabolic steroids increase protein synthesis 24/7 which allows them to use a much higher amount of protein to build muscle. That's why you sometimes see pro-bodybuilders consuming 400-plus grams of protein.

    During a mass-gaining phase, bumping protein intake up to 1-1.25g per pound of body weight is where most naturals should be. During a fat loss phase you can actually go up to 1.25-1.5g per pound of body weight.

    Ingesting more protein when you're dieting down is a good approach since it'll likely decrease muscle breakdown and help maintain a stable blood sugar level, which will decrease cortisol production.

    Carb Intake

    It's hard to build muscle at an optimal rate, naturally, when you don't consume any carbs. I'm not saying you CAN'T do it if your protein and calorie intake are high enough, but it'll be much harder.

    So how can carbs consumed around the workout period increase muscle growth? After all, isn't muscle made from protein?

    Yes, but carbs, and the insulin production they lead to, will increase mTOR expression from the training. If you consume carbs pre or intra-workout, the mTOR will be activated more than if you don't. And the more you activate mTOR, the greater your increase of protein synthesis will be from the workout.

    This is important for natural lifters who need to trigger protein synthesis with their lifting sessions. While drug users will also benefit from workout carbs, they don't need them as much because they already get tons of protein synthesis from the steroids.

    Having carbs around workouts also has other benefits that'll positively increase muscle growth. First, carbs before and/or during the workout will decrease cortisol release. During the session, cortisol's main function is to mobilize nutrients to fuel the workout. And while lifting, glucose is the most efficient fuel source. (Yes, even more than ketones.) The more fuel you need to mobilize, the greater the cortisol production will be.

    If you provide easily absorbed carbs like highly branched cyclic dextrin before and during your workout, you'll have less need to mobilize stored glycogen, which means you don't need to pump out as much cortisol. Less cortisol means more growth.

    Having carbs around workouts can also increase your capacity to have a higher training volume (more easily available fuel, decreased cortisol) and grow from it.

    Carbs and IGF-1 Levels

    Low-carb diets lead to lower levels of systemic IGF-1. This is well documented in many studies. It's likely because in order to produce a large amount of IGF-1 you need both growth hormone and insulin.

    They don't necessarily need to be present at the same time. One theory is that insulin makes the liver more sensitive to producing IGF-1 when growth hormone is released. Why is that important? Because IGF-1 is the most anabolic hormone in the body.

    You don't need a huge amount of carbs throughout the day, but enough to stimulate insulin release once or twice a day will certainly help with the muscle-building process.

    Carbs and Stress Management

    Another benefit of carbs is that they can help you deal with stress and anxiety by increasing serotonin and decreasing cortisol and adrenaline. Carbs can actually help you relax.

    The connection between carbs and serotonin is well known and is likely the reason behind the term, "comfort food." When you feel sad you tend to eat like crap and it makes you feel better. This is likely because of an increase in serotonin.

    We have two key amino acids, tyrosine and tryptophan. Tyrosine is a precursor to dopamine (which amps up the nervous system) and tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin (which calms you down).

    When you eat protein, both amino acids are present in the digestive system and they can compete for absorption and transport. The more carbs you ingest with protein, the more tryptophan is favored. But fewer carbs, relative to the protein you've eaten, mean you'll tend to produce more tyrosine.

    By consuming more carbs with your protein, you facilitate the production of serotonin, which calms the brain down, reduces anxiety, and lowers cortisol. When you eat protein and few (or no) carbs you'll get more of a dopamine increase, which amps you up.

    Ingesting carbs will also decrease cortisol levels. If you ingest carbs, you keep blood sugar levels higher, so there's less need to produce cortisol.

    Finally, when you lower cortisol, you'll also lower adrenaline. Cortisol increases the conversion of noradrenaline into adrenaline. So you can use carbs when you need to decrease cortisol and relax.

    Amount of Carbs Per Day

    Depending on your insulin sensitivity, make carbs 40 to 60% of your non-protein caloric intake your total daily caloric intake minus the calories from protein.

    So if your calorie intake is set at 2200 per day and your protein intake at 250g per day (250g of protein = 1000 calories) it gives you a non-protein caloric intake of 1200 calories per day.
    • 40% of 1200 calories is 480 calories or 120 grams
    • 50% of 1200 calories is 600 calories or 150 grams
    • 60% of 1200 calories is 720 calories or 180 grams

    The rest of the non-protein caloric intake would come from fat.

    The more body fat someone carries, the more I recommend 40%. The leaner someone is, the more I recommend 60%. That's why when I diet down a client, we normally start with fewer carbs. As the diet progresses, carb intake normally increases. Carb Timing

    The most important time to have carbs is around the workout. Right before or during, have as much as 50% of your daily carb intake. The most I'd use is around 90 grams. The average is 40-60 grams.

    The other time where carbs are the most important is in the evening. It sounds counterintuitive, but to maximize recovery, growth, and quality of life it's the best option. It'll help you relax at the end of the day and lower cortisol levels.

    You also don't want to have carbs in the meals prior to the training session. Why? Because you want to favor dopamine production so that the nervous system will be more activated for your workout.

    So if you train at 4PM, you could have a schedule like this:
    • Breakfast: Protein and fats
    • Lunch: Protein and fats
    • Snack: Protein and fats
    • Workout nutrition: Protein and carbs
    • Dinner: Protein and carbs
    • Snack: Protein and carbs

    The main rule to remember: no carbs in the meals before the workout (except for right before or during your workout) and divide your carbs between workout time and the meals after your session.

    Keep carbs in the last two meals of the day to help you unwind. And eating carbs midday could take off the mental edge when you need it. If you have carbs before and during the workout, you don't need more carbs after the session.

    In our example above where we consume 2200 calories, 250 grams of protein, and 150 grams of carbs, the schedule would look like this:
    • Breakfast: 40g of protein and fats
    • Lunch: 40g of protein and fats
    • Snack: 40g of protein and fats
    • Workout: 40g of protein and 60g of carbs
    • Dinner: 40g of protein and 60g of carbs
    • Snack: 40g of protein and 30g of carbs

    During a mass-gaining phase, since you're consuming more carbs (because the caloric intake is higher) we often add protein and carbs post-workout. So we end up having carbs in four meals or so.

    Carb Types

    So far, everything I've said would seem to agree with the IIFYM (if it fits your macros) dietary strategy, wherein someone could eat any food they'd want as long as the allotment of each macronutrient is met. But for optimal changes in body composition, food quality also matters.

    Granted, if you take an obese person who eats 6000 calories a day from crappy food and you put them on a 2500 calorie diet with 250 grams of protein, they will lose fat rapidly regardless of their source of carbs and fats. But when talking about someone who's already in good shape and wants to optimize their physique, food quality matters.

    When it comes to carbs, except for those consumed around workouts, we want a lower glycemic load which would come primarily from more natural or unprocessed carbs to minimize the insulin spike. If you spike insulin more, it takes longer to come back down. And as long as it's elevated, fat mobilization is less efficient.

    Try these carb sources for times outside of your workout:
    • Sprouted grain bread (Ezekiel for example)
    • Oatmeal
    • Rice
    • Rice pasta
    • Quinoa
    • Potatoes (all types)
    • Beans
    • Lentils
    • Berries

    In a muscle-gaining phase, you can consume more carbs and add some post-workout.

    Fat Intake

    The amount of fat you consume is fairly straightforward. You calculate total caloric intake (let's say it's 2200 calories), protein intake (let's say it's 250 grams or 1000 calories), and carb intake (we went with 50% of non-protein intake, so 600 calories or 150 grams).

    From there it's only a matter of filling the gap.
    • You have 2200 total calories per day.
    • Subtract 1000 calories for protein.
    • Subtract 600 calories for carbs.
    • This equals 600 calories from fats.

    Each gram of fat is roughly 9 calories, so 600 calories is 67 grams of fat.

    If we look at our previous diet schedule it now looks like this:
    • Breakfast: 40g of protein and 22g of fats
    • Lunch: 40g of protein and 22g of fats
    • Snack: 40g of protein and 22g of fats
    • Peri-workout: 40g of protein and 60g of carbs
    • Dinner: 40g of protein and 60g of carbs
    • Snack: 40g of protein and 30g of carbs
    Daily Meal Schedule

    I won't provide you with a sample diet because caloric intake will vary based on your size and goal. But once you have those calculations, it's simple plug and play. Here's how to set up the meals depending on the time of day you train.

    Training Early Morning (No Time For Breakfast)
    • Workout: Protein and carbs
    • Breakfast: Protein and carbs
    • Lunch: Protein and fats
    • Snack: Protein and fats
    • Dinner: Protein and fats
    • Snack: Protein and carbs
    Training in the Morning (With Time For Breakfast)
    • Breakfast: Protein and fats
    • Workout: Protein and carbs
    • Lunch: Protein and fats
    • Snack: Protein and fats
    • Dinner: Protein and carbs
    • Snack: Protein and carbs
    Training in the Mid-Afternoon
    • Breakfast: Protein and fats
    • Lunch: Protein and fats
    • Workout: Protein and carbs
    • Snack: Protein and fats
    • Dinner: Protein and carbs
    • Snack: Protein and carbs
    Training in the Late-Afternoon
    • Breakfast: Protein and fats
    • Lunch: Protein and fats
    • Snack: Protein and fats
    • Workout: Protein and carbs
    • Dinner: Protein and carbs
    • Snack: Protein and carbs

    Notice I didn't add an evening training time. For a natural it's the absolute worst time to train.

    The Effort and the Results

    The optimal diet requires some effort because as a natural, precision is a lot more important than for an enhanced individual. You'll need to calculate your calories, protein, carbs, and fat needs. You'll need to weigh your food, and you'll need to adjust your intake weekly.

    But if you're serious about optimizing your physique that's what needs to be done. If you're content with "good enough" then just wing it, but don't be pissed off if the results are hit or miss.