Are bodybuilding diets healthy?
Bodybuilding diets typically include lots of protein, strict limits on ultraprocessed food, and bulking and cutting cycles. Many of the characteristics of bodybuilding diets are healthful, but not all of them.
Picture yourself eating the following calories and macros, every single day, for months on end. But with little-to-no junk food included!
- 4,000 calories
- 300 grams of protein
- 500 grams of carbs
Many heavyweight bodybuilding pros eat like that. Some eat more than that.
Of course, what applies to a mass monster using pharmaceutical assistance doesn’t quite apply to non-enhanced bodybuilders. And there’s no one bodybuilding diet that all high level competitors eat.
But these diets do have several commonalities. So are bodybuilding diets healthy? Let’s see what the evidence says.
Are very-high protein diets healthy?
Top bodybuilders always eat a ton of protein, which is the most satiating macronutrient by far. So in that way, pro diets can be quite beneficial. More protein and less junk food is a big factor in eating healthy.
Is too much protein unhealthy though? Well, trials thus far haven’t shown detriments to liver, kidney, and bone health in people without pre-existing conditions. Nor have extremely high protein intakes shown detriments for blood lipids or glucose levels.
How about longevity? Well, nobody knows for sure. Some studies suggest that restriction of certain amino acids (methionine and BCAAs) could help with longevity. But these studies are all in cells or mice, since you can’t really do a long term trial on humans because of cost and ethical concerns. Confounders also abound, since high protein usually means high calories. High protein levels in older folks can stave off sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss) as well.
One option is mixing up your diet, with periods of high protein interspersed with periods of either lower protein or some form of fasting. That may mitigate longevity concerns, although it won’t be optimal for maximal muscle gain.
Very high protein intake has not been shown to have detriments for the liver, kidneys, and bones. There is a potential concern for longevity, however it's difficult to directly study because long-term trials are not possible, and many confounders exist.
Is it unhealthy to eat a lot of protein during each meal? Is protein wasted?
In a word, no. The outdated maxim that you can only absorb 30 grams of protein per meal is simply not true.
Not to mention that most knowledgeable bodybuilders spread their protein intake in several meals throughout the day in order to absolutely maximize muscle mass (even if the marginal gains after three to four meals are fairly small).
Eating a lot of protein in one meal (over 30-40 grams) is perfectly fine for most people, and not unhealthy. The protein doesn’t go to waste.
Are the non-protein foods eaten by bodybuilders healthy?
What’s the most direct reason for the increase in obesity-related chronic disease worldwide? Overeating junky food. And what do bodybuilders aim to do? Stay away from eating junky food, otherwise known as food that will not help them either gain muscle or lose fat or lift weights better.
It’s not the 1980s anymore. So not every bodybuilder sustains themselves on mainly chicken, broccoli, and brown rice. But “cheat days” are few and far between for top competitive bodybuilders.
In 2019, a highly controlled metabolic ward study showed that including too much ultraprocessed food in your diet substantially increases food intake and weight gain. You could probably guess that already, but it does heavily contribute to the low fat levels of bodybuilders: they just don’t eat ultraprocessed foods very often.
Aside from protein, bodybuilders often to stick to several fairly healthy staples such as rice and spinach, or potatoes and broccoli. They also burn off a lot of calories, so starch consumption doesn’t lead to fat gain. Fried foods are rare, as are processed foods, and the overall healthfulness of their staple foods is quite high.
Is rigorous calorie-counting healthy?
Some of the bodybuilding ethos has trickled down over the years, and helped non-bodybuilders lose weight and attain a healthier body composition. Prime among these has been calorie counting: competitive bodybuilders were some of the first people to actively count calories on a regular basis. This might sound obsessive to some, but if you count your calories regularly (sometimes under the label of IIFYM or “If It Fits Your Macros”), it’s much harder to stray into binging territory.
But is calorie counting useful for non-bodybuilders? The evidence is mixed, but studies are scarce and often not of high quality.
Calorie counting definitely works to regulate energy balance and hence weight gain. However, many of the main impediments to health diets are typically psychological, so calorie counting can work until it doesn’t, and you go off the rails.
Associations and editorials are good to discuss, except that many people have relied on calorie counting apps for adherence to a healthy diet, and massive weight loss and health improvements. This hasn’t been captured by large scale studies yet. So if you like it, stick to it!
Bodybuilders started counting calories before virtually anyone else. If a strict calorie-counting approach helps you, then by all means go for it. You don't have to answer to anyone else’s preferences.
Are repeated bulking and cutting cycles healthy?
First, a note: bulking and cutting is typically followed by a delicate peaking routine, meant to shed water from under the skin yet keep muscles looking full. It can be dangerous to manipulate water and electrolyte intake to prepare for a contest. Even for seasoned competitors, it may cause organ damage or other long-term consequences.
Second, note the difference between “smart” bulking and “dirty” bulking. Some bodybuilders gain an inordinate amount of weight during bulking cycles, stuffing their faces with too much unhealthy food. But these bodybuilders will invariably lose their competitions, unless they take the right combination of anabolics or have incredible genetics.
Repeated bulking and cutting cycles haven’t been studied in depth for health effects. Presumably, gut health (due to disturbances in gut flora from wild swings in diet) and cardiometabolic health (exacerbated by stresses from heavy exercise during wild swings in diet) may be at risk from dirty bulks and severe cuts. But we await studies specifically looking at this.
Bulking and cutting aren't inherently unhealthy. But repeated bulking and cutting cycles over long periods could theoretically have detrimental effects, especially to gut and cardiometabolic health.
Is it healthy to take a boatload of supplements?
At any one moment, chances of side effects from taking tons of supplements (like 15-20 different supplements each day, or even more) may be low. But compounded over time, the health risk gets higher. Unfortunately, this is a highly understudied area that leaves more questions than answers.
Supplement side effects lead to an estimated 23,000 emergency room visits in the US per year, and that’s not accounting for possible chronic health effects that occur in the long run, which may not get connected to the specific supplement(s) at fault.
The more supplements you take, the greater the chance is for interactions, especially for supplements that influence hormones and basic metabolic processes. Taking several nutrient supplements along with a protein powder and creatine isn’t likely to be as risky as taking several less-studied supplements, of course.
There haven't been any randomized trials comparing very high supplement use against low supplement use. So nobody knows the impact of prolonged intakes of specific supplement combinations. It's likely, however, that the marginal benefits of taking tons of supplements (like 15-20 different supplements each day, or even more) don't outweigh the risks for most people. How can you even know which supplement is having which effect?
Overall, bodybuilding diets include several health-promoting characteristics. After all, obviously unhealthy diets (such as a diet of chips and soda) would go against the goal of obtaining maximum musculature and minimum fat. Pro bodybuilders need to stay relatively healthy to push maximum reps and weights in the gym.
But the long-term effects of a hardcore bodybuilding diet are unknown, especially with regards to repeated extreme bulking and cutting cycles. Potential risks may be greater for those using higher levels of anabolics.