The traditional bodybuilding diet looks bland to the general public, but here’s why you should try it at least once.
Despite all the heated debates over the superiority of diets, science has presented us with some pretty strong facts about which one is best for fat loss.
And the winner is? None of them! We can finally put the low carb versus low fat debate to rest because neither comes out on top. As many experienced lifters expected, your ability to adhere to one or the other is what matters in the end. Researchers studied 609 participants over the course of a year and counseled them on either keeping their fat low or their carbs low, and the difference in weight loss was negligible.
But what about paleo and keto? Neither wins. Not a single diet can lay claim to being superior to any other when it comes to fat loss, all things being equal, like adherence.
This means that you can count your protein, count your overall calories, and adjust fat and carbs within that caloric value based on your preferences, and you’ll lose fat.
This is a way of eating that was influenced by competitive bodybuilders and lifters who wanted to look good naked. It’s characterized by predictable foods and repeat meals – chicken, broccoli, and rice, for instance, would be a classic.
But why do people call it a bro-diet? “Bro” became a condescending way to label those whose fitness advice was based more on experience than science. Since many lifters’ approach to training and eating wasn’t completely dependent on research, it was called “bro-science” and deemed unreliable.
Though the terminology stuck, it’s not really an insult anymore. You see, “bros” often know what they’re talking about because they’ve been doing their own research through decades of trial and error. And their advice ought to be considered (in combination with research) by anyone who loves the art and science of getting ripped. But it’s still common for fitness professionals to be fixated on study results at the cost of wisdom gained in the trenches by bodybuilders and hardcore lifters.
And while studies are valuable, like the one we started with, remember that the reason researchers test things out is because someone or something gave them the theory to begin with. And in the world of diet and weight training, it’s often a bunch of lifters (bros), who had an idea that worked on some level, for lots of people, over and over again.
So while neither low carb nor low fat dieting really matters in the big scheme of things, food selection matters a whole lot for individuals who need to get really lean.
There’s a reason why the great majority of bodybuilders stick with a bro-diet for contest prep and achieving ultra low levels of body fat. That reason is because it works. If it didn’t, they wouldn’t do it. Yet you’ll hear crap like this: “Well, he could have achieved the same look had he just accounted for calories a…”
Shut up. Let me hand you some real world experience here. At that level of leanness, everything matters, and the results will be affected by more factors than calories or protein. The food source actually becomes equally as important as caloric intake.
Here’s some proof: I worked with an IFBB pro for peaking, and while we could get him very dry the day of the show, filling him out before he hit the stage took a lot of tinkering. It took us about four shows before we found not only the right combination of calories, but the right combination of fats, carbs, and proteins – and the right food sources from which they came.
Food sources, not just macros and calories, matter. Anyone who’s competed can confirm this.
These are things that wouldn’t make a noticeable difference in someone who walks around in a state of tubbiness, the way most of the population does. But when you’re 3% body fat, what you put into your body, and the effect that it has, becomes far more apparent.
Just don’t tell the armchair experts who’ve never done a contest diet (or have and didn’t get into anything better than apartment complex pool-level shape) and want to argue about these things.
The benefits of a bro-diet are that the food selection is often limited and consistent. This gives the competitor the ability to see any change that occurs visually, no matter how small, with the inclusion or exclusion of a food.
People poke fun at bodybuilder Phil Heath for saying that “tilapia thins the skin.” While that probably isn’t what’s happening, there may be something about tilapia that causes him to retain less water than other protein sources, giving him the appearance that his skin is thinner.
All this aside, there are some benefits to a bro-diet that almost everyone could use if they really wanted to improve their body composition. It’s just a way of dieting that can help you keep those calories and protein in check. It ups your adherence and guarantees your success.
Most people who struggle to lose fat will tell you that they’re eating below maintenance level calories. And they blame everything from insulin to their grandmother’s thyroid condition as to why their body fat just isn’t coming off.
Here’s the culprit – you’re not eating under maintenance. No, you’re really not. Because if you were, you’d be losing fat.
No, really. This is where the science bros and the bro-bros will align. Whether it’s happening on the weekend or every night in bed as you pound down that 4,000 calorie taco salad that sits in a deep fried bowl of flour (you know the kind), you’re finding extra calories from somewhere. Just because it’s called a salad doesn’t mean it’s low calorie.
If you measured your food, and I mean everything you put in your mouth, from chicken to rice to the condiments, you’d end up surprised that, well, you’re eating too much to lose fat.
Why would narrowing down food selection matter? Isn’t variety important for health? That’s what health professionals have told us, but it’s not the entire story because you can still get a variety of nutrients even when your diet is pretty boring.
The benefit of having predictable go-to foods and go-to meals is that it makes figuring out your macro count really easy. One of the best things you can do if you want to really nail down your calories and macro count for a while, is to choose foods that are mostly single macro dominant.
For example, chicken breasts are a staple in bodybuilding because they’re mostly just protein with very little fat. You’re really only dealing with one macro-nutrient to figure out.
Same for rice and potatoes. They’ve got a little bit of protein but not much, and no fat. They’re a carb-dominant food source. So you’re only having to deal with the quantity of carb source to figure out near exact macros.
You’ll also see things like olive oil or coconut butter as a preferred fat source. Once again, you’re only dealing with fats as the macro to count.
Using macro-dominant food choices makes it incredibly easy to account for both calories and macro targets. This is a big reason why most bodybuilders use bro-diets with narrow food choices. They know how their body responds to certain foods, and they know how much of those foods they’ll need to eat to keep from having to break out a quantum physics book to justify having 3.1 ounces of an Oreo Blizzard.
And as for nutrition, you can still eat a variety of vegetables that fit within your planned meals. It won’t be any harder to swap or combine your steamed broccoli for asparagus, spinach, or any other high-nutrient food. And if you think your diet is healthy because you keep a variety of shit food in it, then you’re missing the point.
Lots of folks make fun of Tupperware-toting bodybuilders. But if they’re getting into buff-nasty shape and looking good naked while YOU dream of not wearing a T-shirt at the pool, then maybe you should take note of their habits. That’s exactly what meal prep is – a habit.
Each week, most of these goofballs spend a few hours in the kitchen weighing their food, and they understand their macros for each day. Then they cook a bunch of food up for a certain number of days so that they have a high level of adherence to their predetermined caloric and macronutrient numbers.
Crazy, right? They have a goal and actually put in the work required to give themselves a high chance of success. Who does this? Well, people who actually take this seriously enough to put it into action, rather than arguing about it online.
It’s simple. Do the bro-diet stuff for 30 days, and end up with enough experience to do it nearly effortlessly.
I know it’s not as fun as the mental masturbation you get from spending hours online spouting your oh-so-convincing opinions on diet, exercise, or politics. But you could replace that hobby with something that actually makes your life better, like cooking some meat and rice, measuring it out, and packing it into containers.
If you’re trying to shed fat, figure out your daily intake at around bodyweight x 15 for week one. For week two, factor in bodyweight x 14. For week three, bodyweight x 13. Week four, if you can’t spot the pattern here, will be bodyweight x 12.
If you so desire to keep on keepin’ on with the bro-diet, extend out for however many weeks your heart desires and lower to bodyweight x 10 at some point. That’s usually where some real magic happens.
What if you need to go lower? Do it. When I stepped on stage, the last few weeks of my daily caloric intake was around 1500-1700. My stage weight? 225. You do what you gotta do.
Of course, factoring in macros matters too. So let’s get into that.
Here’s a quick summary of what to aim for on a bro-diet:
- Protein intake should be at least 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. This will be your first caloric baseline to establish and it should never go down.
- Figure out 20% of your total calories each day from fats.
- Carbs will make up the rest of your calories.
Why low fat? Because the majority of bro-diets are low fat. That’s what lifters generally find works for both muscle preservation and performance. And yes, this includes a moderate carb intake. We’re bro-dieting here.
Yes, at the beginning I told you about the study which says that neither low carb nor low fat matters, so do keep that study in mind for later, but give the traditional bro-diet a chance first. Use a nutrition app to track your calories and macro ratio, so that you don’t screw this part up.
Pick four protein-dominant sources. I recommend skinless chicken breast, tuna, egg whites, and a protein powder, like Metabolic Drive Protein.
What about beef? I don’t really advise red meat because the fat content varies so greatly from cut to cut, and it’s one food many bodybuilders cut out when really trying to get lean. Again, another area where science can’t always explain what’s going on, but there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence to support it.
Pick four carb-dominant sources. Potatoes (white, red, or sweet), rice (brown, white, or jasmine), cream of rice, and oatmeal. Oatmeal being the one carb here that tends to have a higher mix of protein and fat in it, but it’s still a solid carb staple.
What about veggies? Fibrous veggies are unlimited. I’d never count them against your calories because they’re so low in calories anyway, and the fiber content often makes the carb intake negligible.
Pick two sources. Olive oil and coconut butter are probably two of the better choices here, but real butter isn’t a bad choice. Lots of people like to use avocado as a fat source, but it has a pretty high carb count for a fat source, so if you choose to use it, just be aware of that and make sure to factor the carbs in.
Everything. If it goes into your mouth, it’s because it was weighed first and the macros were counted.
It’s up to you to Tupperware-it or not. I don’t have to, but lots of people do in order to make hitting their bro-diet macros easier. If you work a 9-5 then you’re probably not cooking up chicken breasts and potatoes at your office.
If you actually see this out and take the challenge for 30 days, making the proper caloric adjustments, then by the end of the month it’ll be easier, you’ll know how to eye-ball servings, manage your intake, and you’ll have a leaner physique. You’ll be wiser and sexier, bro-style.
- Gardner CD et al. Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion: The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2018 Feb 20;319(7):667-679. PubMed.
- Aragon AA et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:16.