The Best Diet Plan for a Natural Bodybuilder

A Nutrition Strategy for Drug-Free Leanness or Gains

A natural bodybuilder or athlete can’t eat like a drug-using pro. Here’s the smart lifter’s diet plan for losing fat or building muscle.

Natural Bodybuilder? Stop Eating Like A Druggie

Steroids and other drugs change your physiology and compensate for some serious dietary mistakes. You can’t eat like a drug user if you’re a natural bodybuilder or recreational lifter. You’ll get fat when trying to gain muscle. And you’ll lose muscle when trying to get lean.

For example, “enhanced” lifters can diet on minimal calories and not lose muscle. The drugs protect their muscle mass. And if a person takes growth hormone, T3, or clenbuterol, he could do the opposite: eat a surplus of food and still get leaner.

While many 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. Not good.

Natural lifters have different requirements, not just in the gym but in the kitchen. So let’s get into it. Here’s how to set up your diet for leanness and gains. But first, some science.

The Science You Need To Know

To understand the difference between natural and non-natural eating, you need to know a few things:


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

For fat loss, calorie consumption is the most important factor. I’ve known 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; 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 factor, 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 that insulin sensitivity and thyroid hormone levels don’t matter. I’ve even read one evidence-based expert 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. Insulin overproduction is what prevents efficient fat loss.

Insulin 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, 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 not help muscles grow, 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 in leanness. On the one hand, it’s a hormone that should increase fat loss. It plays a role in breaking down 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 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 experts. And the evidence-based crowd dismissed the impact of cortisol on fat loss/fat gain.

Here’s the thing: Cortisol is a mobilization hormone. When released acutely and not chronically, it does help with fat loss.

However, if it stays elevated, it can hurt your fat loss efforts by reducing the conversion of the T4 thyroid hormone (mostly inactive regarding 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 and the easier it’ll be to lose fat.

Chronic cortisol elevation decreases the conversion of T4 into T3. 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 cortisol levels, 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 the steroid user, this isn’t a huge problem. The anabolics can compensate for the increase in catabolism (from the cortisol) with 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 slow down fat loss and 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.

Calories: Everything You Need to Know

Start at 11 calories per pound of bodyweight on a fat loss diet and 16 calories per pound of bodyweight 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.

These numbers may change depending on your activity level. Someone 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. The real key is making weekly adjustments to the caloric intake.

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

Adjusting Caloric Intake

The key is the weekly intake adjustment. 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 having crappy workouts.

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 than the natural person.

To build muscle, you need protein and a lot of energy. When you’re enhanced, your muscle growth will be closely related to your calorie and protein intake. The higher your dose of steroids, the more additional food will be beneficial. This is even more true for 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. Use your judgment. If you’re a lean individual or a small person, losing 1 to 1.5 pounds per week might be satisfactory.

In 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 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 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 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, you’re no longer in a caloric deficit. Either you spent less energy by being less physically active, or your metabolic rate has decreased. If you want to continue progressing, you need to drop calories down.

If a client drops 2-3 pounds in the week, we stick with the same caloric and nutrient intake for the next week. If they don’t drop weight, we decrease the caloric intake by a factor of 1. Instead of multiplying your body weight by 11, multiply it by 10. If you drop 2-3 pounds the next week, 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), you might decrease your intake by 1.5 or even 2.

If you lose 1 to 1.9 pounds, it’s a judgment call. Normally when it’s closer to 1 pound, 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 genetically gifted to build muscle (lower myostatin expression, naturally higher testosterone and IGF-1 levels, and having the ACTN3 RR gene variant) can build more. People who are exercise non-responders 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. Even when all these are accounted for, it can slow the process.

While we don’t want to get fat while trying to add muscle, adding a little bit might make 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, shoot for a weekly increase of 0.5 to 1 pound of scale weight. This will give you minimal fat gain, though there will be some water weight gain, muscle glycogen, and fat increases.

  • If you gain between 0 and 0.49 you should increase calories by a factor of 1. For example, you could go from bodyweight x 16 to bodyweight x 17.
  • If you DROP weight, then you should increase intake by a factor of 1.5 to 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 to 0.5.
  • If you need to boost 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 positively changing your physique, both during a fat loss phase and during a growth period.

A greater proportion of what you gain will be muscle (instead of fat) when you eat a higher percentage of protein during a muscle-building phase. During a fat loss phase, eating more 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 increased deamination and increased conversion of amino acids into glucose.

Enhanced lifters don’t really have that problem because the steroids increase protein synthesis 24/7, allowing them to build muscle with a much higher amount of protein. 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 to 1.25g per pound of bodyweight is where most naturals should be. You can actually go up to 1.25 to 1.5g per pound of body weight during a fat loss phase.

Ingesting more protein when you’re dieting is a good approach. It’ll decrease muscle breakdown and help maintain a stable blood sugar level, decreasing cortisol production.

Carb Intake

It’s hard to naturally build muscle at an optimal rate 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 workouts. 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 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.

If you provide easily absorbed carbs like highly branched cyclic dextrin (on Amazon) 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. 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

Carbs can help you deal with stress and anxiety by increasing serotonin and decreasing cortisol and adrenaline. Carbs 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, making you feel better. This is 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 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.

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%. 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. Have as much as 50% of your daily carb intake before or during. 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 it’s the best option to maximize recovery, growth, and quality of life. 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 before the workout. 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 4 PM, you could have a schedule like this:

  • Breakfast: Protein and fats
  • Lunch: Protein and fats
  • Snack: Protein and fats
  • Workout Nutrition: Carbs from Surge Workout Fuel (on Amazon)
  • 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, 190 grams of protein, and 116 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: 34g of carbs (Surge Workout Fuel)
  • 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 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.

For 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

You can consume more carbs in a muscle-gaining phase 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: 34g of carbs from Surge Workout Fuel (on Amazon)
  • 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: Carbs (Surge Workout Fuel)
  • 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: Carbs (Surge Workout Fuel)
  • 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: Carbs (Surge Workout Fuel)
  • 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: Carbs (Surge Workout Fuel)
  • 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. Here’s why.

The Effort and the Results

The optimal diet requires effort. 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 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.



What about someone who works out in the morning and wants to eat less meals per day for longevity? I am looking to eat only breakfast and dinner (not including a post workout shake after lifting). I assume it should be the shake, then divide the remaining calories between breakfast and dinner.

What does a non-training day look like here, just spread the same carbs evenly throughout the day? Reduce carbs? Drop the workout nutrition for complex carbs?

It depends on your main goal.

If your number one goal is gaining maximum size and/or strength, I suggest keeping carbs the same even when not training. This will allow you to fill up muscle glycogen stores for your next workout, leading to a better performance. Carbs (well, the insulin release from carbs) can also increase mTOR activation which then increases protein synthesis/muscle building.

Basically, you turn off days into growth days.

If your main goal is fat loss I would suggest reducing carbs intake on the non-workout days, to create a greater weekly caloric deficit.

1 Like

Say you’re a 4PM trainer, where could you fit some LISS cardio into this diet?

Fasted AM cardio then continue with the higher fat meals after? Or, fast acting carbs and protein immediately after cardio then continue with higher fat meals?
Non-fasted AM cardio (with some Surge for example), and continue with higher fats meals after?