We're about to tell you the real secret to building a lean, muscular physique. This dark secret has been guarded for over one hundred years by a secret society made up of magazine publishers and supplement manufacturers. We're risking life and limb to share this secret with you. Are you ready? Okay, here goes:
The secret is, there is no secret.
Okay, so this isn't really a secret; it's more like a piece of wisdom you only develop after at least ten years of hard training and proper dieting. But the fact remains, there are no quick fixes and no miracle training programs.
If there is a real "secret" out there, it's simply this: A great body results from the consistent application of smart training and proper eating. It's a four step process:
- train hard
- eat right
- use supplementation when necessary, and
- repeat for many, many years.
Of these four factors, most people screw up when it comes to eating right. So, what the heck is "proper eating?" That depends on your goals. T-mag is full of different diets designed to fit whatever your physique goals may be. The basic differences in these diets are calorie requirements and macronutrient ratios. The funny thing is, bodybuilders tend to eat the same foods every day, regardless of what particular diet they're using. They just switch around the amounts of protein, carbs and fat, and toy with their daily caloric intakes.
This seems strange to the "normal" Taco Bell eatin' Oprah fans out there, but there's a logical reason for this. Mainly, most of the food choices available at your local supermarket are crap! In fact, if there were such a thing as a bodybuilder's grocery store, you wouldn't need that much shelf space. Come on, do you really need 234 different kinds of breakfast cereal? No! In fact, I propose you don't need any breakfast cereal!
The more you learn about what constitutes a good diet, the more you realize that 90% of what's in the supermarket is garbage, a pure distraction from building the body you want.
With all this in mind, we called up a bunch of T-mag staffers like Cy Willson, Brock Strasser, Bill Roberts, John Berardi, John Koenig, and John Davies and asked them about their diets. With their help, we put together a list of the best and worst bodybuilding foods, plus a few that fall somewhere in the middle.
Pull up a chair and strap on a bib. Let's dig in!
The Good Stuff
Old Fashioned Oatmeal
Make no mistake about it, oatmeal is the carb of choice for many bodybuilders. Even if you're on a reduced carb diet, there's nothing wrong with a serving of oatmeal (27g of carbs) to go along with your morning protein. Your body has been deprived of food all night, so some slow-acting carbs to replenish stores, plus some protein, make for a great bodybuilding breakfast.
Oatmeal has about three grams of natural unsaturated fats, five grams of protein, and two grams each of soluble and insoluble fiber. The fiber not only helps keep your pooper working properly, the soluble variety can help improve cholesterol levels, thus earning the American Heart Association's "heart healthy" seal of approval.
Only buy oatmeal that lists "100% natural rolled oats" in the ingredients. That's it! Oats should be the one and only ingredient. Do not purchase those individually packaged, flavored oatmeal products! (More on that in our "Bad Stuff" section.) Also, don't screw up a good thing by adding milk and sugar. Eat your oatmeal like a man. And by the way, old fashioned oats cook up just fine in the microwave, no need to boil the water in a pot.
Oatmeal rocks. Make it a staple of your diet.
Fat Free Cottage Cheese
We hate the taste and texture of cottage cheese. Most of us also eat at least five pounds of those chunky curds a week. Our secret for making this stuff palatable? We blend it with protein powders and make puddings and thick shakes out of it. Why do we go through all that trouble? Easy, cottage cheese is a great source of casein, one of the best proteins for bodybuilders.
Casein gets props because of its slow digestion and absorption rates. A snack involving cottage cheese will provide a steady, slow paced release of amino acids into the bloodstream. Cottage cheese is also low in carbs. Combine that with its slow digesting protein and it makes an ideal bedtime snack to help prevent any possible nighttime catabolism (muscle wasting caused by an eight hour fast.)
You'll want to stick to the fat free kind and avoid the creamed varieties because of their "bad" fat content. Sure, the fat free kind is a little bitter, but if you use it as a base for other foods like we do, then that doesn't matter much. Besides, if you can bang out high rep squats or inject yourself with steroids, you can certainly eat cottage cheese, ya big wuss!
Tuna and Other Fish
You just can't beat a high protein food that tastes like your girlfriend. (Okay, maybe we've just dated some skanky chicks.) If oatmeal is a staple carb source for bodybuilders, then tuna is a staple protein source. It's cheap, low in fat, carb-free, and packs 13 grams of protein into just two ounces.
You can get it in cans or those new waterless "no-drain" packages, which are even more convenient (though a little more expensive.) You can also buy it packed in water or oil, the latter being very handy for those diets that require a lot of protein plus fat meals. Albacore tuna has 450 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids per two ounce serving, even more if you're lucky enough to get some of that yummy dolphin meat as a bonus!
We've heard rumors that there are other kinds of fish besides tuna, but they probably require cooking and only gay guys cook. (We're kidding. Please stop typing those hate letters now.) Salmon is another good source and you can buy it in cans like tuna. Most of us think canned salmon is just plain nasty, but T-mag contributors John and Steve Berardi live off the stuff. That and breath mints.
However, there is a guy who runs a small company in California that makes one helluva' canned fish. His name is Dave and his product is simply called Dave's Albacore (or Dave's Salmon, as the case may be). This guy sells unbleached albacore that's hand caught, bled right at the boat, and never frozen. The stuff is packed in its own oils and damn if ain't tasty! Trouble is, it's pretty expensive. Six 6-ounce cans of albacore sell for about 18 bucks, and six 7 3/4 ounce cans of dee-licious salmon sell for almost 34 dollars. If fish is a staple of your healthy diet, though, it's worth it.
You can check out his stuff at Davesalbacore.com.
Beef and Poultry
Let's hear it for dead animal flesh, nature's protein with feet! (Vegans love us, can't ya tell?) This category includes beef, chicken, and turkey, although anything you can catch counts too. T-mag contributor Coach Davies even recommends large quantities of buffalo and ostrich to his athletes.
First, let's hunker down on some juicy steak. Red meat got a bad rap back in the "ass-backwards 80's" but things have started to swing in the other direction. The beef proponents were usually fat-free fanatics and animal rights activists who thought that eating bagels and soybeans all day was the enlightened path to health and thinness. They were wrong.
Beef is chocked full of protein and nutrients; it's even been dubbed "nature's multi-vitamin" by some. Sure, it has some fat, but fat ain't bad in the right amounts. In fact, a very low fat diet can lead to low Testosterone levels. A proper amount of fat in your diet, even some saturated fat, is necessary and healthy.
Always go for steaks that have the words "round" or "loin" in the name. These are the leanest cuts. Avoid the fatty meats with the word "rib" in the name. For us, that simply means ordering sirloin instead of prime rib. At the grocery store, choose cuts that are over 90% lean and trim any excess fat. Beef jerky is good when you're on the run, but avoid those processed and chemical-laden deli meats, along with bologna and franks.
White meat chicken and turkey are great too. Since they're high in protein and carb-free, chicken breasts are one of bodybuilding's most versatile foods. Eat 'em up!
Before the popularity of protein powders, bodybuilders relied largely on eggs to bump up their protein intake. A large egg has seven grams of protein, 80 calories, and a great BV (biological value).
Again, you may be wondering about the fat and cholesterol, and again I can tell you that the media has over-hyped the issues.
Fact: cholesterol is the basic structure for all anabolic hormones. Without it, your body can't produce Testosterone. If you're following a good diet and working out, a few whole eggs aren't going to hurt you. Even the very conservative American Heart Association says it's okay to have four whole eggs per week.
Still, most bodybuilders use egg whites in their meals with only one or two yolks thrown in. You can even buy pasteurized egg products with the yolks removed. Add a whole egg to a carton of egg substitute and you have a great bodybuilder omelet.
Just remember that despite how buff Rocky was, raw eggs suck, and we're not talking about salmonella poisoning (although that risk does still exist to some extent despite improvements made by egg distributors over the last few years). According to a study found by John Berardi, the body can only utilize about half of the protein found in raw egg products. So not only are you risking getting sick, you're wasting your money. Lesson: Cook your eggs!
Fruits and Veggies
There are about a hundred reasons that fruit can be a healthy part of a bodybuilder's diet. Instead of going over them all again, we'll just refer you to Cy Willson's great article, The Forbidden Fruit.
Bottom line: Fruit provides you with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, certain flavones, fiber and may even have some protein-sparing effects. Eat some fruit, but avoid most fruit juices. (More on that below.)
As for veggies, what can we say? Mom said to eat them and mom was right. There are some things out there that only nature can provide, and many of those goodies are packed into fruits and vegetables.
We can hear some of the crybabies now, "Wait a minute, protein powder ain't food! It's a supplement!" We understand what you mean, but we consider quality protein powders and MRPs to be food. Look at the labels and you'll see protein, fat, carbs, vitamins, and minerals. Sounds like food to us, just in a concentrated form.
Protein powders make the list because they're nutrient rich, fast and convenient. They've truly revolutionized the bodybuilding industry and have allowed regular people with jobs and families to get the nutrition they need to add muscle. Try to work at least eight hours a day, train, spend time with friends and family and still fit in five or six nutritious, protein-packed meals a day. Hard to do, especially if you're shooting for at least 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. Protein powders fix that problem. Those low carb protein powders are especially good because you can use them in cutting and bulking diets.
The Okay Stuff
This category includes foods that are generally considered pretty good for the bodybuilder, but may not be perfect for everyone. Just play around with these foods and see how they work for you. We think most of these choices below lean toward the "good" side anyway.
Nuts and Natural Peanut Butter
Nuts make the "okay" list (instead of the "good" list) for one specific reason: they're very calorically dense. For that reason, they're often recommended to those supposed "hard gainers" out there. One ounce of peanuts (about 32 nuts to be precise) has 160 calories, eight grams of protein and five grams of carbs. Nuts are high in fat, but only a small part of that is saturated (two out of fourteen grams for peanuts.)
Now, since nuts are so calorically dense, you have to be careful. Just snacking on a can of party peanuts can quickly add a thousand calories to your daily intake. But overall, nuts make a good high fat, low carb food. (Cashews have the highest amount of carbs, about eight grams per serving, so be careful there.) They're filling, portable and can be a healthy part of any diet.
We're also a big fan of natural peanut butter, and yes, it has to be natural! Regular peanut butter is full of nasty stuff like corn syrup solids, hydrogenated oils, and sugar. The ingredients should read "peanuts and salt," period. And don't be fooled by those reduced fat varieties. These are still full of unhealthy ingredients with the added benefit of soy protein! And if you're still worried about the fat content, natural peanut butter allows you to pour off the excess oil before you stir and refrigerate it.
A piece of advice for those with fast metabolisms: drop two servings of natural PB into your protein shakes for a healthy and calorically dense "weight gainer." That'll add 400 calories to your shake, with none of it coming from sugar.
Rice, Pasta, Potatoes, Yams, and Whole Grain Bread
We admit it. We put all these foods into the same category because of their carb content. These are good bodybuilding eats, but you carb sensitive types have to be careful with them.
Judging these foods strictly by their glycemic index, choose sweet potatoes (yams) over white Russet potatoes; whole wheat pasta over white pasta; and long grain brown rice over short grain or white rice (the stickier the rice, the higher the GI.) As for bread, avoid the highly processed white breads and go for multigrain dark bread. If it looks like it has wood chips baked into it, it's good to go. Our personal favorite is called Heathnut, a grainy bread filled with nuts and seeds. Others prefer flax bread.
These foods are cool, just watch those carbs if you're sensitive and be careful with toppings, especially with pasta and potatoes. Adding a fatty topping to a "carby" food is a recipe for rapid fat gain.
Milk and Yogurt
Milk is a two-faced monster. To some, it's a cheap source of protein and the ultimate "weight gainer" for bony teenagers. Some old-timers even recommend drinking a gallon of whole milk per day! Suffice it to say, that would leave most of us quite fat. Much of the fat in whole milk falls in the "bad" category. Saturated fat mixed with a high sugar, high-carb food does not a healthy body make.
Also, somewhere around 10 to 20 percent of the population is lactose intolerant, meaning they can't digest milk sugar. (There are even a few studies that show that non-whites, particularly Asians and blacks, have a much higher rate of lactose intolerance.) This can be helped some by using lactose-free milk and digestive aids. On the other hand, if you have no problems with lactose, skim milk can be a good source of protein. Still, unless you're an extremely active teenager with the metabolism of a humming bird on ephedrine, we'd limit milk intake.
Yogurt is a better option in our opinion. It has many of the benefits of milk without most of the drawbacks. One of the really cool things about yogurt is the live active cultures it contains. Yep, we're talking about bacteria, nice friendly bacteria that keep your digestion system running properly. (That's why yogurt can help with both constipation and diarrhea.)
Some substances actually feed bacteria and as such, may even help you absorb all that protein you're taking in. One in particular, called GDL, reduces bloating and gas and increases nitrogen retention. That means it's a perfect addition to protein powders. The only American company that uses it, as far as we know, is Biotest in our Advanced Protein product.
Sauces and Spices
Sauces and spices make the "okay" list because some are good and some are bad. On the good side you have a plethora of calorie-free pepper sauces, Worcestershire sauce, and just about every herb and spice on the shelf. Many of those fancy mustards fall into this category too, but read the labels just in case. Our suggestions: Beer 'N Brat horseradish mustard, Cajun Sunshine hot pepper sauce, Hell on the Red salsa, and McCormick herb chicken seasoning.
On the bad side is anything made with high fructose corn syrup (BBQ sauce, ketchup etc.), mayo, and most creamy salad dressings. Stick to something like fat free Miracle Whip if you must use mayo and if you just have to have some barbecue sauce on your chicken breasts, measure out one serving and spread thinly.
The Bad Stuff
We all visit the Dark Side on occasion, but if you want to be muscular and ripped, you'd better stay on the side of the Force 95% of the time. Here's a list of foods that you'd better avoid if you want to take your shirt off in public again.
High Fat/High Carb Foods
The prototypical Western diet consists of foods that are both high in bad fats and high in carbs. In America, that diet has lead to a climbing rate of obesity and obesity-related diseases. It's also lead to fat girls who insist on showing off their bellybutton rings by wearing cropped shirts, thus exposing blubbery parts of their bodies best left covered by ample amounts of clothing. The madness must be stopped!
Now, what were we talking about again? Oh yeah, fat and carb meals. John Berardi sums it up in his Massing Eating articles: "Meals with a high carbohydrate content in combination with high-fat meals can actually promote a synergistic insulin release when
compared to the two alone. High fat with high-carb meals represent the worst possible case scenario. ....you'll promote high blood levels of fats, carbs, and insulin."
What foods are the real bad boys here? Unfortunately, most of the really tasty ones! Except for a rare treat, it's best to avoid fried foods, pizza, lasagna, pancakes, whole milk, ice cream, cookies, hamburgers, most Mexican food, most Chinese food, and a bunch of other delicious stuff. But you already knew that.
Our coveted "Most Evil Food Known to Man" award goes to the lowly glazed donut, who just barely beats out French fries and fettuccini alfredo.
Fruit Juice and Non-Diet Sodas
Repeat after us: fruit good, fruit juice bad. Cy "Mr. Big Britches" Willson sums it up best:
"Processed fruit juice is worthless in my opinion. Before I would've said to use it as a post-workout source of carbs, but with Biotest Surge, that isn't necessary and besides, it's less efficient. Also, with whole fruit, you get so much more: more fiber, more phytochemicals (way more), more nutrients, etc. Plus, whole fruit is more filling.
"Fruit juice is an easy way to over-consume calories and increase body fat. Now remember, I'm talking about fruit juice concentrate. The processing is what reduces the amount of these special phytochemicals and other compounds. If you're going to consume juice, then you should make it yourself."
We also have a real problem with soft drinks, which Americans consume more of than water. Face it, Cokes are liquid candy and they're designed especially to make you more thirsty. Add a little caffeine to get you addicted and help dehydrate you, and you have legal crack. Okay, we're exaggerating just a bit, but we think excessive intake of soft drinks is in the same class as cigarettes when it comes to the destruction of your health and physique. Soda is the epitome of the empty calorie and void of anything your body needs. Okay, rant over.
What about diet sodas, you say? Well, we'd still rather see people drinking exactly what the body needs and wants – water – but diet sodas are okay if you don't mind the artificial sweeteners and sodium. (And despite some of the internet rumors and media hype, both are fine if used in human quantities.)
Oh, come on! You know you're not supposed to be eating candy, right?
Go to your pantry right now and get out your oatmeal. If you took out a colorful box full of little kiddy packets of peaches 'n cream oatmeal, do yourself a favor and kick that shit to the curb! As stated above, we think oatmeal is one the best carb sources for bodybuilders, but the flavored, prepackaged variety sucks.
Look at the ingredients, which are listed in order of quantity. Sugar is usually the second ingredient in these girly oatmeal packets. Then you have other crap like salt, hydrogenated vegetable oils, maltodextrin, and partially hydrogenated soybean oil.
To top it off, the oats used in flavored oatmeal are usually more finely ground than healthy, old fashioned oatmeal. This means the GI could be higher based on the extra processing. The list of ugly ingredients goes on and varies a little with flavoring, but the lesson is simple: don't eat this stuff if you want to look good nekid.
White Bread, Bagels and Rice Cakes
It's hard to believe, but back in the 80s and early 90s, diet "experts" told people to eat as much of this stuff as they wanted. Since rice cakes are fat free, you can't get fat, right? Wrong! Now the country is full of overweight diabetics. Coincidence? I don't think so!
One representative of the Glycemic Research Institute even stated that eating a plain rice cake stimulated fat storage like ten bowls of sugar. Bagels aren't quite as bad but are best avoided. Don't fool yourself into thinking you're eating healthy by consuming these things.
Most Breakfast Cereals
To us, cold breakfast cereals, even many of the brands touted as "healthy," are pure physique killers. Cereal is breakfast candy, nothing more, nothing less. In fact, corn flakes have a GI rating even worse than white bread! And how about these cereals that give you "energy", like Grape Nuts? Yep, at 47 carbs per teeny tiny serving (and what bodybuilder would eat one serving anyway?), most people would be in an insulin-induced coma by lunch.
Here's a piece of trivia for you. John Harvey Kellogg, the founder of Kellogg's cereal, invented Corn Flakes to reduce sexual desire and curb the "epidemic" of masturbation. Besides "castrating" people with shitty, high-carb breakfast foods, Kellogg also recommended that small boys (not infants) be circumcised without anesthetic so they would forever associate the penis with pain. He also thought that women should have their clitorises treated with carbolic acid to prevent what he called "abnormal excitement." As a side note, Sylvester Graham invented the Graham Cracker believing it would also diminish male sexual desire.
Now tell me, do you really want to eat a food designed to make you a Testosterone-free eunuch?
All that said, there are a couple of good cereals out there, but not many. All Bran and Fiber One make decent oatmeal replacements, just eat some protein with them. All Bran Extra Fiber only has 50 calories a serving and 13 grams of fiber, almost four times as much as oatmeal!
Some "Fat Free" Snacks
Food manufacturers discovered a great trick back in the 80's to fool people into buying their junk food. Since all fat was dubbed evil, food makers started abusing the "fat free" label. Basically, they took out the fat, added whopping amounts of sugar and called their products "healthy." Makers of snack foods are the worst culprits, with some even trying to sell fat free cookies, chocolate syrup, and solid sugar hard candies as health food simply because they have little or no fat. News flash: Sugar is the real enemy, not fat!
As connoisseurs of fine beers, we hate to see this one make the bad list. But let's face the music, alcohol has a lot of empty calories, can inhibit fat loss, and in the fatal words of John "party pooper" Berardi, booze is one of the best Testosterone suppressors known to man!
Hey, have a beer or two once a week, but if you really care about what you look like and your overall progress in the gym, don't drink to excess.
We won't even try to do a better job than TC or Cy Willson when it comes to this topic. Read these two articles: Bad Protein and The Evils of Soy. If you can read those articles and still take in large quantities of soy, then you deserve that dwindling sperm count of yours!
Weight training and proper dieting don't have to be as complicated as we sometimes make them. Lift, eat, rest, use supps when necessary to get you there quicker, and repeat. It's that simple. Hopeful this article helps with the eating part.
Now go get your grub on!