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Optimum Nutrition for Bodybuilding

Paul Jenkins explains why it is vital to monitor macronutrients, rather than calories, and why the frequency of your meals is of the utmost importance when planning your nutritional regime.

Calories come second

The total number of grams of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats is what is of most importance when calculating your diet. Dump the calories! A calorie is a measure of heat energy released when foodstuffs are burnt. This calorie measuring process is carried out in an instrument known as a bomb calorimeter. The process is straightforward, foodstuffs are combusted inside the bomb calorimeter. The heat energy released is then measured. Proteins and carbohydrates have four calories per gram, and fats have 9. However, a bomb calorimeter is much different than the human body.

Each time you consume any foodstuff, your body can differentiate between where the calories come from. Thus, a calorie from protein, carbohydrates, and fats each has a different biological effect on your body. If calories were the only thing that mattered, then, for example, you could consume all your daily calories just from fats. However, in practice, this would be very bad for your health and would also adversely affect your body composition. Your body would not be able to sustain much muscle mass without any protein. We can then conclude; while the total of your daily calorific consumption is relevant, calories alone are not important its macronutrients that count. Consuming these in the right ratios is the key to your sporting success.

Meal frequency

Meal frequency is also another important factor in reaching your optimum sporting potential. Meal spacing and timing is of the utmost importance when planning your nutritional regime.

Proteins are digested into smaller molecules of amino acids. These amino acids leave the gut to enter the bloodstream where they will circulate your body to be delivered to places of need. Proteins are ultimately needed by your entire body forming the building blocks of all cells, not just skeletal muscle tissue. For example, your skin, nails, and hair are all made of different combinations of amino acids - all forming proteins. Blood levels of amino acids are only maintained for around 3 hours; thus, to support this anabolic environment, you would need to consume proteins approximately every 3 hours.

Carbohydrates are the body's primary source of energy, and as such, your body continually requires a certain level of glucose in its bloodstream. If your blood glucose falls too low or grows too high, both can result in severe health problems - including death! Therefore, your body has a brilliant way of managing and maintaining its blood glucose. The two key hormones used in this process are Insulin and Glucagon. Insulin, excreted from the Pancreas is responsible for decreasing levels of blood glucose. Glucagon, Insulin's sister hormone is an antagonist to this process. Have your blood glucose drop too low, and Glucagon will start breaking down liver and muscle glycogen (carbohydrates) to increase blood glucose levels.

Fats are unlike proteins in carbohydrates from the viewpoint that they are managed differently, and as such are not required to be eaten as often as proteins and carbohydrates to maintain bodily function.

Therefore, to maintain an anabolic (muscle building) environment, it is required that you consume protein at least every 3 hours. I would suggest dividing your total daily intake of protein equally throughout your daily meals. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, can be tapered to suit your energy requirements. For example, after sleeping 7-8 hours, your body wakes in a fasted state with low blood glucose. A more substantial carbohydrate meal at this time is beneficial. Depending on your energy requirements and activities throughout the day, you can then adjust the amount of each carb meal to suit.

If you are sat in an office all day your energy requirements are minimal, and thus only a small portion of complex carbs would be needed for each meal. Before training and post-training, your energy requirements are much higher, and therefore it is beneficial to consume larger amounts of carbohydrates around these periods. Structuring your carbohydrate intake around your energy requirements will ensure that blood glucose is maintained sufficiently, and carbohydrates are also used for energy rather than being stored as fat.

The optimum number of meals

Simple maths can tell us that eating six meals per day spaced every 3 hours leaves only 7 hours of the day to sleep. Therefore, if you are planning on eating more than six meals, you would need to decrease the space between meals. The maximum, and what I believe to be the optimum number of meals for bodybuilding, would be 8 per day. 8 small meals spaced every 2 hours leaving 8 hours of the day for sleep. Try eating anymore, and you would have to set your alarm in the night to wake to eat. This is not only unnecessary but goes past the point of being beneficial, interfering with your Circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm is a 24-hour rhythmic endogenous hormonal cycle that is ultimately governed by the earth's rotation around the sun.

The separation of the day from the night via light from the sun is what regulates our hormonal system, which in turn controls our sleep/wake cycle along with other bodily functions. Interrupt your sleep pattern to try and squeeze in extra meals, not only will you find you aren't getting the rest you need to recover from your training; you will also interrupt your hormonal cycle which will cause detriment to your whole being. Therefore, I suggest eating 6 - 8 meals a day with plenty of unbroken sleep.

It can be tough consuming all the required nutrients solely from whole foods. Therefore, along with a well-structured and balanced nutritional program, I would also suggest using some high-quality sports supplements to complement and further enhance your training, performance, and recovery.

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • JENKINS, P. (2015) Optimum nutrition for bodybuilding [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Paul Jenkins is a competitive British bodybuilder, nutritional coach, and CEO of DNA® Lean sports supplements.