Should bodybuilders eat clean (non-processed whole foods) all the time when preparing for contests? Assuming calorie and macro levels are the same from so called dirty or clean foods, if the bodybuilder is in a calorie deficit, does it matter?

Marc McDougal: I suppose the popular answer to this question revolves around total calories being the only relevant factor and how bodybuilders have an unyielding pension for focusing on “clean” foods and other non-scientific dogmas seemingly favoring superstition over research. While I may not agree with the specifics of traditional bodybuilding pre-contest diets, I do have to side with some of the general aspects of their obsession with clean nutrient intake. While total calories may be the primary determining factor in “weight” loss for the general population, things take a different twist when looking at physique manipulation when each ounce of muscle and fat truly come into play. These people aren’t looking to lose “weight.” They’re looking to lose only fat (and water) and retain as much lean body mass as possible.

Appearing on stage in optimal condition requires a heightened focus on detail. In my opinion, simply hitting the calorie and macronutrient numbers will not yield optimal results in my opinion due to consumption of processed foods laced with preservatives, trans fatty acids, BPA, xenoestrogens, dioxins, BHT, BHA, PCB, phthalates, pesticides, heavy metals, high fructose corn syrup, (although it’s typically only 55 percent fructose and many of its downfalls have been overstated, it still becomes a factor for various reasons), and AGE.

Some of these are more typically recognized as environmental toxins as opposed to food toxins, but preparation of foods and food selection comes into play. For example, Consumer Reports recently showed significant BPA content in canned foods, even those labeled otherwise (1). Xenoestrogens not only find their way into foods from heating plastics (a favorite for bodybuilders due to the convenience of taking their chicken and broccoli on the run in Tupperware), but these xenoestrogens can also be found in various non-organic, non-natural meats tracing back to the hormones used to fatten up animals for market. AGEs are typically created from overcooking meat but are also found inherently in foods that have been pasteurized or sterilized.

Fine, but we’re not talking about living as long as Aubrey De Grey. We’re talking about looking shredded on stage here, right? Well, these toxins can cause certain adipokines to be secreted by the body, causing inflammation and cellular dysfunction and making it harder to lose that last bit of fat. Bodybuilders may be even more susceptible to this disastrous cascade due to their propensity to store more visceral fat, which is the main storage site of “bad” adipokines. We’ve all seen the guy on stage with the vascular eight-pack that measures 64 inches around as soon as he exhales.

Impurities from foods cause significant hormonal disruptions, including unfavorable adulteration of testosterone, estrogens, insulin, growth hormone, IGF-1, thyroid hormones, adiponectin, leptin, and others. These hormones need to be functioning optimally for bodybuilders to show up on game day at peak levels. Can a bodybuilder eat “dirty” foods and still get shredded and win a show? Sure. But it’s going to make things quite a bit harder, especially for the natural competitor.

However, I do disagree with the popular contention of bodybuilders avoiding protein or meal replacement shakes pre-contest. Whole foods are great, but I see absolutely no reason to skip the convenience of shakes if desired.

Leigh Peele: “Clean” food is a myth. There is no such thing as clean eating. There is
such a thing as choosing nutrient dense foods, but contrary to popular belief, this has little to do with whole foods. For example, if you look at a serving of Total Cereal, it actually holds more variety of nutrients per serving than most fruits and vegetables at equal caloric intake. Now the amount of those nutrients which make it through absorption can be held to question, but then so can the nutrient value of each one of those vegetables based on the way it was raised, how it was cooked, and the time of season it was picked. As always, the variable of the situation comes into play, and it could be conceivable that the fortified cereal has more nutrient rich content and is a “dirty” food.

The whole reason we keep moving toward more extremes on the dieting front, especially those in body composition, are because as a whole there is a lack of understanding about the route of fat loss and energy balance in the body. When it comes to the final stages of contest, any food is going to make a big difference, and from my experience, it is the fastest acting carbohydrates (dirty foods) that help most with body manipulations. This isn’t about health. Fat loss isn’t healthy. There are arguments to be made on the front of diet manipulations for health. Is the sweet potato more nutrient dense than sweet tarts? Sure, but it’s the sweet tarts that might help with manipulations more than you might have thought.

Jamie Hale: What is clean eating? Clean eating for the low-carber means anything low to moderate carbohydrate. For the low-fat advocate, basically anything is low to moderate fat. The whole natural food advocates define clean eating as eating minimally processed, natural foods. In other words, clean eating means different things to different people. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s go with the latter definition.

No, bodybuilders do not have to eat clean all the time when preparing for a show. A couple of examples immediately come to mind. One of my competitive bodybuilders in preparation for his show drinks a Coke with whey protein after his training sessions. Recently, one of my competitors decided he wasn’t going to compete in a show he had been prepping for. Afterward, he spent a weekend eating everything he could get his hands on. He contacted me after his weekend pig out and informed me he was back in (doing the show). His appearance was fabulous after the re-feed. Many bodybuilders eat a candy bar 30–45 minutes before stepping on stage. Some of my competitors use jelly beans right before hitting the stage.

What I’m saying doesn’t take away from the strict nature of a pre-contest diet. Whether you’re consuming clean or so called dirty foods, the timing and quantities of these foods are precise, even more so about three days before competition, which involves water manipulation, micronutrient manipulation, food bulk control, and others.

Jose Antonio: In general for all athletes, eating clean should be the primary nutritional goal. And it makes perfect sense for bodybuilders to eat clean all the time pre-contest. Of course, an occasional cheat or free meal is needed (primarily for a mental break of the monotony of eating the same foods).

Dan Moore:I think what is far more important and necessary is to realize that caloric density is the issue and not so much whether it’s a “dirty” food item. Think of it this way—whether it’s pizza and Twinkies or lettuce and chicken breast, it’s the energy they contain that’s important. It tends to be far easier to eat more calories in denser caloric content foods. Of course, this would lead to overeating and making a cut more difficult. Many believe that DNL is a whole lot more prevalent than what it actually is and most research looking at DNL have already given us enough insight to say, “It takes a lot of carbs (far more than what is typically consumed in a cutting program) in absence of fat to cause any discernable increase in adipose.” So I definitely believe that it’s just a little easier to maintain a reduced caloric intake if eating “clean” when trying to shed body fat, but there is no more of a magical fat gaining potential to “dirty” foods versus “clean” if still eating within a hypocaloric state.


Justin Harris: It does matter. In a calorie deficit, the body will lose weight. Weight is different than fat. To fully control where the “weight” is coming from, you have to be more precise with your macronutrient ratios.

You have to understand what type of diet you’re following and what each nutrient is doing in the body. If you’re following a ketogenic diet, the source of nutrients is 100 percent important. If you’re relying on the use of ketones by the brain for energy, you must avoid the amount of carbohydrates it would take to “knock” the body out of ketosis. I could really go on and on about the subject, but different nutrients affect the body in different manners. Assuming a person ate the same amount of calories from “junk” or “clean” foods, you will find a wide variance in how those nutrients respond in the body.

With the ingestion of sugar, insulin levels will elevate. This insulin will then raise an enzyme called acetyl-CoA carboxylase II. This enzyme shuttles fatty acids to the mitochondria to be used for energy. So in the presence of insulin, fat oxidation is lowered. This will decrease the level of fat utilized on a receptor-to-receptor level during the period that insulin is raised. So if a calorie restriction is found, the resulting energy needs will need to be filled elsewhere. If enough protein isn’t ingested in that meal, the body will likely break down muscle tissue to create glucose and meet the energy demands put on the body. So in this calorie depleted state, the body ends up losing muscle, and enzymes are elevated in the body urging it to stop burning fat for energy.

Conversely, that same calorie amount in a meal composed of a “good” protein source, complex carbohydrates (which can vary greatly in need), and essential fatty acids would produce a different result. Assuming the essential fatty acids contained the omega 6 fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), you would see an increase in fat oxidation through brown adipose tissue. GLA works via brown adipose tissue (BAT) as a metabolic uncoupler. This means it creates a shift in the pH levels inside the mitochondria causing it to release energy through heat. This is done by oxidizing fatty acids. This is essentially the opposite of what is seen in the “junk food” example. The complex carbohydrates would not create a surge in blood sugar levels. This would result in lower insulin levels and also lower acetyl-CoA carboxylase levels. The good protein source would create a muscle sparing energy source if extra glucose was needed.

In this state of a calorie deficit, insulin levels will not be raised excessively, glucagon levels will be more favorable for fat loss, muscle tissue will not need to be broken down, and certain essential fatty acids are already going to work in oxidizing fat for energy. The body will be more likely to use stored adipose tissue to make up for the calorie deficit.

Bryan Haycock:I will repeat what I said earlier about dairy foods. Some bodybuilders feel they can eat some junk food as long as they stick with their calorie goals. Others feel adamantly that they must eat “clean” to get in contest shape. I have seen both come in looking great come contest day.

Rather than focusing on what specific foods are eaten, I find it helpful to consider what kind of insulin response a given food will produce and make my decisions from that. At times, you want an insulin spike, and at other times, you don’t. If at those times you want your insulin high, there is no physiological reason why you can’t eat a piece of candy or a soda with your protein drink. Others will insist on a nutritional supplement of some kind with the same concentration of simple sugars in lieu of traditional sweets. To me, all things being equal, it’s about peace of mind.

Martin Berkhan:From a purely physiological standpoint, it probably doesn’t matter if you’re including foods in your diet that may be labeled unclean by the generic bodybuilder. As long as protein remains a constant, there won’t be any measurable differences in fat loss in the short term when comparing two diets where the rest would be made up by either “clean” or “unclean foods.” There might be some long-term effects on body composition on a diet where fat and carbohydrate food choices are the worst possible (think trans fats and high fructose corn syrup), but these extremes aren’t relevant to the discussion in this context because I don’t think any competing bodybuilder subsists on such foods to a significant degree pre-contest. I do think one should opt for food choices that have satiating and nutritive properties in relation to their caloric content. These foods will in most cases be made up with foods that are traditionally labeled “clean.” However, I do think having cheat meals or “unclean” foods at least once a week has benefits in terms of adherence and sanity during the pre-contest diet (or any other diet for that matter).

Alan Aragon:It really makes no difference from a purely physiological standpoint as long as macronutrition is in check. This is evidenced by the mere fact that you can take ten different coaches (or competitors) and see that they have ten distinctly different approaches to pre-contest preparation. Nevertheless, their athletes will all show up on stage at the maximal degree of leanness that their genetics will allow. You’ll never see a competitor magically show up in better shape than he once did all because of switching out one doughnut per week with a cup of brown rice and a tablespoon of olive oil.

In some cases, “clean” foods can be more satiating because of their water volume and fiber content (i.e. a potato versus three tablespoons of syrup). Therefore, dominating a pre-contest diet with calorie dense “dirty” foods might not give the dieter as much mileage in terms of feeling full enough under restricted calories. By the same token, completely eliminating calorie dense junk foods gives the dieter a false sense of accomplishment and short circuits the performance enhancing capabilities of eating indulgent stuff to elevate mood. If you can “spike” up your mood with food you love the taste of, regardless of clean or junky, you can definitely boost your training performance. Therefore, you can maintain more strength and/or endurance in the face of a caloric deficit. The “food mood ergogenesis body composition” cascade is something many physique athletes fail to take advantage of.

On a final note about clean versus dirty dieting, the effects of eating hot dogs and syrup for your protein, carbs, and fat versus eating typical health nut bodybuilding fare would only impact the athlete in the long term. I’m talking about the cumulative effect of years of not ingesting disease preventive and immune enhancing nutrients typically lacking in classic junk food. So to summarize the answer, keep the junk in the minority of your overall daily or weekly calories (say 10–20 percent), and you won’t suffer any short- or long-term consequences.

Layne Norton:No, there is no reason one can’t have white rice, white bread, or the like when trying to lose fat. Most people are so concerned about the glycemic index of these foods that they don’t realize the glycemic index is only measured when a carb source is eaten by itself. If you combine the carb source with a protein, fat, and fiber found in a complete meal, the glycemic index is essentially blunted and washed out by the other foods. So if you want white rice, you can have it as long as you have some veggies and steak or chicken with it.

Cassandra Forsythe:Food quality is important for everyone, not just bodybuilders. So yes, it is most ideal from a health and complete nutrition standpoint to consume as much non-processed food as possible. If we’re talking purely about body composition and not health though, it may not be that important to consider this distinction. Also, if we’re comparing “chemical using” bodybuilders to “chemical free” ones, the effects of the drugs can take one’s physique to a level and look that non-users can rarely achieve. It all depends on your goals. If all you care about is attaining a certain look without any thought to what your long term health outcomes will be, the micronutrient and preservative-free quality of your food likely doesn’t matter.

When we think of processed foods, we often think of baked goods, frozen prepared meals, pressed juices, deli meats, and most packaged items. However, many foods we consume for physique enhancing properties are also processed, such as whey protein and other concentrated protein sources or supplements. Yet many bodybuilders and physique athletes still maintain good health and ideal body composition with these foods. So perhaps our definition of “clean/unprocessed” and “unclean/processed” foods needs to be more clear and instead refer to ingredients that are more likely to have negative health and body composition effects such as trans fatty acids, chemical preservatives and colors, high fructose corn syrup, and highly refined flours.

A portion of the discussion is taken from Knowledge and Nonsense by Jamie Hale (2007). To learn more about the roundtable participants, visit the following websites:

·        Marc McDougal,

·        Leigh Peele,

·        Jamie Hale,

·        Jose Antonio,

·        Justin Harris,

·        Bryan Haycock,

·        Martin Berkhan,

·        Alan Aragon,

·        Layne Norton,

·        Cassandra Forsythe,

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