Dieting Tips for the Offseason Vs. Pre-Contest
When you're a bodybuilder, you're generally either eating to bulk up offseason or dieting down to get lean and shredded pre-contest, and for a bodybuilder relying on animal foods, these two diets are worlds apart in calories and content.
A standard offseason diet might even include a liberal dose of junk food like fast food burgers and pizza, which on a very high calorie diet leads to 300+ lb bodybuilding "athletes" who are obese half the year! The pre-contest diet is really not much healthier, as athletes will often drop their carbohydrate intake down to nothing by eating only animal protein to shed all the extra fat they gained offseason. While this technique does reduce body fat, it also puts a tremendous strain on the heart, liver, kidneys, brain, and even all that hard-earned muscle tissue!
However, as vegan athletes, our needs and priorities are very different, and our diets should reflect that. First of all, we are a lot more conscious of what we eat, and by and large as a population we're much more concerned with our overall health. A really healthy off-season diet might not allow you to gain 50 pounds over a couple of months, but it will leave you with a lot less fat to deal with when the contest season starts. Similarly, you might not drop body fat as quickly on a healthy pre-contest diet as you would eating nothing but chicken breasts, but you won't need to given that you didn't gorge on junk food offseason! You will also step on stage feeling and looking much more vital and energetic, in stark contrast to some of your competition who will have been starving themselves for weeks!
Some overall meal-plan guidelines I've used in the past when preparing for photo shoots and that I'm using to prepare for my first bodybuilding contest are:
1. Keep your carbohydrates high (50%+ of total calories) no matter what you're trying to do. Carbohydrates are your body's main source of fuel so eating them gives you lots of energy and protects your muscle tissue from being broken down. Restrict them too much and you risk fatigue, lethargy, irritability, and muscle loss! Some healthy options are oatmeal, brown rice, sweet potatoes, quinoa, etc.
2. Keep your protein intake moderately high (+/- 25% of total calories) on every meal plan. Proteins/amino acids are the building blocks of new muscle tissue, so if you are a bodybuilder (and you are training as hard as you should be) you will need more protein in your diet than the average person to allow your body to recover and grow from your training. Excess protein you consume has to be filtered out by your kidneys and is potentially damaging, so make sure not to take in too much and always drink lots and lots of water! Oh, and get the majority of your protein from whole foods too (doing this ensures that you will be adhering to guideline #1). Healthy protein sources are beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
3. Eat a low-fat diet (<25% of total calories), especially pre-contest. Fat is essential for your body to operate properly, but consuming even a little more than you require is an easy way to gain body fat. Dietary fat is by far the easiest nutrient for your body to store as fat, so you want to be careful not to go overboard with fatty foods as a means to add calories. I also recommend limiting oil as much as possible because oil is a refined fat in exactly the way sugar is a refined carbohydrate. Remove it from its whole-food source, and you lose all the nutrients in that food that made it so healthy, leaving you with a nothing but empty calories. Healthy sources of fat are avocados, olives, nuts and seeds.
So with those tips to guide you in designing ANY meal plan, here are some tweaks for making a program that will...
Bulk you up: The number one concern with weight gain should be calories. A plant based diet is not as anabolic as an animal based diet (which makes it a lot healthier) so gaining muscle will take a lot more calories from plants than it would from meat. That being said, a plant-based diet keeps your metabolism high so as you do gain weight you will stay a lot leaner than you otherwise would! Easy ways to get your calories up are eating things like peanut/almond butter (being careful not to eat too much overall fat), steel cut oats (twice the calories of rolled oats), sprouted grain bagels (twice the calories of bread), and a LOT of beans. You can be a bit more liberal with this sort of diet because your main focus is making sure your body is never in want of anything that will halt muscle growth, so you can include cheat meals a few times a week and even eat things like whole wheat flour-containing foods and lots of fruit (which has quite a bit of sugar) on a regular basis.
Trim you down: While the same basic macronutrient breakdown works well on a 'pre-contest' type diet, there are a few more things to consider. You are trying to lose body fat first and foremost, so bringing your calories down to a maintenance level and avoiding dietary fats and simple sugars are a must. This will mean reducing or eliminating your intake of refined starches (flour), any oils including salad dressing, fatty foods like peanut butter, and sugary foods like most types of fruit. What you'll be left with are whole grains, beans, vegetables (excluding potatoes), and the low sugar fruits (strawberries, cherries, and grapefruit etc). You will also want to eat very little carbohydrates at or past dinner time because in the evening you will have less chance to burn them and more chance to store them as fat while you sleep.
So, regardless of your goals you can follow a very similar diet year round and make great progress as a bodybuilder. I have used all of these techniques with great success, and I know that you can too! Bodybuilding is a sport about building a muscular, healthy body, and by being a vegan bodybuilder and following a meal plan that promotes long term health you will represent the sport in every aspect, not just appearance.
ACE Certified Personal Trainer
Certified Plant-Based Nutritionist