Whether you're bodybuilding to compete or just as a hobby to build your physique, you'll need a bodybuilding diets for women. Female bodybuilder diets are slightly different from those for men in terms of calorie intake and nutrients.
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The Bodybuilding Lifestyle and Diet
The University of Delaware explains that the goal of bodybuilding is to maximize your body's muscle mass and lose as much body fat as possible. The terms "back day" and "leg day" originated in bodybuilding circles, since bodybuilders would spend an entire session working just a few muscle groups to exhaustion.
Typical workouts involve doing fewer reps with higher weights and maintaining a steady heartbeat, with the aim of slowly breaking down and rebuilding your muscle fibers so that they can grow, notes the University of Delaware. This process is known as muscular hypertrophy.
People tend to think of bodybuilding as an activity confined to the gym; however, it's more of a lifestyle. A major part of this lifestyle involves making sure you're getting the right nutrition to help power your workouts and build muscle mass. The nutrition aspect of this lifestyle is something that you have to work on day in and day out, multiple times a day in fact, since you eat multiple meals a day.
Getting plenty of rest, avoiding smoking, cutting down on alcohol consumption and being totally dedicated and committed to your goals are some of the other requirements of this lifestyle. It certainly isn't for the faint-hearted!
Read more: 3 Essentials for Becoming a Body Builder
Factors Affecting Female Bodybuilders’ Diets
The reason female bodybuilders' diets differ from male bodybuilders' diets is women's bodies are built differently. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) explains that certain genetic and hormonal factors can affect how effectively women are able to build muscle.
Testosterone, for instance, is a key hormone when it comes to muscle building, and since men tend to have more of it than women, building muscle can be easier for them. However, the ACE clarifies that the commonly held belief that women can't build muscle because they don't have as much testosterone as men is only partially true. In reality, the way you respond to exercise depends on your DNA.
The ACE says that your genetic makeup influences what types of muscle fibers you have and how they are distributed throughout your body. Your genes also determine your body type, where and how fat is deposited in your body and the ratio of estrogen and testosterone that your body produces, so good workout plans for women, or trainers who specialize in weight lifting for women, will take this into consideration
According to the ACE, all women fall under one of three body types: mesomorph, endomorph and ectomorph. Women who are mesomorphic tend to be more muscular, endomorphs are curvier and those who fall in the ectomorph category usually have a slimmer and more linear build.
The ACE notes that women who are mesomorphs are able to build muscle much faster than ectomorphs even if they follow identical strength training routines. Endomorphic women on the other hand need to lose body fat in order to be able to see changes in the shape or size of their physique as a result of strength training.
Nevertheless, the ACE states that most women, like men, should see a 20 to 40 percent increase in their muscle strength if they regularly undertake resistance training over several months.
Apart from affecting the type of exercise routine you should follow, your body type and the way your body builds muscle and stores fat will also affect your diet. Bodybuilding diets for women, therefore, need to take these factors into account. For instance, an endomorphic woman with a higher body fat percentage will have different dietary requirements than a mesomorphic woman who has a lower body fat percentage but more muscle mass.
While you may already have a fitness trainer, you should try to visit a registered dietitian or sports nutritionist as well, for a meal plan tailored to your body type and training needs. Your dietitian or nutritionist will be able to help you set realistic goals, track your progress and adjust your meal plan as required.
You may also require access to other health care professionals because conditions like eating disorders, muscle dysmorphia, exercise dependence and the use of performance- and appearance-enhancing drugs are common among bodybuilders, according to a study published in the July-August 2019 issue of the journal Harvard Review of Psychiatry.
On-Season Versus Off-Season
A small study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in August 2019 states that bodybuilding, especially competitive bodybuilding, has two phases, or seasons. Known as the off-season and the on-season, they are characterized by different diet and exercise routines.
According to the study, the off-season phase, also known as the bulking phase or sometimes as the recovery phase, is characterized by a high-calorie, high-protein diet that provides enough energy and nutrition for you to build muscle mass.
The on-season phase, which is also known as the cutting phase, is the stretch leading up to bodybuilding competitions. While powerlifters and athletes are judged on their physical performance rather than their appearance, bodybuilders are evaluated based on aesthetic factors like the size and proportion of their muscles, and the appearance of minimal body fat.
The authors of the study note that the on-season phase is characterized by high-protein, calorie-restricted diets combined with cardio exercise and resistance training. Bodybuilders cut calories and increase their physical activity during this period in order to help them eliminate body fat without losing any muscle mass, so that they can present chiseled physiques.
The number of calories you require per day depends on whether you're in the bulking phase or the cutting phase. While both phases require high-protein diets, the bulking phase requires a significantly higher total calorie intake than the cutting phase.
Estimating Your Calorie Requirements
In order to build a meal plan, the starting point is to determine how many calories you require per day. You can then adjust this amount depending on whether you're in the bulking phase or the cutting phase.
So, how do you estimate the number of calories you need? Your dietitian or nutritionist will be able to help you with this, or you can use a calorie calculator to estimate your needs. If you want to take a shot at calculating it yourself, the ACE explains how to go about it.
The first step is to calculate your resting metabolic rate (RMR). This is the number of calories your body requires per day just to perform its basic metabolic processes. While there are various formulae that can help you determine your RMR, the ACE recommends using the Cunningham equation for athletes and people with more muscle mass than the average person.
This is the Cunningham equation:
500 + (22 x Lean Body Mass)
You can calculate your lean body mass using this formula:
Total Body Weight (kilograms) – [Total Body Weight (kilograms) x Body Fat Percentage]
So, if for example you weigh 80 kilograms and have 10 percent body fat, your lean body mass is 72 kilograms and your RMR is 2,084 calories per day.
The second step is to multiply your RMR with a certain number, instructs the ACE. This number varies depending on how physically active you are, because your body needs additional calories (energy) to fuel your activity.
Given that the bodybuilding lifestyle is more active than most, you would need to multiply your RMR with 1.725 if you exercise hard six or seven times a week, and by 1.9 if you get hard exercise every day, more than once a day. So, if you weigh 80 kilograms, have 10 percent body fat and exercise vigorously more than once a day, you would need around 3,960 calories per day.
Once you have your daily calorie requirement, you need to adjust it for whether you're bulking or cutting. If you're in a cutting phase and you need to lose fat, you need to cut out 500 to 1,000 calories per day to lose 1 to 2 pounds of body fat per week, says the Mayo Clinic.
If you're in the bulking phase on the other hand, try increasing your calorie intake slowly, by 250 or 500 calories per day for a week at a time and monitor how it affects your body composition. You want to make sure that the extra calories you're eating are going toward increasing your lean body mass and not getting stored as body fat because you are unable to burn them.
Bodybuilding Diet for Women
Once you have determined your calorie requirements, you also need to make sure that you're getting all your macronutrients, or macros, like carbs, protein and fat.
A May 2014 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends the following proportion of macronutrients for bodybuilders: anywhere between 2.3 to 3.1 grams of protein per day per kilogram of lean body mass, 15 to 30 percent of your total daily calories from fat and the rest of your calories from carbs.
According to the USDA, healthy sources of protein include poultry, eggs, seafood, lean meats, beans, peas, nuts, seeds and soy products. Whole grains, dairy products, fruits and vegetables provide healthy carbs; nuts, seeds, avocados, meat and oils like olive oil and canola oil are sources of healthy fats.
Based on these recommendations, here are some suggestions for your meals. You can pick the ones that work for you and adjust the quantities to suit your calorie requirements. For breakfast, you can do a veggie omelette with whole-grain toast and nuts, or boiled eggs with oatmeal and avocado. Your mid-morning snack can be fruit or yogurt with nuts or peanut butter.
Lunch can be skinless chicken breasts with veggies and brown rice or turkey sandwiches and a salad. You can do sweet potatoes, bananas, or a smoothie for your evening snack, along with some dates and dried fruit. For dinner, try some fish with baked potatoes and a salad or a lean steak with rice and grilled vegetables.
Read more: Why Are Potatoes Good for Bodybuilding?
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes that while some bodybuilders turn to multivitamin and mineral supplements to meet their nutritional needs, they are not actually necessary. A healthy, balanced diet should give you all the vitamins and minerals you require.
The NIH also notes that there is no evidence that chromium, choline, zinc, magnesium aspartate, methoxyisoflavone and nitric oxide supplements are effective. Bodybuilding supplements have also been found to contain other ingredients that are harmful to your health, so exercise caution and discuss them with your health care provider before you take any.
According to the NIH, creatine is the only supplement that has been shown to improve muscle mass, strength and endurance; however, it can also cause side effects like nausea, cramping, diarrhea and fluid weight gain.
Read more: Bodybuilding Without Supplements
- University of Delaware: “Research Says: CrossFit Versus Bodybuilding, Apples to Oranges or Two Sides to the Same Coin?”
- American Council on Exercise: “Building Muscle for Women”
- Harvard Review of Psychiatry: “Competitive Bodybuilding: Fitness, Pathology or Both?”
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: “Nutritional Strategies of British Professional and Amateur Natural Bodybuilders During Competition Preparation”
- American Council of Exercise: “Resting Metabolic Rate: Best Ways to Measure It — And Raise It, Too”
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: “Evidence-Based Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Nutrition and Supplementation”
- USDA: “2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans”
- National Institutes of Health: “Bodybuilding”
- Mayo Clinic: “Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics”