Whether you want to build mass and strength or gain a few pounds, consider switching to a bulking diet. Beware, though — this isn't a free pass to load up on high-calorie, low-nutrient foods. A female bulking meal plan should be largely based on nutrient-dense whole foods that work with your body, not against it.
The Science of Bulking
Fitness models and bodybuilders often go through cutting and bulking phases to achieve the desired shape and muscularity. First, they bulk up for a few months (typically in the off-season) to gain mass and strength. Once this period is over, they switch to a calorie-restricted diet to lose fat and increase muscle definition. This strategy is known as "cutting."
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Read more: How to Shed Body Fat After Bulking Up
For example, a recent review published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in April 2019 assessed the dietary strategies of bodybuilding competitors from the Men's Physique category. Athletes were bulking for 10 to 12 weeks before competitions and cutting for one week prior to these events. They maintained high protein intakes during both phases. Their carbohydrate intake decreased gradually.
However, there are no set rules when it comes to bulking and cutting. It all comes to how your body responds, as well as the category you compete in. Another review, which was featured in the European Journal of Translational Myology in February 2017, analyzed the eating habits of six bodybuilders. Their bulking diet included 2.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily and 15 percent fat. The remaining calories came from carbs.
Note, though, that all participants used supplements and anabolic steroids. These compounds increase protein synthesis and lead to faster gains.
As the researchers note, current literature recommends no more than 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily for strength athletes. Higher intakes don't yield better results. The consumption of 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight appears to work best for preserving lean mass as well as for weight maintenance, according to the European Journal of Translational Myology review.
These findings indicate that a bulking diet should be relatively high in protein, carbs and fats. Also, it's important to create a caloric surplus. Each pound of fat equals about 3,500 calories. Therefore, it's necessary to take in an extra 3,500 calories to gain one pound.
Create a Healthy Bulking Diet
Athletes are not the only ones who can benefit from bulking and cutting. Anyone can use this approach to lose or gain weight. Bulking, however, isn't all about loading up on calories. What matters most is where those calories come from.
A meal consisting of roasted turkey breast and sweet potatoes, for instance, isn't the same as one consisting of chicken nuggets and fries. If your diet is based largely on highly processed foods, you'll end up gaining fat, not lean mass.
Read more: Bodybuilding and Stomach Fat While Bulking
Protein, fats and carbs — the three macronutrients — are required in large amounts to keep your body functioning optimally. Each gram of protein or carbs provides 4 calories. Dietary fat, by contrast, supplies 9 calories. Athletes manipulate their macros to lose fat, build mass or maintain their weight. To put it simply, they plan their meals and snacks around their ideal macronutrient ratios — and you can do the same.
A bulking diet for women should provide just the right amounts of protein, carbs and fats to build lean mass while minimizing fat gain. By increasing your calorie intake, you'll gain both muscle and fat. However, if your calories come from quality protein, healthy fats and complex carbs, you'll find it easier to keep fat gains to a minimum.
Furthermore, whole foods are also a good source of micronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and support overall health. Highly processed foods, by contrast, have little or no nutritional value.
Returning to the previous example, roasted turkey breast provides the following nutrients per serving (3 ounces):
- 125 calories
- 25.6 grams of protein
- 1.8 grams of fat
- 13 percent of the DV (daily value) of zinc
- 6 percent of the DV of magnesium
- 14 percent of the DV of vitamin B12
- 47 percent of the DV of selenium
Serve it with one serving of sweet potatoes for an extra:
- 103 calories
- 2.3 grams of protein
- 23.6 grams of carbs
- 3.8 grams of fiber
- 0.2 grams of fat
- 12 percent of the DV of potassium
- 7 percent of the DV of magnesium
- 4 percent of the DV of iron
- 122 percent of the DV of vitamin A
- 25 percent of the DV of vitamin C
Add one or two tablespoons of olive oil to your meal to get more calories. Almonds, peanuts, pistachios and other nuts are nutrient-dense too, making it easier to increase your energy intake and gain weight.
Fill Up on Whole Foods
Highly processed foods and sugary snacks are high in calories and should help you pack on pounds, right? That's true, but you'll gain fat, not muscle. On top of that, processed foods supply empty calories, which may lead to nutrient deficiencies.
French fries, for example, provide the following nutrients per serving (10 fries or 69 grams):
- 115 calories
- 1.7 grams of protein
- 19 grams of carbs
- 1.6 grams of fiber
- 3.5 grams of fat
- 7 percent of the DV of potassium
- 5 percent of the DV of magnesium
- 3 percent of the DV of iron
- 9 percent of the DV of vitamin C
Sweet potatoes, by comparison, are lower in calories and higher in fiber and other micronutrients. Plus, the serving size (one medium potato or 114 grams) is almost double compared to French fries.
So, what's wrong with French fries? After all, they do provide some vitamins and minerals. As the American Cancer Society points out, fried foods contain acrylamide, a compound that forms when cooking starchy foods at high temperatures. Acrylamide is considered a potential human carcinogen. Foods that are boiled or steamed don't contain this chemical.
According to a June 2017 cohort study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, fried potato consumption may lead to premature death. Subjects who ate three or more servings of fries per week had a 19 percent higher risk of diabetes. The risk of developing this condition was only 4 percent higher in those who consumed boiled, mashed or baked potatoes. Furthermore, eating fries two or more times per week has been found to double the risk of death.
As the researchers state, fried potatoes are high in trans fats, acrylamide, glycidamide and other compounds that may contribute to heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other chronic disorders. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and several private organizations, but they didn't play any role in its design and interpretation.
This is just one example of how processed foods can affect your health. Create a bulking diet plan that not only meets your calorie needs but also provides essential vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that keep your body functioning properly.
Reach for Nutrient-Dense Foods
As mentioned earlier, it's necessary to create a caloric surplus when bulking up. Therefore, you should fill up on high-calorie whole foods to increase your energy intake. Fresh and dried fruits, starchy vegetables, nuts, seeds and unrefined oils are all a healthy choice.
Beware, though, that some of these foods — especially fruits and honey — are high in fructose, a natural sugar. When consumed in excess, fructose may lead to obesity, insulin resistance, impaired glucose metabolism, elevated blood lipids and liver problems, as reported in an April 2017 review featured in Nutrients. Stay on the safe side and consume fruits, especially dried varieties, in moderation.
Whole grains, legumes, nuts and nut butter, seeds, fatty fish and healthy oils should come first on your list. Here are a few examples:
- Raw almonds — 164 calories, 6 grams of protein, 6.1 grams of carbs, 3.5 grams of fiber and
14.6 grams of fat per serving (1 oz)
- Raw walnuts — 186 calories, 4.3 grams of protein, 3.9 grams of carbs, 1.9 grams of fiber and
18.5 grams of fat per serving (1 oz)
- Roasted pumpkin seeds — 127 calories, 5.3 grams of protein, 15.3 grams of carbs, 5.2 grams of fiber and 5.5 grams of fat per serving (1 oz)
- Cooked brown rice — 109 calories, 2.3 grams of protein, 22.9 grams of carbs, 1.8 grams of fiber and 0.8 grams of fat per serving (1/2 cup)
- Oatmeal — 83 calories, 3 grams of protein, 14 grams of carbs, 2 grams of fiber and
1.8 grams of fat per serving (1/2 cup)
- Cooked black beans — 114 calories, 7.6 grams of protein, 20.4 grams of carbs, 7.5 grams of fiber and 0.5 grams of fat per serving (1/2 cup)
- Cooked lentils — 115 calories, 8.9 grams of protein, 19.9 grams of carbs, 7.8 grams of fiber and 0.4 grams of fat per serving (1/2 cup)
- Olive oil — 119 calories and 13.5 grams of fat per tablespoon
- Coconut oil — 121 calories and 13.5 grams of fat per tablespoon
- Cooked salmon — 155 calories, 21.6 grams of protein and 6.9 grams of fat per serving (3 oz)
- Cooked mackerel — 231 calories, 21 grams of protein and 15.7 grams of fat per serving (3 oz)
Whole milk, full-fat dairy foods and fatty cuts of beef, pork and other meats are high in calories, too. The downside is that they also contain large amounts of saturated fat, which may raise your cholesterol levels and contribute to cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association states that saturated fats should account for no more than 5 to 6 percent of total calorie intake.
For example, you can snack on almonds and other nuts to boost your calorie intake. Or add tiny amounts of heavy cream, olive oil or butter to your meals. Just make sure you keep an eye on portion sizes. Increase your calorie gradually and adjust your bulking diet along the way. Start with an extra 300 to 500 calories per day, monitor your progress and make small changes accordingly.
Stay active and engage in regular exercise, especially strength training. Weight lifting builds lean mass and keeps your bones strong, making it easier to pack on pounds. At the same time, it burns fat, improving body composition. Combine strength training with a high-protein bulking diet to enhance your curves.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Dietary Strategies of Modern Bodybuilders During Different Phases of the Competitive Cycle"
- European Journal of Translational Miology: "Nutrition, Pharmacological and Training Strategies Adopted by Six Bodybuilders: Case Report and Critical Review"
- Duke University: "Content Background: How Does the Alteration of Genetic Function by Anabolic Steroids Increase Muscle Mass?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics"
- World Health Organizaton: "Macronutrients"
- USDA: "How Many Calories Are in One Gram of Fat, Carbohydrate, or Protein?"
- USDA: "Roasted Turkey Breast"
- USDA: "Sweet Potatoes"
- USDA: "Nutrition Facts for French Fries"
- American Cancer Society: "Acrylamide and Cancer Risk"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Fried Potato Consumption Is Associated With Elevated Mortality: An 8-Y Longitudinal Cohort Study"
- Nutrients: "Fructose Consumption in the Development of Obesity and the Effects of Different Protocols of Physical Exercise on the Hepatic Metabolism"
- American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat"
- Harvard Health: "Strength Training Builds More Than Muscles"
- USDA: "Almonds"
- USDA: "Walnuts"
- USDA: "Roasted Pumpkin Seeds with Shells"
- USDA: "Cooked Brown Rice"
- USDA: "Oatmeal"
- USDA: "Cooked Black Beans"
- USDA: "Cooked Lentils"
- USDA: "Olive Oil"
- USDA: "Coconut Oil"
- USDA: "Cooked Salmon"
- USDA: "Cooked Mackerel"