Vegetables are typically associated with people who want to lose weight rather than people striving to gain weight, especially bodybuilders. Veggies that are higher in calories and carbohydrates tend to be the best vegetables for bodybuilding because they provide energy and nutrients.
Many people know that bodybuilders tend to consume a lot of protein. From animal and plant sources to protein powders and bars, people assume that bodybuilders' favorite macronutrient is protein. However, carbohydrates play a vital role in fitness and muscle building, so bodybuilders do not skip out on the carbs.
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Veggies High in Complex Carbs
It seems like common knowledge that potatoes, especially sweet potatoes and yams, are among the best vegetables for athletes and bodybuilders. Potatoes make for an especially great pre-workout food because they boost energy levels.
Increasing your carb intake to gain muscle may seem daunting if you are coming from a carb-restricted diet. However, not all carbs are metabolized equally. Among the different types of carbs are simple and complex. In muscle building, vegetables rich in complex carbohydrates offer dense nutrition and benefits related to health and athletic performance.
Many professional athletes consume complex carbohydrates to maximize glycogen stores and avoid "hitting the wall." To put it simply, complex carbs help fill your glycogen stores, which allow you to exercise for longer periods of time without depleting your energy levels.
In an April 2018 study published in Nutrition Reviews, researchers recommend that athletes consume a high-carbohydrate diet to maintain muscle glycogen. They recommend complex carbohydrates such as starches and high-fiber vegetables.
Some veggies rich in complex carbs include:
Read more: 3 Essentials for Becoming a Bodybuilder
Nutrient-Dense Dark Leafy Greens
While bodybuilders place an emphasis on their macronutrients, they do not forget about getting in their micronutrients. Dark leafy greens are some of the best vegetables for bodybuilding because they are full of fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Athletes should pay special attention to iron, magnesium and calcium — all of which can be found in leafy green vegetables.
According to an October 2015 study published in Swiss Medical Weekly, increased exercise puts athletes at a higher risk of iron deficiency. Since iron has more than 180 functions in the body, a deficiency of this mineral can lead to serious health consequences. Researchers conclude that low iron levels can affect athletic performance. They recommend consuming green vegetables for workout performance, including spinach and fennel.
Calcium and magnesium also work together to enhance exercise performance in athletes and bodybuilders. A July 2015 study published in Current Sports Medicine Reports found a positive correlation between magnesium consumption and athletic performance. According to MedlinePlus, calcium encourages proper muscle functioning. Dietary sources of calcium include leafy green vegetables like collard greens.
Dark leafy green vegetables for bodybuilding include:
- Beet greens
- Collard greens
Read more: Getting Cut vs. Bulking Up
Nitrate-Rich Veggies Like Beets
There has long been a rumor that athletes and bodybuilders consume nitrate-rich vegetables for workout performance benefits. The evidence is mixed on the effectiveness of nitrates to boost athletic capabilities, though athletes continue to consume nitrates, typically in the form of beet juice.
A November 2017 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that athletes consume more nitrates than non-athletes. Researchers also found that nitrate-rich vegetables induce ergogenic benefits, including increased exercise performance capacity. Nitrates are also linked to cardiovascular health benefits.
Nitrate supplementation has become increasingly popular among athletes and bodybuilders partly due to its effect on oxygen during exercise. Muscles work harder during exercise, so they require more oxygen. A May 2014 study published in Sports Medicine found that nitrates reduce the oxygen cost of certain exercises, so athletes can train muscles for longer periods of time.
Nitrate-rich vegetables include:
- Bok choy
Vegetables for Workout Recovery
Many experts support the theory of nutrient timing for athletes. It is believed that certain foods consumed after a workout can speed the recovery of muscles. These foods are largely dependent on their macronutrient content.
The current position of the International Society of Sports Nutrition is that post-exercise consumption of carbohydrates encourages muscle recovery. The combination of protein and carbohydrates post-workout may be even more effective. It is recommended that a post-workout meal consisting of carbohydrates and protein should be consumed immediately or up to two hours after exercise for optimal recovery.
Plant-based protein sources contain both carbohydrates and protein. These sources include beans, lentils and oats. Combine these with vegetables for workout recovery.
Best post-workout vegetables for bodybuilding include:
- Brussels sprouts
- Bell pepper
- Green beans
- Sweet potatoes
- Green peas
Read more: Your Ultimate Guide to Gaining Lean Muscle
Low-Calorie vs. High-Calorie Veggies
Bodybuilders commonly alternate between phases of cutting and bulking. Each of these phases constitutes different goals, workouts and diet guidelines. During a bulk, bodybuilders aim to increase their body weight through building muscle mass. To do this, they create a calorie surplus. During a cut, the goal is the opposite — lose body fat, and therefore decrease calories consumed.
Depending on which phase you are in, you may want to opt for certain veggies depending on their caloric density. Raw vegetables tend to be lower in calories per volume, while cooked vegetables are usually higher in calories for the same volume. For example, 1 cup of raw spinach has just under 7 calories whereas 1 cup cooked spinach has 41.7 calories.
The best vegetables for athletes who want to lose body fat include low-calorie veggies like leafy greens and other green veggies, such as Brussels sprouts and cucumber. The best vegetables for athletes who want to increase body weight include starchy vegetables and root veggies, such as taro and corn.
The serving size of vegetables is also important for either muscle gain or fat loss. For example, bodybuilders on a cut or bulk may consume sweet potatoes to encourage quicker recovery. According to the USDA, one cup of cooked sweet potato contains 180 calories. Bodybuilders on a bulk may consume multiple servings to increase their calorie consumption, while athletes on a cut may consume fewer servings.
Read more: How to Shed Body Fat After Bulking Up
Eat Like a Bodybuilder
You don't have to be a bodybuilder to want to gain muscle mass. To eat like a bodybuilder, calculate your macronutrients. Bodybuilder macros are usually highest in carbohydrates and lowest in fat.
According to a May 2014 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, a diet that is higher in carbohydrates is the standard for professional athletes and bodybuilders. Though the exact carbohydrate intake varies per individual, researchers recommend that bodybuilders consume approximately 4 to 7 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight.
To power through training sessions, consume plenty of complex carbs for boosted energy and vegetables for workout recovery. Consuming a variety of vegetables, especially leafy greens, also helps bodybuilders meet their nutritional goals and promote overall health.
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: “Evidence-based Recommendations For Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Nutrition And Supplementation.”
- Nutrition Reviews: “Fundamentals of Glycogen Metabolism for Coaches and Athletes.”
- Swiss Medical Weekly: “Iron Deficiency in Sports — Definition, Influence on Performance and Therapy.”
- Current Sports Medicine Reports: “Magnesium and the Athlete.”
- MedlinePlus: “Calcium and Bones”
- European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Increasing Vegetable Intake to Obtain the Health Promoting and Ergogenic Effects of Dietary Nitrate.”
- Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition: “International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Nutrient Timing”
- MyFoodData: Nutrition Facts for Cooked Sweet Potatoes”
- Sports Medicine: “Dietary nitrate supplementation and exercise performance.”