From Dukan to detoxes, the infinite choice of diet plans can make it hard to differentiate what’s beneficial and what’s bodybuilding forum BS.
While the food you eat should always come down to your unique body type, genetics and preferences, plenty of lifters and athletes have benefitted from the focus a good diet plan offers, especially when it comes to optimising their physique.
Whether it’s a five plate squat or a new 5K record, some diet plans are better aligned with some fitness goals than others, which is why we’ve broken down the seven most popular diets, and which is best for your fitness aims!
IIFYM or If It Fits Your Macros is a diet plan based on eating a certain amount of protein, fats and carbs everyday. There are no restrictions on what foods can be eaten, and macronutrient targets are defined by things like your weight, height, gender and fitness goals. IIFYM can be beneficial in empowering lifters to think outside the Tupperware box when it comes to their eating habits, keeping them from demonising certain foods while providing a flexible diet plan that can still offer good results. For this reason, IIFYM is a good maintenance diet for lifters in an off-season or maintenance phase. However IIFYM can lack the structure to truly optimise muscle growth and recovery, and not all macronutrients are created equal. Nutritionally, carbs from glazed donuts aren’t the same as a sweet potato, meaning many IIFYM disciples often neglect more nutrient-dense foods from their diet, gaining more visceral fat than usual during a bulking phase. If you’re the type of lifter who has trouble backing away from the double-chocolate thickshakes, then a more rigid diet plan might be better for you.
Best For: Maintenance, athletic performance and bodybuilders in their off season.
Intuitive Eating is an approach to eating that advocates a greater understanding of your body and hunger signaling, to create a more balanced, healthier relationship with food. It’s about rejecting the diet mentality, honoring your hunger and making peace with food. This doesn’t mean infinite burger binges and sugar sprees, but rather trusting your inner body wisdom to make food choices that feel food, without judgement and influence from diet culture. This reduction in monitoring and easing of that psychological burden of obsessively tracking every micronutrient can be welcome reprieve for athletes wanting to distance themselves from the meticulous, grueling nature of comp preps or summer shred diets. This means a bodybuilder in the off season would be a good candidate for intuitive eating. However, no restrictions on food intake leave lifters with little direction, meaning muscle growth and recovery will never really be optimised. It’s also worth remembering hunger signaling is connected to more than just daily energy requirements, and can be defined by other variables like stress, hydration, peer-pressure and convenience.
Best For: Lifters in their off season, strength training and those wanting to create a healthier relationship with food.
Intermittent Fasting is one of the biggest locker room debates (we even wrote a whole blog about it), involving alternating between periods of feast and famine, most commonly 16 hours of fasting followed by an 8 hour eating window. The rationale behind Intermittent Fasting is that it’s optimal for increasing your insulin sensitivity, meaning your cells will more efficiently remove glucose from your bloodstream, which is often stored as fat when unused. If your fitness goals revolve around fat loss, then Intermittent Fasting can be an effective diet plan, as long as you’re still eating nutrient dense foods and not using IF as a pathway to severe calorie restriction. However if your fitness goals revolve around gaining muscle, pushing past plateaus or breaking PBs, Intermittent Fasting might not be the best option for you. As the golden unwritten rule of bodybuilding states, if you want to get big, you have to eat big, and fasting can leave you in a caloric deficit too easily, leading to a decrease in protein synthesis and muscle repair.
Best For: Fat loss.
Low carb diets advise lowering your carbohydrate intake to 10% of your total macronutrient intake, under the rationale that your body burns fat for energy instead of glucose. A low carb diet can be momentarily beneficial for lifters wanting to burn fat or get ready for the stage, however if your fitness goals revolve around athletic performance like improving 1RM’s or sprint times this diet is not for you. During moderate to high-intensity exercise, the body is unable to use fat as fuel quickly enough, and depleted muscle glycogen levels will leave you increasingly lethargic and lower your performance.
Best For: Short term fat loss: Cutting for the stage or getting shredded for summer.
The Paleo diet advocates eating like our ancestors, following the idea that our bodies are genetically adapted to the foods we’ve been eating for centuries. This means focusing on unrefined, whole foods like meat, vegetables and seeds, and avoiding grains, dairy, vegetable oils and anything artificial. The paleolithic lifestyle can be beneficial for more recreational lifters or anyone wanting to lose weight and focus on eating nutrient-dense foods. However for Paleo purists, bodybuilding classics like rice and pasta are off the menu (as well as supplements), meaning that if your fitness goal is bulking or gaining off-season muscle, a strict Paleo diet isn’t the best for you. Because Paleo cuts out so many forms of carbohydrates, it’s also not ideal for athletes who often need a more diverse and convenient array of carb sources for high-intensity training.
Best For: Fat loss, or anyone who wants to improve their health through more nutrient-dense foods.
Clean eating focuses on consuming minimally processed, whole foods that are as close to their natural form as possible. Clean bulking has been in vogue in fitness circles for decades, with most lifters obsessively meal prepping and avoiding empty calories at all costs. Eating clean can be adapted to most fitness goals, whether it’s athletic performance or weight loss, and is beneficial for bulking with minimal fat gains. However for ectomorphs who have a hard time gaining weight and muscle mass, a strict clean eating diet can make it difficult to consume enough calories while experiencing the increased satiety and fullness that nutrient-dense tend to offer. Clean eating crusaders also risk falling back into a harmful good food versus bad food mentality, which can lead to disordered eating and an unhealthy relationship with food.
Best For: Clean eating can be adapted to most fitness goals, and can be highly beneficial for overall health and wellness.
Dirty bulking is the sworn nemesis of clean eating, with lifters going into caloric surplus by eating whatever high-calorie junk food their heart desires to promote quick weight gain. While dirty bulking may be more bro-science than bona fide science, it can have it’s advantages for lifters who traditionally have trouble gaining weight. If your fitness goal is to gain weight and muscle, dirty bulking can make it easier to eat the necessary calories to gain mass short-term, with foods typically seen as dirty tending to be less filling. However dirty bulking has clear downsides, leaving lifters with higher visceral fat levels following a bulk, meaning an even longer cut. There are also the inevitable negative health effects that come with an increased intake of saturated fats and processed carbs, including elevated cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Best For: Hardgainers or lifters with high metabolisms who want to bulk up and gain mass quickly