Back in the summer of 2013, Animal sent me on a special mission. They challenged me to put together a bodybuilding diet using only $50 for an entire week's worth of food. The goal, they told me, was to use my experience to help educate lifters, young and old, on how to shop for food when money is tight. In the end, I did a lot with that $50, and in subsequent versions of "Big on a Budget," so did my Animal brethren Frank McGrath, Vincenzo Masone, and Roman Fritz.
So, it wasn't a surprise when Animal approached me with a new concept; this time, there was no budget. I could go shopping and buy all the foods I typically use to make up my diet. But there was another change, too: I wasn't limited to buying food for an entire week. After all, I normally only buy for four days' worth of food at a time.
If you're curious how an experienced pro really eats, check out the video. You'll also see how I prep my eggs, which is a trick I only recently discovered that you'll definitely want to steal.
My Nutritional Philosophy
Currently, I'm in the offseason and sitting at around 276 pounds. To maintain my current size and support my training, I eat five meals per day, each with an average of 50 grams of protein, 60 grams of carbs, and 20 grams of fat. By the time I add intra-workout carbohydrates and the occasional snack, my total caloric intake per day is in the neighborhood of 3,500 calories.
You might think that 3,500 is not nearly enough to sustain a 276-pound pro bodybuilder. I assure you that in my case, it absolutely is, for a couple of reasons. First, my definition of a balanced diet is one that not only reflects an appropriate macronutrient profile, but is also rich in important micronutrients. I strongly believe that the body's ability to maintain itself and support muscle growth extends beyond the simplistic "calories in versus calories out" formula.
Also, my meal prep is all about digestibility. From the way I choose my fish to the way I cook my vegetables, I'm incorporating everything I've learned through years of experimentation to make the most efficient meals possible. The way you prep and cook your food plays a part in how much of it you can manage to eat each day.
So don't expect my diet to be a cookie-cutter bodybuilder diet. Sure, you'll see the chicken, fish, eggs, and rice, but you will also see vegetables, fruit, and more variety than you might expect. Here's why I selected the foods that ended up in my cart, as well as my tips on preparation.
How Much Protein, and How to Shop for It
I always shop for protein first, but not just because it's the foundation of a bodybuilding diet. I feel protein at the bottom of the cart is also more sanitary, in case the packaging leaks. You probably have a solid understanding of the importance of protein intake as it relates to muscle growth and repair, so I won't hit you with it here. Let's talk numbers instead.
Most of the daily protein intake recommendations I see range from 1 gram per pound of body weight to 1.5 grams per pound. Based on my own personal experience, 1.5 grams per pound is a lot of protein. Truth is, unless you're following a strict contest-prep diet, it's pretty unnecessary. Personally, I believe that 1 gram per pound is fine, and that's roughly what I take in.
My protein choices are pretty simple: chicken, fish, and eggs. I typically buy 5.5-6 pounds of chicken breasts for four days. Subtracting the water lost during cooking will give me a total of 4 cooked pounds, which works out to a pound of chicken per day, or 8 ounces of chicken for two meals. I also picked up 4 pounds of cod and 2.5 pounds of salmon. I bought more cod than salmon, because during the cooking process, cod loses a lot more water than salmon. So, 2.5 pounds of salmon yields four 8-ounce servings, whereas you need 4 pounds of cod to yield four 10-ounce servings.
I chose cod and salmon simply because they're what I like, and because cod is on the lower end of the price scale. The only cheaper fish you're going to find is the farm-raised stuff from Asia like tilapia, basa, and catfish. I wouldn't personally touch that stuff. No, you don't need to add fish to your diet, but if you do, aim for the highest-quality fish you can afford. This is one case where you usually get what you pay for.
I also add two dozen jumbo eggs, enough to last four days at six eggs per day. I eat the eggs for breakfast and rely on a great, convenient recipe that I've been using for a while—and one that was born out of necessity.
Here's how it works.
Evan Centopani's Protein Pancakes
- 24 whole eggs, jumbo
- Pancake mix 2 cups
- Milk 1/2 cup or as necessary
- Strawberries or other berries to taste
- Pumpkin pie spice and cinnamon to taste
- Crack all 24 eggs into the bowl of a mixer, then add the pancake mix and spices. Blend until smooth.
- Pour half the batter into a heated, greased nonstick pan. Cook until the bottom is firm, then flip. Cook until firm.
- Cut the pancakes into four portions, and store in separate containers. Top with berries before serving.
- Serving size: 1/2 pancake (without berries)
- Recipe yields: 4 servings
- Calories: 810
- Fat: 38 g
- Carbs: 62 g
- Protein: 55 g
Carbs and Starches for Calories and Glucose
In my current diet, carbohydrate calories come from rice, brown rice syrup, and oat or wheat flour. With the exception of wheat flour, my carbohydrates are gluten-free. I don't avoid gluten because of an allergy or intolerance, but simply because it's easier on my digestive system, and I believe I digest it more efficiently.
Starches and sugars, first and foremost, are a calorie source. To that end, any carbohydrate would do. However, they also serve to replenish and load glycogen. For this reason, I avoid fructose and look to more easily digested starches like white rice, oats/oat flour, and even a small amount of glucose from brown rice syrup. Brown rice syrup, although primarily a sugar, is preferable to maple syrup or honey because it is entirely glucose. This makes for efficient glycogen loading.
Think all carbs are created equal? Drink 100 grams of fructose, and let me know how your stomach feels once you get off the toilet. Starches and glucose are what I'm after. And while I don't mind some bread or pasta here and there, if I use these as my main carb sources, I end up feeling bloated and unable to consume the necessary food volume.
In short, when it comes to carbs, efficient digestion and potential for glycogen loading are my main concerns, and I would argue they should be yours.
Fruits and Veggies: You Need Them!
I prefer to keep the vegetable conversation separate from the general carbohydrate conversation. Why? I look at the two differently. I see vegetables like kale and broccoli as a valuable micronutrient source, and as a way to balance all the proteins and fats in my diet. I feel these vegetables have a positive effect on the gallbladder and on the digestive system as a whole. I know some bodybuilders don't eat a lot of veggies, but I try to make sure I get veggies with every meal that contains animal protein.
Many people ask me if I eat my veggies raw. No thanks! For the bodybuilder, it's all about efficient digestion and being able to eat a certain volume. Raw veggies are much more difficult to digest. Try eating a couple crowns of raw broccoli and a few handfuls of raw kale, and then see how much room you have left for the rest of your food.
So yes, cook your veggies. It doesn't have to be complicated. I just throw the kale in a large pot with about 2 cups of water and steam it. With the broccoli, steam it just until it's fork tender. Don't be afraid to take a bite; if you can chew it, it's done.
I eat strawberries because they're low in fructose. Other low-fructose fruits you could choose include peaches, plums, and nectarines, but those wouldn't work as well with my pancakes, so I stick with strawberries.
Fat Is Muscle, Too
Fat is probably the most underconsumed macronutrient among the bodybuilding population. Why? First, there's the residual anxiety from the 1980s and the food pyramid that we all had drilled into our skulls. Remember that? It told us that eating fat makes you fat, and that we should instead focus on bread, grains, and carbohydrates in general. With diabetes and obesity skyrocketing today, I'd say that those recommendations were pretty shitty.
But I can also tell you from firsthand experience that whether you're trying to gain muscle or lose body fat, dietary fat intake is vital. If you were to look at my macronutrient intake, you would notice that I get roughly the same number of calories from each macronutrient (taking into account that fat has more than double the calories per gram than carbs and proteins). I've done low-fat diets before. The only thing I experienced was a loss in size and density. I didn't get leaner. So try to balance your macros. Don't go extreme toward any one in particular.
As for fat sources, egg yolks are great, as they contain ample amounts of cholesterol (another thing you shouldn't be afraid of) and are high in lecithin and choline, which are important for your liver and nervous system, respectively.
My favorite fat source, though, is olive oil. Olive oil is economical, easy to add in exact quantities, good for your liver, doesn't take up a ton of room in your stomach, is easily digested, and supplies the body with a healthy source of fat that it can use for energy. It can also help keep your muscles "full."
People tend to associate muscle fullness exclusively with carbohydrates, but many fail to realize that fats are also stored within the muscle as intramuscular triglycerides. Seriously: get enough fats.
A Quick Word on Grilling
So, the food shopping was a success. Now it's time to prep. In my view, grilling has been the best way to prep chicken since bodybuilders first discovered fire. Just get it hot, slap on as much chicken as you can fit, and don't touch it until the uncooked side starts to turn white. Once it does, flip it over, shut the lid for another couple minutes, and it should be done.
But how do you know it's done? Whether it's chicken, fish, steak, or anything else, you'll know just by poking it with your finger. The USDA recommends cooking until the thickest part reaches 165 degrees F. But with chicken in particular, the secret is to cook it just enough to be "done," then immediately cover it loosely with foil. Doing this will keep the chicken tender rather than allowing it to turn to shoe leather.
On the topic of shoe leather, one of the main reasons I like fish so much is because of its texture. Keep in mind that texture is related to digestibility. In other words, if you can barely chew through a piece of meat without getting a jaw pump, then it's unlikely that your stomach is going to have an easy go with it, even with all its acids and enzymes.
Just think about it: Protein shakes like Animal Whey have long been touted for their easy digestion. Why wouldn't they be easily digested? They're liquid. Bodybuilding nutrition is a game that's all about consistency and volume.
At some point, progress comes down to how much food your body can quickly process and utilize. Take that into consideration with all your food sources, and you'll put yourself way ahead of the curve.
The Hard Numbers
I spent about $115 on four days' worth of groceries. This translates to about $200 for a full week, or a little under $29 a day. I realize that may be a lot for some of you. Quality food certainly doesn't come cheap—and I eat a lot of it. As a pro bodybuilder, I have to take my food seriously. But I hope you take away a few lessons, even if your budget isn't the same as mine. And with some smart substitutions—some turkey here, take out the salmon there—you could easily adapt the same structure to a different price point.
Here are a few techniques I hope you'll remember:
- Prep veggies before meat, so that you don't have to clean the cutting board twice.
- Score the fish to help cook it faster, and to help segment portions in separate meal containers.
- Loosely cover chicken with foil to help keep it from drying out.
- Rinse rice before cooking to get rid of starches that make it clump.
- Eat healthy, cruciferous vegetables with every meal containing an animal protein.
- Shop for food with a strategy in mind.
- Find ways to make your food appealing. Adding spices to rice makes a world of difference in flavor and can also aid digestion.
- Cod loses a lot more water than salmon during cooking, so you need to buy more at the supermarket.
- Cook cod and salmon together. Set the oven to broil, and put the cod on the upper tray, with the salmon on the bottom tray. Finish the salmon by switching from broil to bake.
- Find what works for you! That protein-pancake recipe was a huge revelation that allowed me to eat more easily on the road, for instance.
Looking at this, keep in mind two important facts. First, this is what works for me. It's based on many years of trial and error, and I never claim to know the only way to do something.
Second, bodybuilding nutrition is a game of volume, frequency, and consistency. How much can you eat, and how often can you repeat it? When you understand this, you begin to recognize the importance of your digestive health.
This, in turn, will help you select foods that not only fit your macros, but that your body can put to good use. If you're not digesting what you eat, your precious macros are just numbers.