Natural Bodybuilding: Macros Vs. Meal Plans – Which Is Best?
For those looking to compete in bodybuilding and particularly for those who are free of steroids, you need to cut down and start looking lean.
There’s two ways that you can approach this, either counting every calorie and nutritional intake, also known as macros.
Or, is it better just to plan your meals and control calorie intake? Nicola Joyce who has competed internationally guides us through it.
LAST UPDATED: February 2019 by Ben.
Macros Vs. Meal Plans for Contest Prep
What’s the best way to diet down to stage condition as a drug-free bodybuilder?
If you want to step on stage on a bodybuilding competition, you need to be as lean as possible.
Stage condition is a world away from being in shape or looking decent for the beach.
But that’s not all.
A competitive bodybuilder also needs to have built muscle, and then retained as much of it as possible throughout their dieting phase.
It’s a challenge for anyone, but if you’re drug free (or natural) then you’re not getting any extra help with the cutting or the muscle retention.
It all comes down to smart training and even smarter dieting.
So what is the best way to diet down for a bodybuilding contest as a drug-free natural athlete?
Is there one “best” way of dieting?
If not, how do you discover what will work best for you?
Dieting For Natural Bodybuilding
Let’s start with the fundamentals.
A stage-lean bodybuilder needs very low body fat, but as much muscle mass as possible, plus a full look.
Judges look for:
So dieting for stage is about more than just losing weight.
You need to strike a balance: losing body fat without losing muscle.
It’s impossible not to lose some lean tissue, of course. But that’s the holy grail.
How To Lose Fat and Retain Muscle
To lose fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit.
So how can you also hang on to muscle mass?
The key is protein intake, and smart protein timing, plus heavy resistance training to keep the muscle mass on your frame.
However you choose to set up your diet, you’ll need to ensure two things:
- Calorie deficit that is large enough to elicit fat loss (but small enough to make compliance easier)
- High enough protein intake to assist with muscle retention
Contest Prep Dieting Differences
There is a big difference between dieting for a bodybuilding show, and dieting for improved health or a slimmer physique.
Getting lean enough for a bodybuilding content means going way beyond any comfortable set point, and probably losing far more fat than you think you have to lose.
This is far lower than any lean, athletic, muscle model type look.
And so it follows that a bodybuilding prep diet needs to be more accurate, extreme, and prolonged than a lean lifestyle diet.
This does not necessarily mean taking yourself into a more extreme calorie deficit.
But it will mean dieting for longer, with fewer (or no) breaks, with much more honesty and precision, and with increasing cuts to calories as you get lighter.
Although you may start off at an intake of 2200 calories (for example), you may end up on 1500 or less.
As your body weight gets lighter through fat loss, your baseline calories will drop – so you will need to go even lower to maintain the deficit.
Exactly how you achieve your calorie deficit is up for debate.
Ultimately, any diet approach that puts you in a caloric deficit and makes it easier for you to stay there – without cheating, and ideally without too many cravings – will work.
So what is better for a natural bodybuilding prep: a macro dieting “by the numbers” approach, or a structured meal plan approach?
1. Macro Dieting
Here’s one way to do it: by setting your macros and tracking your food intake, making sure you meet those numbers.
Identify the amount of calories you would need to be in a slight deficit.
Then set your protein intake (typically 1.2g-1.5g per lb bodyweight).
You will now have an amount of calories remaining.
It’s up to you how you split those between fats and carbohydrates.
But remember that a certain amount of fat is necessary for health, hormones, brain function and more.
And carbohydrates will fuel your training sessions so you can train hard enough to retain muscle.
Macro dieting might look something like this at the start of a prep (for a bodyweight of 180lbs)
Calorie intake: 2800 calories
Protein set at: 1.2g per lb – 216g protein (4 calories per gram = 864 calories)
Remaining calories: 1936
Fat set at healthy amount of 60g (9 calories per gram = 540 calories)
Remaining calories: 1396
These from carbohydrates (4 calories per gram) = 349 calories
So for our 180b guy with starting calories of 2800 at the beginning of prep, macros would be 216g protein, 349g carbs, 60g fats.
2. Meal Plans
If that’s too much number crunching for you, or if you feel that the flexibility of macro dieting wouldn’t be the best approach for you, why not revert to a classic meal plan approach?
Of course, you’ll still need to ensure that your food intake is creating a calorie deficit.
But by setting a meal plan and eating the same things every day (or perhaps rotating 2-3 daily menus), you won’t need to think about your food.
Meal prep will be easier (especially if you batch cook).
Dieting can fade into the background and take up much less time and mental energy.
Which Option Is Best? Natural Bodybuilding Research
There have been two recent studies into dietary approaches for natural bodybuilding prep.
“Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation” is a detailed paper by Eric Helms, Alan Aragon, and Peter Fitschen, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2014. 
It reviewed a huge amount of literature in order to set out the first evidence-based diet recommendations for drug-free bodybuilders.
This paper resulted in the following recommendations about calorie intake, macronutrient breakdown, meal frequency, and supplementation.
“Caloric intake should be set at a level that results in body weight losses of approximately 0.5 to 1%/wk to maximise muscle retention.
Within this caloric intake, most but not all bodybuilders will respond best to consuming 2.3-3.1 g/kg of lean body mass per day of protein, 15-30% of calories from fat, and the reminder of calories from carbohydrate.
Eating three to six meals per day with a meal containing 0.4-0.5 g/kg bodyweight of protein prior and subsequent to resistance training likely maximizes any theoretical benefits of nutrient timing and frequency.
However, alterations in nutrient timing and frequency appear to have little effect on fat loss or lean mass retention.
Among popular supplements, creatine monohydrate, caffeine and beta-alanine appear to have beneficial effects relevant to contest preparation, however others do not warrant further study.”
The second paper in this niche area is the 2018
“Nutritional strategies of high level natural bodybuilders during competition preparation” published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, and headed up by Andrew Chappell.
This paper concluded that:
“greater carbohydrate intake…could theoretically have contributed towards greater maintenance of muscle mass during competition preparation… these findings require corroboration, but will likely be of interest to bodybuilders and coaches.” 
However you choose to approach your contest prep diet as a natural bodybuilder, it’s clear that a sustainable calorie deficit is key, followed by protein intake (for muscle retention).
Recent studies then suggest that carbohydrate intake should be your next consideration, with fats making up the remainder of your intake to support health.
Although – as both studies are keen to point out – a bodybuilding prep is far from a healthy pursuit and you should always be mindful of the extreme nature of a contest prep diet before you decide to embark on one.
 Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Eric R Helms, Alan A Aragon, Peter J Fitschen. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition2014 11:20
 Nutritional strategies of high level natural bodybuilders during competition preparation. Chappell AJ, Simper T, Barker ME. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018 Jan 15;15:4. doi: 10.1186/s12970-018-0209-z. eCollection 2018
Nicola Joyce (aka “the fit writer”) is a fitness industry copywriter who has been writing for and about sport and fitness since 2004. Nicola is a competitive drug-free bodybuilder (with two World titles at amateur level) and has also competed in power lifting and a couple of strongman comps. Prior to her strength training days, Nicola was an endurance athlete and has even swum the English Channel twice. She can be found on all social media at: thefitwriter.