One of the most popular ways to bulk is to eat whatever you want in outrageous quantities.
But as a nutrition coach, it’s my job to teach clients how to bulk effectively while also consuming foods that are good for them.
To help you include foods that are healthy for you as you bulk, I’ve outlined what factors you need to consider to be successful with your bulk and what foods you should be eating.
Bulking Foods Needs To Be Personalized
The foods that YOU enjoy while bulking may be different than the foods that I enjoy while bulking, and that’s completely fine.
Your calorie and macros targets for bulking are going to be specific to you, and the foods that you meet them with should also be specific to you and your tastes.
All foods can fit into a bulking diet, so it’s important to eat the foods that you enjoy and that make the bulking process easier for you.
It’s important to understand that even if you ate the exact same foods in the exact same amounts as your favorite bodybuilder, it doesn’t mean that you would look like them or that it would be effective for you based on your goals.
Factors To Consider For Bulking
Another important factor to consider for bulking is the approach you’d like to take, based on how soon you want to put on mass and how much of that mass is muscle compared to fat.
There are 3 different approaches to bulking:
- Conservative: the slow and steady approach with very little fat gain (100-250 calories above maintenance)
- Moderate: a faster approach with some muscle gain and some fat gain (250-500 calories above maintenance)
- Aggressive: the fastest approach with more fat gain than muscle gain (500+ calories above maintenance)
Type of Bulk
There are two popular types of bulking to choose from based on the quality of your bulk. However, the type of bulk is also influenced by your bulking approach.
The 2 types of bulking are:
- Clean Bulking: Achieving a calorie surplus by eating more nutrient-dense whole foods (i.e. avocado)
- Dirty Bulking: Achieving a calorie surplus with less nutritious foods (i.e. cheeseburgers)
Those who are taking a conservative or moderate approach to bulking can get by on a clean bulk because it won’t be as difficult to meet the necessary calorie target (100-500 calories above maintenance) from whole foods.
However, those who want a more aggressive approach to bulking will likely have to dirty bulk to meet the calorie requirements associated with this approach (500+ calories above maintenance).
Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is important to consider when bulking because your TDEE is equal to your maintenance calories.
Essentially your TDEE is how many calories you would need to maintain your weight, which is an important baseline because you will have to eat more than your maintenance calories to bulk.
Your TDEE encompasses the following:
- BMR (basal metabolic rate): the number of calories you burn just to exist
- NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis): the number of calories you burn moving around (i.e. doing chores, getting to work)
- EAT (exercise activity thermogenesis): the number of calories you burn through exercise (i.e. lifting weights)
- TEF (thermic effect of food): the number of calories you burn to digest food
If you already know your maintenance calories through trial and error with tracking then you already know your TDEE and you’re off to a great start.
If you don’t know your TDEE then you should calculate it using our TDEE calculator to find your maintenance calories.
Lastly, you also need to consider your strength training plan because if your goal with bulking is to build muscle then you NEED to strength train.
A calorie surplus by itself will not build muscle. Your calorie surplus needs to be paired with resistance training to achieve muscle growth.
Here’s how I would structure your workout schedule based on the days/week that you’re able to dedicate:
- 2 days: 2 full body workouts
- 3 days: lower body, upper body, full body
- 4 days: lower body, upper body, lower body, upper body
For more in-depth information about structuring your strength training to optimize muscle growth while bulking, check out Does Dirty Bulking Make You Stronger?
Calories For Bulking
The number of calories you need to bulk will depend on your maintenance calories (TDEE) and your bulking approach that I described above.
The first step is to find your maintenance calories by either tracking and finding the number of calories that allows you to maintain your weight (most accurate) or by using a TDEE calculator to estimate your maintenance.
Once you know your maintenance calories, you will need to choose a bulking approach from the ones listed above.
- If you’re taking a conservative approach, add 100-250 calories to your maintenance calories.
- If you’re taking a moderate approach, add 250-500 calories to your maintenance calories.
- If you’re taking an aggressive approach, start by adding 500-1000 calories to your maintenance calories.
For example, if my TDEE is 2300 calories and I want to take a moderate approach then I could eat 2550-2800 calories per day to reach my bulking goal.
- Related Article: 30 Ways To Increase Protein Intake Without Protein Powder
Macros For Bulking
Setting your macronutrient targets for bulking happens by using the calorie target that you calculated above based on your goals.
As a nutrition coach, I recommend a 40% carb, 30% protein, and 30% fat macronutrient split.
I like this split for bulking because the higher carb intake will provide more energy (carbs are your body’s preferred energy source) to put towards training hard in the gym to build muscle.
In addition, your protein intake will still be high enough to support muscle growth, and your fat intake will be high enough to help you meet your calorie target more easily (fat has the highest number of calories per gram).
That said, if you prefer higher protein and lower fat or carbs, then go for it.
Or if you prefer a higher fat-to-carb ratio then you can do that too. Find whatever macro split makes you feel the most energized and willing to put in the work.
To calculate your macro target for bulking, you need to know that protein and carbs have 4 calories per gram, and fats have 9 calories per gram.
Here’s how I would calculate my macros based on a 2600-calorie target and my 40/30/30 recommendation:
- Carbs: 2600 X 40% = 1040 calories / 4 calories per gram = 260g of carbs
- Protein: 2600 X 30% = 780 calories / 4 calories per gram = 195g of protein
- Fat: 2600 X 30% = 780 calories / 9 calories per gram = 87g of fat
Bulking Foods For Bodybuilders
Red meat is one of the best sources of protein while bulking because it is high in protein to help encourage muscle growth and it typically has a higher fat content which makes it a higher-calorie protein source to help you achieve a calorie surplus.
Red meat also contains creatine which has been shown to improve muscle growth and strength by delaying the time to fatigue in training.
Some examples of red meat are:
- Roast Beef
For more red meat options, check out my complete list of 15 Red Meat With The Most Protein.
Fish are another great source of protein, with some fish having an extremely high percentage of protein per calorie and others having a more balanced distribution of protein-to-fat.
Some examples of fish for bulking are:
- Tuna (highest in protein)
- Salmon (higher fat content)
For more fish options, check out my complete list of 27 Fish With The Most Protein.
Another excellent protein source for bulking is greek yogurt, which is the highest protein dairy product. Greek yogurt is great for those who don’t enjoy eating meat or struggle to consume enough meat to meet their protein goals.
To get the most protein out of your greek yogurt as you can, make sure that you’re choosing a brand of yogurt with a higher percentage of protein per serving.
Here are the top 30 Yogurt Brands With The Most Protein.
Cottage cheese is another great high-protein dairy product for bulking that is often overlooked.
It’s high in protein and can be bought in higher fat versions (i.e. 4% milkfat) to help boost its calorie content as well.
Cottage cheese is especially good when you’re going longer periods between meals or before you go to bed because it is high in casein protein, which is a slower digesting protein source that will provide a steady stream of amino acids (building blocks of protein) to your muscles to encourage growth and prevent muscle breakdown.
Eggs are another great protein option especially if you’re combining eggs and egg whites because egg whites are purely protein whereas eggs are a mix of fat and protein.
I recommend having 2 to 3 eggs and then adding 1/2 – 1 cup of egg whites so that you’re getting the best of both worlds with protein content and fat content to help you meet your calorie and macro targets.
Edamame is another protein source that is ideal for those who are vegan or vegetarian because it has almost 20 grams of plant-based protein in a one cup serving.
Edamame also contains a decent amount of carbs with around 14g per cup which can help provide you with energy.
Edamame is one of the few plant-based proteins that has a higher ratio of protein to carbs, which is ideal for helping you hit your protein macros without going over your carb macros.
- Related Article: Do Bodybuilders Eat Soy?
Beans & Legumes
Beans and legumes are considered a carb despite having some protein because they are higher in carbs than protein.
That said, their protein content does make them an excellent choice for bulking because many bodybuilders struggle to get enough protein in, so choosing carbs that also contain protein is a win-win.
Some examples of beans and legumes for bulking are:
- Kidney Beans
- Black Beans
For a complete list, check out the 15 Beans & Legumes With The Most Protein.
The carbs in yams are complex carbs, meaning that they provide more sustainable energy that will help keep you energized for longer periods compared to many other carb sources.
I recommend including yams regularly into your bulking diet to sneak in some micronutrients without feeling too full like you would if you included low-calorie veggies like spinach.
Another great carb source for bulking is pasta, which is available in lower-fiber varieties (i.e. white pasta), which is great for when you need energy more quickly or you struggle with feeling too full while trying to hit your calorie target because it will digest more quickly.
Higher-fiber types of pasta (i.e. whole wheat pasta) will keep you full for longer and if you need to go longer periods without eating and need to manage your hunger. Higher-fiber pasta can also help improve your digestion by keeping you regular.
Grains are types of carbs that are great for bulking because along with their carb content, they also contain some protein to help you meet all of your macro targets.
Grains also contain a higher amount of micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) which can improve your overall health.
Some examples of grains to include while bulking are:
For a complete list of the best grains for bodybuilding, check out 14 Grains With The Most Protein.
Bagels & Bread
Bagels and Bread are fantastic for bulking because they contain a higher number of carbs per serving, they also generally contain some fat and protein but in larger quantities compared to their carb content.
Similar to pasta, you can purchase bread or bagels in white or whole wheat varieties. However, not all brands of bread are created equal so it’s important to choose a brand of bread that is going to meet your needs while bulking.
Check out the 8 Best Breads For Bodybuilding to find the brand of bread that will work best for you.
Cereal is another carbs option that is great for bulking, especially if consumed pre- or post-workout because it has faster digesting carbs that can fuel your performance or replenish your energy stores after the fact.
Although cereal is often thought of as unhealthy, if consumed in moderation then it can be really beneficial for improving your performance and helping you build muscle.
There are higher protein cereals (i.e. Kashi cereal) with >5g of fiber per serving that you could choose instead if you wanted cereal as a breakfast option to hold you over, but I would recommend a lower-fiber cereal (i.e. Cinnamon toast crunch) for pre- and post-workout purposes.
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts & seeds are fantastic fat sources for helping you meet a higher calorie requirement and for optimizing your hormonal health.
Nuts and seeds also contain some protein and carbs so they will add to both of these nutrients as well.
Some examples of nuts & seeds for bodybuilding are:
- Hemp Seeds
- Chia Seeds
For a complete list of nuts and seeds for bodybuilding, check out 7 Seeds With The Most Protein (Plus 5 Nuts).
Avocados are another great fat source that provides anti-inflammatory fats and also offers some fiber to help promote better digestion.
Adding avocado to your meals is an easy way to boost your calorie intake with ½ an avocado having approximately 170 calories.
Adding cheese to your meals is a delicious way to meet your calorie and macro targets.
Cheese is high in fat but also contains some protein which can help you get closer to your calorie, fat, and protein targets.
Cheese offers calcium which promotes bone health and also plays an important role in muscle contraction.
Butter is another fat source that you can include to help you meet your fat and calorie goals without becoming too full because it’s easy to add to any meal without adding additional bulk.
Butter is a source of saturated fat so it’s best to consume it less frequently than unsaturated fats, like olive oil, but it still has its place in a bulking diet even if you’re trying to be healthy.
Not only is dark chocolate a sweet treat but it also has some health benefits to offer in addition to serving as a fat source.
Dark chocolate is high in fiber which can help improve your digestion, and it’s also rich in antioxidants which have been shown to reduce your risk of disease.
Including dark chocolate as a nightcap before you go to bed can help you increase your calorie intake at the end of the day to meet your targets more easily.
What About Fruits & Vegetables For Bodybuilding?
Even though the primary focus of bulking is to consume enough calories and therefore consume higher-calorie foods, it’s still important to include foods that are high in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) like fruits and veggies.
Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables is the best way to ensure that you’re getting enough of each micronutrient to avoid nutrient deficiencies.
If you’re missing key micronutrients then you’re more likely to become nutrient deficient and experience an array of negative symptoms associated with poor overall health.
Although you likely won’t be able to eat tons of fruits and vegetables while bulking without becoming too full too soon, it’s still important to include them in your diet when possible.
Including any type of fruit is a great way to boost your micronutrient intake while bulking.
Fruit also tends to be higher in calories than vegetables so it can pack more of a calorie punch than vegetables which is ideal when you’re bulking and trying not to fill up too much on lower-calorie foods.
Some fruits are higher in calories than others and therefore would be more beneficial to include while bulking.
Some of the best fruits for bulking are:
- Dragon Fruit
For an ultimate guide on fruits for bodybuilding, check out 20 Best Fruits For Muscle Gain.
Vegetables should also be included on a bulking diet, although they are probably best to include in smaller serving sizes to avoid getting too full too quickly.
Getting a mix of starchy vegetables (i.e. corn) and leafy green (i.e. spinach) will help you to meet your micronutrient requirements and your macronutrient targets.
Some examples of vegetables to include while bulking are:
For a complete list of vegetables for bodybuilding, check out 14 Best Vegetables For Building Muscle.
What About Junk Food For Bodybuilding?
If you’re someone who struggles to put on weight, which we refer to as “hard gainers”, then you may have to lean towards more of a dirty bulking approach by including more “junk food”.
Junk food is higher in calories and lower in volume so it’s easier to consume more of it without getting too full, so it can be beneficial for those who struggle to eat enough to achieve the calorie surplus required of them for bulking,
Instant noodles can add 380-420 calories per packet, depending on the brand, which makes them a great option to add to your bulking diet if you struggle to eat enough calories to meet your calorie demands.
Instant noodles are low in protein though, so it would be best to add a source of protein to your noodles (i.e. boiled eggs to make a ramen bowl) to help you meet your protein target as well.
Nutella is another delicious way to add more calories to your diet with around 200 calories per serving (2 tbsp). Nutella is extremely versatile and can be spread on toast, stirred into your oatmeal, or eaten with fruit as a dip.
Nutella is high in fat and carbs, but is low in protein so make sure that you’re getting enough protein from other food sources to meet your protein goals.
Ice cream is my personal favorite “junk food” to add to a bulking diet to help me meet my calorie target. Ice cream has around 140-290 calories per serving (½ cup) depending on the brand that you choose.
I tend to go for ice cream like Ben & Jerry’s which packs a higher calorie punch but also tastes amazing. Having an ice cream nightcap at the end of the day is a great way to help you catch up on calories for the day.
Some people go as far as to microwave ice cream and drink it to get more calories in, I definitely wouldn’t go that far, but to each their own!
Another “junk food” that you could include are hot dogs, which have almost 200 calories per hot dog.
However, hot dogs provide most of their calories from saturated fat and have very little protein despite being made of meat.
If you’re adding hot dogs into your bulking diet then I suggest you add other protein sources and some micronutrients to make up for its lack thereof.
Donuts are popular among bodybuilders who are bulking because they’re easy to consume, they add a significant number of calories, and they’re delicious.
Donuts are an easy way to add more calories to help you achieve a calorie surplus for bulking, with approximately 200-400 calories per donut.
Adding donuts as a mid-morning snack or an afternoon snack is an easy way to incorporate them into your bulking diet.
Nachos are a “junk food” that can add a ton of calories to your intake with approximately 600 calories per serving (147g) with only chips and cheese, but they can also be a well-rounded meal if you’re making them at home and adding other toppings.
If you’re adding a source of protein to your nachos like ground beef or pulled pork, adding in some veggies like onion and peppers, and topping it with cheese then you’re getting a balance of carbs (from the chips), protein, fat, and micronutrients.
- Related Article: Can You Build Muscle With A Bad Diet?
What About Drinks For Bodybuilding?
Including drinks for bodybuilding is also helpful for staying hydrated or for adding more calories to your day without feeling full.
Drinks that are lower in calories or calorie-free are most helpful for hydration, which is welcomed when you’re bulking as you’re likely consuming higher-sodium foods.
Some lower-calorie or calorie-free drinks to include are:
Drinks that are higher in calories are more helpful for achieving a calorie surplus more easily because liquid calories digest at a faster rate and will not stick with you for long.
Some higher-calorie options to include are:
How To Incorporate These Bodybuilding Foods Into Your Diet?
Tip #1: Aim For A Source Of Protein, Carbs, And Fat At Each Meal
The best way to stay on track to meet your macro targets and your calorie target is to include a source of each macronutrient at each meal. If you’re missing a macronutrient in a meal then you’ll have to go out of your way at another time of the day to make up for it.
I find my clients are more successful when they plan ahead to ensure they have a source of each macro at each meal so they aren’t scrambling at the end of the day to catch up by playing macor tetris.
- Related Article: Bodybuilding Meal Plan For Beginners: How To Start + Examples
Tip #2: Choose Higher-Calorie Snacks
I also recommend incorporating higher calorie snacks to help boost your intake, these higher calorie snacks could include junk food like donuts or nutella, higher calorie drinks like chocolate milk, or higher fat nutrient-dense foods like nuts, seeds, or cheese.
Being intentional with your snacks can take the pressure off at mealtime to consume larger quantities of foods that may leave you feeling uncomfortably full.
Tip #3: Eat At Least 2 Servings Of Fruit Or Vegetables Per Day
Lastly, you should consume at least 2 servings of fruits or vegetables daily to ensure you get enough micronutrients to avoid nutrient deficiencies. You can add them to meals or incorporate them with higher-calorie foods as a snack.
Check Out Some of Our Bulking Meal Plans
- 2500 Calorie Bulking Meal Plan
- 3000 Calorie Bulking Meal Plan
- 4000 Calorie Bulking Meal Plan
- 5000 Calore Bulking Meal Plan
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About The Author
Amanda Parker is an author, nutrition coach, and Certified Naturopath. She works with bodybuilders, Olympic weightlifters, and powerlifters to increase performance through nutrition and lifestyle coaching.