Background: Competitive bodybuilders are well known for extreme physique traits and extremes in diet and training manipulation to optimize lean mass and achieve a low body fat. Although many of the dietary dogmas in bodybuilding lack scientific scrutiny, a number, including timing and dosing of high biological value proteins across the day, have more recently been confirmed as effective by empirical research studies. A more comprehensive understanding of the dietary intakes of bodybuilders has the potential to uncover other dietary approaches, deserving of scientific investigation, with application to the wider sporting, and potential health contexts, where manipulation of physique traits is desired.
Objective: Our objective was to conduct a systematic review of dietary intake practices of competitive bodybuilders, evaluate the quality and currency of the existing literature, and identify research gaps to inform future studies.
Methods: A systematic search of electronic databases was conducted from the earliest record until March 2014. The search combined permutations of the terms 'bodybuilding', 'dietary intake', and 'dietary supplement'. Included studies needed to report quantitative data (energy and macronutrients at a minimum) on habitual dietary intake of competitive bodybuilders.
Results: The 18 manuscripts meeting eligibility criteria reported on 385 participants (n = 62 women). Most studies were published in the 1980-1990s, with three published in the past 5 years. Study methodological quality was evaluated as poor. Energy intake ranged from 10 to 24 MJ/day for men and from 4 to 14 MJ/day for women. Protein intake ranged from 1.9 to 4.3 g/kg for men and from 0.8 to 2.8 g/kg for women. Intake of carbohydrate and fat was <6 g/kg/day and below 30% of energy, respectively. Carbohydrate intakes were below, and protein (in men) intakes were higher than, the current recommendations for strength athletes, with no consideration for exploration of macronutrient quality or distribution over the day. Energy intakes varied over different phases of preparation, typically being highest in the non-competition (>6 months from competition) or immediate post-competition period and lowest during competition preparation (≤6 months from competition) or competition week. The most commonly reported dietary supplements were protein powders/liquids and amino acids. The studies failed to provide details on rationale for different dietary intakes. The contribution of diet supplements was also often not reported. When supplements were reported, intakes of some micronutrients were excessive (~1000% of US Recommended Dietary Allowance) and above the tolerable upper limit.
Conclusion: This review demonstrates that literature describing the dietary intake practices of competitive bodybuilders is dated and often of poor quality. Intake reporting required better specificity and details of the rationale underpinning the use. The review suggests that high-quality contemporary research is needed in this area, with the potential to uncover dietary strategies worthy of scientific exploration.