Contest Dieting Part 1

Of all athletes in the world, bodybuilders (and other physique oriented folks such as fitness and figure girls) tend to be the most anal compulsive and neurotic about their food intake. Nowhere is this seen more than during contest dieting where folks that are already on the far edge of what most would consider sane turn batshit crazy about their food intake.

The normal approach to clean eating (which I’m not going to get into here) becomes even more extreme and it’s not uncommon to see these folks diet on the same 5 or 6 foods eaten day in day out for 12-16 weeks. This list might include skinless chicken breast, tuna, broccoli, oat, rice, sweet potatoes and nothing else. Fat intake can be highly variable, many try to remove dietary fat completely (a huge mistake for any number of reasons) while bodybuilders who live on the edge will allow natural peanut butter. Whoa.

Along with that rather limited selection of foods, there are a host of ‘rules’ that go along with contest dieting, age old beliefs that should have been dismissed to the realm of lore and bullshit long ago. No sodium, no dairy, no red meat (sometimes but not always) and of course no fruit; there are assuredly others and which variety of lore you come across probably depends on what you’re specifically reading.

Of course, the people advocating these rules point to the folks who succeeded doing such, casually ignoring the folks who did the same thing and still looked like shit onstage. Nevermind the simple fact that, almost regardless of diet, contest bodybuilders have gotten into shape over the years. High carb/no-fat, they got into shape; high-fat/high protein, they got into shape, moderate carb/moderate fat, they got into shape.

But what if I told you that some of these strategies not only were not necessary to get into contest shape, but were actually slowing your progress and fat loss (or harming your health)? Because, in some cases, that’s certainly the case. In this article and the next I want to address several of these “rules” of contest dieting; this time I’ll tackle sodium and dairy. In the next part, I’ll deal with several others such as red meat and fruit intake while dieting.

No/Low Sodium

One of the most prevalent beliefs among physique athletes is that sodium must be kept low (or nonexistent in extreme cases). This, of course, has to do with the issue of water retention that sodium tends to cause, blurring definition. Now, let’s ignore for a second that sodium is a required nutrient in the body and that eliminating any required nutrient generally has negative effects. That should be obvious to anyone with an IQ bigger than their shoe size.

But let’s be realistic: definition only counts on contest day anyhow, what does it matter if you look a little smooth for the 12-16 weeks running up to the show? Adding to that is that is the fact sodium only causes water retention when folks move from very low to very high sodium. This is why that piece of pizza you snuck on your diet caused you to bloat like crazy. You see, when you reduce sodium too much, the body increases levels of a hormone called aldosterone which is involved in water balance (causing water retention).

When you throw sodium back into the mix, the body holds water. But guess what happens when you increase/maintain sodium at reasonable levels? The body decreases aldosterone. So sodium no longer causes any problem with bloating. Read through that again: sodium only causes bloating when you make the switch from low to high sodium, a few days on a higher sodium intake and everything will normalize anyhow.

Add to that the fact that physique folks want low aldosterone going into their contest. Removing sodium from the diet 4-12 weeks out cause more problems than it solves. Quite in fact, cutting edge contest gurus are actually keeping sodium intake high up until shortly before a show these days as it makes it EASIER to drop water a day or two out.

But none of that has to do with fat loss. To understand the role of sodium in fat loss, I need to tell you about a hormone called ghrelin. Released from the gut, ghrelin goes up when you diet and goes down when you eat. Along with leptin, peptide YY and a host of other hormones, ghrelin is involved in energy balance and appetite. When ghrelin goes up, so does hunger, metabolic rate drops and fat storage is increased (1).

Now, unfortunately, increased ghrelin (along with lowered leptin, etc.) is part and parcel of dieting. However, a recent study found that individuals placed on a sodium restricted diet showed a larger post-meal increase in ghrelin (2). Essentially, extreme sodium restriction just makes problems related to ghrelin worse.

In addition to effects on ghrelin, it also turns out that whole body hydration status affects protein balance and lipolysis with dehydration causing decreased lipolysis and protein loss and hyperhydration improving lipolysis and sparing body protein (3). Adding to this, a recent animal study (that will need to be replicated in humans) found that increasing hydration directly affected resting metabolism in skeletal muscle (4).

Interestingly, contest preparation guru Scott Abel has been advocating sodium loading for his athletes during their contest diet for many of the above described reasons. He has a reputation for bringing in his athletes lean and dry and you might want to consider that, along with the data I’ve presented, before you cut out your sodium prematurely.


One of the more pervasive rules of contest dieting is the removal of dairy. Different competitors take it out at different times, typically arguing that ‘dairy makes them smooth’. Despite quite some time looking, I’ve yet to find out exactly what mechanism this is supposed to occur by or where this idea came from.

My best guess is this: back in the day, bodybuilders used to bulk up on whole milk. When it came time to diet down for a contest, they would remove milk from their diets (reducing calories and fat intake massively) and lean out; hence milk became known as a food that made you smooth (a polite way of saying fat). Add to that Arnold’s classic comment in Pumping Iron that ‘milk is for babies’ and a myth is born; dairy must be dropped while contest dieting.

So why is dairy in fact important while dieting? Well one important reason has to do with calcium intake and bone health status. Dairy foods contribute the largest amount of calcium to the diet and ensuring adequate calcium intake is crucial for bone health maintenance (especially for women); this is especially true in the face of a high protein intake (5). Simply put, a high protein intake with inadequate calcium intake causes bone density to be lost; a high calcium intake combined with a high protein intake has a beneficial effect on bone density (5). Female bodybuilders consuming tons of protein and insufficient calcium are risking their long-term bone health because of it.

However that doesn’t really have to do with fat loss per se, since calcium supplements can sufficiently cover needs. So what’s the importance of dairy to fat loss? Well, some aspect of dairy foods increases fat loss while dieting (6). At first it was thought to simply be calcium which in and of itself appears to affect fat cell metabolism, increase fat oxidation (burning) during the day and increase the excretion of fat from the gut without being absorbed. In one study, increasing dietary calcium caused an excretion of about 60 calories extra of fat per day. Over a 12-16 week contest diet, this could add up to an extra two pounds of fat lost (7). However, the effect is only seen with increased dairy calcium, not pills (8).

However, the effect is no longer thought to be due solely to calcium, it’s thought that other components of dairy foods may also play a role. Interactions with the high BCAA/leucine content of the protein or other bioactives found in dairy (especially in whey) may be playing a role (6). I should mention that whey, casein and milk protein isolate (MPI) protein powders also contain dairy and might confer the same benefit for those wishing to avoid dairy foods. I should also mention that some physique competitors insist on dropping out protein powder as part of their diet, in addition to removing dairy, they are losing out on any potential benefit from dairy proteins and the nutrients involved with them.

None of which really addresses why or how dairy got the reputation for smoothing people out. My best guess is that it has to do with the sodium content of dairy which, as discussed above, when coupled with a typically low sodium diet, can cause water retention. Cottage cheese (a frequent staple of bodybuilding diets) can contain nearly 500 mg of sodium per serving with foods such as milk, yogurt and cheese containing 150-300 mg or so.

As discussed above, with a normal sodium intake to begin with, the added amount from dairy shouldn’t cause problems. Since sodium needn’t be manipulated until a few days out from a contest anyhow, avoiding sodium during the contest diet (as described above) is a mistake anyhow. Who cares if your bloated 4 weeks out if you’re losing fat more effectively, you can always drop the water when it’s time to do so.

Another potential issue might be related to allergies to milk which can cause bloating. However, research shows that the true prevalence of allergies to cow’s milk is only 1-3%, although it is often self-reported at 10 times that level (9,10). I should mention that lactose intolerance (lactose maldigestion) is separate from a true food allergy; lactose intolerance refers to an inability to digest lactose often causing gas, stomach bloating and an upset stomach.

The prevalence of lactose intolerance varies by ethnic group but problems can be avoided by choosing lactose removed milk or using lactase tablets. Additionally, individuals with severe lactose intolerance often find that hard cheeses and yogurt can be consumed; consuming dairy with meals appears to eliminate problems with lactose intolerance as well (11). The active cultures in yogurt appear to improve lactose tolerance, in addition to keeping the bacteria in the gut health as well (12).

Clearly individuals with a true allergy should avoid dairy foods but it seems doubtful that every bodybuilder and fitness or figure competitor on the planet is in that 1-3% incidence found clinically. More likely, issues to do with sodium intake on a pathologically low sodium diet are the cause of the bloating and, once again, with normal sodium intakes, this should be a non-issue. In any case, as I mentioned above, who cares if you’re a little bloated during most of your diet, looks only count on contest day.

If dairy gives you problems, drop it a week out from your show since, if you’re doing everything correctly, you should be as lean as you’re going to get anyhow. Manipulate water balance when it’s necessary (1-3 days out from the show), stressing over it 16 weeks out, to the extent of avoiding a class of foods that can actually increase your fat loss is simply silly.

I’d note that dairy proteins (both casein, whey and whole foods) are discussed in detail in The Protein Book.


In this article I’ve only addressed two common contest dieting concepts, both of which are based more on lore than physiology. In an upcoming article, I’ll take a look at other ideas that are prevalent to contest diets including the removal of red meat from the diet, the idea of removing all dietary fat from the diet and the perennial favorite, removing fruit from the diet.


  1. Hosoda HJ. Biological, physiological, and pharmacological aspects of ghrelin. Pharmacol Sci. 2006;100(5):398-410. Epub 2006 Apr 13.
  2. Brownley KA Dietary sodium restriction alters postprandial ghrelin: implications for race differences in obesity. Ethn Dis. 2006 Autumn;16(4):844-51.
  3. Keller U et. al. Effects of changes in hydration on protein, glucose and lipid metabolism in man: impact on health. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2003 Dec;57 Suppl 2:S69-74.
  4. Antolic A et. al. The effect of extracellular osmolality on cell volume and resting metabolism in mammalian skeletal muscle. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2007 Jan 18; [Epub ahead of print]
  5. Dawson-Hughes B. Interaction of dietary calcium and protein in bone health in humans. J Nutr. 2003 Mar;133(3):852S-854S.
  6. Zemel MB. Role of calcium and dairy products in energy partioning and weight management. Am J Clin Nutr (2004) 79 (suppl): 907s-912s.
  7. Jacobsen R. Effect of short-term high dietary calcium intake on 24-h energy expenditure, fat oxidation, and fecal fat excretion. Int J Obes (Lond). 2005 Mar;29(3):292-301.
  8. Lorenzen JK et. al. Effect of dairy calcium or supplementary calcium intake on postprandial fat metabolism, appetite, and subsequent energy intake. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Mar;85(3):678-87.
  9. Bahna SL Cow’s milk allergy versus cow milk intolerance.. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2002 Dec;89(6 Suppl 1):56-60. Links
  10. Crittenden RG and LE Bennett. Cow’s milk allergy: a complex disorder. J Am Coll Nutr. 2005 Dec;24(6 Suppl):582S-91S. Review.
  11. Huth PJ et. al. Major scientific advances with dairy foods in nutrition and health. J Dairy Sci. 2006 Apr;89(4):1207-21. Review.
  12. Shah NP. Effects of milk-derived bioactives: An Overview. Br J Nutr (2000) 84 (Suppl 1): S3-S10.

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