BBQ Eating for Bodybuilders

Warm weather means outside get-togethers, garden parties, and barbecues. Because after all, what better way to celebrate the return of the sun than with a gathering of friends and loved ones? Attending BBQs can be tough if you’re sticking to a specific eating style, and even harder if you have dedicated macro goals in mind.

Especially if you’re training for an event, or even if you just want this year to be your best year ever, you’re probably worried that your limited food choices mean an end to your social calendar.

Tasty food being cooked on the BBQ

Noshing on food and chatting with friends is relaxing and fun, so there’s no need to nix all plans until you’ve reached your goals. Instead, the key here is moderation and being sensible with your choices. All foods can fit into any eating style; you just have to get a little creative.

Looking at the most recent BBQ recipes at FoodFireFriends.com, you could be forgiven for thinking that all BBQ food is a high fat meat-fest, that would be hard to fit into a well designed diet and nutrition plan.

But there are plenty of ways you can make the best food choices at a BBQ – even if it feels like you’re surrounded by nothing but unhealthy options. Here’s a sure-fire way to make sure that your stomach stays happy, and you get to spend time with your friends.

First, let’s talk about bulking

Bulking is a pretty typical cycle for a bodybuilder or powerlifter and is usually done in the winter months when clothes are layered, loose, and non-revealing. Bulking isn’t just a systematic approach to gaining muscle; it’s one of the most productive phases of bodybuilding. The reason is because when you increase your calories, you have the potential to increase your strength since your muscles now have more fuel with which to work.

Serious bodybuilders are probably familiar with clean bulks versus dirty bulks, but let’s break that down in case the terms are unfamiliar. A dirty bulk means you’re going to eat everything you can get your hands on, no matter the nutritional content. This opens up your menu to a lot of junk food. And with that junk comes empty calories that will ultimately do you no good. Remember that it’s not just eating for eating’s sake; it’s eating with a purpose and a plan. If you’re trying to get bigger, don’t reach for things that have no nutritional value (and won’t serve your goals) but instead, think about a clean bulk.

If you’re on a clean bulk, you already know you should be reaching for protein first, since protein is the only macronutrient that creates muscle. Aiming for 1.5 g of protein per pound of bodyweight is the golden standard for all athletes. Protein will help you reach your size goals and will ensure your body’s other systems and processes continue to run smoothly.

Make protein your priority at a BBQ and then fill your plate with fats and carbs. Both of these macros have been smeared in the press for years, but the truth is that you need both to turn your body into a muscle building machine. Fats are essential for overall health, but you need to be selective about the ones you eat. Omega-3 fatty acids (like those found in fish and flax) should be first on your list to help you power through your lifts. If there’s no fish at the BBQ, reach for walnuts, chia seeds, food made with flax, or soy (if that’s part of your diet).

Finally, your bulk wouldn’t be complete without a healthy dose of carbs. Most athletes aim for two to three times the amount of protein to help their workouts stay intense. That means if you weigh 175 and are eating 262.5g of protein, you should be aiming for 525g of carbs! That’s a whole lot of sweet potatoes and beans. But that’s the beauty of a bulk. Unlike a cut, you have the chance to pile your plate high with wholesome foods. Enjoy it while it lasts, because after a bulk always comes a cut.

At a BBQ, you have the chance to lean into your clean bulk or throw caution to the wind and eat whatever your heart desires. Ultimately, your choice is going to impact your experience at the BBQ (because eating junk after eating clean is NOT going to agree with your system) and it’s going to impact the next day’s training.

Keep that in mind when you reach for your second or third helping.

For all eating styles, the best and easiest thing to do is go for veg, first.

No matter your eating preferences, vegetables should be your number one choice when attending a BBQ. This is especially true if the veggies are raw or minimally prepared since you know exactly what you’re getting. Pro tip: eat as many vegetables as you possibly can before taking a second lap around the food table. Your belly will be full, and you’ll be less likely to make poor choices.

Next, make sure you limit your sweet treats.

Yes, those biscuits and brownies might look simply decadent, but what’s the trade-off? Eating something that’s full of refined sugar, industrial-grade oils, and artificial flavours and chemicals are going to do nothing for keeping you on track. Instead, reach for fresh fruits. Warm weather means that gardens everywhere are bursting with berries and melons; there’s no reason to eat anything else. If you absolutely have to try Susan’s biscuits or Terry’s cake, then take a very (and we mean VERY) small bite and savour it. Slowly enjoy it, and then move on.

Be mindful of the booze.

It’s tempting to have both at a BBQ since it’s a social event. But alcohol adds empty calories, and if you’re on a strict macro split, you have to make a choice whether or not the return is worth the sacrifice. A small glass of wine or one beer won’t throw you over the edge, but anything more than that and you’re going to have to rethink your intake for the entire day. With that in mind, if you’re at a BBQ and you decide you want to have several alcoholic drinks, then accept that you’re not going to meet your nutritional goals for the day and allow yourself to have a little fun.

If you’re an omnivore…

Then eating at a BBQ event should be simple. Just focus on the veg, go light on all sauces, and make sure to eat plenty of meat. Avoid anything that might’ve been made in a factory, like crisps, pretzels, or other sweet treats, and reach for whole foods or foods that have been made with whole ingredients.

Omit bread whenever possible to help keep your overall calorie count down. If you can’t do without the bun on your burger, opt for just one piece of bread instead of two.

Consider swapping a beef patty for chicken. You’ll save a lot of calories, which might make room for a sweet treat (or a second helping, it’s up to you).

As a vegetarian…

Say no to sauces if you’re on a specific calorie diet! In addition to making sure that your veggies are free of extra calories, be mindful of filler food that might look tempting but offers no real nutritional value. That means using condiments wisely and not overdoing it.
Remember that fruits have high sugar content, so limit how much you put on your plate.

If you have the option of taking a dish to the BBQ, you might consider taking something that can be eaten by vegans, too, since BBQ season by its very definition is so meat-centric. Tofu tacos are delicious and easy to assemble with minimal ingredients. Marinating the tofu before it goes on the grill will infuse it with amazing flavour without a lot of hassle or effort from you.

For keto eaters…

You know the drill here. Lots of fats and lots of proteins, with limited amounts of carbs. If you’ve been following keto for a while, you probably know which foods to avoid and which to eat. If not, here’s a quick recap.

Starchy veg like corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes should all be avoided. Same goes for pasta, breads, and grain products. Sweetened yogurt, juices, and anything that says “low-fat” are off-limits.
Instead, reach for non-starchy veg and make gorgeous salads. Or, ask your host to grill some tomatoes, aubergine, and courgette. If you’re asked to bring a dish, consider bringing something that you know you can eat. A classic summer favourite that’s very low carb is a Caprese salad. It’s delicious, keto-friendly, and takes no time at all to prepare.

If you’re a vegan…

Aim to find your protein source first amidst all of the other tempting foods. That might mean something mouth-watering like tofu satay skewers or a fresh edamame and mango salad. Whatever it is, make sure that it’s been prepared with limited sauces, so you get a rough idea of your calorie counts.

If you’re at a non-vegan BBQ, let’s hope your host has thought ahead and prepared something for you. However, if you’re concerned, there might not be anything at all that you can eat, you can always cook something to take along. Vegan lentil burgers take a little bit of time to prepare, but they’re worth the effort. Or, lean into the cauliflower rage and make some cauliflower “wings” on a stick.

Other options

If it feels like there’s absolutely nothing that’s going to work with your macro split, you have two choices: eat nothing or practice some serious portion control. Since it’s no fun not to eat, we recommend aiming for small portions of the foods that you absolutely love (and don’t eat very often).

For those of us who suck at portion control, here’s an option: If you suspect that the BBQ isn’t going to have anything on-plan for you, consider skipping breakfast. While the science is still out on the whole intermittent fasting fad, the truth is that skipping one meal will make room in your daily allotment for whatever you might eat at the BBQ. The key here is to planning ahead. Since you’re already skilled at meal prep and lifting programming, this shouldn’t be too difficult.

Conclusion

Remember that all eating styles are designed to work when you’re in environments where you control the food and the beverages available. Social settings like BBQs can put a wrench in things because you’re out of your comfort zone and reliant on a host to provide food that might (or might not) work with your eating style. Macro splits and nutritional goals are fantastic guidelines to help you work toward overall fitness.

The reality here is that one BBQ event isn’t going to derail your fitness completely no matter if you’re limiting calories, prepping for an event, or in the middle of a bulk. It’s not going to stall your progression on your lifts, nor is one day going to make you gain back whatever stone you’ve lost. Yes, one day after another with dedicated and focused goals helps you create new patterns and unlearn bad behaviour.

But, part of being human and part of wellness is learning to love yourself, and with that comes the duty to allow yourself the chance to live. It’s way too easy to get wrapped up in constricting eating diets that box out entire food groups. We’re not saying that you should eat just sweets and curry take-away while guzzling pints with your pals.

When you commit to wellness, you’re committing for life. So in terms of the large broad view, maybe it’s okay to give yourself permission to have a little fun. Yes, choose wisely and mindfully an do your best to eat within your macro split, but it’s also not the end of the world if you go over on your carbs or eat a few extra slices of cheese. In fact, you might find that relaxing your eating restrictions every now and again allows you to perform better in the gym.

Finally, once you’ve allowed yourself a bit of fun with your friends, it’s time to get right back on track. Don’t miss tomorrow’s workout, and make sure you stick to your macros.

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