By Eric Trexler, CSCS, CISSN

Former Director of Research and Education, INOV8 Elite Performance

A few INOV8 coaches recently engaged in a discussion about “free foods” during contest prep. This conversation 1) took place on a social media outlet and 2) involved nutrition, so naturally it got somewhat contentious. I don’t know what it is about nutrition, but people sure love to get all worked up about it. I was on the sidelines for this particular scuffle, but I was directed to it after the fact.

Anyway, the discussion was interesting. One side advocated the inclusion of “free foods” during contest prep- essentially, these foods could be eaten as much as the competitor desired, with no need to weigh or track the intake. In this conversation, people had mentioned green vegetables and sugar-free jello as foods that could be eaten in unrestricted amounts during prep. As one poster suggested, you’d be hard pressed to get fat eating such food sources in excess.

That may very well be true. Unfortunately, contest prep requires us to set the bar a bit higher than “not fat.” In essence, the goal is to get as close to “perfection” as we can— to optimize our physique as much as possible. To accentuate our strengths, disguise our flaws, and walk on stage with our absolute best. As competitors, we walk a very fine line. The challenge is trying to approach this goal with determination, but without completely losing our sanity. To manipulate our training and dietary variables with sufficient precision, but without stressing and dwelling over minute details.

In that context, I see where they are coming from. To allow free foods is to lend quite a “psychological crutch” to the competitor. They aren’t 100% “locked in” to their diet- they can always snack on a free food if they choose. And let’s be honest here: For most individuals, it’s unlikely that snacking on baby spinach leaves is going to alter your caloric intake by hundreds of calories per day.

But the concept still rubs me the wrong way for two reasons.

First, as an aspiring researcher, it really bothers me. Research demands an incessant thirst for control. The more things we leave uncontrolled, or “up to chance,” the more uncomfortable we become. If I fail to control for confounding variables, how do I explain unexpected results? How do I assert causation when other factors might be contributing to the observed effect? How do I design future studies with any confidence that the results can be replicated?

I have the same issue with “free” foods in prep. If we need to make adjustments, there are some questions we can’t necessarily answer. How many calories are you actually eating each day? What about carbs? And Fiber? If I start restricting your “free food” intake, how many calories am I actually removing from your diet? Does your free food intake remain constant, or will you compensate with higher intakes when your diet becomes more restrictive and cardio becomes more extensive? If this prep doesn’t go as well as we had hoped, how can we improve it next time? The less we can objectively quantify, the less precision we have when it comes to adjusting the diet throughout prep and improving the next time around.

Secondly, the concept bothers me because of my somewhat abnormal dietary habits— specifically, my superhuman appetite. When I show up to my office in the morning, I’ll always have a few things with me: My computer, a depressingly long “to do” list, and well over a pound of raw broccoli. When it comes to vegetables, I can do some serious damage- and I’m not even prepping at the moment. I don’t necessarily recommend it, but it’s one of the few ways to keep my appetite in check. And I’m sure that I can’t be the only one who can put down substantial amounts of vegetables, ultimately contributing a modest (but significant) amount of calories to the diet.

I’m willing to acknowledge that I might be splitting hairs here. In most cases, certain low-calorie vegetables can probably be eaten ad libitum without much of an effect on your placing. In a lot of amateur shows, the placings don’t really come “down to the wire” all the time anyway. So can you allow certain “free foods” and place well? Absolutely. It’s been done many times before.

But I’ll remind you that your placing isn’t what prep is really about. If I have mediocre conditioning but beat a bunch of sub-par bodybuilders, is that better than nailing my conditioning but taking 2nd place behind the second coming of Ronnie Coleman? The goal isn’t a placement, it’s optimizing your physique, and walking on stage with the best physique you can bring. I realize that we’re talking about small amounts of calories, but the more I know (quantitatively) about my diet, the more precisely I can modify it to induce a specific desired outcome.

So I’m not going to overreact, or call anybody stupid, or say that you can’t win a show if you prep with certain “free foods.” I understand that it’s a modest level of caloric uncertainty, and I acknowledge the potential psychological benefit. But will I include free foods in my prep, or recommend it to others? Nope. Not because it will ruin your physique, or doom you to a last-place finish, but because I think there is a better, more controlled, and more precise way to approach the contest prep diet. I think I can bring my best physique to the stage if I have a greater level of certainty about my caloric intake, so I track all of my food. Not because I have to, but because it equips me with more information that I can use to specifically tailor my diet for a desired outcome.

Eric Trexler is not a doctor or registered dietitian. Eric holds no certification or licensure in the practice of nutrition or dietetics. The contents of this article should not be taken as medical advice. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any health problem – nor is it intended to replace the advice of a physician. Always consult your physician or qualified health professional on any matters regarding your health.