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How ‘Chicken, Broccoli and Rice’ Became a Dubious Magic Formula for Celebrity Muscles

These days, nearly every leading action star credits his physique to the holy trinity of chicken, broccoli and rice. But seasoned bodybuilders find it very hard to believe that a diet they use to cut weight can add such impressive cinematic swole

The release of every new action or superhero movie now pretty much dictates that we learn as much about the stars’ workout plans and diet as their performances. These physical transformations — from Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt and Kumail Nanjiani in the Marvel movies, to Michael B. Jordan in Creed (and Black Panther), to Zac Efron in Baywatch — are admittedly impressive. But they’re also rapid enough to lead to whispers that something other than a perfect caloric intake and supplements might be responsible for all that swoleness. 

Yet, when asked about their nutrition programs, the three most common words to escape their mouths are typically: “Chicken, broccoli and rice.” It’s so typical, in fact, that the YouTube channel for the bodybuilding podcast More Plates More Dates collected a number of clips in which the leading men behind these new high-octane builds are asked how they were able to roll their remodeled physiques off the production line so swiftly. Here’s a collection of their responses…

  • Alexander Skarsgard: “It was nine months of chicken breast and broccoli.”
  • Zac Efron: “Five chicken breasts a day, a lot of vegetables, a lot of kale, brown rice.”
  • Jason Momoa: “You eat boiled chicken breast every two hours, which is not very good. But that’s how you get that body.”
  • Chris Hemsworth: “The eating was probably the most difficult part. It wasn’t the fun kind of eating either. It was copious amounts of chicken breast and various animal proteins.”
  • Mark Wahlberg: “I would eat at least two rotisserie chickens a day myself.”
  • Hugh Jackman: “Chicken, fish, maybe steak — always protein six times a day, steamed vegetables and occasionally some brown rice.”
  • Chris Evans: “You have to eat these bland naked pieces of chicken and rice and it’s not that appetizing.”
  • Tom Hardy: “We were eating chicken and broccoli all day. Nothing else.”
  • Michael B. Jordan: “About a year and a half of literally brown rice, grilled chicken, broccoli, a gallon and a half of water a day, working out two or three times a day, six days a week.”

Even Dwayne Johnson’s seven-meals-per day Hercules diet, which was sampled by Bryan Johnson of USA Today in July 2014, included the three-headed monster of chicken, broccoli and rice as one of the collective meals, with two additional meals containing white rice, and another featuring chicken and broccoli in tandem. 

Where did the chicken-broccoli-rice trifecta come from in the first place? 

Unsurprisingly, the roots of this phenomenon are in bodybuilding — though not necessarily with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the most famous bodybuilder of all-time and whose food intake was incredibly well-rounded and prototypical for the era. To that end, here is the “Arnold” bodybuilding diet courtesy of Muscle & Fitness

  • Breakfast: 3 scrambled eggs; 1 cup cooked oatmeal; 1 cup orange juice; 1 cup low-fat milk
  • Snack: Handful mixed nuts; 1 apple or banana
  • Lunch: 2 slices whole-wheat bread; 1 cooked chicken breast, no skin (for sandwich); 1 apple; 1 cup low-fat milk
  • Snack: 3 slices cheese; 1 banana; water
  • Post-Workout Drink: 25 grams milk protein; 25 grams egg protein; 8-12 ounces low-fat milk
  • Dinner: 8 ounces lean-cut grilled beef; 1 large baked potato; 1 large salad with mixed greens and vegetables; 1 tablespoon salad dressing; 1 cup mixed cooked vegetables; water
  • Snack: 1 cup low-fat milk

As you can see, chicken is present, but there’s no rice, and any inclusion of broccoli is implied by “vegetables.” For what it’s worth, Schwarzenegger did recommend the consumption of broccoli in an L.A. Times article about dieting in 1984, but even then, it was packaged amongst other vegetables and complex carbohydrates. Overall, his diet had a lot more going for it — especially in terms of muscle-building — than limiting himself to just chicken, broccoli and rice.

And yet, post-Arnold, that’s essentially what a bodybuilder’s diet has been reduced to — no matter their level. For instance, in 1990, local bodybuilder Murray McElroy was interviewed for the El Paso Times and divulged he ate chicken, fish, rice, oatmeal and broccoli almost exclusively. “I get the best results from rice,” he explained. “It gives me high starch, high carbohydrates and zero fats. It’s perfect for what I want. White rice is good, too, because it digests quicker, and I’m able to burn it off faster.”

Similarly, in 1997, female bodybuilder Penny Bolender told The Columbian that three out of her four daily meals consisted of “a plain chicken breast, a cup of plain white rice, a cup of steamed broccoli and water.”

The preference for this limited menu seems to have to do with an aversion to dietary fat — something that’s almost altogether absent from a chicken-broccoli-rice nutrition plan.

To his credit, when bodybuilder Eric Palumbo, winner of the Mr. South Jersey competition, described his diet to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1993, he acknowledged that he consumed copious amounts of pasta, rice and potatoes during the periods in which his size increased before he switched over to the familiar “chicken, broccoli and a little rice” for weight-cutting purposes during the two weeks prior to competitions. “The closer to the show you get, you really get nuts because the body is so depleted and run down,” elaborated Palumbo.

Basically, somehow, someway, the chicken-broccoli-rice diet trickled down to the lowest levels of bodybuilding, as even competitors with zero major victories were subsisting on dietary regimens leaning heavily upon it.

Why are YouTubers now regarding “chicken-broccoli-rice” or “CBR” as slang for potential steroid abuse?

Because so many Hollywood stars have attributed their dramatic body transformations to the combination that it’s become memeable, if not downright laughable. 

A diet in which significant fat content is totally absent isn’t gonna do much for the production of key hormones for muscle creation, not to mention the absence of any micronutrients that are also essential for crafting show-worthy muscles. Meanwhile, supplementation with steroids and other hormones is capable of pushing the body through some of these nutrient shortages while enabling it to add muscle in spite of them. 

And so, the idea that the CBR diet can elevate the musculature of a non-bodybuilder to the extent where it would rival that of a lifetime natural bodybuilder is ludicrous to many people who are experienced evaluators of physiques that are both on and off the sauce.

“Here’s the question boys: Do you think that body is naturally achievable?” asked popular YouTuber Philion as he investigated the three-year, 39-pound body transformation of Michael B. Jordan. “It’s one thing if he did it naturally, and it’s another if it’s ‘natty achievable.’ I’m gonna be honest guys: You can get that size, but I don’t think he did it naturally. It’s too much too quick. He put on 39 pounds of pure muscle supposedly in three years. It’s potentially achievable if you have the frame for it and you’re like a maxed-out natty lifter, but he’s not.” (For the record, Jordan has never said anything on the record about using steroids to acquire his Creed and Black Panther physiques.)

All of which is to say, the next time that you hear that a previously svelte actor has added an implausible quantity of muscle mass in an alarmingly short period of time while nourishing themselves solely with chicken, broccoli and rice — a bulk-trimming diet plan for most bodybuilders — instead of flexing a respectful bicep to salute the achievement, you should be cocking an eyebrow in suspicion.