There were many things about Bruce Lee that made him outstanding. He was incredibly charismatic of course, he was capable of some incredible and near-superhuman feats and he managed to introduce Kung Fu and martial arts to the West, almost single-handedly.
But undoubtedly what would have stood out for many more than anything was his incredible physique. Bruce never came close to developing the kind of bulk and weight that we see among bodybuilders – but that was never his intention. Bruce was much more about developing power and speed – which meant he needed to focus on balancing strength without gaining too much bulky weight.
In fact, Bruce was absolutely covered in muscle while managed to maintain a bodyfat percentage that was said to be between 2-3%.
Partly, this came down to Bruce’s highly intensive training regime that included heavy bag work, long runs, weight lifting and more. But it also came down to his diet. So what precisely did Bruce eat?
Nutrient Dense Foods
Firstly, Bruce believed in eating nutrient dense foods. That meant that he avoided ‘empty calories’ or any foods that added sugar and energy without providing anything to fortify the body.
This would have been incredibly important for someone as active as Bruce. The nutrients in our food are what we use to build and repair muscle, to energize our cells, to repair tissues and to strengthen bone. And it makes sense from a performance perspective too: from lutein to nitrates, there are substances found in nutrient-rich foods that effective work as performance enhancing supplements.
‘Empty calories’ is an expression we hear a fair bit of these days, but it was much rarer in Bruce’s day, which is just another example of how ahead of his time he was. Linda Lee said ‘He didn’t eat a lot of baked goods, primarily because they were made from refined flour and contained nothing but empty calories. He had no interest in consuming calories that would do nothing for his body.’
Bruce did need a fair amount of calories simply to sustain his intensive training regime though. For that, he relied on carbohydrates such as pasta and rice.
Bruce didn’t believe that ‘carbs are bad’ or that ‘fats are bad’. Rather, he balanced his diet to ensure that he would get all three of the main food groups. And while I can’t find a direct source, it is implied that Bruce subscribed to the ‘1g of protein per 1lb of bodyfat’ approach to muscle building. To help achieve this, Bruce drank two protein shakes a day and mixed in eggs, powdered milk, wheat germ, peanut butter, bananas, brewers yeast, inositol and granular lecithin.
Interestingly though, Bruce did avoid dairy in most cases – apart from in his protein shakes. Bruce ate a lot of Chinese food for preference as he found a lot of Western food to be ‘bland’.
Little and Often
Bruce Lee subscribed to the notion of eating little and often. By consuming more smaller portions on a more regular basis, he believed he could prevent his metabolism from slowing down and thereby prevent the body from storing calories as fat. Eating more often on the other hand could help to ‘teach’ the body that it doesn’t need to store fat – because it has a constant supply of energy.
Linda reportedly said that Bruce would eat five meals a day and that by eating smaller portions, he could also train without being on a full stomach.
The science behind this approach is unclear and there are camps that will tell you that ‘meal timing’ doesn’t matter. Of course, those who subscribe to an intermittent fasting approach go the complete opposite way. But it makes logical sense and there are still studies that support this approach too. And the bottom line is that if you want to eat like Bruce, this is the way to go.
Royal Jelly is the name of an energy drink that Bruce relied on and particularly during breaks in between filming. The drink was made from honey produced by Queen Bees (reportedly), mixed with Ginseng. This provided him with a little energy kick, or as he put it:
“I take a little Royal Jelly beforehand and Voom! My energy levels are perfect.”
Along with this and the protein mix, Bruce also relied on multivitamin supplements AND fruit and vegetable juices to provide further fortification. I can’t stress how important it is that you get nutrients in your diet if you are going to be pushing yourself to the extreme levels that Bruce did. I also found a reference that said he would supplement with bee pollen and vitamin E.
And as a man after my own heart, Bruce Lee would drink large amounts of tea every day and would often mix it with honey. Tea is rich in antioxidants, while caffeine of course can give a boost to energy and focus while also burning calories.
So, what can we take away from all this? What can we ascertain about Bruce Lee’s diet and what should we seek to emulate or reject?
While you might be tempted to think that eating like Bruce Lee will make you like Bruce Lee, the important thing to remember is that everyone is different and everyone’s metabolism is different. Apart from anything else, Bruce Lee was incredibly active and constantly training – moreso than most of us can probably realistically emulate. Other ideas such as eating small, infrequent meals, are things that not everyone agrees with today.
But the key lesson to take away is probably that Bruce got a lot of nutrients, which is what will have prevented him from burning out while training so hard and for so long. He avoided empty calories, which gave him the core power and strength he needed to build his fitness on top of that.
That’s also what I aim to do. And for sure I’m going to be trying that Royal Jelly now too!