When Dennis James set a course for his first bodybuilding contest in 1993, a year after he started training in earnest, he was clueless about how to prepare nutritionally for the stage. Like a lot of beginners, he thought his one and only mission was to get as big as he could.
Reminiscing about his typical meals at that point, James admits there were no limits on what he was ingesting. “I was eating everything, from doughnuts to pizza and hamburgers,” he says. “I had no idea about dieting. And as soon as I started to compete, the only thing I knew for that was chicken, rice, pasta and pineapple.” As a result, the first contest diet for the neophyte consisted of those foods five times a day for 12 weeks. James lived in Thailand, so he didn’t know many bodybuilders in his region. His boundaries were set by meager tips such as “dry chicken and dry tuna” from the few people around who had any experience at all. From 1992 to 1995, his diet allowed few options. Eager to learn, James searched for nutrition articles in magazines to try to expand his horizons. He bought a nutrition book that listed calories, protein, carbs and fats to teach himself the basics. “That’s when I started learning about oatmeal, dropping carbs and increasing fats,” he explains. “To me, everything was the same. I ate until I was full and then I stopped. I didn’t know starving was on the menu.” For the first four years, James competed in the European-centric NABBA Mr. Universe, winning the medium-tall class in 1995, but that organization had a restricted reach, and media coverage of it was almost nonexistent in North America.
To access the greater competition available in the NPC and to eventually join the more prestigious IFBB, 28-year-old James decided to figuratively dip his calves into the water at the 1997 NPC Border States Classic in San Diego. Although unsure about how he would be perceived by American judges, he won the overall.
The Border States victory qualified him for the following year’s national-level contests, and he entered the 1997 Nationals in Dallas three weeks later. Because of his lack of experience, James continued to diet, and he weighed 11 pounds less at the Nationals than he had at the Border States. Had he restored his glycogen instead of keeping to his strict diet, he figures he could have done better than placing fourth in the heavyweight class behind future pros Tom Prince, Orville Burke and Garrett Downing.
James came to the USA with no expectations. He was pleased with that placing, considering his outsider status, and he planned to return better prepared for the next Nationals. However, a conversation with bodybuilding journalist Lonnie Teper prompted James to try the ’98 NPC USA, even though he wasn’t sure he was ready. He didn’t think that he had built his rep enough and was uncertain as to how he would fare.
James modified his diet, but it was primarily the same: chicken and rice. He started to eat oatmeal for breakfast, but it was chicken more often than not. After 5 PM, he would substitute vegetables for the rice.
In July at the USA in Las Vegas, Nevada, James won the first NPC super-heavyweight class in a pro qualifier after a hard-fought battle with Melvin Anthony Jr. By taking the USA overall decision, James had earned his entry to the IFBB. Judges who remembered the “no name” from the Nationals saw a bodybuilder who appeared to bring in a package 18 pounds heavier, never mind that he was smaller at the Nationals because he had overdieted. James says, “I learned a lot when I first came to the United States. I’d see these guys ordering off the menu at restaurants. I thought they didn’t take their diets seriously. That’s when I realized how restrictive my diet was and how I was suffering for no reason. There were so many things that I could get away with that I didn’t know.”