In 2008, I was hired to do my first professional fitness shoot. I’m not counting the other gigs in my 20’s where I ended up on some pseudo jerk-off websites. Hey, I have no regrets. I was young, and at that point trusted everyone. But I certainly can’t claim those on my resume as even 69% legit.
Anyways, as the calendar flipped to 2018, I realized that first real gig in the physique game was a decade ago. Holy shit, time ticks quick!
Over the subsequent 10, I did several more fitness shoots, competed in some natural bodybuilding and physique shows, represented a few fitness brands, and flexed for my mirror an asinine amount of times (while my wife shook her head and second guessed what the hell she had gotten herself into).
The net of that nonsense is that I’ve pretty much spent the last decade of my life in what many would consider decent physique shape.
Now, before I start to sound way too douchey for even my own acquired tastes, my first unfiltered, self-reflective thought about all that was — what the hell am I doing with my life? Seriously man. I should have studied computer science and business and done something of more financial and societal significance. Maybe I’ll see if I can grow up in my 40’s and make a transition?
My second thought was I might as well find a way to spin something useful out of that uselessness. That’s what this post is all about. Actually, I’m going to break it up into a series of posts because there’s a shit ton to talk about.
I’ve learned a lot over the last 10 years about effective and efficient strategies to drop fat and live lean year-round. Some of that has come from integrating research-based hypotheses. Some has come from practical experience in preparing for shoots and shows. Some has come from working with a wide variety of clients – assessing, testing, streamlining, and refining until we found what worked.
I try to keep an open mind, and in the spirit of The Bruce Lee:
It does not look at combat (or in our case natural physique training) from a certain angle but from all possible angles, and although JKD utilizes all ways and means to serve its end, it is bound by none and is, therefore, free from all ways and means…There is only one basic principle of self-defense (or in our case physique development): You must apply the most effective weapon as soon as possible. – Bruce Lee, Artist of Life.
Too many new-school fitness enthusiasts just post research studies in forums while completely dismissing insights from athletic experience. They don’t realize that research conclusions aren’t the final word. They’re actually just the starting point. Nothing baffles me more than the out of shape coach, biohacker, or guru that proclaims there’s is the optimum way for physique enhancement = gaping self-awareness gaps.
I mean for most, physique-focused fitness isn’t a mid-term test or theoretical debate. Its about getting the damn job done in the real world. So study conclusions simply help you formulate real world hypotheses. From there, you must go out and put that shit to the test, assess, and adjust accordingly.
If you want to just sound smart, that’s one thing. But anyone with even a pubic hair of practical experience can tell you that what sounds good on paper doesn’t always work on the physique field, in practical application settings, with the personnel you’re playing with.
On the other end, many athletes (often of superior genetics) don’t understand that what works for them doesn’t always work for everyone. They ignore academic study and research as a valuable tool for providing more targeted, broadly tested, and informed starting points for a wider variety of demographics and situations.
In addition, many fitness people are so obsessive and OCD with their approaches that they probably couldn’t narrow down what specific strategies are actually responsible for their superior results vs. what is minutia, superfluous, or sometimes, downright detrimental.
That shotgun approach is fine if you’re talking to other OCD fitness people, but not to people with a career and life outside of fitness, and that are looking for more targeted and time-efficient methods.
I believe a good mix of research and practical experience is the way to go if you are looking to cut through the fluff and get to the nuggets of gold. That’s what I aspire to provide in these post pieces. But before we dive into the specific strategies, I want to drop two more qualifiers:
1. I was 29-39 during the decade of the douche that I let loose.
So I’m not just some 20-something with limited experience, unlimited time resources, and a fast metabolism talking about what works when youth and peak hormone production is on your side.
It’s not to completely dismiss that demographic, it’s just to point out that a lot more random things can work well for physique development when you’re that age. As I look back, I realize that I got into good shape multiple times despite my training and diet approach, not because of it. It was more consistency, discipline, and hard work than anything else.
But that Rocky-style approach just doesn’t always work great in your 30’s and beyond. The older you get, the more intelligent and strategic you need to get, in addition to the baseline of grind and grit.
There’s plenty of fitness peeps that wake up in their 30’s, 40s, and beyond and say, “I’m doing everything I used to do in my 20’s but I’m getting out of shape?” It is because their approach wasn’t that effective and efficient in the first place. Youth can be good make-up for misinformed methods.
2. I did it without physique-enhancing drugs
That’s not a judgment on those who choose a different route. It’s really just about program specificity. The dude or diva using physique-enhancing drugs can often push their diet and training program to the extremes because the exogenous chemicals can compensate for any down-regulation in natural hormone production and metabolic function that might happen.
But the natural dude or diva trying to follow an enhanced athlete’s plan is likely to end up burned out and broken. They need to follow a more targeted and efficient approach, and better balance training, diet, and recovery for long-term sustainability.
Sorry for all of the tangents and qualifiers. I just wanted to be clear about where I’m coming from, and more importantly, whom I’m speaking to in this post. If you’ve been in the fitness and physique game for a while, you know there are a lot of different niches, and advice needs to be context specific.
Anyways, with that long-winded intro out of the way, lets dive into the lean meat of this piece….
Lesson #1 – Your diet/nutrition habits are way more important to reach your physique goals. Your training is more important to reach your performance goals.
Think diet first when physique transformation or enhancement is your top priority.
If you’ve read any of my courses or books over the last decade, you’ve heard this statement multiple times because I plaster it everywhere. Sometimes you have to sound like a broken record to finally break through. And even then, sometimes repeated beatings can’t crack through stubborn skulls.
Verify this sentiment for yourself just by looking around your local fitness hangout. There are plenty of dudes and divas consistently beating the shit out of themselves in gyms, running trails, cross-training classes, and boot camps; yet are still frustrated that their belly fat isn’t diminishing.
Even a decent percentage of professional trainers, who theoretically have the most well designed training programs on the planet, have very subpar body composition stats.
And where do you stand? Can you squat and bench heavy loads, but are also carrying an extra load around the waist. Can you perform amazing boot camp and cross-training drills, but don’t look like you’ve ever exercised a day in your life? Can you hit amazing running times, but are still soft, saggy, and flabby crossing the finish line?
That sounds dick-ish, but it’s really not to condescend or to make you feel bad. It’s to bitch slap you back onto a more effective path. I too was once that frustrated dude who didn’t understand this critical, foundational physique principle, and needed to wake up to get cut up.
There was a time in my life where I was a good performance athlete — sprinter, martial artist, acrobat, and stunt performer. Like Al Bundy, I even once scored 4 touchdowns in one game (I’m hoping I’m not “peaked in high school guy” too, but I’m not so sure). I did this all while being skinny-fat. It wasn’t until I nailed down my nutrition strategies that I was able to attain a lean physique, and gain some success in the physique game.
Is that just personal experience? Perhaps. But I’d say it is more like n=1 multiplied by the thousands of people I’ve worked with over nearly 20 years in my private training business. That’s a lot more subjects, and a much longer length of time then you’d get in a typical lab study.
Its been the full spectrum of rectums hitting the gym floor = pro athletes, lawyers, natural bodybuilders, doctors, bikini girls, tech dudes, fitness models, busy professionals, bouncers, bartenders, entrepreneurs, exotic dancers, and bat shit crazy people alike. There has been only one universal theme.
The clients who focused on their nutrition habits first were the ones who obtained the best physique results. The clients who tried to use exercise to offset a poor diet, or who thought they could mindlessly eat whatever they wanted because they were exercising, obtained mediocre results at best. They tried to out-train a poor diet. They are still fighting a battle they will never win.
I get that many have performance-related, or just general health goals when it comes to their fitness plan. And that’s fine. That’s more than fine. That’s awesome if that’s your thing. Be grateful that vanity has not driven you to insanity.
But chasing Vince Gironda and childish physique dreams is my thing. And if that’s your thing, and you have any sort of physique enhancement goals, the truth is you’re pretty much just wasting your time with your training program until you focus on improving your nutrition habits.
If this lesson is the only thing I ever actually effectively teach over the course of my career, it will not have been a waste.
“Body sculpting is 85% diet…if you don’t have your diet down first, the rest is moot…People are often skeptical of my statement that bodybuilding is 85 percent nutrition. The average bodybuilder vastly underestimates the value of diet and overestimates how good his own eating program is.” — Vince Gironda.
Lesson #2 – An Average Calorie Deficit is the Most Important Fat Loss Step. Period, But Not End of Story…
Total caloric balance–energy in versus energy out–is the prime determinant of bodyweight and body fat. The idea that diet composition is secondary to total caloric content is supported by not just the majority of long-term intervention trials, but also the majority of controlled metabolic ward studies. – Alan Aragon, Alan Aragon Research Review
Each year many people go on a diet to lose weight. An active area of research is examining the efficacy and safety of energy-deficient diets that have different proportions of the macronutrients. At this time the size of the caloric deficit appears to be more important to weight loss than the composition of the diet. Weight loss has been reported with both low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets and high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets. – Gropper, et al. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism
Step back from the miracle nutrient marketing narratives, and the diet industry debates, and think about carving out a 6-Pack from an objective perspective.
How many people do you know who say, “calories don’t count, you only need to worry about carbs, insulin, intermittent fasting, kale, ketosis, kombucha, caveman foods, eating organic, swinging vegan, detoxing, drinking more water, or whatever the latest hot diet topic is…” are actually as consistently lean and in shape as you’d like to be?
Sure, there’s an outlier here or there, but that’s why you see most of them wearing sweaters in webinars rather then walking around with their shirts off, pants off, or rolling around naked (hey now!).
Now flip the fat loss script. How many fitness models and physique athletes do you think know their calorie intake down to the last decimal point? And if you are tracking the grams of your macros (protein, carbs, fats), you are indirectly tracking calories.
You shouldn’t learn everything from physique peeps because drugs, genetics, and straight up psychological disorders often play a factor. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore everything from the elites of the field you are trying to improve in. Both blind mimicking and bitter dismissing would be inexcusably ignorant. You just need a strong filter to sift through looney tune fiction vs. fact. Let me help you with that.
Consistently hitting customized nutrition numbers accounts for the majority of most physique peeps’ results (not their latest metabolic enhancing finisher or pill popping protocol). As for you, getting to know at least your average, ballpark nutrition numbers can be extremely useful data.
There are all of these I-pads, apps, and fitness gadgets, and people are willing to freaking track and overanalyze everything about their fitness plan (daily steps, sleep wave patterns, exercising heart rate, calories burned while exercising, PR percentages, periodization schedules, inner feelings about mindset, in-season vs. off-season pube length, etc.), EXCEPT the numbers that matter most — at least when it comes to physique transformation – average nutrition numbers.
That’s especially true if you “think you are doing everything right” or have “integrated all of the latest, cutting edge fitness hacks”, but yet are still frustrated with your lack of physique progress.
It’s a little ironic, don’t you think? A little too ironic, yeah I really do think…
Numbers never lie. They take things out of the realm of the emotional and subjective, and transport them into the realm of the analytical and objective. They give you a reference point from which you can make detailed assessments and customized adjustments based on progress and feedback.
Integrating a little simple math can eliminate the need for 90% of the distraction, confusion, noise, nonsense, and hacker and hippie bullshit in the fat loss industry. Do you want to just feel like you are doing something good for yourself or do you actually want to get shit done?
Anyways, the moral of this physique story is that nutrition numbers definitely matter, and calories are the most important number to get right in the fat loss equation. They are not the only number as many calorie counting diets proclaim, but they are the most important one.
Despite some of the metabolic and hormonal advantages of certain foods and macronutrient ratios, total calories are still king. The only way to force your body to burn off stored fat is to take in fewer calories than you expend, on average, over some time frame.
Yes, certain foods–higher protein, not necessarily low carbs–offer a metabolic advantage (a higher percentage of calories are burned off in the digestion process), have greater impacts on satiety, and are less likely to be overeaten. In essence, they can help you get into a calorie deficit without being consciously aware of it.
Yes, certain macronutrient amounts and ratios can impact blood sugar, insulin, glucagon, glycemic control, growth hormone, cAMP, HSL, and other hormones and enzymes that control fat storing and fat burning processes.
But the bottom line fact remains — attaining an average negative energy balance is still the most important fat loss step. The rest of those details can make a big difference once you are in between the lines. But it’s the calorie deficit first that even gets you into the fat loss game.
The good news is that once you are in a calorie deficit, a wide variety of diet approaches can work well for fat loss and physique enhancement –typical bodybuilding and fitness programs, Paleo and caveman plans, vegetarian and vegan adventures, fitting-your-macronutrient maestros, various cultural diets (Mediterranean), low carb and low fat diets, etc.
Mortal enemies can once again be friends. And you can ultimately have the freedom to find what approach resonates and works best for you vs. getting suckered into the industry battle for dietary supremacy.
I certainly have my preferred route that I’m going to share with you in the rest of this post series (Physique-Style Macros + Island-Style Food Templates). But I’d be lying to you if I said a variety of other approaches can’t work well either.
Calorie Cutting Options
And honestly, I don’t care how you get the calorie-cutting job done, as long as you do it (that is if the goal is fat loss). If you don’t want to track your food intake or count your calories, yet focusing on improving food quality is the more feasible way to get you in the deficit necessary for fat loss, I’m all for it.
This is the foundation of several diets–Paleo, Raw, Whole Foods, etc. Specific food templates are used to get you to avoid certain foods (mostly modern, processed, refined foods) and emphasize better ones (mostly real, whole, natural foods – this can range from near-carnivore to near-vegan).
For some, this approach works great. The improvement in food quality automatically leads to a reduction in calories. Fat is lost. And abs that were once lost, now are found. Beautiful.
People who have had success with this approach are generally the ones who proclaim that calories don’t matter. What they don’t realize is that they actually were cutting calories, they just weren’t conscious of it because they weren’t actively counting. The food template/improvements in food quality automated the process of it.
Now that’s meaningless if you are talking about personal results. Whatever works, works baby. But it’s meaningful when you are trying to teach others the fundamental fat loss principles. And that becomes apparent when you work with a wide variety of demographics, and discover that what works for some doesn’t always work for everyone.
For some people, the food template approach is too restrictive. Making a wholesale change in their typical meals and food choices is too big of a leap. They struggle with adherence and alternate between “being good” and “breaking bad” by bingeing.
Sometimes the slide lasts for weeks, months, or becomes their baseline plan because “fat loss dieting is too strict and unrealistic.” Their plan is to just grow the Buddha belly so big that they can ultimately wish it away in one detox weekend retreat. Good luck with that.
For this group, the easiest and most seamless place to get started is to try to get in a calorie deficit with the foods they are already eating. If you want to go this route, it will mean tracking your food intake and numbers, and adjusting the portion sizes as necessary to get in a deficit. This “flexible” approach to dieting works well for a decent percentage of peeps.
But please never forget the flipside to this fun and flexible calorie story. If you are “eating healthy” or “low-carb” or “going Paleo” or “going Raw” but are still not losing weight, shedding flab, and getting lean, now you know why. Despite eating according to any dogma’s creed or false promises, if you’re not in a calorie deficit, you won’t slash fat and unveil your 6-pack – plain and simple.
Or, a variety of diets can work great for fat loss if it leads you to an average calorie deficit. Those same diets can equally suck for fat loss if you are eating in a consistent calorie surplus.
Suggested Starting Points
I’d say the most respected textbook formula is Katch McArdle
*Katch McArdle Maintenance Formula:
- BMR = 370 + (21.6 x lean mass in kilograms)
- Moderately Active Multiplier = BMR X 1.55 (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/wk)
*Katch McArdle Fat Loss Formula: 10-20% below this calculated maintenance number for fat loss.
I also believe that most calorie calculation formulas (especially from the Sports Nutrition world) over-estimate what most people will need to effectively drop body fat. Most of us just sit around all day at work, and tech-based leisure activities have replaced activity-based ones.
In addition, my overall physique-focused approach is to let diet take care of the majority of fat loss (remember lesson #1 – its more effective and efficient that way), and to use your formal activity to focus on building lean muscle and shaping the body.
So I tend to recommend the lower end of the calorie calculation ranges that are out there. Something like 10-13 cals/lbs, or per pound of lean body mass if you are over 15% body fat.
Some More Low Calorie Snacks
- So you don’t want to improve your food choices and emphasize mostly real, whole, natural foods AND you don’t want to learn about food tracking, portion sizes, and how they affect your average diet numbers? You just want to eat intuitively in the modern food environment with unlimited access to hyper-processed, hyper-palatable foods because that’s the way it should be? Good luck with that. Unless you are an outlier, you better get used to being overweight and pre-diabetic. The truth is that if you want to develop a decent physique, and just have a good baseline level of health for that matter, you are going to have to put in some work somewhere. Modern habits and lifestyles are disastrous for health and physique goals.
- All formulas are just estimated, ballpark starting points. They must be tested and assessed in the real world, and refined based on progress and feedback. Meaning yeah, you’ll actually have to implement a diet in the real world, and then refine it, not just sit back in forums and talk about it. Stop theorizing about what is universally optimal for fat loss. Start finding out what is specifically effective for you.
- An average calorie deficit over a defined time frame is the fat loss ticket. I like to use a week as that reference point, and then focus on stringing together good week after good week. Why? Old habits from the grind of competitive athletics I guess. But straight up endless diets and linear deficits don’t seem to work great psychology-wise for long-term adherence and sustainability.
- In practical strategy, what has always worked well for me is to eat in a deficit 5-6 days a week (10-13 calories per/lbs), and then have 1-2 days a week where you work in some free meals with foods (probably of higher caloric value) that you’ve been craving. Now, this doesn’t mean garbage disposaling everything. Just reasonable portions of some different stuff. For the OCD, something like eating at maintenance or slightly above (14-16 calories/lbs) 1-2 times a week.
- These strategic calorie spikes are a second reason why I tend to be more aggressive with the baseline diet numbers (10-13 kcals/lbs vs. Sports Nutrition Formulas). The end result is that the weekly average remains reasonable, and within the effective range.
- Timing-wise, what seems to work is to grind during the work week when you are hustling and getting shit done anyways, and can develop habits and a regular routine that ultimately becomes automated (that’s how the fat loss process becomes “easy” = you form good habits instead of relying on discipline, impulse, decision fatigue, etc.). Limit decision fatigue during the week, and then you loosen up and have a little more flexibility on the weekend when you are out and about socializing and don’t want to obsess over your diet like a crazy person.
- For most, these calorie spikes are just for psychological breaks and sustainability. But the leaner you get, the more calorie spikes/re-feeds may have physiological benefits as well. Periodic overfeeding–or a couple of days of calorie surpluses sprinkled in amongst days of calorie deficits–can offset some of the negative effects (metabolic adaptation, natural hormone down-regulation) of chronic caloric restriction. This is key if you want to live lean year-round without breaking your body, and without relying on physique-enhancing drugs to offset that stuff.
Good Additional Reading & Thinking
Fat Loss Fundamentals by Lyle McDonald
How to Estimate Caloric Intake by Lyle McDonald
Lesson #3 – Once you do account for calories, macronutrient amounts and ratios do matter. And of the macros, protein should be top priority.
If calories are still king, protein is queen. And I guess just like in the game of chess, the king is really just the figurehead. It’s the queen that does all of the hard work, heavy lifting, and killing of villains.
In terms of physique, eating adequate protein (in conjunction with a properly designed strength training program) helps us build, or at least preserve lean muscle mass while residing in the calorie deficit necessary for fat loss. This is critical as lean muscle is what provides our body with its shape, tightness, tone, and definition.
If you indiscriminately lose weight, but lose a bunch of muscle along the way, you will still appear loose, soft, and flabby despite the overall drop in bodyweight. That’s what happens with those extreme detox and starvation-type diets. And that’s obviously not the end result we’re after. We want to be “Tight like a Tiger” as Goldmember would say.
So despite the goal of getting into a calorie deficit to drop fat, we still want to allot enough calories to protein in order to support the “gaintaining” of lean muscle mass.
Sedentary Nutrition and Sports Nutrition are two completely different things. This means the physique peeps’ protein needs are likely higher than the RDA recommendations for two reasons:
- The RDA’s are set for the general, non-exercising population. Exercising, especially weight training, places unique stresses on the body. The constant breaking down and rebuilding of muscle tissue increases the body’s demands for protein.
- The RDA’s are set to avoid the side effects related to protein deficiency, and for maintenance of the average physique, not for the higher aspirations of meatheads and divas looking to maximize lean muscle mass while stripping away body fat.
The scientists who believe that protein requirements are greater for athletes and exercising people offer two explanations: 1. Amino acids may be oxidized during exercise. 2. Increased protein synthesis is necessary to repair damage and forms the basis of training adaptations. Jeukendrup, et al. Sports Nutrition
There are a couple of additional reasons to optimize your protein intake.
1. Protein, High Satiety, & Dietary Adherence
Protein is one of the highest satiety foods. Research shows protein-based meals are highly effective at reducing hunger cravings, even while in a calorie deficit (and even more so than small, frequent meals). This is key in improving diet adherence and success rates.
Remember what I said about what sounds good on paper doesn’t always work in the real world? Well people understand in theory that getting in a calorie deficit is necessary for fat loss. So why don’t they consistently do it?
Many people try, but then hunger, disinhibited eating, mindless snacking, etc. takes over. If once we cut back on our poor food choices and portions sizes, we can somehow reduce the potential for running into these roadblocks; we have a better chance of succeeding with our fat loss plans.
Protein-based diets (both on a per-day and per meal basis) help with that, probably more so than nibbling on celery stick snacks or drinking more water or whatever the latest diet blog health tip is.
Weigle, et al. A high-protein diet induces sustained reductions in appetite, ad libitum caloric intake, and body weight despite compensatory changes in diurnal plasma leptin and ghrelin concentrations. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Jul;82(1):41-8.
An increase in dietary protein from 15% to 30% of energy at a constant carbohydrate intake produces a sustained decrease in ad libitum caloric intake that may be mediated by increased central nervous system leptin sensitivity and results in significant weight loss.
Leidy HJ et al. Influence of higher protein intake and greater eating frequency on appetite control in overweight and obese men. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 Mar 25.
Eating fewer, regular-sized meals with higher amounts of lean protein can make one feel more full than eating smaller, more frequent meals, according to new research from Purdue University. We found that when eating high amounts of protein, men who were trying to lose weight felt fuller throughout the day; they also experienced a reduction in late-night desire to eat and had fewer thoughts of food. We also found that despite the common trend of eating smaller, more frequent meals, eating frequency had relatively no beneficial impact on appetite control. The larger meals led to reductions in appetite, and people felt full. We want to emphasize though that these three larger meals were restricted in calories and reflected appropriate portion sizes to be effective in weight loss. Our advice for people trying to lose weight is to add a moderate amount of protein at three regular meals a day to help appetite control and the feeling of fullness.
2. The Thermic Effect of Food & The True Metabolic Advantage
Protein also has the highest thermic effect of any food. This is just a fancy term describing how many calories are burned off in the digestion, absorption, and storage processes. The thermic effect of protein is 25-30%, compared to carbohydrate at 6-8%, and fat at 2-3%.
Preserving lean muscle and the higher thermic effect of food is why research shows it is primarily protein that provides the “metabolic advantage” of different macronutrient distributions, not necessarily the carb and fat amounts and ratios.
Metabolic advantage is another geeky term used in nutrition to describe the ability of a diet to achieve greater weight loss than another diet of equal calories. This is a more technical way of saying that while calories are the first step, macros matter for optimal fat loss too.
If you emphasize the most satiating food that also has the highest percentage of calories burned off in the digestion and absorption processes, you’ll have a leg up (or love handle down) on the fat loss process, as well as improved odds at long-term sustainability.
Soenen, et al. Relatively high-protein or ‘low-carb’ energy-restricted diets for body weight loss and body weight maintenance? Physiol Behav. 2012 Oct 10;107(3):374-80.
Body-weight loss and weight- maintenance depends on the high-protein, but not on the ‘low-carb’ component of the diet, while it is unrelated to the concomitant fat- content of the diet…The novelty of our study is the finding that it is primarily the relatively high‐protein intake that underscores the success of the so called ‘low‐carb’ diet that is usually high in protein. Lowered carbohydrate intake per se had no effect on decrease in BW (bodyweight) and FM (fat mass) during energy restriction, while daily elevated absolute protein intake of 1.1 vs. 0.7 g/kg BW promoted BW loss while reducing FM during the weight‐loss phase.
3. Protein: Carb Ratios, Blood Sugar Control, & Biomarkers of Health
Increasing the protein content of your diet in relation to excessive carbohydrate intake (both on a per-day, and per-meal basis) can lead to better blood sugar control, and improvements in other biomarkers of health, especially for those individuals who are insulin resistant, pre-diabetic, and significantly overweight (a high percentage of our modern population).
In real world terms, thinking protein first at each meal, and eating something like eggs and a piece of fruit vs. kid’s cereal or a mocha and muffin combo for breakfast, or more even portions of chicken, rice, and veggies vs. pasta and chips for lunch, etc. not only will help you lose body fat if you are in a calorie deficit, but the effect of that more reasonable ratio of protein: carbohydrate on hunger and blood sugar control will actually make it much easier to stick to that plan and sustain those results on a long-term basis (at least once you detox from the addictive properties of hyper-palatable, highly-refined foods).
That last paragraph made a lot of sense in my head, but I don’t know if it came across on screen the same way. Lets see if the take home messages from these studies can clarify:
Layman, et al. A Reduced Ratio of Dietary Carbohydrate to Protein Improves Body Composition and Blood Lipid Profiles during Weight Loss in Adult Women. J. Nutr. February 1, 2003 vol. 133 no. 2 411-417
Claims about the merits or risks of carbohydrate (CHO) vs. protein for weight loss diets are extensive, yet the ideal ratio of dietary carbohydrate to protein for adult health and weight management remains unknown. This study examined the efficacy of two weight loss diets with modified CHO/protein ratios to change body composition and blood lipids in adult women. Women (n = 24; 45 to 56 y old) with body mass indices >26 kg/m(2) were assigned to either a CHO Group consuming a diet with a CHO/protein ratio of 3.5 (68 g protein/d) or a Protein Group with a ratio of 1.4 (125 g protein/d). Diets were isoenergetic, providing 7100 kJ/d, and similar amounts of fat (approximately 50 g/d). After consuming the diets for 10 wk, the CHO Group lost 6.96 +/- 1.36 kg body weight and the Protein Group lost 7.53 +/- 1.44 kg. Weight loss in the Protein Group was partitioned to a significantly higher loss of fat/lean (6.3 +/- 1.2 g/g) compared with the CHO Group (3.8 +/- 0.9). Both groups had significant reductions in serum cholesterol (approximately 10%), whereas the Protein Group also had significant reductions in triacylglycerols (TAG) (21%) and the ratio of TAG/HDL cholesterol (23%). Women in the CHO Group had higher insulin responses to meals and postprandial hypoglycemia, whereas women in the Protein Group reported greater satiety. This study demonstrates that increasing the proportion of protein to carbohydrate in the diet of adult women has positive effects on body composition, blood lipids, glucose homeostasis and satiety during weight loss.
Carbohydrate Diet Group: 1700 calories, 68g protein (16%), 239g carbs (58%), 50g fat (26% fat)
Protein Diet Group: 1700 calories, 125g protein (30%), 171g carbohydrate (41%), 50g fat (29%)
Ratliff, et al. Consuming eggs for breakfast influences plasma glucose and ghrelin, while reducing energy intake during the next 24 hours in adult men. Nutr Res. 2010 Feb;30(2):96-103
Subjects consumed fewer kilocalories after the EGG breakfast compared with the BAGEL breakfast (P< .01). In addition, subjects consumed more kilocalories in the 24-hour period after the BAGEL compared with the EGG breakfast (P < .05). Based on VAS, subjects were hungrier and less satisfied 3 hours after the BAGEL breakfast compared with the EGG breakfast (P < .01). Participants had higher plasma glucose area under the curve (P < .05) as well as an increased ghrelin and insulin area under the curve with BAGEL (P < .05). These findings suggest that consumption of eggs for breakfast results in less variation of plasma glucose and insulin, a suppressed ghrelin response, and reduced energy intake.
Don’t Follow Bodybuilding Extremes
Now, I’m not a total meatball, and I don’t want you to misunderstand my plan. While I believe protein should be the foundation of individual meals and your overall diet, it should not be excessively high as many extreme bodybuilders, hardcore muscle magazines, and protein supplement companies recommend.
Back to the natural vs. enhanced issue in relation to diet program specificity. Steroids increase protein synthesis, and those using them may indeed be able to utilize excessively high amounts of protein for supra-physiological processes. They also may be able to cut their carbs to extremely low levels without physiological, metabolic, or hormonal repercussions (at least in the short-term). This is not true for the natural dude or diva.
In high amounts, especially combined with low carb diets, a process called de-animation occurs where the body strips amino acids of their nitrogen molecule and converts them to glucose. This is a metabolically (and literally) costly way to obtain glucose.
Forget the boring biochemistry. This just means that although the athlete’s goal is to fuel their muscles first, your body’s evolutionary goal is to fuel the brain first. Your body will find a way to fuel the brain before anything else, even if it means breaking down protein, or even your own muscle tissue, to do so.
I know it might not seem like it if you’ve ever had a conversation with a full-blown meathead or fitness diva, but it’s the physiological truth.
And at some point, despite what many proclaim about unlimited protein diets, there can be drawbacks. At very high amounts (5+g/kg), you can exceed the liver’s capacity to convert excess nitrogen to urea and excrete it through the urine. This causes blood ammonia levels to rise, which can lead to gastrointestinal distress, chronic fatigue, and other side effects.
If you are interested in this topic, I recommend you check out the following paper. I’ve included a few key highlights to wet your protein knowledge appetite.
Bilsborough, et al. A Review of Issues of Dietary Protein Intake in Humans Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2006 Apr;16(2):129-52
The accepted level of protein requirement of 0.8g ∙ kg-1 ∙ d-1 is based on structural requirements and ignores the use of protein for energy metabolism. High protein diets on the other hand advocate excessive levels of protein intake on the order of 200 to 400 g/d, which can equate to levels of approximately 5 g ∙ kg-1 ∙ d-1, which may exceed the liver’s capacity to convert excess nitrogen to urea. Dangers of excessive protein, defined as when protein constitutes > 35% of total energy intake, include hyperaminoacidemia, hyperammonemia, hyperinsulinemia, nausea, diarrhea, and even death (the “rabbit starvation syndrome”).
The key issues are the rate at which the gastrointestinal tract can absorb amino acids from dietary proteins (1.3 to 10 g/h) and the liver’s capacity to deaminate proteins and produce urea for excretion of excess nitrogen.
This gives us an initial understanding that although higher protein intakes are physiologically possible, and tolerable by the human body, they may not be functionally optimal in terms of building and preserving body protein. The general, although incorrect consensus among athletes and bodybuilders, is that rapid protein absorption corresponds to greater muscle building.
Research on Optimum Protein Amounts
So we need more than the RDA, but less than the steroid extreme. What’s the sweet spot?
The majority of the research suggests 1.5-2.0g/kg, which equals 0.7-0.9g/lbs of bodyweight.
Although there remains some debate, recent evidence suggests that dietary protein need increases with rigorous physical exercise. Those involved in strength training might need to consume as much as 1.6 to 1.7 g protein x kg(-1) x day(-1) (approximately twice the current RDA).– The International Journal of Sports Nutrition
For SA (strength athlete), the LP diet (low protein 0.9g/kg) did not provide adequate protein and resulted in an accommodated state (decreased WBPS [whole body protein synthesis vs. MP and HP]), and the MP (moderate protein – 1.4g/kg) diet resulted in a state of adaptation (increase in WBPS and no change in leucine oxidation). The HP diet (high protein 2.4g/kg) did not result in increased WBPS compared with the MP diet, but leucine oxidation did increase significantly, indicating a nutrient overload. – The Journal of Applied Physiology
Morton, et al. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. Br J Sports Med. 2017 Jul 11
Dietary protein supplementation significantly enhanced changes in muscle strength and size during prolonged RET in healthy adults. Increasing age reduces and training experience increases the efficacy of protein supplementation during RET. With protein supplementation, protein intakes at amounts greater than ~1.6 g/kg/day do not further contribute RET-induced gains in FFM.
How do those numbers translate into practical strategy? Look at the Leidy study above (yeah, I wasn’t including these studies just to look smart. It is because they contain actual strategy). The take home was to emphasize protein at your main meals, which for most is breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
If you eat 3-protein based meals a day (eggs for breakfast, chicken for lunch, fish for dinner, etc.), you’ll more than likely end up near that optimal protein range for physique purposes.
All that’s left would be to adjust the portion sizes for more “Precision Nutrition”. 4oz of protein (about the size of a deck of cards) = roughly 25g of protein.
Additional Reading & Thinking
Evidence From the Metabolic Ward: 1.6-2.4g/kg Protein Turn Short Term Weight Loss Intervention into a Fat Loss Diet
Breakfast: Eat it or Skip it? Making it High Protein Will Have Habitually Skipping Teens Lose Fat & Curbs Their Hunger
Part II of our 6-pack carving class will be continued soon…on our same Island Time, at our same Natural Physique Training Site…