*Warning – I apologize in advance for the length of this post. All I can say is that after catching up on some nutritional research combined with having a few in-depth discussions with private clients about translating that info into practical strategy, I was motivated to share the insights with all of you too.
What ensued was like “The Debate Scene” in the movie Old School where Frank the Tank blacks out, goes off on an intellectual rant, and wakes up with no recollection of what had happened.
I too blacked out, went off on a rant about carbs vs. dietary fats in the diet design process, woke up having written a massive post, and had no idea what had just happened. If you are really into learning about the theory behind an efficient and targeted approach to the physique transformation process, I recommend you power through it.
You see, you can keep following the modern trend of having the attention span of a gnat, only skimming through the shortest posts/watching the shortest videos, and skipping over anything of actual substance. That can work great when you only have five minutes for some porn perusing…uh, I meant personal reflection time. But its not so great for an efficient educational process that actually leads to effective execution.
The problem these days is that most people only pick up bits and pieces of popular diet topics without proper context, and without understanding whether or not that info is relevant and accurate to their specific situation. The end result is someone who reads a lot of health, fitness, and diet stuff, but is still more confused then ever. Or they subjectively think they know a shit ton, but their objective real world results shows differently.
Instead, I encourage you to take a little time to learn about the bigger nutritional picture, where you might fit along that broad spectrum, and how you can translate that information into some practical and personalized strategies that give you the best shot at succeeding. I truly hope this post series becomes a valuable part of that process for you. So without further pontification, lets get to some of that macronutrient education…
In Part I of this post series, we talked about how focusing on diet first, averaging a targeted calorie level calculated off of your main physique goal, and optimizing protein intake are the three biggest rocks in the physique transformation process.
Hitting those steps up with some kind of consistency will get you building some lean muscle, shedding some excess flab, and perhaps starting to see some upper abs. But how do we dive deeper into the details of becoming “the definition OF definition”, and unveil those ever-elusive lower abs?
4. After eating at an appropriate calorie level and optimizing protein intake, a variety of carbohydrate and dietary fat intakes can work well for fat loss and physique transformation.
Once your protein levels are set, we still have to fill in the rest of your calorie allotment with the other two macronutrients = carbohydrates and fats.
For example, 150g of protein (at 4cal/g) = 600 calories. Depending on your protein sources – lean to not-so-lean – that probably provides an additional 200-600 calories from the dietary fat within those protein foods (fish, meat, eggs, etc).
So we still have some extra energy nutrients to eat. Should those calories come from added fats or carbohydrates? That is an age-old nutritional debate that will probably rage on into eternity.
Here’s the unbiased truth – a variety of approaches can work equally well for fat loss and physique transformation once you control for a calorie deficit, optimal protein intake, decent food choices, and consistent strength training. That’s why you see so many heated debates offline, online, in pristine gyms, and all the way down into the cesspool of humanity — fitness forums (hahaha, just kidding…but not really…).
I don’t get it. If you step back from the dogma and look at it from an objective perspective, real-world results prove a variety of approaches can work. And in the end, that’s what matters most right? Are we just trying to be right, or do we actually want to help people get it right?
I mean take any biases and preconceived notions you have out of the equation. Don’t worry. You can insert them back in later on. In fact, I’ll be pulling out and inserting my…cough, cough, biases…all over this heated piece.
Anyways, there are plenty of gym rats and physique peeps that have gotten into great shape by following low-carb, higher-fat diets (again, within the confines of a calorie deficit and adequate protein intake).
There are plenty of physique peeps that have gotten into great shape by following low-fat, higher-carb diets (within the confines of a calorie deficit and adequate protein intake).
And there are plenty of physique peeps that have gotten into great shape by following a variety of approaches in-between those two extremes, with more middle of the ground macronutrient ratios (within the confines of a calorie deficit and adequate protein intake).
And flip the script. There are plenty of low carb dudes that swear all you need to do is cut carbs and you’ll slash fat and get cut, yet are fat and out of shape (because they are overeating calories from unlimited amounts of butter, bacon, and various oils). Same with the low fat dudes whose unlimited amounts of low fat frozen yogurt and snack packs are leading them into a calorie surplus.
Can you see a consistent theme? Can you see why we started with calories and protein first before moving on to more controversial considerations? And can you see how understanding and applying the hierarchy of dietary importance can clear up a lot of confusion?
Ultimately it comes down to testing and assessing in the real world, and finding out what macronutrient breakdown works best for you given a variety of factors – individual metabolic condition, genetic predisposition, current body composition, type and frequency of your training sessions, and just straight up personal preferences.
Not only have a variety of pathways proven to be effective in the physique transformation game, it has played out that way in the research field as well.
Nutritional Research Definitions
<20%, <100g (ketogenic)
|20-45%, 100-225g||45-65%, 225-325g||>65%, 325g+|
|Fat||<10%, 20g||10-25%, 20-55g||25-35%, 55-75g||>35%, 75g+|
|Protein||<10%, <50g||10-20%, 50-100g||>20%, 100g+|
First off, lets get on the same page when we’re talking about Fitness, Physique, & Sports Nutrition research. There are some general categories when discussing different types of diets and macronutrient ratios. These distinctions are important when looking at the potential benefits and drawbacks of different approaches.
You’ll really see the importance of these distinctions in future sections, particularly when talking about the benefits of low carbohydrate diets, but the potential drawbacks of going to the extreme end of that spectrum (very low carbohydrate/ketogenic diets). This is a misunderstanding I had myself before becoming more experienced in translating research into practical application strategy.
For now, it is sufficient to say that low does not mean no. For example, just because there may be benefits to lowering carbohydrate or dietary fat intake does not mean cutting either out completely will produce better results. In fact, there seems to be critical cut off points for some where it can actually become counterproductive.
Effective and sustainable fat loss is a delicate balance. Push things to far to the extremes, and like a pendulum, the body often rebounds into the opposite direction. Perhaps you’ve ridden that yo-yo roller coaster ride yourself in the past?
As a second broad point — unlimited access to modern, processed, refined, hyper-palatable, and fast foods that dominate the typical Y2K American Diet often results in people falling under the categories of a high carbohydrate, high fat, low-to-moderate protein diet.
I can promise you that it ain’t just the high carbs that’s the problem. And it ain’t just the fats. It’s the combination of the two leading to chronic caloric excess. This has proven to be disastrous for both body composition and biomarkers of health.
In fact, I’d say rather than demonizing any particular macronutrient, we should realize its cellular excess in general that is the main health and physique problem in the modern era. And almost any diet approach that has any kind of structure and/or encourages self-awareness about mindless eating/disinhibited eating habits will be an improvement upon that catastrophe.
If we take the physique enhancement game further, flip that fat storing script, and hit the highest-level step in the hierarchy of dietary importance — a calorie deficit for fat loss — research has shown that a wide variety of macronutrient amounts and ratios can work well.
Research Studies With Calories Equated
Naude, et al. Low carbohydrate versus isoenergetic balanced diets for reducing weight and cardiovascular risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2014 Jul 9;9(7):e100652.
We compared the effects of low CHO and isoenergetic balanced weight loss diets in overweight and obese adults assessed in randomised controlled trials (minimum follow-up of 12 weeks), and summarised the effects on weight, as well as cardiovascular and diabetes risk…Trials show weight loss in the short-term irrespective of whether the diet is low CHO or balanced. There is probably little or no difference in weight loss and changes in cardiovascular risk factors up to two years of follow-up when overweight and obese adults, with or without type 2 diabetes, are randomised to low CHO diets and isoenergetic balanced weight loss diets….The similar reported mean energy intakes in the low CHO and balanced diet groups and the corresponding similar average weight loss in the diet groups supports the fundamental physiologic principle of energy balance, namely that a sustained energy deficit results in weight loss regardless of macronutrient composition of the diet.
Foster, et al. Weight and metabolic outcomes after 2 years on a low-carbohydrate versus low-fat diet: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 2010 Aug 3;153(3):147-57.
Weight loss was approximately 11 kg (11%) at 1 year and 7 kg (7%) at 2 years. There were no differences in weight, body composition, or bone mineral density between the groups at any time point…Successful weight loss can be achieved with either a low-fat or low-carbohydrate diet when coupled with behavioral treatment.
The Low Carb Diet: consisted of limited carbohydrate intake (20 g/d for 3 months) in the form of low-glycemic index vegetables with unrestricted consumption of fat and protein. After 3 months, participants in the low-carbohydrate diet group increased their carbohydrate intake (5 g/d per wk) until a stable and desired weight was achieved.
The Low Fat Diet: consisted of limiting energy intake to 1200 to 1500 kcal/d for women and 1500 to 1800 kcal/d for men, with approximately 55% of calories from carbohydrate, 30% from fat, and 15% from protein. Participants were instructed to limit calorie intake, with a focus on decreasing fat intake. However, limiting overall energy intake (kcal/d) was the primary behavioral target
Das, et al. Long-term effects of 2 energy-restricted diets differing in glycemic load on dietary adherence, body composition, and metabolism in CALERIE: a 1-y randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Apr;85(4):1023-30.
This detailed RCT in healthy overweight women and men is the first to examine the effects of HG compared with LG diets on weight loss in a long-term protocol not confounded by group differences in other factors that strongly influence energy intake, including type of behavioral support, diet palatability, and dietary variety of the regimens. Under the conditions of this study, which tested diets that differed in all 3 macronutrients but mostly in glycemic load (40% carbohydrate from low-GI sources compared with 60% of energy intake from high-GI sources), we found no significant difference between the groups in mean energy intake, weight loss, and body fat loss throughout the 12 mo study. These findings provide more rigorous support than available previously for the view that wide variability in the balance of different dietary macronutrients has little effect on mean long-term weight loss during CR (caloric restriction of 30%)…This long-term and detailed RCT, which provided diets extensively matched for confounding variables, found no evidence of any differential effect of dietary GL on group mean values for energy intake, hunger, satiety, metabolic rate, and weight and body fat loss up to 12 mo. Although the results obtained cannot be attributed to any one macronutrient, because we aimed to create different macronutrient patterns that mimicked common patterns of consumption, the present results suggest that a broad range of healthy diets can successfully promote weight loss.
High Glycemic Load Diet: 20% protein, 60% carbohydrate, 20% fat
Low Glycemic Load Diet: 30% protein, 40% carbohydrate, 30% fat
Research Studies With Calories AND Protein Equated
Physique peeps will often optimize protein intake first in order to build, or at least maintain lean muscle, while the targeted calorie deficit takes care of dropping body fat.
If you hit those first two steps in the hierarchy of dietary importance as we advocate as well, and control for total calories AND protein, you see equally effective body composition improvements with both low carb and low fat approaches.
Many low-carb proponents will point to studies that show superior results of low-carb diets. But the majority of these studies fail to match total protein intake. When this critical variable is accounted for, the results are equivalent. If anything, this points to the metabolic advantage of optimizing protein intake, which we discussed in Part I of this post.
So the dogmatic dudes on both sides of the diet fence are both right, and both wrong. Both types of diets can be effective, especially if protein intake is equal. But neither diet is the only, optimal, or superior way, at least when talking about diets in a broad perspective, without demographic specific information.
Golay, et al. Similar weight loss with low- or high-carbohydrate diets. Am J Clin Nutr.1996 Feb;63(2):174-8.
The goal of this study was to evaluate the effect of diets that were equally low in energy but widely different in relative amounts of fat and carbohydrate on body weight during a 6-wk period of hospitalization. Consequently, 43 adult, obese persons were randomly assigned to receive diets containing 4.2 MJ/d (1000 kcal/d) composed of either 32% protein, 15% carbohydrate, and 53% fat, or 29% protein, 45% carbohydrate, and 26% fat. There was no significant difference in the amount of weight loss in response to diets containing either 15% (8.9 +/- 0.6 kg) or 45% (7.5 +/- 0.5 kg) carbohydrate. Furthermore, significant decreases in total body fat and waist-to-hip circumference were seen in both groups, and the magnitude of the changes did not vary as a function of diet composition…The results of this study showed that it was energy intake, not nutrient composition, that determined weight loss in response to low-energy diets over a short time period.
Hall, KD et. al. Calorie for Calorie, Dietary Fat Restriction Results in More Body Fat Loss than Carbohydrate Restriction in People with Obesity Cell Metabolism Cell Metabolism (2015) 22: 1–10.
While our results suggest that the experimental reduced-fat diet was more effective at inducing body fat loss than the reduced-carbohydrate diet, diet adherence was strictly enforced. We did not address whether it would be easier to adhere to a reduced-fat or a reduced-carbohydrate diet under free-living conditions. Since diet adherence is likely the most important determinant of body fat loss, we suspect that previously observed differences in weight loss and body fat change during outpatient diet interventions were primarily due to differences in overall calorie intake rather than any metabolic advantage of a low-carbohydrate diet.
Low Carb Diet: 1918 calories, 101g protein (21%), 140g carbs (29%), 108g fat (50%)
Low Fat Diet: 1918 calories, 101g protein (21%), 350g carbs (72%), 17g fat (7%)
Johnston, et al. Ketogenic low-carbohydrate diets have no metabolic advantage over nonketogenic low-carbohydrate diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (2006) 83: 1055-1061
KLC and NLC diets were equally effective in reducing body weight and insulin resistance, but the KLC diet was associated with several adverse metabolic and emotional effects. The use of ketogenic diets for weight loss is not warranted.
Keto Diet: 1500 calories, 125g protein, 33g carbohydrates, 100g fat
Low-Carb, Non Keto: 1500 calories, 117g protein, 157g carbohydrates, 50g fat
Gardner, et al. Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion: The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2018 Feb 20;319(7):667-679
In this 12-month weight loss diet study, there was no significant difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat diet vs a healthy low-carbohydrate diet, and neither genotype pattern nor baseline insulin secretion was associated with the dietary effects on weight loss. In the context of these 2 common weight loss diet approaches, neither of the 2 hypothesized predisposing factors was helpful in identifying which diet was better for whom.
Average Low Fat Diet Intake: 21% protein, 48% carbohydrate, 29% fat
Average Low Carb Diet Intake: 23% protein, 30% carbohydrate, 45% fat
Now, I don’t want the above dropping and plopping down of studies to mislead you. I would never insult real scientists/researchers that swim in the depths of this stuff every day by proclaiming, or even implying, that I’m a hardcore scientist/researcher that has all of the answers.
My fit in this niche is try to understand, filter through, curate, and streamline the research that is out there, and combine that with my practical experience as an athlete and coach, in order to give you some informed diet and training strategies that ultimately help you reach your goals.
One of the researchers I follow in my own process of that is Alan Aragon. Here is part of his analysis of that last study, and how it fits into the bigger diet selection picture:
Overall, this large, well-designed & executed study meaningfully adds to the body of literature showing that a wide range of macronutrient proportions can work similarly well for long-term weight loss. Alternatively, it can be said that there‟s no single diet type that outperforms all other types. These findings strengthen the principle that weight loss diets can be flexibly individualized according to preference of low-carb, low-fat, or somewhere along the continuum. – Alan Aragon
It bears reiterating that this was an analysis of observational studies which are incapable of showing cause-and-effect. Meta-analyses of RCTs comparing low-carb versus low-fat diets are mixed, but largely in favor of low-carb diets, and this tends to be dependent on whether or not protein and total calories were equated between the diets.2 When the latter variables are equated, then the weight/fat loss & thermic advantages of the lower-carb interventions disappear. – Alan Aragon
*Alan’s Research Review is a great resource. You can check it out HERE (I receive no commission on this referral, its just a resource that I highly recommend regardless)
5. I would lean towards lower-carb diets as a starting assessment point for Sedentary, Overweight, & Insulin Resistant populations.
While both research and anecdotal evidence prove without a doubt that a variety of carbohydrate and dietary fat distributions can work well for fat loss, I believe that some set ups are more appropriate than others based on the principle of specificity (a geeky word that means appropriately matching the diet program to the training program, and the person’s individual metabolic situation, needs, and goals).
The diets that are the best for sedentary, obese, insulin resistant/pre-diabetic individuals just trying to improve their health and lose some weight are different than those of athletes, regular exercisers, and physique-obsessed peeps trying to reach elite physique shape.
There is no one, single, Universal Diet that works for everyone, everywhere. That’s just pure common sense. But it also makes sense from a scientific/physiological perspective. We all have different responses to food based on our individual metabolic condition, which is a combination of a couple of things.
1. Current Physical Condition
The first is just the general shape you are in. If you are overweight, or someone trying to go from out of shape to decent shape, your carbohydrate intake should lean towards the lower side. Why?
In general, overweight individuals have worse nutrient partitioning abilities, meaning a higher carb intake is more likely to trigger fat storage, or at least inhibit the body’s ability to burn fat efficiently.
If you are normal weight, relatively leaner, or trying to go from good shape to great shape, your carbohydrate intake can be higher, or at least moderate, even in fat loss dieting phases. Why?
Leaner individuals have better nutrient partitioning abilities, meaning the carbs they eat are more likely to be stored as muscle glycogen and used to fuel their activity, and less likely to trigger fat storage.
Marques, et al. Postprandial de novo lipogenesis and metabolic changes induced by a high-carbohydrate, low-fat meal in lean and overweight men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2001 Feb;73(2):253-61.
Adjustments of carbohydrate intake and oxidation occur in both normal-weight and overweight individuals. Nevertheless, the contribution of carbohydrates to the accumulation of fat through either reduction of fat oxidation or stimulation of fat synthesis in obesity remains poorly investigated…The objective of this study was to assess the postprandial metabolic changes and the fractional hepatic de novo lipogenesis (DNL) induced by a high-carbohydrate, low-fat meal in lean and overweight young men… After a high-carbohydrate, low-fat meal, overweight men had a lower fat oxidation and a higher fractional hepatic fat synthesis than did lean men… Nevertheless, this study is the first to address the differences between lean and overweight men in fat synthesis and fat oxidation in response to carbohydrate intake.
Although insulin sensitivity and carb tolerance are definitely linked to our body composition, it’s not completely black and white. There is a genetic component that is out of our control as well.
This is proven by the fact that there can be lean people that are insulin resistant (the body does a poor job of transporting carbohydrates and nutrients out of the blood and into cells where they belong), and obese people that are insulin sensitive (insulin has no problems doing its main job, and other factors are contributing to excess body fat).
It should come as no surprise that in some studies, insulin resistant populations lost more weight on lower carb diets, while insulin sensitive individuals lost more weight on higher carb, lower fat diets.
Insulin sensitivity determines the effectiveness of dietary macronutrient composition on weight loss in obese women. Cornier MA, et al. Obes Res. 2005 Apr;13(4):703-9. [Medline]
PURPOSE: To determine whether macronutrient composition of a hypocaloric diet can enhance its effectiveness and whether insulin sensitivity (Si) affects the response to hypocaloric diets.
METHODS: Obese nondiabetic insulin-sensitive (fasting insulin < 10 microU/mL; n = 12) and obese nondiabetic insulin- resistant (fasting insulin > 15 microU/mL; n = 9) women (23 to 53 years old) were randomized to either a high carbohydrate (CHO) (HC)/low fat (LF) (60% CHO, 20% fat) or low CHO (LC)/high fat (HF) (40% CHO, 40% fat) hypocaloric diet. Primary outcome measures after a 16-week dietary intervention were: changes in body weight (BW), Si, resting metabolic rate, and fasting lipids.
RESULTS: Insulin-sensitive women on the HC/LF diet lost 13.5 +/- 1.2% (p < 0.001) of their initial BW, whereas those on the LC/HF diet lost 6.8 +/- 1.2% (p < 0.001; p < 0.002 between the groups). In contrast, among the insulin- resistant women, those on the LC/HF diet lost 13.4 +/- 1.3% (p < 0.001) of their initial BW as compared with 8.5 +/- 1.4% (p < 0.001) lost by those on the HC/LF diet (p < 0.04 between two groups). These differences could not be explained by changes in resting metabolic rate, activity, or intake. Overall, changes in Si were associated with the degree of weight loss (r = -0.57, p < 0.05).
Keep in mind that given a calorie deficit was created, ALL study participants lost weight regardless of their insulin resistant/sensitivity status. Remember the hierarchy of dietary importance – a calorie deficit is the most important step regardless. So some people need to stop with the excuses that they just can’t lose weight because their genetics suck. It can’t completely close the gap, but discipline alone can make up for a lot of the disadvantages in life.
But once in a calorie deficit, those that matched their macronutrient distributions to their genetic profile achieved faster, more efficient results. And it probably had positive effects on other factors like energy levels, mood, and satiety; which would obviously impact the adherence rates, and long-term sustainability of an approach.
In other words, the biggest nutrition rocks matter most for everyone, but the details can make a hell of a difference. And in general, the less genetically advantaged you are, the deeper you’ll have to fish around in those details.
3. Type & Frequency of Activity Levels
Regardless of your genetics and body fat levels, training (especially strength training) is an independent regulator of nutrient partitioning abilities and insulin sensitivity status.
High intensity strength training depletes muscle and liver glycogen stores, increases glycogen synthase activity, and translocates GLUT-4 to the muscle cell membrane.
Holten, et al. Strength training increases insulin-mediated glucose uptake, GLUT4 content, and insulin signaling in skeletal muscle in patients with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes. 2004 Feb;53(2):294-305.
Strength training increased protein content of GLUT4, insulin receptor, protein kinase B-alpha/beta, glycogen synthase (GS), and GS total activity. In conclusion, we found that strength training for 30 min three times per week increases insulin action in skeletal muscle in both groups. The adaptation is attributable to local contraction-mediated mechanisms involving key proteins in the insulin signaling cascade.
McCoy, et al. Skeletal muscle GLUT-4 and postexercise muscle glycogen storage in humans. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1996 Feb;80(2):411-5.
Muscle glycogen concentration increased significantly during the 6-h recovery period Glycogen storage during recovery was directly related to GLUT-4 protein. A direct correlation existed between glycogen storage during recovery and the activity of the I form of glycogen synthase. These results suggest that muscle GLUT-4 protein concentration, as well as factors relating to glucose disposal, may affect postexercise glycogen storage in humans fed adequate carbohydrate.
What the hell does all of that geeky shit mean?
It just means that if you strength train, or perform any other type of high intensity activity on a regular basis, you can and should include more carbs in your diet then the sedentary person. Those carbs will be used to fuel and recover from your workout, and have a higher likelihood to be stored in muscle cells (good) vs. being backed up in the blood stream or stored as fat (bad). We’ll talk more about this in a future section.
On the other side of that coin, if you are sedentary, it makes sense that you shouldn’t follow Sports Nutrition recommendations, and probably want to lean towards the lower end of the carbohydrate intake spectrum, at least as a starting assessment point.
Lower Carbs & Biomarkers of Health
So far, we’ve just been talking about the specific physique/cosmetic effects of varying carb and fat intakes. But a good body of evidence also shows that higher-protein, lower-carb diets improve biomarkers of health better than high-carb, low protein, and low-fat diets for certain demographics = obese, insulin resistant, sedentary, pre-diabetic populations.
Personally, I have used such plans with corporate wellness programs and with deconditioned beginners to achieve some pretty amazing weight loss and health enhancement results.
Snorgaard, et al. Systematic review and meta-analysis of dietary carbohydrate restriction in patients with type 2 diabetes. BMJ Open Diabetes Res Care. 2017; 5(1): e000354.
On body composition: We found that iso-caloric low to moderate carbohydrate diets and HCD had similar effects on BMI or body weight throughout the trials. This is consistent with recent studies showing that LCD does not increase energy expenditure to a relevant extent. Waist circumference was not included in the present analysis, but did not differ between groups in the individual studies where it was measured.
On glycemic control for diabetics: Low to moderate carbohydrate diets have greater effect on glycemic control in type 2 diabetes compared with high-carbohydrate diets in the first year of intervention.
Low Carbohydrate Diets Average: 20-25% protein, 25-30% carbohydrate, 45-50% Fat
Normal Diets Average: 20% protein, 50% carbohydrate, 30% fat
Kirk, et al. Restricted-carbohydrate diets in patients with type 2 diabetes: a meta-analysis. J Am Diet Assoc. 2008 Jan;108(1):91-100.
Meta-regression analyses show that hemoglobin A1c, fasting glucose, and some lipid fractions (triglycerides) improved with lower carbohydrate-content diets. Overall effect on weight was equivocal among the studies evaluated in this meta-analysis.
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%)
Practical Application of Lower Carb Diets
Theory is freakin’ theory. What’s a good starting assessment point for a relatively lower-carb approach? Well, of course, start at the top of the hierarchy of importance as always.
- Get in the calorie deficit necessary for fat loss = 10-12 cals/lbs (or per pound of lean body mass or target bodyweight if you are significantly overweight).
- Set protein levels = 0.7-1.0g/lbs (or per pound of of lean body mass or target bodyweight if you are significantly overweight).
- Limit carbs to roughly 100-150g a day, primarily coming from micronutrient dense, whole foods — an unlimited amount of non-starchy vegetables, 1-2 pieces of whole fruit, and 1-2 servings of starchy carbohydrates a day (rice or root vegetables).
- A decent percentage (if not all) of your dietary fat intake will come as by-product of your protein foods (fat in eggs, fish, meat, etc.).
- If there are still some calories left over, fill them in with healthy fats – avocado, coconut, nuts, olive oil, etc. (I would suggest measuring these foods out as they are the easiest to over-eat, and are the #1 reason why many low-carbers fail to lose fat).
To get this demographic started with an accompanying exercise routine, I would emphasize mostly low-intensity activity (daily walking). Why? As you’ll learn a lot more about soon, I don’t think low-carb diets combined with consistent, frequent, high-intensity anaerobic training are a great match.
First, the beginner and/or severely deconditioned individual needs to lose some weight and get healthier. The most efficient way to do this is to improve their diet and simply start the exercise habit with something that has a low barrier to entry (walking – you can do it anywhere, anytime, and its not that challenging or taxing on the body). As I mentioned, I’ve been a part of case studies with clients losing over 100lbs with improved eating and extra walking alone.
Once a decent amount of fat is dropped, the now no longer de-conditioned individual can think about increasing the intensity of their training for higher-level physique goals. But then in keeping with the diet specificity principle, I would also increase carbs somewhat to support the physiological demands of anaerobic training.
Keto Diet Considerations
So we’ve established that for certain demographics, bringing protein up and carbs down in comparison to the typical Y2K Western Diet can work well for both improving body composition and biomarkers of health. Does that mean you should completely eliminate carbs?
Remember the nutritional research category distinctions we previously mentioned. It is important to note that in the world of nutritional research, “low carbs” DOES NOT equal “no carbs.” Those who always jump to extremes (a high percentage of fitness peeps and diet guru creeps) tend to misinterpret and misapply this often.
|Carbohydrate||<20%, <100g (ketogenic)||20-45%, 100-225g||45-65%, 225-325g||>65%, 325g+|
|Fat||<10%, 20g||10-25%, 20-55g||25-35%, 55-75g||>35%, 75g+|
|Protein||<10%, <50g||10-20%, 50-100g||>20%, 100g+|
For example, most of the research pointing to the benefits of low carb diets on body composition and biomarkers of health fall under the category of low carb, but NOT very low-carb/ketogenic. This means they still include a reasonable amount of carbs in the diet.
100-225g of carbs (vs. 325-500g+), and 20-45% of calories from carbs (vs. 65-80%+), would both be considered relatively low-carb in the research, and have been shown to have a variety of benefits for overweight, insulin resistant, and sedentary populations.
That’s a big difference from 0-20g of carbs or 0-5% of calories from carbs, both from a statistical perspective and from a practical, functional, flexible, and sustainable perspective in the real world.
It has been my experience that moderation is where most of the magic lies, although extremes play to our emotions and are more easily marketed and sold.
Technically, a ketogenic diet is a very low-carb diet containing less than 100g a day, although most approaches recommend even less (0-50g). With very low carbohydrate levels and depleted liver glycogen stores, glucose can no longer adequately fuel the brain. So the body creates an alternative brain fuel from fat (and some amino acids) – ketones.
Keto Diets for Specific Conditions
First off I should mention that Ketogenic diets certainly have their place. Researchers believe they may be the best approach for those suffering from certain diseases—Epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and certain forms of cancer are good examples.
For some, the benefits of reducing certain disease symptoms, or outright saving your life, is obviously more important than how you look, how you perform in the gym, or even how you feel.
I am not a doctor, medical nutrition therapist, or expert in this field. So if you know someone fighting these conditions, please talk with your doctor and explore additional resources.
In fact, I have one doctor friend and client who is currently exploring using a ketogenic diet as a preventative measure for Alzheimer’s progression. But he’s doing it the smart way. He’s working with medical professionals to track various biomarkers of health, and is intelligently weighing the potential therapeutic benefits vs. the potential side effects/drawbacks.
Keto Diets for Physique Transformation
My realm is in physique transformation, not medical nutrition therapy. What I can tell you is that the extremes that are necessary for someone suffering from a specific disease are not always necessary for a healthy, intermediate trainee trying to take it to the next level and attain high-level physique goals. In fact, they can be completely counterproductive.
Here’s the predicament — long-term ketogenic diets may have many potential drawbacks: muscle loss, impaired testosterone production, impaired growth hormone production, impaired thyroid production, insulin resistance (“starvation diabetes”), suppressed metabolic rate, adrenal fatigue/resistance, chronic cortisol elevation, irritability, depression, vitamin and mineral deficiency, etc.
Why do you think there are so many dicks with lifeless dicks in the diet industry? And for full gender equality – bitches with dusty beavers? Transgenders with non-functioning nether regions, etc.
Given these potential drawbacks, I feel a ketogenic diet would need to yield far superior physique transformation results to warrant its use. But the research I’ve seen has shown that ketogenic diets (less than 100g of carbs) are no more effective for fat loss than non-ketogenic, low carbohydrate diets (100-150g of carbs) when calories and protein are equated.
Johnston CS et. al. Ketogenic low-carbohydrate diets have no metabolic advantage over nonketogenic low-carbohydrate diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (2006) 83: 1055-1061:
KLC (Ketogenic Low Carb Diets) and NLC (Non-Ketogenic Low Carb Diets) were equally effective in reducing body weight and insulin resistance, but the KLC diet was associated with several adverse metabolic and emotional effects. The use of ketogenic diets for weight loss is not warranted.
Keto Diet: 1500 calories, 125g protein, 33g carbs, 100g fat.
Low-carb/Non-Keto: 1500 calories, 117g protein, 150g carbs, 50g fat.
Thus in most cases, I advise a low-carbohydrate BUT non-ketogenic diet for sedentary, overweight populations.
And as a side note, a carb-controlled diet combined with strength training can lead to lowered glycogen stores, elevated fat burning rates, and elevated ketone levels WITHOUT being in a state of chronic ketosis.
Perhaps this is why physique peeps have long recommended lowering carbohydrates to around 1g/lbs of bodyweight per day during fat-slashing phases. That’s a big difference from 0-20g of carbs per day. You can get some of the heightened fat burning effects of a reduced carb intake without the potential drawbacks of cutting them out completely. We’ll talk more about this moderate macronutrient fat loss approach below.
Make an Educated Choice
I’m not saying a full-blown keto diet can’t work. I’ve been in this game long enough to not completely dismiss any approach. I’m just saying I haven’t seen it work well for most in my experience.
What I’ve generally seen is short-term results, a lack of long-term sustainability, and with some of the negative hormonal and metabolic effects mentioned above, massive rebounds with people ending up fatter then when they started to diet in the first place.
But if you look at the evidence and still want to give keto a go, just remember this. Regardless of how low you go in carbs, never forget that total calories still count. We gotta keep re-visiting that hierarchy of dietary importance until it finally sinks in.
Ketosis DOES NOT equal fat loss. It can equal fat loss, but being in a state of ketosis itself does not necessarily equal fat loss.
Ketosis is simply an altered physiological state in the human body. All this really means is that ketosis is a metabolic state that allows the body to continue fueling itself in the absence of carbohydrates. When carbs are extremely low, glycogen becomes depleted, the body will use a greater percentage of fatty acids to fuel the body, and it will use ketones to fuel the brain.
It is simply a shift in fuel dynamics. The body is running on fat metabolism, but it does not necessarily mean it is going to burn more body fat, although that’s what you might infer, and marketing materials might imply. The other rules of fat loss (a calorie deficit) still apply, not just the metabolic condition your body is in.
This is what many keto advocates don’t understand. In ultar-low carb, unlimited fat and protein diets, you can still enter a state of caloric excess. And even though your body has shifted to burning a greater percentage of fatty acids as fuel, in caloric excess it will simply obtain fatty acids and ketones from the abundance of dietary fat you are taking in.
It will not be forced to tap into internal body fat stores as a reserve fuel. Quite the opposite is true. The excess calories will be stored as body fat. Your body has mechanisms in place that do not require insulin transport to store dietary fat as body fat.
In other words, you may be a “fat burner”, but you damn sure ain’t a “body fat burner”, which is the whole point most people take on a diet in the first place. I’ve seen it eloquently stated – you should chase reduced body fat results, not elevated ketone levels just for the (pointless) sake of elevated ketone levels (again, unless for a specific medical condition).
Now of course a state of chronic ketosis can equal fat loss, as long as calories and the other macronutrients are controlled and you maintain a relative caloric deficit.
Conversely, you can burn fat and lose weight without being in ketosis. You can eat a moderate carbohydrate diet, and as long as you remain in a relative calorie deficit, you will be forced to burn body fat as a back-up fuel.
I personally believe that with some carbs in your diet, you will get better retention of lean muscle mass and better fuel for your anaerobic strength training sessions. Why? Anaerobic metabolism runs on glucose. It can’t use ketones.
But that’s another story for the next section. This ones already dragged on way too long for my short dong. Suffering succotash, its a shaft rash situation…
6A. I would lean towards moderate-to-higher carb diets for athletes and highly active populations.
Lets zoom back out for a second and take a look at why most athletes should consider keeping at least some carbs in their diets. We are primarily interested in training for physique enhancement, but to see the bigger Sports Nutrition picture and where we might fit into that, lets talk about the entire broad category of anyone who performs some type of high intensity activity on a regular basis (strength training; cross-training; most competitive sports with any type of sprint, power, explosive component; HIIT/interval cardio, etc.).
1. Those who only perform low-intensity aerobic activities can perform well on low-carb diets. However, low carb diets negatively impact performance in higher intensity activities, like strength training and cross-training.
The liver markedly increases its release of glucose for use by active muscles as exercise progresses from low to high intensity. Simultaneously, glycogen stored within muscle serves as the predominant carbohydrate energy source during the early stages of exercise and as exercise intensity increases. Compared with fat and protein catabolism, carbohydrate remains the preferential fuel during high intensity aerobic exercise because it rapidly supplies ATP during oxidative processes. In anaerobic effort (reactions of glycolysis), carbohydrate becomes the sole contributor of ATP. – McArdle, et al. Sports and Exercise Nutrition
A carbohydrate-deficient diet rapidly depletes muscle and liver glycogen; it subsequently affects performance in all-out, short-term (anaerobic) exercise and in prolonged high-intensity endurance (aerobic) activities. These observations pertain to both athletes and physically active individuals who modify their diets by reducing carbohydrate intake below recommended levels…A low-carbohydrate diet makes it extremely difficult from the standpoint of energy supply to engage in vigorous physical activity…Unmistakably, if a person performs unduly intense exercise on a regular basis, carbohydrate allowance must be adjusted to permit optimal glycogen resynthesis to maintain optimal training. – McCardle et al. Sports and Exercise Nutrition.
Phinney SD. Ketogenic diets and physical performance. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2004 Aug 17;1(1):2.
The bicyclist subjects of this study noted a modest decline in their energy level while on training rides during the first week of the Inuit diet, after which subjective performance was reasonably restored except for their sprint capability, which remained constrained during the period of carbohydrate restriction…
Therapeutic use of ketogenic diets should not require constraint of most forms of physical labor or recreational activity, with the one caveat that anaerobic (ie, weight lifting or sprint) performance is limited by the low muscle glycogen levels induced by a ketogenic diet, and this would strongly discourage its use under most conditions of competitive athletics.
Langfort, et al. The effect of a low-carbohydrate diet on performance, hormonal and metabolic responses to a 30-s bout of supramaximal exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1997;76(2):128-33.
To this purpose, eight healthy subjects underwent a 30-s bicycle Wingate test preceded by either 3 days of a controlled mixed diet (130 kJ/kg of body mass daily, 50% carbohydrate, 30% fat, 20% protein) or 3 days of an isoenergetic L-CHO diet (up to 5% carbohydrate, 50% fat, 45% protein) in a randomized order… The main conclusions of this study are: (1) a L-CHO diet is detrimental to anaerobic work capacity, possibly because of a reduced muscle glycogen store and decreased rate of glycolysis.
Effects of a low- or a high-carbohydrate diet on performance, energy system contribution, and metabolic responses during supramaximal exercise.Lima-Silva AE, Pires FO, Bertuzzi R, Silva-Cavalcante MD, Oliveira RSF, Kiss MA, Bishop D. Appl Phys Nutr Metab. 38: 928–934 (2013)
In conclusion, a low-CHO diet reduces both performance and total aerobic energy provision during supramaximal exercise.
The diets: High carb (70% carb, 10% pro, 20% fat), Low-Carb (25% carb, 30% pro, 45% fat)
2. Chronic carb depletion combined with anaerobic training can eventually lead to muscle loss. The body will break down amino acids as a reserve fuel to provide the glucose necessary to power the brain and central nervous system at rest, as well as the muscles during high intensity activity.
Even if you don’t want to “get big”, you definitely don’t want to look soft right? Muscle is what provides your body with its shape, tightness and tone. If your diet causes you to lose a lot of muscle, you will end up looking loose, soft, and flabby despite potentially even a lower body weight.
Ironically, it’s the general sedentary population that would benefit the most from reducing carbohydrate intake, but stubbornly stick to the 12 servings a day of whole grains plus a few juice boxes, or whatever the current recommendations are. And it’s the fitness and athletic communities that would benefit the most from keeping at least some carbs in their diet to properly fuel and recover from intense training, that jump on the extreme no carb, quick fix diet trends.
A low-carbohydrate diet rapidly depletes glycogen reserves, which severely affects one’s ability to train hard and compete. This diet also sets the stage for loss of lean tissue as the body recruits amino acids from muscle to maintain blood glucose (gluconeogenesis) — and undesirable side effect for a diet designed for body fat loss… Protein use for energy reaches its highest level during exercise in a glycogen-depleted state – Katch and McArdle, Sport and Exercise Nutrition
3. Carbs support optimum immune system functioning, especially given high-intensity training. Hard training can cause a temporary impairment of the immune system and increase susceptibility to illness. Many who combine low-carb diets with high-intensity training often complain of depressed immunity and getting sick all of the time.
Because elevated levels of stress hormones seem to cause many aspects of exercise-induced immune function impairment, nutritional strategies that effectively reduce the stress hormone response to exercise would be expected to limit the degree of exercise-induced immune dysfunction. The size of the glycogen stores in muscle and liver at the onset of exercise influence the hormonal and immune response to exercise…When people perform prolonged exercise following several days on every low-carbohdyrate diets, the magnitude of the stress hormone (e.g., adrenaline and cortisol) and cytokine (e.g. IL-6, IL-1 ra, and IL-10) response is markedly higher than it is on normal-or high-carbohydrate diets…It has been speculated that athletes deficient in carbohydrate are placing themselves at risk from the immunosuppressive effects of cortisol and reduced glutamine availability, including the suppression of antibody production, lymphocyte proliferation, and NK cell cytotoxic activity.” – Asker Jeukendrup, Sports Nutrition
4. Sufficient carbohydrate intake supports an optimum free testosterone: cortisol ratio IN RESPONSE to high intensity activity. The fitness industry focuses on how important dietary fat is for supporting natural testosterone levels in the average male, which it is, but carbohydrates also play a critical role, especially for the hard training athlete and alpha male.
Lane, et al. Influence of dietary carbohydrate intake on the free testosterone: cortisol ratio responses to short-term intensive exercise training. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010 Apr;108(6):1125-31.
This study examined the effect of dietary carbohydrate (CHO) consumption on the free testosterone to cortisol (fTC) ratio during a short-term intense micro-cycle of exercise training. The fTC ratio decreased significantly from pre-study resting measurement to the final post-study resting measurement in the low-CHO group (-43%), but no change occurred in the control-CHO group (-3%). Findings suggest if the fTC ratio is utilized as a marker of training stress or imbalance it is necessary for a moderately high diet of CHO to be consumed to maintain validity of any observed changes in the ratio value. – European Journal of Applied Physiology
5. Low carb diets coupled with intense training protocols can impair thyroid production. More specifically, it can impair the conversion of t4 thyroid hormone to its more active T3 form. This can lower normal metabolic rate, impair fat loss, and cause a chronic state of low energy, fatigue, and sluggishness.
6. Low carb diets can lower leptin levels. Reduced leptin levels increase hunger and cravings while slowing the metabolic rate and reducing energy expenditure–not a good combo for slashing stubborn fat.
In addition, leptin is a down-regulatory hormone, meaning its levels can impact other hormones. In other words, when leptin levels drop, testosterone, growth hormone, IGF-1, and thyroid levels can all drop.
Hopefully you are starting to see a bigger picture here. Due to the metabolic and hormonal impacts of dieting, it’s not as simple as just cutting calories and carbs to extremely low levels to lose fat indefinitely, and ultimately get extremely shredded.
Sure, people may get initial results with this approach, but most just stall out and plateau. With lowered thyroid, testosterone, and leptin levels combined with chronically elevated cortisol, adrenaline, and catecholamines, most people end up in a frustrating situation where despite extremely low levels of calories and carbs, constant hunger cravings, and perhaps very high levels of (over)training (which can make the situation worse), they still appear soft and are holding stubborn fat. And their body, metabolically, is a neatly trimmed pubic hair short of breaking.
In other words, its calories in/calories out up to a certain point in the fat loss process. For most sedentary and overweight beginners, habit based changes that improve their situation related to that equation should be the primary focus.
But at some point (the leaner, more active, and more advanced you get), the more the metabolic and hormonal impacts of your approach absolutely matter.
This is why, as you’ll see below, I recommend a more middle-of-the ground macronutrient approach. The process might take a little longer, but in the end, I believe it is much more efficient, practical, and sustainable.
7. And even if the extremes did work well for fat loss, a chronically carb-depleted state can effect the natural production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. This can cause insomnia, depression, anxiety, and irritability.
Is a 6-pack really worth all of that, especially if there is a better way?
The Outliers & The Drug Enhanced
What about some of the outliers that get crazy shredded combining extreme low-carb approaches with high frequency, high-intensity training protocols? Surely you have an aunt’s friend’s cousin that you know that recommends it. And what about some of those MMA fighters and Instragram fitness models you see that train 7 days a week on no carb diets?
1. In full objectivity and fairnenss, there is research showing ketogenic diets can be an effective short-term option for body composition change.
Wilson, et al. The Effects of Ketogenic Dieting on Body Composition, Strength, Power, and Hormonal Profiles in Resistance Training Males. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Apr 7
This study investigated the impact of an isocaloric and isonitrogenous ketogenic diet (KD) versus a traditional western diet (WD) on changes in body composition, performance, blood lipids, and hormonal profiles in resistance-trained athletes… Lean body mass (LBM) increased in both KD and WD groups (2.4% and 4.4%, p<0.01) at week 10. However, only the KD group showed an increase in LBM between weeks 10-11 (4.8%, p<0.0001). Finally, fat mass decreased in both the KD group (-2.2 kg ± 1.2 kg) and WD groups (- 1.5 ± 1.6 kg)… The KD can be used in combination with resistance training to cause favorable changes in body composition, performance and hormonal profiles in resistance-trained males.
We all have individual genetics, and thus responses to different diet approaches. And I would never dismiss someone’s personal experience. If you can get great results following a keto diet without the potential negative side effects, I say great. Have at it man. In the end, my goal is that you get to where you want to go whether you follow my recommendations or not.
But I don’t outright endorse everything either. And given all of the information above, I wouldn’t recommend combining extremely low carbs with frequent high intensity training as the default starting position. I have questions that remain regarding the broad applicability and long-term sustainability of the approach, as well as those pesky potential physiological, psychological, metabolic, and hormonal side effects.
2. And on that note, the second thing I must mention that is often swept under the rug or left out completely in the fitness, diet, and strength coaching industries is the use of performance-enhancing/physique enhancing drugs (and yes, this includes TRT).
I’d say a decent percentage of dudes recommending keto diets in the strength training, mma, Paleo, biohacker, and other fitness communities are on TRT, if not more in-depth and comprehensive drug protocols.
I say this is not from a position of condescending judgment, morality, or that I actually give a shit about what people do. I’ve worked with a few clients on PE’s. Hell, I can promise you I’ll be on TRT when I’m 69 still trying to 69. I mention it simply for educational purposes when it comes to customizing dietary choices.
I remember back in the day there was a trend in both the mma and cross-fit communities to follow ultra-low carb diets (and there is a current resurgence of that with keto approaches). I was baffled by why anyone would combine such a low carb intake with such a high frequency, volume, duration, and intensity of training. Was I misunderstanding the principles of human and exercise physiology?
Well one, when it comes to application of out-of-the-box strategies, we always here about the successful outliers. We rarely here about the majority that miserably fail and burn themselves out with fringe approaches that fly in the face of established physiological principles.
Two, look at what has happened since stricter drug-testing policies have gone into place.
(a) A bunch of dudes have, and are continuing to get popped and suspended for drug use.
(b) You’ve seen a dramatic increase in injury rates, and a dramatic drop off in both performance and physique appearance, with the athletes trying to follow the same diet and training plans they were using while enhanced as they are while natural.
(c) You’ve seen a shift towards the inclusion of more carbs in most athletes’ plans.
And what about in the physique realm?
In my time in the game, I’ve seen a lot of overweight people drop a decent amount of fat with low carb diets. But I’ve actually only every really seen two people get into phenomenal shape following full-blown keto approaches. Both were on testosterone, thyroid medication, and a few other physique enhancing drugs.
Here’s the thing. Above, you saw some of the potential metabolic and hormonal drawbacks of combining ultra-low carb diets with high intensity training.
Physique-enhancing drugs can combat or compensate for the potential loss in lean body mass; drops in leptin, T3 thyroid, natural testosterone production, free testosterone: cortisol ratio, metabolic rate, energy levels, and mood.
The natural physique transformation process involves a delicate balance, and ebbs and flows, of anabolic and catabolic processes. These are regulated by hormones and cellular factors, which in turn are impacted by your training and diet program.
Push things too far to the extremes (without drugs to compensate), and you are bound to hit plateaus, burn outs, and rebounds in the wrong direction.
In other words, athletes using physique-enhancing drugs can train on mismatched diet/training protocols (or actually they are perfectly matched while they are on the drugs) and achieve outstanding results.
On a side note, competition is competition, and vanity is vanity, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that route. The one girl I knew won several figure shows. But when she came off the drugs and extreme diet/training protocols, she rapidly rebounded in weight. She started the whole crazy competition diet process already in good shape. She is now borderline obese.
The dude I knew won several bodybuilding shows including a world championship title in a questionable “natural” federation. He’s also now in his early 40’s with full-blown kidney disease. Yet he is so tied to his elite physique, and so dependent on the drugs to maintain it, that he can’t bring himself to change to a more sane, healthy, and sustainable method.
Those case studies are beyond the scope of this post. My main point for YOU is that if you are doing it without physique enhancing drugs, you can admire the physiques of enhanced athletes, but you shouldn’t necessarily try to follow their protocols.
I made that mistake multiple times myself. There were times where I wanted to speed the process or push the envelope in terms of maximal leanness, and emotionally (not rationally) applied the combination of high volume/intensity training with ultra-low carbs. Each time I ended up losing muscle, losing weight but actually looking much softer (skinny fat); suffering from the above mentioned metabolic/hormonal drawbacks, and ending up with the dreaded non-functioning wiener.
You can dismiss this as just personal experience, but I’ve seen the same situation play out with multiple friends, clients, and colleagues.
3. This might not be something you want to here but I’m going to lay it out with the best of intentions. If you can’t get into elite shape following moderate approaches with some consistency and discipline, then maybe being ripped just isn’t in the cards for you.
Or, if you have to follow some extreme approach that leads to a ton of physiological and psychological side effects that negatively impact your health, sanity, and happiness, is an elite physique really worth all of that? I can’t answer that question for you. Only you can.
Honestly, this is one of the main reasons why I stopped training competitive bodybuilders and physique athletes. I love training and I love being in shape, but I’ve always believed there are other things more important in life.
Perhaps you might just want to focus on an informed and intelligent process, and then let the results play out as they may.
Additional Reading Recommendations
Carb controversy: Why low-carb diets have got it all wrong.
Carbohydrates and the Thyroid
Why Low-Carb Diets are Terrible for Athletes: Part 1
Why Low-Carb Diets are Terrible for Athletes: Part 2
6B. The Middle Ground of Macronutrient Amounts & Ratios is Where Most of the Magic Lies For Fat Loss & Physique Transformation
1. Holy shit, you’re still reading this beast of a piece? Congrats, you must really be motivated to take a targeted approach to the physique transformation process. I really want to help you do that. There are so few sincere students left in this social media, ADD Era.
2. You are probably asking yourself — so what is a natural dude or diva to do when it comes to diet design, and developing an efficient yet sustainable approach to living lean year-round?
Well, lets jump back to the other extreme end of the carbohydrate spectrum for a second. Most Sports Nutrition diets assume the goal is to maximize glycogen stores in between training sessions in order to optimize performance. As a result, they tend to be on the high side of carbohydrate recommendations.
Burke, et al. Recommendations developed on behalf of the International Olympic Committee Burke by experts in Sports Nutrition. Carbohydrate recommendations 5-7 g/kg bw during regular training needs and 7-10g/kg bw during periods of increased training. The recovery period should be no less than 24 hours (for glycogen restoration).
It is important to keep in mind that the needs and goals of PERFORMANCE athletes are different than those of us that are primarily interested in PHYSIQUE transformation.
The training of performance-based athletes tends to be higher in duration and frequency — they may train 2-4 hours a day, sometimes twice a day. This is totally unnecessary for physique development. A traditional hypertrophy routine consists of 3-4, 40-60 minute strength-training workouts a week. So performance athletes generally have much higher calorie and carbohydrate demands.
And achieving high levels of performance is much different than achieving low levels of body fat. A little body fat is acceptable to the performance athlete as long they are performing at optimal levels. In fact, getting too low in body fat at some point hinders performance.
Body fat is not acceptable to the elite physique athlete. The physique athlete is willing to sacrifice some performance output in order to attain the lowest levels of body fat, and maximum leanness.
10g of carbohydrate per kg of bodyweight for a 165lbs male would equal 750g of carbohydrate per day. While you might have a ton of energy and perform well with that number, I would argue that most would have a very hard time getting lean.
The physique enthusiast needs to find the middle ground between the lower carbohydrate recommendations for the sedentary, and the very high carbohydrate recommendations for performance athletes.
The goal is to provide just enough carbohydrates to properly fuel and recover from strength training sessions and normal daily activities, without any excess being stored as body fat.
This generally falls somewhere in the range of 1-2g/lbs (or per pound of lean body mass or target bodyweight if significantly overweigth), all within the confines of an appropriate calorie intake.
The no-carb crew believes that fat can only be burned when carbs are kept close to zero or under 50 grams a day – about that found in a small apple and a single thin slice of bread. That’s not true. As long as you eat fewer carbs along with fewer calories than you typically eat on a daily basis, you will start to burn some body fat. Plus extreme low carb dieting poses a few problems. Near carb-free diets completely zap your energy levels, which downgrades the metabolic rate. In a rush to lose fat fast, the individual who slashes carbs across the board will often create a downdraft in the metabolic rate – the total calories burned each day. So while he begins to eat radically less calories and carbs, the body often compensates by downgrading its metabolism.
The other negative; those who train with weights using a very low carb diet often lose muscle because you need an adequate carbohydrate intake to preserve and hold muscle mass. When carbs are cut too low, you burn a lot of muscle while you train. When you burn muscle, you initiate a drop in metabolism because the total amount of muscle one carries is directly linked to burning calories. When you have a lot of muscle, you burn a lot of calories and when you add muscle, you upgrade your metabolism. On the other hand, when you burn muscle, you downgrade your metabolism. I call it dumb dieting. Most dieters who train with weights can see great results by modifying their carb intake from 2 or more grams recommended in the mass gaining phase to 1 to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight in order to cut up. That would mean a 200 pound bodybuilder or athlete eating 400 or more grams daily to build mass would drop down to 200 to 300 grams to cut up – without resorting to extreme low carbs, which has the potential to cause a quick drop in muscle mass and metabolism. – Chris Aceto, author of Championship Bodybuilding
Helms, et al. Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2014, 11:20 doi:10.1186/1550-2783-11-20
In a study of athletes taking in the same amount of protein (1.6 g/kg) during weight loss, performance decrements and LBM losses were avoided when adequate carbohydrate was maintained and dietary fat was lowered . Mettler, et al.  also found that a caloric reduction coming from dietary fat while maintaining adequate carbohydrate intake and increasing protein to 2.3 g/kg maintained performance and almost completely eliminated LBM losses in resistance trained subjects.
We’ve virtually spent all of our time talking about the carbohydrate spectrum. But my theory that moderate macros is where most of the efficient and sustainable fat loss magic lies applies equally to dietary fat intake recommendations:
What can be concluded with current information is that very low-fat diets (<15-20 percent kcals from fat) can reduce testosterone, and consuming a moderate-fat diet will normalize testosterone. Furthermore, consuming a very high-fat diet (>40 percent calories from fat) compared to a moderate fat (25-30 percent calories from fat) diet will not further increase testosterone. – Layne Norton
Practical Application Recommendations For Moderate Macro Approaches (For Fat Loss Phases)
- Set calories at 11-13 cals/lbs (or per pound of lean body mass or target bodyweight if significantly overweight).
- Set protein at 0.7-0.1.0g/lbs (or per pound of lean body mass or target bodyweight if significantly overweight).
- Set dietary fat at 0.3– 0.5g/lbs (or per pound of lean body mass or target bodyweight if significantly overweight). The majority should come as a by-product of your protein sources.
- Fill in all remaining calories with carbohydrates. This will likely fall in the range of 1-2g/lbs of bodyweight.
If you remember all the way back to the nutritional research categories, this set up process is likely to lead to a diet that falls under the low (100-225g) to moderate (225-325g) carbohydrate diet categories.
So despite all of my love for carbs above (and white rice in particular), I still believe most will do best with a carb-controlled approach. I just don’t believe any demographic, especially hard training physique peeps, should cut them out completely.
Additional Reading Recommendations
How Many Carbohydrates Do You Need
Natural Physique Training Course
Did you enjoy the mix of research and practical strategy presented above? Do you want even more in-depth and detailed information on diet set-up for advanced fat loss and physique transformation? Do you want to ensure your accompanying training program is effectively and efficiently taking you towards your elite physique goals?
Well then I invite you to check out my Natural Physique Training Course. It covers the entire training approach I take to the physique transformation, and includes both my Truth About Carbs and 6-Pack Checklist Books for free.