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Selecting the ideal fat-burning diet is a little like seeking investment advice: there’s a lot of information out there, everyone’s got a different view and, sometimes, even conflicting opinions seem to make sense. How do you sift through all the advice and choose a diet that actually works? Keep reading—I’ll explain the best approach.
Before settling on what to do, we should eliminate—once and for all—what not to do. Within or outside of bodybuilding circles, “no carb” diets seem to remain the craze. For most, that path leads to a dead-end street because a sudden and severe reduction in carbohydrates torpedoes the ability to train hard. When training intensity collapses, the body’s ability to get lean crumbles, as well. If there’s a golden rule to getting lean, it’s this: never sacrifice your ability to train hard for the sake of slashing carbs too aggressively.
This fat-reducing diet operates on a rotation basis: periods of lower carbs interspersed with periods of higher carbs. The benefit to lowering carbs is that glycogen levels (the amount of stored carbohydrates within muscles) are decreased. When that happens, the body prefers to burn bodyfat. The trick is that you don’t have to go to “zero carbs” to reduce your glycogen reserves. You simply have to lower the amount that you normally take in, and that is readily accomplished by slashing carbs in half straight across the board.
Halving your carb intake makes things easy. There’s no measuring needed, and you don’t have to know exactly how many carbs you are taking in. Simply cut the portions of what you are currently eating in half. For example, if you eat four pieces of toast at breakfast, a potato at meals 2, 3 and 4, and a cup of rice at meal 5, reduce that to two pieces of toast, half a potato at meals 2, 3 and 4, and only a half cup of rice at meal 5. Can you train hard and maintain a high level of intensity with your carbs—the chief source of fuel for muscles—cut in half? Sure you can, just as you can drive your car as fast as needed on a half tank of gas.
The catch is how long and how many workouts in a row you can maintain your training intensity before you crash. When glycogen reserves approach empty, you risk burning muscle for energy. You start to drag in the gym and feel like you can’t get the job done, as if you are simply “going through the motions.” The solution at that point is to work the other way and increase your carbs for two days, closer to the level you were at before decreasing your carbs. As carbs go back up, glycogen stores increase, which cushions your ability to train hard when you reverse gears again and reduce your carbs by half. Going back up in carbs also prevents the metabolism—the rate at which a body burns calories—from dropping. It also helps prevent muscle loss. Lowering your carbohydrate intake works when dieting, temporarily at least. You do need to build back your carb reserves, though, to be able to honor the golden rule, which can be restated as training intensity should always prevail over a reduction in carbs.
As a rule of thumb, I recommend cutting carbs in half for five days, before returning to a more normal carb approach for two consecutive days. However, dietary rules are always flexible. Some bodybuilders will hit the wall and feel like crap in the gym after just three days of a lower carb intake, while others might be able to maintain peak training intensity for seven days. When you feel like you are suffering in the gym with no energy—and this point is unique for each individual—that’s the time to switch gears and raise your carbs the following day. Besides restoring glycogen levels in muscles, the additional carbs will interrupt the natural metabolic slowdown that often accompanies dieting.
For a representative average bodybuilder with a standard metabolism and an appropriate training schedule, five consecutive days of lower carbs are followed by two days that are closer to a normal carb intake before dieting. This cycle should be repeated as necessary. You should be looking for a drop in weight of 1⁄2 to 11⁄2 pounds after five days. When you go back to eating more carbs, your body may temporarily swell with water. You might think that you have put the weight back on, but after returning to the lower-carb approach for another five days, you should hit a lower bodyweight than at the end of the previous sequence.
Each successive time you cut carbs in half, your bodyweight should hit a new low by the fifth lower-carb day. If you don’t achieve that loss, then take the additional step of limiting carbs to two meals only on two of the five low-carb days, restricting carb intake to the first meal of the day and the meal before training. This will further reduce your glycogen stores and, more important, it will trick the body into burning off additional bodyfat without severely turning up the “starvation response.” In the starvation response, your body slows its metabolism when you overdo it; in other words, it tells you that you are dieting too hard. Thus, the slow-down in metabolism makes it extremely difficult to get leaner.
Where does additional protein come into the picture? If you have to go to the “two-carb meals” provision, then you should increase your protein portions by a third on those two days. An increase in protein should offset possible muscle loss that frequently occurs when carb intake goes very low.
NOTES: In the modified diet, carbs are cut in half at five meals per day for five days; in modified diet #2, carbs are included in only two meals during two of the five low-carb days, but protein is increased by one-third.
* Increase the amount of protein by one-third. For example, if a standard shake contains 40 g of protein, add enough additional protein to make it contain approximately 55 g on the two days when carbs are eaten at only two meals.