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Editor’s Note: This is an advanced diet and nutrition article, if you are just starting out you might want to read The Codex Of Leanness first and master the basics before attempting a more advanced program.
If you’ve spent any time on sites like this one, you’re sure to have been catechized in the major tenets of the bodybuilding belief system. But what sets the Swole apart is our willingness to brush up against heresy and really come clean on what’s real and what’s superstition. This article will address certain inconsistencies in the standard diet advice, and present some controversial new approaches to fat loss.
Everyone is saying it, from the feds to the underground: eat breakfast, and graze every 2-3 hours after that. God forbid you should sit through The Talented Mister Ripley for 3 hours straight without stuffing another morsel down your over-stuffed gullet. Want to lose weight? Well eat for god’s sake!
I am here to tell you that it is ok not to eat, and not because the Swole has just been re-dedicated as the new Pro-Ana Nation. Especially if you are trying to lose fat, you can get by just fine on 2-3 meals a day. If you find 6 meals easier to stick to, I always say, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But many people find that eating less frequently diminishes hunger and, by allowing you to do something besides prepare another dismal 200 kcal “meal,” breaks up the monopoly fat loss holds on your time and energy. As an added bonus, reducing meal number increases the amount of calories you get per meal, thereby allowing you to eat more palatable foods in more satiating portion-sizes.
These may sound like great boons to the dieter, but what about my metabolic fire, you think; if I don’t eat every thirty minutes I’ll go into starvation mode, right? Research also suggests that the grazing gospel deserves a rethink; fasting increases epinephrine, norepinephrine, and catecholamine levels, all of which are associated with increased fat burning. 1
So, what would a hypothetical day look like? Say you are cutting on 2100 kcal:
This plan allows for a great degree of flexibility, in that the meals require an amount of calories not normally associated with a cutting diet and therefore allow you to lose fat while eating dense and palatable foods. For example, you could eat, in a day, a couple of nice steaks with mashed potatoes and well-dressed salad instead of a few chicken breasts garnished with lettuce leaves.
Similar approaches have been recommended in various forms as the Warrior Diet, Eat Stop Eat, and more recently Martin Berkhan’s intermittent fasting. But we at the Swole don’t tow a party line, we tell you what works in our experience, and we address the issues and the pitfalls that we’ve encountered. So, what usually follows mention of fasting is the difficulty of properly breaking a fast. And, while I am certain that intermittent fasting is not for everyone, there are certainly practical measures you can take to ensure that if you try it, you are giving it the best chance of working.
So, what if you think that going too long without food makes you binge? In my experience, this can be addressed by breaking the fast with a moderate-sized meal high in protein and low in carbs, and following that meal with a training session. On off-days, substitute a walk, or, if total rest is desired, simply get out of the kitchen, leave the house, plan some type of errand for the time directly following the “breakfast” and hopefully lasting at least an hour, at which point the bulk of daily calories may be consumed. In addition, it can be useful to implement intermittent fasting in the beginning on just a few days per week.
Note. Fasting does not mean you get a break from counting calories. If you are cutting, you still need a deficit, and if you are bulking, you still need a surplus. But, intermittent fasting is a great way to shake things up if you are stuck, and also a maintainable lifestyle change if that’s what you’re after.
The story goes, to lose fat, minimize insulin at all times except the precious post-workout window, a mythic period of unspecified duration, during which all food consumed will be converted to muscle/glycogen/repair, and never stored as fat. There are a couple of problems I can see here straight off, and they are pretty complicated, but I’m gonna step out and discuss them in this article, because very few in the fat loss world are willing to say how little we know about the science of fat loss. Thankfully, we have a lot of tried and true approaches and also brilliant innovative methods that really work for fat loss. Unfortunately, science has lagged behind in its ability to explain these phenomena, which have long been proved by veteran coaches.
Ok, on to the problems.
BCAAs are known to be highly insulinogenic, yet they are recommended to be taken all day for fat loss, thus causing insulin secretion all day long. I have no problem with BCAAs, I have found that as a supplement, they are reasonably effective. The problem I see is that insulin is being wrongly maligned; if it is ok/good to take BCAA all day for fat loss, and BCAA causes insulin secretion, then insulin is not the only player in fat storage/inhibiting fat-burning game. Let’s quote Alan Aragon, “What a lot of folks don’t realize is that amino acids can elicit insulin responses comparable to pure glucose.” Yet why don’t they elicit comparable appetite distortion? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
the bottom line: BCAAs are mildly effective, but don’t go bad-mouthing insulin while you’re benefiting from them.
Hunger is often said to be a side-effect of insulin. However, if you read the scientific literature, you will find that satiety is also a side-effect. How can this be? While obese people and those who tend to over-secrete insulin often speak of a disappearance of hunger as soon as carbs are removed from the diet, those who are still sensitive to insulin often experience lack of satiety without carbs. While I was able to find very little research on this, Endocrinologist Diana Schwarzbein suggests in her series “The Schwarzbein Principle” something similar to what I have found in my experience. Carbs are not the devil; too much carbs, refined carbs, carbs for the wrong people, yes, these are bad. But, insulin sensitive people should continue to eat moderate amounts of carbs for the sake of satiety, while the insulin-insensitive should limit carbs greatly. I expect that as the low-carb phenomenon gets absorbed into the main stream, along with the doctrine of the evils of insulin, more research will soon follow illuminating a more complete picture to include both the negative and positive effects of insulin.
the bottom line: carbs can cause hunger or satiety. Knowing how they affect you personally is key to success.
Post-workout nutrition has become a cottage industry of its own. The legend has it that a massive insulin spike is needed at just this time in order to fuel recovery and replenish glycogen. The faster the fuel arrives, the better, and for this reason, the fastest-digesting of carbs and proteins are used. Furthermore, fat must be avoided altogether, since it would allegedly slow digestion and limit insulin secretion. Is this true? Apparently not. Insulin actually exerts maximal effect even at minimal concentrations. Therefore, even a small insulin spike–such as perhaps that which might follow whey alone–is powerful enough to deliver the nutritive goods to the cells. Furthermore, fat doesn’t inhibit insulin’s effectiveness; in fact saturated fats can increase protein retention. 2
the bottom line: take some nutrition after your workout in accordance with your macro targets, but don’t fall all over yourself to get scammed by the supplement industry. Also, there is no need to avoid fat in particular.
In the end, how much will any of this affect your training? Well, if what you are doing is working, then stick with it. But if you are plateauing, coming up short, not where you think you should be by now, it’s time to look into some alternative approaches. It’s important to remember that different methods work for different people, and there are those who will fail miserably attempting to eat 6 meals a day while to others it’s a godsend; in the end, if the gospel doesn’t speak to you, maybe it’s time to take your ass to a different church.
1M. Pequignot, L. Peyrin and G. Peres; “Catecholamine-fuel interrelationships during exercise in fasting men,” Journal of Applied Physiology,Vol 48, Issue 1 109-113
2Elliot TA, et al. Milk ingestions stimulates net muscle protein synthesis following resistance exercise. Med SCi Sports Exerc. 2006 Apr; 38(4):667-74.
[AARR January 2008]