The Real Deal on Fat Loss Diets – Part 2: The Ketogenic Diet and Carb Cycling
In part 1 of this two-part series investigating the best diets for fat loss and optimal health, we explored the pros and cons of the Paleo Diet and compared this plan with the typical high carb/protein and moderate fat bodybuilding regime followed by millions of fitness devotees the world over. Now we will turn our attention to two further purported fat loss and health boosting dietary approaches, the Ketogenic Diet and Carb Cycling, both effective in their own way but also controversial in many respects.
The Ketogenic Diet
A high fat, moderate protein, low carbohydrate nutritional approach, the ketogenic diet was first popularized in the 1920’s and 1930’s as a non-pharmacological way to treat seizure activity resulting from epilepsy. However, following the release of a newer and more sophisticated range of anticonvulsant drugs, this diet was largely abandoned.
Ketone bodies – free fatty acid energy substrates – are produced when fat is converted to fatty acids in the liver to replace carbohydrates as a fuel source.
People living with epilepsy are not the only population to have benefitted from the ‘keto’ method. Bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts have also hopped on the keto bandwagon with hopes of carving excess fat from their physiques, and esteemed trainers such as Dave Palumbo routinely use this method to dial their clients in before bodybuilding events.
How It Works
When our diets are depleted of carbs we enter a state of ketosis due to low glycogen levels. It is during ketosis that our brain consumes the aforementioned ketone bodies (β-hydroxybutyrate and acetoacetate), formed during a process called ketogenesis, in order to prevent muscle protein depletion. As the rationale goes, fat stores are then used for energy in the absence of carbohydrates, ketones are produced as a result, and we get leaner, faster – provided we maintain a negligible carbohydrate intake.
By re-setting the body’s enzymatic processes to more efficiently use fat as a fuel source we may more effectively overcome weight loss plateaus, those sticking points where excess flab refuses to budge. To achieve this outcome our daily diet must be comprised of 50% fats (all types with the exception of the harmful Trans variety) and 30-40% proteins.
Eating the Right Stuff
Eating sufficient high-fat proteins (such as red meat, cheeses, bacon and eggs, darker meats and oily fish) is one way to bolster fat intake, a surprisingly difficult task via fats alone.
As for carbs, one large baked potato would easily supply your daily carbohydrate intake when going keto (200 grams of potato provides 42 carbohydrate grams). Residual carbohydrates found in nuts and some high protein meal replacement drinks must also be avoided to achieve ketosis, or included as part of your daily carb complement.
Once you have adapted to keto eating you’ll know you are truly in a state of ketosis when your breath and urine smell similar to nail polish remover; this is due to the breakdown of acetoacetate which, as you may remember, is one of the ketone bodies produced when fatty acids are used for fuel in the absence of carbohydrates.
The Verdict on Keto
While the science appears sound, many fitness minded folk have never heard of, much less used the ketogenic diet to get in shape. Indeed, many experienced athletes who have tried the keto method say it’s not for them.
Being able to use fatty acids for fuel and having enough energy to train with full force intensity are two separate things and this could be where the keto diet falls flat. Advanced athletes who also work full time become depleted when deprived of adequate carbohydrates; the body’s preferred fuel source irrespective of whether one is in a ketogenic state, or not.
Furthermore, like the Paleo diet, ketogenic eating is restrictive in the range of foods that may be consumed. Planning and implementing a high fat/protein diet with virtually zero carbs, where, in its strictest sense, all foods must be measured and properly apportioned, proves near-impossible for many.
Adhering to a keto diet may also encourage one to severely limit quality nutrients from fruits and vegetables as they may be concerned that their carbs are too high. Indeed, in their efforts to avoid excessive carbs many keto followers fail to achieve a sufficient carb intake.
With the above in mind, you may want to try ketogenic eating but be aware of the inherent limitations of this approach. You may find yourself lacking enough energy to train with sufficient intensity, or you may find the comparatively poor selection of foods, and the inclusion of much high cholesterol fare, not to be agreeable with your health and well being. For many, cycling on and off a ketogenic diet plan will often be more attainable, sustainable and will ultimately lead to more favorable results.
One of the better methods routinely used by bodybuilders to achieve shredded conditioning ,while at the same time keeping muscle growth on the increase, is the so called ‘Carb Cycling’ approach. Often called a Cyclical Ketogenic Diet, dieters who use this approach push themselves into ketosis and then have high-carb days where they break ketosis and boost their metabolism. Typically, this high-carb day is once a week, but some people will opt for twice a week.
To win muscle and lose fat we must keep calories and protein sufficiently high and include a wide range of beneficial nutrients to cover all our dietary bases. The main problem with many of the diets we have so far discussed is their potentially restrictive nature, and the precise attention to detail necessary to properly implement them. If you don’t have an advanced degree in nutritional science, and the time (and finances) needed to carry out such approaches, you may not reap their purported benefits.
A diet which best approximates traditional fat loss nutritional approaches, carb cycling employs varying carb levels on select days. High carb days increase insulin to drive nutrients into muscles, replenish glycogen stores, and provide feelings of mental and physical well being. On low (or no carb-days) the body is tricked into burning fat for fuel via the absence of carbs, and insulin sensitivity is increased to enhance the building of lean muscle tissue.
A Variety of Options
There are seemingly as many approaches to carb cycling as there are bodybuilders willing to try this protocol. A simplified version features low (and sometimes zero) carb days where protein, fats and only green vegetables are consumed (typically on non weight training days), and high carb days where starchy carbs and fruit are included at every meal (along with protein and fats). High carb days generally coincide with the most intense resistance training days – post training your muscles will be more than willing to soak up those increased carbs.
With this method, carbs are to be kept clean and no junk foods are to be eaten. This approach, as is the case with most carb cycling plans, requires us to eat 5 – 6 meals per day, selecting from the carb sources listed below.
- Brown Rice
- Peas & Corn (high fiber carbs)
- Potato, Sweet Potato & Yams
- Green Vegetables
- Bran Cereals
- Whole Grain Pasta & Bread
Note: while some people include fatty high carb sources (like lasagna, burgers, donuts etc) on their high carb days, these are to be restricted to occasional treats. Remember, you are attempting to get into, not out of, shape. In fact, by over-carbing on high carb days, or by including the wrong carbs you’re likely to ‘spill over’ which will be reflected in your added adipose.
The 3 Day Approach
This 3 day approach is the most common, and seemingly the most effective from what anecdotal evidence can be found. In short, this is the no carb, low carb, high carb approach where one phase follows the other, consecutively (Monday, no carb; Tuesday, low carb; Wednesday, high carb, then back to no carb on Thursday and so on).
For the no carb days, protein may be bumped by.5 of a gram and fats are to be slightly increased to 25%, but no carbs, other than 2-3 servings of green leafy vegetables, are to be consumed. As to be expected, this day is the hardest of all and will test your resolve. However, unlike other fat loss diets where days like this may run into one long tortuous ordeal, a high carb day is just around the corner – so be patient.
For the low carb days, three of six meals will contain carbs (around one gram per pound of bodyweight across all three meals), with one feeding post-workout (if you are training on this day). After the no and low carb days your body will be ready to store ample amounts of this nutrient, so on your high carb days be sure to consume as many carbs from the approved list above as you can manage for four of your six daily meals, with two of these to be scheduled before and after your training session (but be sure to keep protein high by prioritizing it first in each meal).
Finding the Right Balance
With carb cycling, protein levels are maintained at 40% of daily calories, with one gram per pound of bodyweight being the absolute minimum, and dietary fats are kept consistent at 15-20% per day (though some carb cyclers opt to increase fats to around 25% on low carb days). Typically, carb cycling (whichever method is used) is employed for 8-10 weeks to achieve optimal conditioning, though some people go longer, (or shorter), depending on their unique goals.
The key to carb cycling is to find the right balance that complements your physique goals and is best suited to your specific body type. A major problem with many nutritional strategies is their potential to diminish muscle size due to consistently lower calories, and carbs, from one day to the next – especially when combined with daily cardio sessions and exhaustive bouts with the iron. With carb cycling your metabolism will receive a tremendous jolt on the high carb days combined with an insulin spike that will promote an anabolic environment conducive to serious muscle gains.
The main caveat here is to ensure low and no carb days are strictly adhered to – going too crazy on the carbs, which is easily done after a succession of no and low carb days, will quickly derail your efforts.
The Best Way Forward
Whether you have gone Paleo or keto, or have decided to cycle your carbs, it is paramount that each of these approaches is followed as outlined in the specific plan you have adopted. As with all diets, each of these methods can be challenging, and compared with traditional, and more commonly used plans, may require a complete paradigm shift in your thinking to successfully maintain.
Though the ever-popular 40/35/25 (carbs/proteins/fats) dictate (with modifications in line with one’s training stage) may have stood the test of time as being the go-to nutrition plan for many, certain newer, and often controversial, approaches are worth exploring. Perhaps you may wish to alternate all four methods discussed in this article, or take aspects of them that best apply to your unique situation. Whatever the case, be sure to consistently monitor your progress to develop a better understanding of how your body functions while on and in response to different dietary protocols. This is the real key to finding a diet that will best reveal your hard won muscle development.