As part 2 of the cutting diet discussion (part 1), I’m going to analyze a long and thorough article by bodybuilder Layne Norton. If your serious about trying a cutting diet, especially one that’s longer than a week, give this article a look. To get the gist, you can peruse this post instead.
If you look at every nutrition plan I’ve worked on over the years there is one, common theme for the overall effectiveness “let performance be your guide.” Performance is, however, not the metric you look for with a cutting diets generally. Performance suffers for the end result. But that’s only okay if it’s a short cutting diet. Norton’s plan is to cut while still performing. This takes longer but also means the diet is far more sustainable and the results more permanent. Thus his plan is well worth a deeper look.
No matter how sustainable a cutting plan may strive to be, the ketogenic effect must be covered. Also know as “low carbing”, this style diet can be addicting and lead to carbohydrate phobia, which is misguided. In the passage below Notron explains the importance of keeping carbohydrates in your diet.
If one has not properly scheduled enough time to lose body fat and they are in need of drastic measures, then using a ketogenic diet may be their only choice in order to become contest-ready in time. Unfortunately, they will not maintain an optimum amount of muscle mass.
For those who have given themselves ample time to prepare, I do not suggest using a ketogenic diet. Instead, I recommend reducing carbohydrates, but keeping them high enough to possess the muscle sparing benefits of carbohydrates while still losing body fat.
To put it simply, last-minute cutting diets always work at the expense of your muscle tissue. You can’t lose a ton of fat, and get shredded, in a short amount of time without also losing muscle.
This defense of carbohydrates is one of my favorite paragraphs on diet I’ve read this year. So sensible and, yet, controversial. For the protein freaks who dispute it, and there will be some, just look at the pics of Norton to see how well it works.
The first reason being that carbohydrates are much more muscle sparing than fats during times of stress when glucose becomes a primary source of fuel (i.e. anaerobic exercise, injury, infection, etc). The muscle sparing effects of carbohydrates occur via several different mechanisms. When the body is in a low energy state, it may try to produce energy by converting amino acids to glucose. Carbohydrates prevent this since they can be easily broken down (and converted if need be) to glucose molecules. Carbohydrates then spare dietary protein from oxidation and these proteins can be stored rather than oxidized.Carbohydrates are also very muscle sparing during exercise. When one lifts heavy weights, the primary pathway that is used to produce ATP (cellular energy currency) is the anaerobic or glycolytic pathway (as the name implies this pathway operates in the absence of oxygen). The only substrate for this pathway is glucose, which can be obtained from dietary carbohydrates or by breaking down glycogen (the cell’s stored form of glucose).
To simplify, when we exercise hard we need carbohydrates to perform at our peak. When we don’t have them, everything suffers. Yes, you might lose fat but you’re also losing protein (muscle). The only way to keep all of your muscle as you lose fat is to eat enough carbohydrates to fuel and recover from your training. Next, a look at misconceptions about insulin and cortisol.
I did indeed say that low insulin levels are good for fat burning. Insulin inhibits lipolytic (fat burning) activity and must be kept low if one wishes to burn a maximal amount of fat. However, the pesky re-occurring theme of maintaining muscle prevents us from totally excluding insulin from our pre-contest diet arsenal, as insulin happens to be one of the most anabolic/anti-catabolic hormones in the body.
Insulin also has an antagonist (inhibitory) affect with regards to several catabolic hormones, including cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that is released during times of stress such as dieting, lifting, injury, etc. Cortisol produces glucose by breaking down proteins, including muscle tissue. Cortisol is the primary catabolic hormone that is released when one lifts or does any kind of activity.
Insulin and cortisol have become mainstream buzz words associated with weight gain, diabetes, and obesity. Yet they are not evil. They are part of healthy processes and are both ergogenic (performance enhancing) when triggered correctly, which a proper diet will do. They are only “bad” when our diets are askew. There are times when our bodies should not be secreting insulin and cortisol, and times when they should. A proper diet will help your body utilize them for the greatest effect.
When cells are of large volume, it signals that the body is in a fed state. When cell volume is low it signals that the body is in a starved state. Without delving too far into the science behind this, trust me when I say that you would like your body to think it is in a fed state as this will increase the levels of fat burning hormones and anabolic hormones
Cell size also indicates the anabolic state of the cell. When cell volume is high, protein synthesis rates increase. If cell volume drops, then protein synthesis levels drop. It is easy to infer we would like to maintain cell volume, especially when dieting.
While quite technical, it’s very sensible when you understand how the body works. It’s simply too complex for the media to grasp, so they play everything in back and white terms. Weight loss diets are fairly straightforward. Cutting diets are technical. To try and simplify them too much makes little sense. If you’re not willing to pay close attention to food and what it does for your body, there is no good reason to attempt a cutting diet in the first place.
The glycogen factor is so important. Almost nutrition 101 when it comes to performance. I think this paragraph is very clear. It’s exactly why you only wan to restrict carbohydrates for short periods with specific goals.
The body stores carbohydrates inside cells as glycogen. For every gram of glycogen stored, the body stores around 2.7 g of water. Therefore, cells that have greater glycogen levels will also have more volume. One can see then how low carbohydrate diets severely decrease cell size due to severe glycogen depletion. Concluding, carbohydrates help maintain muscle by increasing cell volume. One more issue to consider is performance. If you refer to the goals of a pre-contest diet, you will see that number three maintains that you must keep a high level of intensity in the gym. This is important for several reasons. If performance begins to suffer, then a person will undoubtedly lose strength. This could lead to a subsequent loss of muscle mass due to decreased stimulation from a decreased training overload. Therefore, it is important that performance be kept at an optimal level. Low glycogen levels have been associated with increased fatigue and decreased performance in athletes (endurance, strength, power output, etc).
The lesson is no carbs equals poor performance. Without performance, results suffer. This has been completely skewed by the nutrition media, which is odd because it’s very simple. The thing is, most people eat way too many carbs, in the form of junk food. Cutting junk out is a good thing. Cutting out all carbs will lead to problems. But blanket statements are easier to understand so the press likes to play the carbs = bad scenario.
Next he tackles the other misunderstood macronutrient, fat.
Drastically lowering your fat intake is another hit against testosterone production since fatty acids are the substrates for cholesterol synthesis and therefore are also the substrates for testosterone synthesis (cholesterol is converted to testosterone, among other things). Unfortunately, fats are also easily stored as adipose tissue (body fat) So there must be some type of compromise between ingesting enough fat for hormone maintenance (and subsequent muscle maintenance) and reducing fat intake enough to decrease body fat. There has been some research done on the effects of dietary fat on testosterone.
To simplify everything that I have said, it seems that one should not lower fat below 15% of daily calories unless they would like to face extreme testosterone deficiencies. Likewise, one should not increase fat to say 40% in order to increase testosterone. Although fat increases testosterone to a degree, it is important to remember that testosterone is only a small piece of the larger puzzle. There are many other hormones and factors involved in building muscle other than just testosterone. By increasing fat to extremely high levels, there will be less “space” for carbohydrates and protein, both of which are very important for aforementioned reasons.
Again, he’s talking sense. Fat is one of three macronutrients and is essential for health and performance. Diets that reduce fat in favor of protein on the rationale that fat equals body fat and protein equals muscle only makes sense when you don’t understand the basics of nutrition.
The article then delves into some proposed plans.
To lose 1.2 lbs (80%) per week from diet, there must be a 600 kcal per day deficit from diet. To lose the other .3 lbs (20%) per week from cardio, one should perform 3 cardio sessions per week, which burn 350 kcals per session. The best way to determine one’s caloric intake required to lose fat at a certain rate is to chart calorie intake for a period of a few weeks and try to determine at what level the subject does not gain weight (this is the caloric baseline).
So for our subject; 200 X 15 = 3000 kcals per day. This is the subject’s caloric baseline (roughly). So if he wishes to lose 1.2 lbs per week from dieting (caloric restriction of 600 kcals per day); 3000 – 600 = 2400 kcals per day.
Here you see a cutting plan that’s sustainable. It’s slow by design. Slow and steady always leads to longer term change. I won’t both to nitpick (you could as some ideas here are a little dates, based on older science) because it’s not necessary. This plan works, clearly (look at Norton) and can be refined by “reefeeding” (aka zig-zagging), which he recommends. It’s based on performance, which all sustainable nutrition plans are, and is just plain smart. There’s a ton more information if you follow the link. I can’t recommend this article enough if you are serious about looking super cut or competing in a physique competition.