Why is it that so many people struggle with trying to diet down and show the muscle that they spend countless hours building? They don’t seem to struggle with “bulking” though, that’s for damn sure. We spend too much time in the gym, recovering from our lifts, reading about lifting, and planning meals to not be able to display our hard work in the form of an awesome physique.
There isn’t just one single reason that people fail in dieting, but usually a host of things. Lack of a proper plan, no consistency, and no discipline are all a recipe for disaster. The one thing that most everyone seems to overlook, even more advanced trainees, is leaving room for progressions. Most people are impatient and think that more (or less) is always better. They want to reach their goal immediately as if there is no time to waste. And therein lies the problem.
So, they start an extremely intense routine and do cardio seven days a week, all while cutting calories and carbohydrates drastically. But then what? What do you do when progress stalls? Cardio twice a day? Zero carbohydrates? They become frustrated, realize that cardio twice a day and zero carbs isn’t sustainable, and go right back to their old ways.
Most people (especially women) overdo the cardio anyway. I have dropped women from six days of cardio a week to one day and they all lose weight and get stronger (and they are in shock that this happens). Just randomly throwing cardio and exercises at yourself until you’re dragging on the floor is not the goal of training. This is why a solid and well thought out plan is helpful. Leave room for progressions so that you can continually make progress.
When I work with any client I start small. I’d like to keep calories and (especially) carbohydrates as high as I can while the client still makes progress. This leaves me plenty of room to lower both as we continue through the diet. The same goes with cardio. I start with as little as I can while they still lose weight or get leaner. I am a real cardio hater; I hate doing it and I hate having clients do it. Of course it has cardiac benefits, but I hate feeling like a f*#king gerbil spinning on a wheel, and frankly I find it to be muscle wasting. I much prefer “non-traditional” cardio like Prowler® pushes, farmer’s walks, sprints, or weight lifting complexes. Even weight training follows this sort of peak and valley approach. You must leave progressions for volume and intensity, starting with the minimum necessary to get results, and leaving room to bump up. Once you actually need these more drastic measures, you will no longer respond to them quite as efficiently as you have already exposed them to your body.
Here are some ways to adjust your diet to continually strive towards your goal:
1. Adjust macronutrient ratios
Here is where I am supposed to give you a fancy formula that magically determines the exact macronutrient count that you require on a daily basis. Unfortunately, I don’t know the drugs you use (if any), your insulin sensitivity, insulin responsiveness, level of body fat, hormonal make up, your goals, your workout routine…you get the point. Again, start with AS MANY carbohydrates and calories as you can while still losing weight. For most people it’s between 100-400 grams of carbohydrates, that doesn’t mean you can’t be under or over that. I prefer for clients to lose no more than 1-2 pounds per week. Another thing to understand is that weight loss, strength, or athletic enhancement gains are NOT linear! Do not get discouraged if you have a week where weight loss stalls because you cannot expect gains to occur in a consistent and linear fashion.
The tendency for most seems to be to lower carbohydrates first. One, because it is not an essential nutrient and two, because it is much harder to overeat when you completely eliminate or greatly reduce a macronutrient. I believe it makes sense to first start lowering or eliminating carbohydrates that are far removed from your training window. The majority of your nutrients should fall within the pre, intra and post workout window as you continue dieting. By chipping away at the calories outside of this, you can keep workouts productive yet still create the deficit you need for weight loss.
Everyone agrees that we need protein to stay high in order to retain muscle tissue and fat intake is important for hormonal regulation and satiety. Most of the informed readers of elitefts.com know the importance of protein, especially when trying to diet. Protein has the highest thermic effect of food (TEF), which in basic terms just means the energy it takes our body to digest and process food. So when you reduce calories and/or carbohydrates, take protein’s TEF and apply it. Add protein in to try and match the loss of calories from the reduced carbohydrates.
2. Adjust food choices
Do not misinterpret this title. The caloric deficit is still key, no matter what your local paleo cult says. They believe that as long as you eat your paleo-approved foods, which somehow include some stupid pre-packaged bar that I doubt cavemen ate, you can eat as much as you want. You can still gain weight and fat if you overeat on a paleo or what people refer to as “clean” foods. There are no clean or dirty foods. Food is food, but some choices are more nutritious than others. These terms are thrown around pretty frequently by regular people with no true knowledge of the subject, including trainers, dieticians, and doctors who are supposed to have knowledge in this area.
Here’s the problem, who is the governing body who labeled food as good or bad? They are simply the opinions of that person who is using those terms. But what are those opinions based off of? It’s not scientific evidence because science has not defined good vs. bad foods or clean vs dirty foods. So again, this is based off of one’s perception of food, whether they gathered this through some dumb motivational meme on Facebook or listened to paleo freaks.
Here’s an example, true paleo diets don’t contain rice, so this may not be on their list of acceptable or good foods. However, most other people consider rice a good or clean food. So what is it? It’s FOOD. It is not inherently good or bad, and it is simply fuel for our body. However, I do think it’s important to not eat high glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates in excess. This undoubtedly reduces insulin sensitivity and insulin responsiveness.
Insulin is a powerful anabolic hormone that we want to take advantage of at appropriate times. By increasing these two things, less insulin can do more, and this is what we want. So, you can start by swapping out some of your higher GI choices with lower GI choices. Large insulin spikes can actually create rebound spikes that stay elevated longer than we want or need. This is where things like Ezekiel bread, berries, barley, lentils, etc., are all great choices that will work well for your transforming physique. The other important factor here is the ability for the specific food choice to regulate hunger.
3. Incorporate refeeds
Not everyone agrees with refeeds and that’s OK, nobody is forcing you to try it. However, I do think it helps dieters psychologically and may have a beneficial impact on your metabolism. Though the increases in leptin are transient and soon brought back to normal, I personally believe the surplus of calories during the refeed gives the body a nice break from the caloric deficit you are experiencing while dieting. In the end the choice is yours.
First, clean eating warriors will shun me for saying this, but I prefer having refeeds with ANY carbohydrate choice the person wants, as long as they are low in fat and that they still get their designated protein for that day. White bread, jelly, pancakes, French toast, syrup, will all work just fine. I let my clients have a cheat meal, not a cheat day. This is the tricky part; when you start to diet your body undergoes certain hormonal changes. This is because we are an ever-adapting organism. Our body is always trying to adapt and survive!
Leptin and ghrelin are two major hormones that we must battle with while dieting. In simple terms, leptin tells the body when it is full and ghrelin stimulates hunger. When we diet, leptin decreases and ghrelin increases, which is part of the reason why so many people can’t stay consistent. There was a study done on 14 male bodybuilders who underwent a 10-week “weight reduction” period for their upcoming show. Within the first six weeks of dieting, the researchers saw a 27.7 percent decrease in leptin and a 20.4 percent increase in ghrelin.  What’s interesting is that ghrelin only increased an additional six percent over the last five weeks and leptin did not change much during the last five weeks.
The researchers concluded that “ghrelin concentration significantly increases, but is suppressed in conditions of limited energy availability that is accompanied by significant body-mass loss.”  This isn’t great news for those who have trouble starting and following through with a diet. The first six weeks saw a pretty large increase in ghrelin, so not only will you be miserable because you are dieting, but you will be much hungrier than normal. There may also be a correlation between increased ghrelin and cravings for higher-calorie foods by stimulation of the brain’s reward systems. So with that increase in ghrelin will come an increased desire for that Wendy’s Baconator you just saw on TV. On the other hand, when leptin decreases so does our thyroid hormones (TSH + T3) and our metabolic rate; as the body is trying to conserve energy. With the decrease in leptin also comes an increase in reverse T3, which is a competitive inhibitor of T3. So it blocks T3 activity and decreases cellular energy production.
So how can you combat this? This is part of the reason that bodybuilders use refeeds. One reason is to refill glycogen storage, but also to increase leptin and help prime the metabolism. Refined carbohydrates seem to stimulate leptin to the greatest degree (per calorie) which is why I incorporate them on reefed days for my clients, and boy do they love me for it. And with the abundance of low GI foods during the week, we should also be very insulin sensitive when the reefed meal comes around. This meal also gives you something to look forward, keeping you sane. In the same token as the earlier advice, start high on refeeds, and try to find your sweet spot; the most you can eat while still making progress. Some may be able to get away with two refeeds per week. It’s all through trial and error.
4. Increase your work
This is where most people increase cardio. If you like cardio, then knock yourself out. I prefer adding things like concentric sled work, Prowler® pushes, or increasing my volume on weights. Once you absolutely have to, then start adding cardio. For the most part, I prefer HIIT cardio, but a blend of HIIT and steady state works as well. HIIT can be stressful, especially when someone is very lean and on low calories. I also prefer cardio to be done in a fasted state, and as my previous articles have discussed why, there is more than enough research that shows this cardio promotes selective utilization of stored fat and increased insulin sensitivity.
Luckily for me, as I end this article, I am about to begin my reefed. I am off to have french toast made with Italian bread followed by as much frozen yogurt as I can stuff down my throat without choking. Dieting sucks, but it doesn’t have to suck as much as most people make it. Leave room for progressions, be lenient with carbohydrate choices on refeeds, and most importantly, GO SLOW! Take your time dieting down and you will be pleased with your results.
 Maetsu, J. “Increases in Ghrelin and Decreases in Leptin without Altering Adiponectin during Extreme Weight Loss in Male Competitive Bodybuilders.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 04 May 2013. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18191052