These days, the carbohydrate issue seems to be the burning question on the minds of nearly everyone who is interested in getting leaner.It’s no wonder why there’s such a buzz about these diets: everywhere you look lately there are low carb bars, low carb drinks, low carb meal replacements, low carb frozen dinners and so on. In the bookstores, The Atkins diet, Protein Power and Sugar-Busters have all been best sellers.
Even though there has been a huge resurgence in the interest in low carb/high protein diets, the low carb vs. high carb issue is still the subject of much controversy. For every “low carb guru” who says that low carbs are the ultimate diet, there is a “high carb guru” with the opposite opinion. This has caused a lot of people a lot of confusion.
So what’s the deal? Is the low carb/high protein diet the best way for bodybuilders to get ripped or just another fad? From a bodybuilding standpoint, the answer is an unequivocal yes; reducing carbohydrates really works! Most bodybuilders can’t get that “ripped” look without some degree of carb restriction. Almost every bodybuilder or fitness competitor I’ve ever met uses some version of the low carb diet when getting ready for competition. The problem is, most people fail to take into account their goals and their unique body type, so they follow the advice of the latest “low-carb guru” and take the carb restriction too far. Zero carb or close to zero carb diets are in my opinion, TOTAL INSANITY!
The other extreme; the high carb, very low fat diet, isn’t the best approach for bodybuilders either. These diets (60-70% carb, 20-30% protein and 10% or less fat) were trendy with bodybuilders for a while, especially back in the 80’s and early 90’s (Remember Nathan Pritkin, Dean Ornish and Robert Haas?), but their popularity quickly faded. Those who tried it discovered that it wasn’t nearly as effective as the low to moderate carb, high protein diet.
Why does dropping your carbs help you lose more fat? There are several reasons, but to avoid getting into a complicated discussion of nutritional biochemistry, let’s just say that eating less carbs forces your body to burn fat for fuel instead of sugar. Reducing carbs and increasing protein accelerates fat loss by controlling your insulin and blood sugar more effectively. The high protein in these diets also speeds up your metabolism because of the “thermic effect” of protein food. It also helps eliminate water retention, giving you the “hard” and “dry” look you need onstage to win contests.
In my opinion, a moderate carb diet, with slight carb restriction (especially at night) is the most effective (and most “sane”) way for bodybuilders to get ripped. For example, my contest diet is about 175 -200 grams of carbs with most of the carbs eaten early in the day. Every 4th day, I have a high carb day (350 grams) to replenish my depleted glycogen stores. By contrast, my off-season diet is 350 – 450 grams of carbs. With 175 – 200 grams of carbs, that is just enough fuel to provide the energy I needed to train hard and to prevent me from losing muscle.
Would dropping carbs even further to 30 or 50 grams a day (like many fad diets recommend) get you more ripped or get you ripped faster? Maybe. But the problem is, without carbs, you’ll have no energy to train hard. Sure, tuna fish and water will get you ripped alright, but if your workouts suffer because your diet is “killing you,” you aren’t going to look or feel your best.
Another big problem caused by very low carb diets is loss of lean body mass. The lower you drop your carbs, the more likely you are to lose muscle along with the fat.
A third problem with very low carb diets is the rebound effect. The lower you drop your carbs, the faster you will rebound and gain the fat back when you add the carbs back in. I swear I’ve seen guys blow up 30-40 lbs in a matter of DAYS after their contest because they went on a carbohydrate and fat binge after a four-month zero carb diet. It wasn’t a pretty sight!
When I experimented with a very low carb diet, (about 40-70 grams a day), I lost huge amounts of lean body mass and looked very “flat” and “stringy.” I was also one irritable, grouchy SOB. My friends nicknamed me “fog boy” because (sez them) I stumbled around in a fog-like daze. One friend who hadn’t seen me since the previous year when I was a “bulked up” and carbed up 208 lbs, saw me 48 lbs lighter after the low carb diet (yes, 160 scrawny pounds) and he said, “holy sh** Tom, what happened to you? You’re HALF the man you were last year!” That was the last time I ever tried an extremely low carb diet.
Nutrition is a highly individual issue. Some people can’t seem to lose weight unless they reduce their carbohydrate intake. Other people can eat bagels and pasta all day long and they have six pack abs. How many carbs you eat therefore, depends on your body type. Are you an endormorph or an ectomorph? Do you have a fast metabolism or a slow metabolism? Are you naturally lean or naturally heavy? Depending on your genetics, you might thrive on high carbs or you might need a high protein, low carb diet to get results. But beware: even if you think you are the carb sensitive, slow-metabolism type, the middle path (moderate carb restiction) is the most sensible way to go.
The only way to determine how many grams of carbs is right for YOU is to experiment until you find your “critical level.” If you start dropping body fat rapidly at 200 grams a day, then why on earth would you subject yourself to the torture of going even lower and doing one of those 30-40 grams a day “ketogenic” diets? Why kill yourself?
Remember, there is no single diet that works for everyone. There are certain universal nutritional laws that apply to everyone, but be very careful of “gurus” who use the words “always” and “never” or who make sweeping statements like “carbohydrates make you fat.”
If you want to get ripped, you should also pick the type of carbs you eat carefully – it’s not just the quantity, it’s the quality. In addition to moderating total daily carb intake, I also recommend getting off ALL processed carbs including bread, crackers, pretzels, pasta, bagels and switching only to natural, unprocessed carbs like vegetables, oatmeal, yams, rice, potatoes, etc. That single change will go a long way in helping you get leaner (and healthier too!)
The bottom line is that it’s not correct to say, “carbs are fattening,” but there IS some truth to the assertion that a low carb diet will get you leaner compared to a high carb diet – you just have to approach it in a sensible and individualized way. As in most areas of your life, going to the extreme with your diet will usually do you more harm than good.
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural bodybuilder, personal trainer, gym owner, freelance writer and author of Burn the Fat, Feed The Muscle (BFFM): Fat Burning Secrets of the World’s Best Bodybuilders and Fitness Models. Tom has written over 140 articles and has been featured in IRONMAN magazine, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development, Muscle-Zine, Exercise for Men and Men’s Exercise. Tom is the Fat Loss Expert for Global-Fitness.com and the nutrition editor for Femalemuscle.com and his articles are featured regularly on literally dozens of other websites.