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Q. What do you think of ketogenic diets?
A: I don’t think ketogenic diets are necessary to get into the kind of shape that will bring out a set of abs worthy of a shirtless summer. Even if you need to achieve ridiculously low levels of body fat for high-level bodybuilding competition, a ketogenic diet is not necessary and actually must be modified to work for bodybuilders. Let me explain: The term ketogenic diet refers to an eating program that contains almost no carbohydrate, has modest protein and requires consuming 4 grams of fat for every gram of protein and carbohydrate. This nutritional prescription is popular for the treatment of epilepsy and is often referred to as the 4:1:1 Diet or a standard ketogenic diet (SKD). Bodybuilders have used variations on the standard ketogenic diet theme to get shredded, and they can work quite well.
Why Go Ketogenic?
The reason a recreational or competitive bodybuilder would want to use this method of dieting is simple: to get the body to use more stored body fat as fuel, which of course is the goal of any fat-loss plan. With a ketogenic diet, the strategy is to reduce carbohydrate intake to extremely low levels (less than 50 grams per day), which puts your body in a state of ketosis. That is, the severe reduction in carbohydrates causes your body to rapidly increase the quantity of ketones (or ketone bodies) in the blood. Ketones are a by-product of fat metabolism, and for proponents of this diet, being in a state of ketosis is the ultimate sign your body is metabolizing fats effectively (preferably those stored on your body). In other words, when ketone bodies are so high that they can become an alternative fuel source, it’s a sure bet you’re burning lots of fat for energy.
Optimizing a Ketogenic Diet
The problem with a ketogenic diet for bodybuilders is that without periodic bumps in carb intake, your body simply cannot make enough glucose to support high-intensity training. So, instead of a standard ketogenic diet, bodybuilders in the know use either a cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD) or a targeted ketogenic diet (TKD) to maximize the effective of a low-carb diet while mitigating the loss of training intensity and, in turn, muscle mass, which comes from eating too little carbohydrate for extended periods of time. The targeted ketogenic diet is nothing more than the standard ketogenic diet (SKD) with carbohydrates consumed at specific times around exercise. The usual strategy is to reduce the intake of fat on training days and add carbohydrates either before or after training.
Cyclical Ketogenic Diet
This is a program whereby you eat a minimal amount of carbs for one to three days, then switch to a normal mixed diet with a liberal intake of carbs for one day, then repeat. By far the leading expert on the standard ketogenic diet as well as the targeted and cyclical ketogenic diet approaches for maximizing body recomposition is Lyle McDonald, and I encourage anyone who wants to go this route to visit his site: www.bodyrecomposition.com.
My Year-Round Diet Program for Getting Leaner and Staying Lean
The approach I use to diet manipulation for body fat reduction is based on the same principles I believe are essential to an eating program that is both manageable and effective.
Here’s how it works:
- Set your protein intake at roughly 1.35 grams of protein per pound of lean body weight;
- Set your carb intake at the same as the protein listed above (1.35 grams per pound of lean body weight); and
- Set your fat intake to roughly 20 percent of total energy intake.
This means your macronutrient breakdown is roughly 40 percent protein, 40 percent carbs, and 20 percent fat. For many, this nutritional breakdown will allow you to painlessly begin to burn more fat as fuel. Then, if you need to accelerate fat loss, you simply begin to reduce the amount of carbs you eat each day until you begin to lose more body fat. As the program progresses, you may need to increase protein intake slightly while constantly monitoring carb intake. When your body is trying to get to a “new best” when it comes to body composition, increasing your intake of lean protein delivers substantial benefits: First, protein metabolism has an inherent energy cost higher than carbs or fats. Second, protein is the most anti-catabolic nutrient you can ingest.
Once you have this basic macronutrient breakdown in place, my advice is to slowly reduce carbs to get a greater fat-burning effect, but not reduce them so much that training intensity falls too sharply. When trying to lose body fat, it’s a sure bet that your training intensity will go down a bit, but when it’s time to train, you shouldn’t constantly feel tired or lethargic. Getting lean is hard work, but in my experience, slight changes in the composition of your diet—not major changes—are what will tip the scales of fat burning in your favor without risking loss of muscle mass. Maximizing your lean muscle-to-fat ratio is the name of the game, so you must keep tabs on how your “training life” is handling your “diet life.”
Understanding the Rules of the Game
I want to stress that with any diet, the goal is to threaten your supply of glucose (which comes from the carbs you eat), which causes your body to break down body fat (and at times, muscle tissue) and to eat enough protein in your diet to make the glucose your body is designed to regulate, particularly your brain. You can threaten your body’s supply of glucose by reducing your intake of carbs and/or increasing the amount of glucose you burn each day through training. For bodybuilders, this means you should be on a training program that emphasizes workload (volume), otherwise known as training for hypertrophy, which further reduces the amount of stored glucose in your muscles (glycogen) and also makes your muscle tissue more sensitized to storing the carbs you do eat in your muscle cells rather than your fat cells.