How to diet to single digit body fat percentages
Guest article by Martin MacDonald
How to diet to single digit body fat.
If you're reading this you're probably well aware that most mainstream ideas about healthy eating are terrible let alone advice to lose weight and get to single digit body fat levels! Recommendations on salt intake, cholesterol intake, servings of carbohydrate etc. are all based on sketchy, if not incorrect science. (NOTE: If you’re not aware of these things I urge you to do some digging). Despite the fact that many fitness enthusiasts and in particular bodybuilders (who get to single digit body fat regularly) are light years ahead of the game when it comes to nutrition and supplementation, little things can creep into the optimal nutrition mentality that have no place. Bodybuilding is a long standing sport with a number of traditions and dogmas surrounding it. Moving into the 21st century, some of these things can be left behind. Forget the, “it didn’t hurt Arnold” or the “well Flex Wheeler did it” mentality. You need to find what works for you and the best place to start is in the science; only then can you start your journey of trial and error into where results out-weigh scientific evidence.
This article will not talk about training in the sense of what split is best, what exercises to use, frequency of training body parts etc. but there are a few things I need to mention. While nutrition is arguably far more important than training (it’s good to be controversial occasionally), you can dampen some of the effects of good nutrition with poor training. If you decide to start a diet and up your reps to 20, use the pink dumbbells and subsequently haemorrhage muscle, you may blame my advice. Therefore, it is worth saying that whilst dieting you should still lift heavy. I feel ridiculous writing this but you know as well as I do that at least one gym instructor out there is still recommending high reps, low weight for defining, toning and ‘etching’ lines into the muscle. I am less of a fan of isolation movements during a diet than I am when muscle gain is the goal; big compound movements are not the be all and end all when muscle gain is key but during a diet they lead to muscle retention, energy burn and a hormonal milieu conducive to fat loss.
Where to start
The starting point for a competition diet will vary with how much body fat you have to lose. The average time period is perhaps somewhere between 12 and 20 weeks but it would be pertinent to get someone in the know (i.e. someone who has competed) to assess your physique and tell you how much you need to lose… I find you can normally add at least 7lbs to any initial estimation. Standing on stage is not like being lean for the beach or gym, it is another level of condition. Once you have decided how much you need to lose you can aim to lose between 0.5 and 2lbs per week but perhaps double that in the initial week or two. The general rule of thumb is that you can lose approximately 1% of BW per week so 2lbs for a 200lb guy. The issue here is, that is for average Joe, not Joe Bodybuilder, who has less body fat to lose in the first place! When body fat gets lower, the potential to get fat into the blood stream to be burnt is reduced. Similarly, at this point, the body is in an unnatural state and your body will be fighting to keep the body fat therefore you can expect as little as 0.25lbs per week loss in the end stages when you are in the realms of single digit body fat.
Ascertain your baseline diet
The type of diet you choose can vary slightly around a few specific themes. The food must be real, whole food that in most cases, is prepared by yourself. What constitutes whole food is a controversial topic with the likes of the Paleo diet gaining interest, which discourages dairy intake. Similarly, you have options like intermittent fasting which can be useful for much smaller individuals. I have used this to great effect in small figure/physique females. There are many ways to skin a cat and there are also many ways to shred a bodybuilder, so pick the one that suits you best but do not try anything fancy. Hearing that the dogma of 6 meals a day is no longer necessary and then eating 3 square meals a day is in my opinion a mistake; much better to bunch these meals together around training and get the positive effects of a prolonged fast instead lots of mini ones. Or just stick with the tried and tested multiple smaller meals throughout the day.
One final point to consider is that the gut plays a huge part in how your body functions, therefore, if you have persistent gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhoea, constipation or even bad wind, you should take a look at what you are eating that might be causing this. These are not normal although today’s society would have us believe we just need to treat the symptom not find and eliminate the cause. A recent double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial by Biesiekierski and colleagues (2011) showed that gluten can cause gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms in subjects without celiac disease and have coined the phrase ‘non-celiac gluten intolerance.’ On top of this you also have wheat and of course dairy/lactose. If you are having GI issues then these are the best places to start.
A Note on Dairy
If you can handle dairy then I strongly recommend keeping it in, and keeping the full fat version in for the majority of your diet. This is one area of dogma that has hung around bodybuilding, perhaps due to early bodybuilders reducing dairy intake in the last week to reduce sodium and therefore water in the body. Dairy has been shown time and time again in numerous studies to be anabolic (Elliot et al, 2006; Hartman et al, 2007; Wilkinson et al, 2007) whilst encouraging the reduction of body fat (Josse et al, 2010). Many individuals will happily chug back whey protein shakes but will not touch cheese or milk because these are ‘forbidden foods’ when this just doesn’t make sense. Of course there is also the fact that the full fat versions of milk and alike contain other bioactive components; not least the popular fat loss product conjugated linioc acid (CLA) and my favourite vitamin, Vitamin D! So, if you can tolerate it, keep dairy in initially at least.
Carbs, Proteins and Fats
So, onto the stuff that you have perhaps been waiting for, the optimal breakdown of the plan! First off you need to work out how many calories you are going to start your diet on. The best practise here I find is with a food diary; do so by weighing and writing everything you eat and drink for 3 days and then calculate your intake of kcals, protein, carbohydrate and fat. The most important (at this stage) of these 4 being your kcals and protein intake. If you do not want to do this you can use one of the many online calculators to work out your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and then factor in for your daily activity and exercise energy expenditure. Most people find that they will drop a few pounds of body fat simply by cleaning it up i.e. taking out the junk but keeping everything else the same. When deciding what kcal level to start at, remember that you need room to come down and also remember that going below your BMR will lead to hormonal disruption that may hamper fat loss and or muscle retention. There is a term called ‘energy availability’ which is the amount of energy available from food after accounting for exercise energy expenditure. So if you eat 2000kcals and expend 600kcals with exercise your energy availability is 1400kcals. Research has shown that going below 30kcals per kg of lean body mass will severely impact on hormonal health. So for an 85kg guy with 15% body fat that is ~2160kcals so you can see, if you start at 2500kcals and burn 500kcals you are already encroaching on this. Now, time for a reality check: I have never been able to get anyone seriously lean without going below this threshold and I am willing to admit that. Some might tell you they can do it with their superior knowledge but alas, it has always eluded me, my clients and every bodybuilder I have ever known. Right, so we have our starting figure, let’s say you have come up with 3000kcals which is a figure I seem to end up around with many clients.
Fat intake is a topic that is never without controversy these days. Even in bodybuilders, a group who are completely at ease with lower carbohydrate diets, the idea of consuming lots of fat, and particularly saturated fat, still does not sit well and unfortunately this really is the wrong way to go about things. Bear in mind that I am far from recommending a very high fat diet i.e. a ketogenic diet, but I will cover this more in the ‘Progression’ section. You may know that sex steroid hormones, such as testosterone are actually made from cholesterol. On top of this we have the fact that in numerous studies, consuming a higher fat diet has led to increases in testosterone levels. Further to this we see that actually the ratio of fatty acids within this total fat intake could be an important determining factor. Intakes of saturated and monounsaturated fats are positively correlated with increased testosterone levels whilst the ratio of saturated fat to polyunsaturated fat is also a predictor; so as saturated fat intake goes down and polyunsaturated goes up we get a decrease in testosterone. I have been a victim of reducing saturated fat intake too low and even total fat intake many moons ago. At the time I was of the belief that saturated fat, out of all the fats, was the most likely to be stored as body fat whereas unsaturated fats where perhaps more likely to be incorporated into cell membranes etc. While on some level this might be true, during a calorie restricted phase where carbohydrate in particular is kept low, very little energy is going to be stored in the postprandial state. So, moving onto the specifics, for best effects, ensure total fat intake is above 30% and ideally sitting around 40% of calories. Of this 40% keep saturated fat at 20% with mono and polyunsaturated fats making up 10% each. This puts the ratio of saturated fat to polyunsaturated fats to 2:1 which is close to, if not at, the proposed optimal ratio.
Finally, onto the carbohydrate side of things, We are now left with a figure based on our total kcals minus kcals from 2.2g/kg of protein and minus 40% of kcals from fat. Here is what this might look like:
Having this range of carbohydrate intake is quite good as it then allows us a little room for movement perhaps on a particularly heavy training day or on the day of a weak body part to include a few more carbs around training. This leads onto the topics of where do these carbs go, how should they be split and should fats and carbs be separated? But first, a mention on why being so specific with all these grams, percentages and ratios is pertinent. In natural bodybuilding the overriding factor on the success of your diet is how your hormonal profile and therefore metabolism reacts to the dietary manipulations you put in place. If you screw up your hormones or reduce testosterone you can forget how much protein you’re eating and how much heavy lifting you’re doing, you will lose less body fat and lose more muscle. Hormones are the master co-ordinators. Tell-tale signs of hormonal disturbance or imbalance are hugely disproportionate loses of fat. Take this image of a fairly lean upper body, deep striations across the chest, very dry and lean obliques but then the same lower body is virtually smooth. This is a common site in many natural contests and unfortunately no matter how low calories go, this imbalance may never be righted until calories go back up and the disruption is righted.
Sources of carbohydrate in my opinion should be limited to sweet potato, oats and rice as well as of course fruits and vegetables. On top of this some simple sugars such as glucose, maltodextrin and fructose could also be used around training.
Progression of the diet to single digit body fat
Obviously any diet must progress otherwise you will stagnate. The options obviously remain to increase energy expenditure or to reduce calories and at some point reducing calories will probably be necessary. In this instance, if you have opted for a higher fat intake you can probably take quite evenly from both ‘pots’ as it were. However, lowering carbohydrate disproportionately to fat seems to have favourable effects. I have read a number of internet gurus claiming that super low carb is the way to go and even touting ketogenic as the best diet for bodybuilders. While for a sedentary individual this might be great, it is not ideal for a natural bodybuilder trying to retain as much muscle as possible. Insulin (released when carbohydrates are eaten) is such an anabolic/anti catabolic hormone and without chemical assistance, protein breakdown and therefore muscle loss is going to be elevated on these kinds of diets. Note that ketogenic diets also set a limit on protein intake due to higher intakes keeping the body out of a ketogenic state. Lower carb, higher fat diets also always beat higher carb, lower fat diets hands down when it comes to nutrient density and bioavailability of nutrients. A common practise in bodybuilding circles is carbohydrate cycling which simply means having higher and lower carbohydrate days. There are many ways of doing this depending on your specific situation so it is worth investing some time into reading about different ways of structuring how you do this.
I do not want to labour too heavily on supplements, despite what some of my colleagues would say, I am fairly supplement ‘light’ in my opinion. The supplements that I would recommend without a doubt during a competition diet are as follows:
• Vitamin D3: Dosed either based on a blood test or at a standard 15,000IU weekly dose.
• EPA and DHA supplements dosed at around 1.0 – 1.5g per day which may be manipulated depending on other factors.
• Debatable whether or not it is a supplement but protein powder of choice.
• Creatine monohydrate and I always go for Creapure where possible just because the price difference is so small that it seems worth it for any possible small gain.
• Beta Alanine dosed daily at 40mg/kg with a possible loading phase of 4 weeks at 80mg/kg.
On top of this, supplement use would be on a case by case basis.
There you have it, an overview of how to set up your contest prep dieting phase to attain the lower end of single digit body fat percentages. I have not included specific manipulations that might take place in the final week before competition as these are generally very unscientific, more trial and error based practises. One of the biggest things I have not mentioned is consistency. Being consistent, both with your nutrition and your training, is one of the biggest factors in the success of preparing for a bodybuilding show. Have fun!
This article was originally published on MyProtein.co.uk