Nearly all industries, disciplines, and practices are subject to trends. Nutrition and the opinions surrounding it seem to be especially volatile. In my lifetime alone, I have seen a dramatic shift in the thinking regarding nutrition. What’s interesting to note is that trends can be influenced by various factors. There is always the possibility that there is an agenda being pushed for the sake of making money. Any company or industry with something to gain from a favorable result can fund and publish “studies” which might influence people to buy their products. This happens in the food industry all the time.
Another reason for changing trends is the fact that the human body is a biological entity which we still do not fully understand. Sometimes, the only thing more dangerous than no information at all is partial information. Forming opinions based on a small amount of information can lead to beliefs which may or may not be accurate. And yet another reason for trends is the further gathering of empirical information. Through trial and error, we find things that work for us and for others. This can easily lead to people changing the way things have been done in favor of a new method.
The field of nutrition is filled with examples of trends. Trends usually occur out of the desire to promote health or improve fitness—or both. What interests me most is both. For long term results, both health and fitness need be considered. If a way of eating can help support healthy, intended functioning of the body, then performance and appearance should be more easily improved. All sorts of dietary approaches have been promoted over the years in the name of health and appearance. Although a low protein diet has never been promoted with any widespread acceptance to the best of my knowledge, both low fat and low carb approaches have been touted extensively.
Even in the bodybuilding industry there remains a divide between the high protein, moderate fat, low carbohydrate crowd and the high protein, moderate carbohydrate, low fat supporters. If you’re a carb guy, you avoid significant fat intake and if you’re an advocate of increased dietary fats, then you’re sure to denounce carb intake. Although dietary fat intake has gained increased acceptance in recent years, we are by and large still living in the shadow of the 1980’s low fat craze. The mantra of the 1980s was that fat makes you fat and if you want to be lean and healthy then fat should be avoided. On the flip side, the late ’90s saw the arrival of the Atkins diet that popularized a ketogenic approach to looking better and improving health, and carbohydrates were viewed as the enemy. So which way is THE way?
The short answer is there is no single right way. Can bodybuilders achieve great condition with low fat diets? No doubt. Can those following a ketogenic approach get in incredible shape? Sure can. Both ways work. We really should be asking which is the BEST way. Based on my personal experience dieting for contests over the past 13 years and helping others do the same, I adamantly believe that neither a low fat nor a low carb approach is ideal for bodybuilders or anyone else. This goes for both offseason and pre-contest periods. You have to understand that ALL macronutrients have specific benefits and to drastically reduce or altogether eliminate any one of them for a significant period of time is foolish. Let’s consider the benefit of each macronutrient.
Protein is universally accepted as a vital macronutrient. Amino acids are necessary for an extensive number of biological functions and processes. They are also the building blocks of the body’s tissues, organs, enzymes, various hormones, and a myriad of other things I’m failing to list. While the body can synthesize some amino acids, there are others that we must consume in order to thrive. Both bodybuilders and the general public have embraced the importance of dietary protein consumption. Protein has managed to escape the fate of carbs and fats as a macronutrient that should be limited. In fact, most serious bodybuilders have adopted the rule of 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight as a baseline for protein consumption whether they are trying to lose body fat or increase size.
Fat, unfortunately, has not enjoyed the same popularity as protein. As mentioned earlier, “fat makes you fat” is a belief that simply won’t die. After all, if you are trying to lose fat, why would you consume it? From personal experience, I not only lost significant size and fullness, but I did not achieve the same level of hardness when I dieted with low fat intake. Plus, low fat dieting was a lot harder for me—I felt like crap all the time. There are good reasons to include fat in your diet. For example, while carbohydrates are needed to fill the muscles with glycogen, people rarely discuss the fact that fats are used for the storage of intramuscular triglycerides. Fats, like carbs, can make you appear round and full. Also, while carbohydrates are granted the title as chief energy provider, fats can provide sustained, even energy long after the carbs have fizzled out.
Off-season, fat plays an important role as well. I did not gain the size and strength I was capable of until I overcame my fear of dietary fat intake. As everyone knows, fat provides MORE calories gram for gram than either protein or carbs. So, if you find yourself shoveling down potatoes, rice, pasta, and oats and still aren’t gaining the size you’re capable of, add some fats to your diet. Trust me, the gains will come faster and you’ll feel better too. In short, fats are absolutely vital (off-season and pre-contest) in helping you achieve your goals. After all, just like proteins have essential amino acids, fat consumption is needed in order to provide the body with essential fatty acids.
This brings me to carbohydrates. Everyone loves carbs. They taste great, they’re cheap, they give you energy, and they help your muscles appear round and full. First and foremost, carbohydrates are a source of calories. While this characteristic is shared by all the macros, carbohydrates can provide the body with the most readily available energy. And, again, trying to derive all calories from only proteins and fats seems illogical. Once you reach a level where your caloric demands are fairly high, not using carbohydrates as a calorie source would make things much more difficult. This holds true for both pre-contest and off-season approaches.
Carbohydrates should never be restricted too drastically or eliminated altogether from the diet because several negative things will occur. First, severe carbohydrate restriction kills the metabolic rate. Consuming a balanced amount of carbohydrates does wonders in keeping your metabolism firing strong. Those who adopt a ketogenic approach may experience good results at first but they inevitably grind to a halt. I believe this is primarily because conversion of the thyroid hormone T4 to T3 is significantly reduced. Second, those who eliminate carbohydrates for extended periods of time will almost inevitably experience severe gastrointestinal issues once they are added back to the diet in any significant amount.
Bloating, severe gas, and diarrhea are all common when you get back on carbs. An individual preparing for a contest using a ketogenic diet who hopes to gain maximum fullness by carb loading the week prior to the contest is oftentimes severely disappointed. Instead of getting fuller and tighter, pretty much the only thing that happens is lots of gas, stomach distention, and trips to the toilet. My guess is that the body decreases its production of the enzymes needed to digest any appreciable amount of carbohydrates simply because they have not been needed. If you want to have the greatest amount of success dropping body fat, do yourself a favor and keep a significant amount of carbohydrates in your diet, or at the very least incorporate carb cycling. If you don’t, your metabolism suffers and so does your digestive ability. Just the same, limiting carbohydrate intake too severely in the off-season would not make sense.
Now that we can appreciate the importance of each macronutrient (whether we are trying to gain size or drop body fat), we can determine how they could be “balanced.” Beginning with protein intake is the most logical thing to do. At a rate of one gram per pound of body weight, a 250lb individual would consume 250g of protein yielding 1000 calories. I don’t believe that there is really any specific reason to consume more or less calories from fats or carbohydrates. From my viewpoint, each macro is of equal value. Therefore, this would have us consuming 250g of carbohydrates yielding 1000 calories and 110g fats also yielding 1000 calories. This would serve as an excellent starting point for an offseason bodybuilder. Macros could be adjusted from there, but all things considered, I truly believe that approximating a 1:1:1 calorie ratio is ideal.
Dietary trends have come and gone and will continue to do so. Balance, however, never goes out of style. It has always worked and it will continue to work. There is absolutely no doubt that each macronutrient is indispensable to the bodybuilder and no single macronutrient should ever be restricted too severely or for too long. When size and strength gains are a priority, no macronutrient should ever be restricted OR overconsumed. When the leanest, more shredded physique is the goal, all three macronutrients should be present in significant quantities, or cycled at the very least. Macronutrients are the tools we use to shape our bodies—to eliminate or severely restrict any one of them is to put yourself at a disadvantage.