Getting lean and shredded is not the easiest thing in the world when you’re already fit and have a relatively low body fat. It takes effort and attention to detail. The key is to make sure you don’t degrade your health, lose muscle mass, or compromise athletic performance in the process.
This is best achieved by setting priorities:
Priority #1 is optimal nutrition.
Priority #2 is intense strength training.
Priority #3 is recovery
Priority #4 is high-intensity interval training.
Priority #5 is non-exercise energy expenditure (not being sedentary during the day)
This article will address priority #1 and give you three possible nutrition strategies you can use to get lean and fit. These strategies are based on research done on lean, fit subjects. All subjects were doing intense training during the trials, making the outcomes highly relevant to real life.
Strategy #1: The moderate energy deficit diet.
Among athletes and lean people, slashing calories in a desperate attempt to lose fat almost always causes a lot of misery and a worse body composition in the long run.
A better approach is to create a moderate calorie deficit for gradual fat loss so that performance and lean muscle mass are maintained. Staying strong and preserving muscle is necessary for long-term success.
This study used elite athletes doing intense strength training who ate a diet of 1.2 to 1.8 g/kg/protein, 4 to 6 g/kg carbohydrate, and about 20 percent of the calories from fat. No athlete ate less than 1,500 calories a day.
One group had a Moderate energy deficit of about 450 fewer calories a day over 9 weeks and a second had a Severe energy deficit of 900 calories a day over 5 weeks.
The study length differed because the goal was to see how effective each approach was for reducing body fat compared to lean mass in the process of losing 5 percent of body weight. The Severe-900 calorie group reached the goal of losing 5 percent of body weight faster, but had a poorer outcome:
- The Moderate-450 calorie group lost 31 percent body fat, gained 2.1 percent lean mass, and had a final body weight of 5.6 percent lower than at baseline after 9 weeks.
- The Severe-900 calorie group lost 21 percent body fat, gained no lean mass, and had a final body weight of 5.5 percent lower than at baseline after 5 weeks.
Not only did the Moderate-450 calorie group lose significantly more fat, they built muscle, finishing with a superior body composition compared to the Severe-950 calorie group. It paid off in terms of fitness:
The Moderate-450 calorie group improved vertical jump height by 7 percent, and increased squat and bench press 1RM by 11.9 percent and 13.6 percent, respectively.
The Severe-1,000 calorie group had no increase in vertical jump, but did improve squat and bench press 1RM by 8.9 percent and 6.3 percent, respectively.
Of interest, women in the study tended to gain muscle regardless of which group they were in, whereas the men had much more favorable results in the Moderate-500 calorie group, averaging a 1.7 percent increase in muscle compared to a 2 percent loss of lean mass in the Severe-1,000 calorie group.
Go for a moderate energy deficit by doing the little things that increase energy expenditure during the day such as a higher protein, moderate carb diet and supplementary HIT workouts.
Don’t shy away from intense strength training during fat loss phases because as long as adequate protein and nutrients are consumed, training will maintain strength and muscle mass.
Avoid doing long-duration cardio to create an energy deficit because this can elevate cortisol during calorie restriction and create a catabolic environment so that muscle is lost.
Strategy #2: The low-carb, high-fat whole foods diet.
There are other fat-reducing methods, but higher protein, lower carb whole food diets consistently work well for the majority of people who try them. Protein deserves special attention for the following reasons:
- It raises your metabolism because it costs the body more calories to process protein than carbs or fat.
- It is filling because eating it causes the release of gut hormones that keep you satisfied.
- It helps manage blood sugar and insulin, decreasing cravings for sugar.
- It triggers protein synthesis, sustaining lean muscle mass for better performance and a higher metabolism.
Low-carb diets are challenging when you’re a hard charging athlete or trainee who wants to perform and isn’t a fan of suffering through workouts. Higher carb intake makes exercise easier. But no one ever said getting shredded was simple and this is a useful method if getting rid of extra body fat that is an ongoing problem.
This study used elite male gymnasts from the Italian national team and compared body composition after one month on their regular “control” diet (46 percent carbs, 39 percent fat, and 15 percent protein) with a very low-carb diet (55 percent fat, 40 percent protein, and 5 percent carbohydrate).
The low-carb phase totaled no more than 28 grams, strictly from green vegetable sources. In addition, the low-carb diet phase had the athletes take supplemental fiber, protein, electrolytes, and an herbal blend to offset side effects of the low-carb diet transition. This was not part of the “control” phase.
Results showed the following changes:
- At the end of the low-carb trial, the gymnasts lost an average of 1.9 kg of fat, decreased body weight by 1.6 kg, and gained a tiny but significant 0.3 kg muscle mass. They lost a total 2.6 percent body fat, ending the low-cab diet at 5 percent body fat.
- At the end of the “control” trial, the gymnasts lost 0.2 kg fat, had no change in body weight, and gained 0.2 kg muscle mass. They lost 0.3 percent body fat, ending the control trial at 7.7 percent body fat.
- Performance in strength and power tests (squat jump, vertical jump, reverse grip chin-ups, push-ups, and parallel bar dips) was the same following both diets.
One question is how “hard” the workouts were on the low-carb diet. It took a week for the athletes to feel “normal" on the low-carb diet—over the first seven days they did not feel as strong or as powerful and found training difficult. After a week they recovered previous strength, power, and stamina, and reported no other problems with the diet.
Physiologically, the athletes were producing ketones, which are a fuel source produced by the body when it is burning fat. When the body runs on ketones, muscle protein is spared, allowing athletes to avoid a catabolic nutritional state.
A few tricks can make low-carb, high-protein diets a lot easier and more effective.
First, be sure to eat enough calories. Calories are needed for recovery and hormone balance, and going too low is a big mistake. Optimal calorie intake will vary depending on body weight and training volume, but never go below 1,500 calories (most people will need more).
Second, eat enough healthy fat. People often start a low-carb diet but don’t eat enough fat, feel terrible, and quit. If you don’t eat a decent amount of fat, the body won’t shift to burning fat instead of glucose and you’ll feel sluggish.
Third, supplementation of fiber and nutrients to support hormone balance, may make the low-carb transition more effective.
In addition, drinking caffeinated coffee in reasonable doses (1 to 3 cups) is a useful aid when transitioning to a low-carb diet because it can significantly enhance exercise performance and motivation when training with low carb energy stores.
Strategy #3: The high-protein, high calorie diet.
If you still believe all calories are created equally, you’re in for a big surprise. You’re also missing out on some useful tools for getting lean and fit. Check it out:
Scientists compared the effect of eating a normal higher protein diet (2 g/kg/day) with a very high protein diet of 4.4 g/kg of body weight of protein a day. The subjects were all lean, trained men and women with a high baseline protein intake of 2 g/kg/day.
The high-protein group had subjects supplement their diet with protein so that they consumed 800 extra calories a day. Both groups did a fairly high volume of strength training during the study. One thing that happened that wasn’t intended was that the control group significantly increased the amount of exercise they did even though they weren’t supposed to.
Results showed that despite consuming 800 calories more a day than the control group, there were no statistically significant differences in body fat percentage, body weight, or lean mass between the groups. The details of the results are more interesting:
The high-protein group reduced body fat percentage by 0.6 percent, lost 0.2 kg of fat mass, and gained 1.9 kg of lean mass.
The control group reduced body fat percentage by 0.9 percent, gained 0.3 kg of fat mass, and gained 1.3 kg of lean mass.
Here are a few key observations from the results:
The control group gained body fat (0.3 kg) despite eating less and exercising more.
This study didn’t restrict carb intake at all. The high-protein group ate 226 grams of carbs a day, which was actually a slight increase (of 28 grams daily) over baseline.
Researchers think the high-protein group didn’t gain fat despite eating an extra 800 calories a day for the following reasons:
- The high thermic effect of all that protein increased energy expenditure.
- Whey protein, which has a particularly high thermic effect, provided a lot of the extra protein.
- Protein calories are used by the body to build tissue whereas carbohydrate calories are more likely to be stored as fat.
There were some side effects of the high-protein diet. Subjects complained of gastrointestinal distress, and of having body temperature chronically elevated (they felt hot). No blood tests were done to measure organ function or oxidative stress markers, which can become elevated with a high protein intake.
A high-protein, high-calorie diet will be best for improving body composition by building lean muscle, but probably isn’t indicated if your primary goal is fat loss. That is better achieved with some variation of strategies 1 and 2.
But how high in protein should you go? Is 4.4 g/kg a smart move?
Probably not. A protein intake between 1.6 and 3.3 g/kg of bodyweight is more reasonable based on the bulk of research. Some ancestral populations ate 30 percent protein daily, corresponding to about 3 g/kg/bw a day, making this peak amount a more intelligent approach.
This is the first study testing such a high dose of protein dose and the diet was hard to maintain. In addition, it didn’t measure health markers and there’s evidence that very high-protein diets cause inflammation.
Whatever protein intake you choose, eat LOTS of fruits and vegetables to counter inflammation and provide fiber and antioxidants. And get some of your protein from whey protein because it is anti-inflammatory, has a high thermic effect, and is proven ability to increase lean mass with training.