In recent years “broscience” has been losing ground to good information. Protein shakes in the locker room? Only a few guys still do that. Morning fasted cardio to lose belly fat? Almost nobody does that anymore.
In 2006 a fat loss plan would look like this:
Small meals every two hours, chicken breast and broccoli, high rep workouts, carbs and fats eaten separately… all very strict and complicated. Back then, most people had no idea what really caused fat loss. Because of that, all aspects of their fat loss plan seemed of equal importance.
Now, in 2016 a fat loss plan looks like this:
With the advancements in research we learned that nutrition for fat loss has a clear hierarchy of importance. Some things matter a lot more than others. Actually, to get shredded you really only have to do three things:
- Eat a 20-25% calorie deficit
- Eat around 1g of protein per pound of BW
- Lift weights to maintain muscle
We learned that three things are so important that even if you did everything else suboptimally you’d still get shredded.
This understanding has started a new chapter for the fitness world. People no longer had to follow strict meals plans. Instead they could set meal frequency, meal timing, food choices, and cardio, based on their lifestyle so the plan is enjoyable and easy to follow.
Overall, I think this mentality shift is great. Make your fitness plan as simple as possible, even if it’s not optimal. I would always bw willing to diet an extra week if that means the whole 2 months of dieting are much more enjoyable.
But, what if you are a physique athlete who wants to maximize his competitive potential? What if you don’t care about a simple and enjoyable diet and just want the most optimal fat loss plan possible? What would be the best way to set meal frequency, food choices, cardio, and everything else? Could you significantly improve your fat loss results doing that?
Well, I’m not the best person to answer this question, so I asked Eric Helms to help us out.
Eric is a professional natural bodybuilder, powerlifter, coach, researcher, writer, has two master degrees and is now doing his PhD in Auckland New Zealand. He’s one of the smartest guys on the fitness scene.
In this post you’ll read Eric’s answers to my questions on:
- Calorie Cycling
- Protein Frequency and Distribution
- Clean Eating
- Fasted Training
- Fat Loss Supplements
Let’s get started:
1. Calorie Cycling and Fat Loss
So Eric the first question is: Do you think Calorie Cycling speeds up fat loss? Or do you think there’s another benefit to doing calorie and macro-cycling?
If you are pushing to the very low levels of body fat I would say yes. The benefit to calorie or macro cycling is typically only apparent when you’re trying to get really lean. Once you’re starting to drop down to say 10% body fat or lower for males or say maybe under 20% body fat for women that’s when I think the benefits outside of just adherence become apparent. There’s not a whole lot of data to support this but from what I’ve seen as a bodybuilding coach, it seems to reduce the overall length of the diet and sometimes people come in with more muscle mass. Having one to three days per week where you are closer to maintenance and you increase your carbohydrates to get there and the other days are where you accumulate your deficit. That’s a very useful approach. And if you think about it, any time you take a diet break or refeed is a day of not dieting. It means that the training that day and probably the next day are going to be a little bit better especially if it’s higher volume. Also, it keeps stress a little lower and you are finding the diet more acceptable and easier to adherence to that could have some physiological effect over a 6 month contest prep.
At the moment the only data showing a fat loss or muscle retention advantage are not in people getting very lean, they are in obese people so I could certainly be wrong or maybe I’m just making wrong anecdotal observations but it seems to be a pretty consistent finding. And there’s a theoretical basis for it, based in changes in leptin, glycogen replenishment, reduction in cortisol and it does seem to have at least in some studies a positive effect in obese or overweight people. I think there’s a strong argument to be said, that it could give you a fat loss advantage for a longer diet to a lower body fat level.
I also asked Eric about the advantages of cycling calories every single day – higher calorie intakes on training days and lower calorie intakes on off days. Some people promote this on the basis that it improves calorie partitioning and you may lose body fat and gain muscle at the same time. He thinks this could actually be detrimental.
To lose 1-1.5 pounds of fat per week you have to create a deficit of 3500-5250 calories per week. If you have 3 or more workouts per week and those days are at maintenance it means you need to accumulate all that deficit on your rest days. Now the difference between your high and low days would be around ~1300 calories. That is a large deficit and would probably impact training the next day. Complete glycogen resynthesis can take up to 24 hours.
Also, adaptation from training does not occur only on the day of training; rather adaptation is a continual process. Having too little food on your off days could negatively affect recovery and muscle growth.
So, is calorie or macro cycling worth doing?
Yes, if you’re very lean – one or two refeeds per week can improve workout performance, muscle maintenance, and mood. Cycling calories and macros based on training and off days is probably unnecessary or detrimental.
2. Protein Timing and Meal Frequency for Fat Loss
For muscle maintenance, does it matter when and how often you eat your protein as long as you hit your macros?
I think it does. The question of how much does it matter, is the big question mark there. If you eat a lot of protein at once it’s not that it doesn’t do anything, it certainly does have a lot of positive effects but it might not quite give you as much efficiency for gaining muscle mass over time as having those boluses spread out. So having maybe 20-60g three to four times a day or five times per day versus having 80-90g of protein two or three times a day. Of course depending on bodyweight.
Another point is that there may be a slight advantage to consuming one of those protein feedings after your training or on both sides of your training although the advantage would be very slight.
For example there is a meta-analysis by Aragon, Krieger, Schoenfeld, that found a very small benefit for having protein post workout in two hours. Didn’t quite reach statistical significance but it might have practical relevance. That would suggest that total macronutrient intake is multiple notches above in terms of importance and magnitude of effect that will have on muscle retention but that there is still an effect of timing.
The way I eat for example, someone might call it like a modified time restricted feeding or intermittent fasting. I’m not hungry in the morning so why would I eat a whole lot? It makes it difficult, it makes me uncomfortable and it’s just not what I want to do.
So when I wake up in the morning I typically have a quest bar. It’s 20g of whey protein basically and a little bit of carbs and a small amount of fat. Then I have a small lunch that’s maybe is 500-600 calories tops. And for a guy who weighs 216 pounds and is 6 foot that is a very small numbers of calories from my total expenditure for the day. But it also includes another 30+ grams of protein. And then I have a post-workout shake and I have a very large dinner. So I’m having maybe 20-40g of protein three times earlier in the day but only eating a total of 800 calories by 6 PM. Then at around 6 or 7 PM I’m having 1000-2000 calories and also including protein.
That looks very similar to intermittent fasting yet I’m also ticking the boxes of having peri-workout protein and having protein feedings earlier in the day.
The current research suggests that to maximize protein synthesis it’s best to have three or more protein feedings spread out throughout the day. Just one or two feedings should be inferior although we don’t know by how much. Probably very little.
When it comes to meal frequency for burning fat, that really doesn’t matter. Studies looked at variations in meal frequency from 2 to 7 meals per day and no significant differences in energy expenditure were found. In the past people thought a higher meal frequency burned more fat because your body had to break down and processes food several times a day and that required more energy. However, it’s been proven that the thermic effect of food depends only on the total caloric intake. It’s about 10-15%. So if you eat 2000 calories in two meals or six meals, the thermic effect of food would be the same.
So is meal frequency relevant for your fat loss results?
Yes, for protein timing. To maximize muscle retention or growth it’s probably best to have 3 or more protein feedings per day. For fat loss, it doesn’t matter as long as the deficit is the same.
3. Food Quality and Clean Eating for Fat Loss
What about food quality Eric? Does it affect body composition or it doesn’t matter what you eat for fat loss?
Food quality definitely does affect body composition. When I think food quality I think of their micronutrient density. Micronutrients do have an important role on health, satiety, and can in fact affect body composition.
If you are someone who is trying to optimize body composition, things that are detrimental to your health long term would make sense to also spill over into body composition. There’s a recent study that came out that showing that even not that deficient levels of iron deficiency in female volleyball players had a lower strength level than a group that was supplementing with it. The group that was supplementing with iron was stronger.
I think a better way to look at it is that foods are carriers for nutrients. And nutrients are not solely defined by vitamins and minerals, there are others. Phytonutrients and zoonutrients are classes of nutritional compounds that don’t fall under the category of vitamins and minerals that have a positive effect on the body. Sometimes when we try to isolate a single nutrient and supply it in pill or powder form it doesn’t quite have the same benefit.
I do agree that macronutrients will dictate body composition change more importantly than micronutrient intake however, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have any impact at all.
The trend in the fitness industry right now is If It Fits Your Macros. Basically you can eat anything you want and get ripped as long as you hit your macronutrient targets. And that is correct. In the short term, you won’t notice any difference between a diet low in micronutrients and one rich in micronutrients. However, if you do not include enough real whole foods in your diet for a long period of time, you will develop deficiencies as a result. Those deficiencies can weaken your immune system, lower testosterone levels, lower energy levels, lower strength levels, and make you hungrier which will affect body composition.
Does food quality affect fat loss?
Yes, but indirectly and in the long term. Make sure 80-90% of your diet is made out of real whole foods, and the rest 10-20% can be filled with empty calories.
4. Cardio and Fat Loss
Let’s talk a bit about cardio and fat loss. Is there an advantage to creating a part of your calorie deficit through cardio?
You know, I used to say that you probably wanted to include some cardio but I don’t actually think there is. I think the advantage might be thorough adherence. If you do it completely through calorie restriction sometimes that can mean the diet feeling harder. So balancing out your deficit over a mixture of cardio and calorie restriction typically makes the diet easier, you get to eat a little more food and even though physiologically you’re going to react to the size of the deficit regardless of where it comes from, the psychological feeling might be different having more food and a little bit of cardio. Because a small amount of cardio you don’t even notice you might even enjoy depending on whether you do a type that you like. But I don’t think there would be any inherent physiological benefit.
Cardio does produce some adaptation that make your body better at burning fat. That’s true. However, to get those adaptations you’d have to do a lot of endurance work. And a recent meta-analysis showed there is an inverse relationship between the amount of cardio you do and the rate of progress on hypertrophy, power and strength.
So to do an amount of cardio that might get those wide spread adaptations that make your body better at burning fat might also mean that you’re sacrificing your rate of muscle retention. In the end, a calorie deficit has to be paid off from somewhere. If you’re maintaining your muscle mass from resistance training, it’s going to come from fat.
Is there an advantage to creating a part of your calorie deficit through cardio?
Yes, you get to eat more food and the diet feels easier to follow. However, cardio doesn’t make you lose fat more efficiently unless you’re sedentary. Because if you’re lifting weights you’re already getting those positive physiological adaptations.
5. Does Fasted Cardio Burn More Fat?
But what about fasted training or cardio? Does fasted training improve the rate of fat loss?
I do not believe that fasted training improves the rate of fat loss. And I would say it could actually get in the way the more intense that fasted training is because you’ll have more difficulty getting your heart rate as high and burning as many calories.
Fasted training will make you burn more fat during that training session. But we don’t really care about fat oxidation for 30-60 minutes, we care about fat oxidation over a 24 hour period. Some studies have suggested that burning a lot of carbohydrate during your training window might mean that you’re burning more fat for the rest of the day because now there’s less glycogen for you to rely on. The one direct study I know of fasted cardio there was not a difference in terms of body composition or weight loss.
In a calorie deficit our body is very careful about how it uses resources. If you burn more fat during a cardio session, our body will try to compensate by burning more carbohydrates at rest. So in the end, only the calorie deficit truly matters.
However, I personally believed that fasted cardio improved fat loss mobilization, even if it didn’t speed up fat loss per se. Eric believes otherwise.
I’ve never actually seen a true training study showing that I’ve only seen theoretical ideal on the adaptations to cardio. It’s not like someone has done stubborn fat protocols vs something else and done regional specific fat loss in the legs or the “stubborn areas”. Having played with fasted cardio, yohimbine, and fasted HIIT with myself and clients, in the end stubborn fat always seems to come off last, and maybe it’s an adjunct benefit that I just don’t have the minute enough detailed oriented eye to see the change in clients and I haven’t done enough comparisons but until we actually have a head to head study that tells me otherwise I can only rely on the fact that haven’t seen anything to support that outside of theoretical based data.
Does fasted training or cardio speed up fat loss?
Probably not. Even if you burn more fat during that workout you’ll probably burn more carbs during the rest of the day. Actually, fasted training may interfere with your workout performance especially if you do a high volume workout. So it seems you have nothing to gain and potentially something to lose if you train fasted for better fat loss.
6. Do Fat Burners Work?
And the final question Eric, do fat burner supplement improve the rate of fat loss? I’m referring to potentially effective substances like caffeine, L-tyrosine, synephrine, naringin, stuff like that.
The vast majority of the legal, non FDA banned fat burners have a minimal effect on fat loss. The main benefits of things like caffeine and tyrosine is more their effect on energy levels and mood which might indirectly mean you’re not seeing your calorie expenditure drop as much. I’ve definitely seen caffeine be kind of a NEAT saver in competitors – a regular caffeine dose just to not feel as lethargic. I would think that would have a beneficial effect.
And here’s the thing, if you actually increase energy expenditure that doesn’t necessarily mean that your hunger levels don’t go up with it. If you took a compound that increased your energy expenditure you’d be more hungry and you’d naturally want to eat more.
The fat burning supplements that are legal (so drugs aside) have a very minimal effect on fat loss. And they don’t actually burn fat directly. Most of them are stimulants which make you more active which means you burn more energy.
Do fat burners help with the rate of fat loss?
Maybe, if they prevent NEAT from going down. But you probably could achieve the same effect by drinking coffee.
So let’s wrap up this video.
There are three things that are not-negotiable for a successful cut:
- Having a 20-25% calorie deficit
- Eating around 1 gram of protein per pounds of BW
- Training with an effective program to maintain or gain muscle mass
To improve this plan further you can do this:
- Include one or two refeeds per week when you get very lean
+ take a week at maintenance every 6-8 weeks of dieting
- Have three or more protein feedings per day
- Get 80-90% of your calories from real, whole foods
- Do 2 or 3 hours of cardio per week if you want to eat more food
- Drink some coffee if you’re feeling lethargic
It’s still very simple. Remember, aside from the non-negotiable everything else can be set up around adherence.
Then ShredSmart is for you.
When I wrote this program I wanted it to be the perfect balance between what is optimal and what is enjoyable. It will show you how to set up your cutting plan so that you can still have your favorite foods, not be hungry all day and not spend all your time in the gym doing cardio.