I recently had a friend ask me to write-up a diet that would allow him to not only lose fat but get down to around 10% body fat and allow him to see his abs. He said it was always a wish but he didn’t have the first clue in how to approach it. He referenced the thousands of different diets and blogs and wanted to know what was best?
His situation was much like mine in that he lifted for years and got pretty big and finally arrived at the point of realizing that fat was now accumulating faster than muscle. I went through this same situation after having lifted for about 20 years and finally admitting to myself that I had a lot more body fat than I wanted to admit and simply couldn’t eat the same way anymore. I went on a diet and fitness sabbatical (of sorts) and learned all I could about losing body fat until I achieved all my fitness/physique goals.
Images are from mid-2011 through March 2013.
In the course of a year, I tried more approaches than I can even remember. Some were effective and some were horribly bad ideas that I learned a lot from (ketosis and Vince Gironda’s famous ‘Steak and Eggs’ diet in particular). I kept reading and kept experimenting and rarely ever cheated on my diet so that I could truly understand the secret to losing fat and what worked well for my body. I did this for well over a year and probably had five cheat meals the entire time (as my wonderful, patience-tested and incredibly supportive wife will attest).
Since this friend wasn’t the first to ask me how I accomplished my physique transformation and won’t be the last, I decided to post what worked for me and the best way to burn fat and get lean as I know how to do it. I call it Getting Lean Ripped When You’re Old because it worked for me when I was past forty but I do believe it’s the ideal way for anyone. If you want to see those abs again, give it a try. You’ll be amazed!
Your Lean Body Plan
The lean side of dieting kind of fascinates me. That said.. you may or may not like my advice so give it a read and if it’s not for you, you won’t hurt my feelings. If you want to lean down though, and eventually get a six pack, it will work. So do it!
First.. Understand that the most important factor in losing fat and getting lean is going to be calories in vs calories out. Calories are just energy and you have to expend more energy than you take in. Counting calories is something people hate to do but if you want the best results, do this. Trying to guestimate what you’re eating every day can have you just a few hundred calories over what you need and you can’t lose fat if you’re eating more than your body requires.. even if it’s just a few hundred calories a day extra, and that simply doesn’t take much.
On hearing this, most people do the dumb thing of deciding they’re going all in and cut calories drastically. Don’t be this guy. Some people think of it as an easy way to deal with calorie counting and think they can avoid counting by just going really low, ensuring that they are not going to go over what they need.
The best way to lose fat is figuring out your TDEE or “Total Daily Energy Expenditure” and eating slightly under that. I personally call it “Metabolism minus 10%”. That’s the optimum place for burning fat while retaining muscle. As you lower calories further, metabolism drops and prolonged calorie restriction starts a whole new slew of problems like hypothyroid, overall decreased energy, less testosterone and sexual desire, to name a few.
You want to keep the metabolism up to lose weight and going too low with calories drops metabolism. If you eat too few calories for too long, the body becomes very efficient at storing fat. It has to, since fat is the primary source of energy. We don’t want the body to ever become efficient at storing fat, so you eat just barely under the total amount of daily calories your body needs and hit the weight 3-5 times a week. When you’re eating at a deficit (under the amount of calories your body needs), you want to make sure that muscle is maintained. By simply eating at a deficit and not weight-lifting, you’ll lose muscle and fat. That’s not cool. While you’ve been used to body building in the past and you understand that eating a lot equates to increased muscle growth, understand that in a deficit, you won’t be increasing muscle size but resistance is every bit as important as before, but for a different purpose now. It keeps you from losing muscle and this ultimately leads to you looking “cut” and “ripped”. Don’t get discouraged because your bench isn’t going up. It will almost certainly decrease as you shed more and more fat. So be it. It can mess with your head at first. It was the hardest part of my journey when I started slimming down because you watch other guys start benching more than you as time goes on. After a while, I finally got to where I could care less so get, in your head, there sooner than later. It will make things easier on you.
Here’s a good calculator to start with.
Now there’s 4 different formulas that will give you slightly different results. Doesn’t matter. We want to start with the most calories you can eat, and we’re just trying to get a ballpark average to start with.
Use the first formula (Mifflin-St Jeor) and round up. That’s as good a starting place as any. Write that number down.
For 2 weeks, you want to eat that many calories and weigh yourself every morning after hitting the head and before eating/drinking anything. You’re trying to establish the exact number of calories your body needs on a daily basis, to maintain your current weight. This is hugely important. If you find the scale slowly creeping down over these first couple weeks, increase calories by a couple hundred a day. If it’s slowly going up, cut back a couple hundred a day. People are always too impatient on diets and mess this part up. They want to dive in to eating way less right away. You’ll have plenty of time to diet later on so enjoy the first couple weeks of eating at maintenance. You need to know this number! Make sure and work out during these 2 weeks as you normally plan to.. at least 3 lifting days a week and as many as 5 or 6 if you prefer. I think 3 or 4 days works great. Don’t do cardio. Just stick to your daily routine and if that has some activites that get your heart going, that’s fine but don’t go out of your way to do cardio. You want to save it for when you start getting down to very low body fat levels and need to bust through a plateau (low levels of body fat are when fat loss is the most difficult). Your goal to see your abs is 10%. That’s when guys usually start seeing a good six-pack (for girls it’s about 15%).
Before and After Pic of Back
Okay.. so it’s two weeks later and you’ve determined you need 2400 calories a day to get by on every day, without gaining or losing weight. Subtract 400-500 a day from this amount (as you get leaner and go under 200 lbs, subtract less – do 400 at first) and this is the amount of calories you need to lose fat while keeping metabolism up. It’s your new daily calorie goal.
Next.. create an account at My Fitness Pal and start recording everything you eat.
You want to divide your daily calories up into the correct macro-nutrient (protein/carbs/fat) percentages.
Get 90 – 100 grams of fat every day. (I always advise about 80 grams for 200 pounds)
Get 1 gram of protein p/ lb of body weight
Get the rest of your calories from carbs.
Keep in mind that protein and carbs each have 4 calories p/ gram and fat has 9 calories p/ gram.
Example: If your reduced daily intake is now 2000 calories a day and you weigh 230, you would break it down as follows:
FAT: 90g = 810 calories (90 X 9)
PROTEIN: 230g = 920 calories (230lbs x 4)
CARBS: 270 calories are left after adding 810 and 920 from above. 270/4 (grams p/ carb) = 67g of carbs every day.
Your daily menu of foods will be 230g of protein, 67 carbs and 90g of fat. Eating a higher fat diet confuses some people. Fats don’t make you fat. Fat, combined with high carbs, make you fat. If your body knows it is getting plenty of fat and you are still eating at a deficit, your body will more readily use dietary fat (what you’re eating) and body fat as fuel. Since you are still eating at a deficit though, you’ll slowly go down in weight. It’s impossible to not lose weight if you are truly eating less than your body requires every day (your TDEE).
The most important number in fat loss is your total daily calories. If you get 100g of fat one day instead of 90, just calculate that out (10 extra grams of fat is 90 more calories) and subtract that from your protein or carbs for the day (90/4 = 22.5 less grams of protein or carbs since both have 4 calories p/ gram). If you only hit 200 grams of protein for the day, you would have 30 grams left.. so you could add in 120 calories from carbs. You want to stick close to your macros but don’t feel like you can’t go 10 over or under here and there and just make up the difference with your other macros. Your overall calories are far more important.
What to Eat?
Anything you want. There are no “clean” or “dirty” foods. If you want to get all your calories from pizza and pop-tarts, you can. The deficit is what will cause you to lose fat and the weight-lifting is what ensures the weight lost is coming only from fat and not muscle.
Now even though this sounds exciting at first, you’ll find that you have to eat a lot of healthy foods to meet your daily macro needs. You could eat one good sized bowl of cereal and be over your daily requirement for carbs. But.. you’ll find that you can eat some great tasting foods by doing this and still continue to lose weight.
You can also have all the diet colas/calorie free drinks/black coffee/tea you want.
Once a week, you’re going to change this up. This is your “refeed day”. You want this one day a week to be a high carb/low fat day. This is for Leptin levels and is explained below. For this high carb day, you want to eat at a surplus, instead of a deficit. While you normally eat 400-500 calories under your TDEE every day, you want to eat 400-500 over your TDEE on your high carb day, keeping fats very low (0 to 30 grams total). The best foods for this day are skim milk, rice chex and sweet potatoes (slice them up and bake at 375 for 30 minutes. They taste sweet with nothing on them after coming out of the oven). It’s okay to get a little fat on this day but don’t overdue it. Triglycerides (fat) block leptin (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15111494) and the whole point of this day is to increase leptin.
Example Refeed (high carb) Day: Keep protein the same, so 920 calories from protein. TDEE + 400 = 2400. 2400 – 920 gives you 1480 calories left. If you want to get some fat in there, you can, but it’s completely unnecessary for a refeed day. If you eat all the rest of your calories in carbs, that’s 370 carbs. You’ll see the impact carbs have on your physique pretty quickly when you hit the gym the next day. One high carb day a week will replace glycogen in your muscles and make you look fuller and bigger after you get pumped. You can choose to train on high carb days or not. It doesn’t matter. I typically take these days off and choose to train the following day.
The scale will likely always be up on the day following your refeed day. Don’t worry about it! Carbs get converted to glycogen and stored in the muscles for fuel. Glycogen is 3/4 water molecules so this is where the term “water weight” comes from. It’s impossible to actually put on even 1 pound of weight (muscle or fat) from eating 400-500 extra calories. A couple days after your refeed, your body weight will be back down. It’s a “one step back – two steps forward” approach that works well.
The idea is to stay low-carb all week, your glycogen gets used up (especially while weight training) and the body turns to fat for fuel and burns fat for all your energy needs.
Advanced Nutrition Strategies
Okay.. Now you know how many calories you’re going to eat and as time goes on, you’ll play with the different kinds of food you like and you’ll fall into a pattern of eating that will be easy for you to maintain.
Next up.. make sure you understand insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is secreted by the pancreas when you eat carbs.. and if these are high-glycemic carbs (foods with sugar and white flour), the body releases more insulin to mop the sugar up. This is why diabetics have to take insulin shots as you are likely already aware. The pancreas doesn’t make any insulin so no sugar is removed from the blood. Insulin regulates sugar in the bloodstream.
Insulin is primarily a “storage hormone”. When released, it ushers glycogen (converted from carbs) to muscles and fat to body fat, when found in excess.
People with high amounts of body fat are similar to diabetics in that insulin isn’t doing the job it’s supposed to. With obese people though, they develop insulin resistance. They eat so much sugar, so often, that the insulin can’t store the sugar quickly enough. Over time, the cell desensitizes itself to the effects of insulin. It has to because it can’t keep allowing insulin in the cell to store nutrients that are already overloaded. The result is high blood sugar that never gets mopped up. I’m sure you know the many effects of high blood sugar but one of the certain outcomes is weight gain in the form of fat. If you can remove sugar from your daily diet, you’ll achieve fat loss in the quickest manner.
Remember this: It is physiologically impossible to burn fat in the presence of high insulin.
This is why you want to go low-carb all week. Carbs produce lots of insulin but controlling/limiting insulin is the secret to burning fat. If insulin levels are low, you’re in “fat-burning” mode. Only when insulin isn’t ushering fat around the body can fat be burned. For fat to be burned it has to first be released from the cell.. and then it gets used as energy. It simply can’t get released if insulin is present. Envision a swinging door on your fat cells and if insulin is pushing against it, it’s open for fat to come in but fat cannot be realeasd until insulin goes away and allows the door to swing out.
And finally, we have Leptin. Leptin is hugely important to understand too. It’s a primary reason so many people plateau while on a diet. It’s also the reason we’re doing a refeed day once a week.
Fat cells (adipose tissue) secrete the hormone Leptin. When you’ve ate enough food, this hormone gets released and travels to your brain (hypothalamus to be exact) and tells it that we have enough stored energy and to quit eating. This also signals the body that there’s no shortage of food and it’s okay to burn fat for energy. But just like insulin resistance, leptin resistance occurs from continuted overeating. The brain stops getting the signal to stop eating and the body won’t switch to fat burning mode. Metabolism gets lowered as a result to store fat and make the body more efficient in utilizing calories.
All obese people have a degree of leptin resistance (and insulin resistance), and the more fat, the worse the problem. It can be fixed over time though and eating properly for months will do this. Like with insulin resistance, the cells will start to fix themselves and be more sensitive to food signaling if proper diet is maintained.
Leptin and insulin work together in that if insulin is high, leptin gets increased. If low levels of insulin are maintained, leptin levels keep dropping. We need the opposite of that to happen. We want low insulin and high leptin so what’s the solution? Our refeed day. Once a day, we eat high-carb and this stimulates leptin and ensures a high metabolism that will keep on burning fat.
Our refeed days have several benefits from a physiological perspective and sanity is another great reason. It feels good to flood the body with carbs once a week and it works well for burning fat when not abusing overall calories consumed.
Should You Time Your Meals?
It doesn’t matter if you eat six meals a day or one meal a day. Eat in the way that keeps you the least hungry.
I’ve experimented with eating all my meals in the evening, spreading them out over six meals and eating only once a day. It made no difference on body composition.
What I’ve ended up doing is never eating until 1pm. Since I always feel like I have to force myself to eat breakfast anyway, this works well. Additionally, I like to use the morning hours to keep insulin low, which keeps the body in “fat burning mode” for a few more hours every day. It also helps me to have bigger meals in the evening and feel more satisfied when going to bed.
In regards to meal frequency, make yourself aware of the following (since both myths surround several diets of yesterday and today):
1) When and how often you eat does not matter. Losing fat is about total calories consumed and creating an overall caloric deficit. Get that food in whatever way works best with your schedule. (study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19943985)
2) Eating carbs before bed does not matter. While this article is about losing fat and therefore limits carbs, a bulking diet in favor of adding mass in the way of muscle would be achieved in much the same way. Instead of a slight deficit, you would create a slight surplus to ensure that the extra weight added is not from fat. You would also increase carbs substantially. Rather you’re dieting on a deficit or adding muscle with more carbs, eating carbs at night will not impede your results (study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21475137)
How Do Lean Guys Eat So Much?
Getting down to under 10% body fat is challenging. It requires months and months of watching what you eat but once you get there, you can maintain your lean body percentage and slowly increase calories. If activity such as weight-lifting is maintained, you will raise metabolism even further. This is the ideal situation.
Your body will burn calories at the fastest rate possible, you’ve got the lowest body fat you’ve ever had and your cells are once again, sensitive to the effects of insulin and leptin. You become a finely-tuned machine. When you finally remove that last bit of fat on the stomach, you will eliminate insulin resistance and your body will actually allow you to eat a great many more calories. When cell sensitivity becomes optimum, you can eat in excess quite often and never worry about getting fat again. It just makes sense. When the hormones are optimum and cell sensitivity is highest, you eat.. your body knows exactly what it needs to do with every bit. There’s not a constant overflow of food to deal with or sugar to remove. It uses the proteins and fat, eliminates the carbs quickly and passes what it doesn’t need to your bowels quickly.
This is how you get lean, ripped.. and even sexy when you’re old. Get to work!