There’s a lot of misinformation out there regarding nutrition and fat loss. A lot.
Most of the stuff we read about sports nutrition online is total BS. Some of the most popular bodybuilding websites out there routinely publish information that isn’t just wrong or unhelpful; it’s flat out harmful. Most of the most widely read blogs and magazines all sing from the same hymn book – they repeat the same myths, the same lies, the same propaganda. This is no accident.
The major supplement manufacturers all have an interest in spreading certain beliefs about how you are supposed to eat to get big, strong, and lean.
It’s in their interest to have you believe that you need to drink a protein shake every 45 minutes or else your muscle will disappear. They need to tell you that carbs are bad, because carbs are cheap (if you realized you could stay lean swapping your protein shake out for a bowl of rice and beans, they’d be out of business). They need to you to believe that getting ripped requires a secret formula or meal plan that only the big magazines can tell you, because if you stop reading Flex, you’ll stop seeing their ads!
Ultimately, it;s in their interest to have you making minimal progress. If you learn how simple the process is, you’ll realize that you don’t need them. Note that we didn’t say easy, or exciting – we just said simple.
That’s why the internet is full of such awful diet advice.
That’s why top bodybuilders share advice that they don’t even follow; if they don’t, they’ll lose sponsorship and the big magazines wont cover them.
It’s also why we get so many questions about diet – whether it’s in the gym, at work, or through this website – from people who are verging on desperate. They’ve tried the fad diets, they’ve taken the cheap diet pills, and nothing has worked.
The questions below are just some of the things we have been asked regarding diet and how you should eat to maximize sports performance. There will be some repetition and overlap, but we’ve tried to limit this as much as possible. We simply want to make sure your specific questions get specific answers.
If you have something you’d like to ask us that you haven’t seen answered here, then please post it in the comments section or get in touch by email.
To learn a little about who is answering these questions, take a look at our about us page.
Dieting Frequently Asked Questions
Do You Need To Eat Less Food To Lose Fat?
You need to eat a caloric deficit to lose fat. That does not necessarily mean that you need to eat less food. It could mean increasing your daily caloric expenditure to put yourself into a relative caloric deficit. That’s what caloric deficit always means; relative caloric deficit. You do not have one set number for how many calories you need to eat to get bigger or smaller. It depends on activity levels, hormone levels, and environment (if you’re constantly in extreme cold or extreme heat, you’re going to burn more calories to achieve stasis).
What Is The Most Important Variable When It Comes To Losing Weight?
Calories. If you aren’t eating fewer calories than you are expending every day, then you aren’t going to have to turn to your fat stores to make up the difference. The body wants to hold onto its emergency energy stores. It wont use them if it can help it. Unless you are literally running out of energy, then you wont lose any body fat. This applies to people using anabolic steroids too; things like exogenous testosterone make you use more of the calories you take in for building muscle mass, meaning you have less for energy metabolism, thus putting you into a de facto caloric deficit.
Can You Eat What You Want & Still Lose Fat?
It’s true that you will lose body fat if you exercise and keep yourself in a caloric deficit. But that does not mean you can eat anything you want within your calorie allowance and still have a lean, muscular body. That’s to say nothing about health and longevity.
Our readers tend to want to look good; not just to be skinny. If you want to lose body fat while preserving muscle mass, being healthy, and remaining a high performance athlete, then what you eat is just as important as how much of it you eat. You aren’t going to be able to train properly if your diet is full of sugar. You aren’t going to keep hard, dense, full muscles if you aren’t eating complex carbohydrates and plenty of protein. If you’re eating a ton of salt and MSG from fast food, then you’re going to look fat and bloated, even if you are technically losing fat.
If you eat fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight. But how much of that is fat and how much is muscle depends very much on the composition of your diet and your training. If you eat like garbage, you’re going to look like garbage – simple as that.
Do Carbohydrates Cause Fat Gain?
No. Carbohydrates in and of themselves do not cause fat gain any more than protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals, or water. Carbs are just another nutrient. Your body needs them to function properly. They are absolutely necessary for the development of muscle mass. If you want to have nice, big, full-looking muscles, you need some carbs in your system (for the glycogen). Carbs do not have any inherent property that makes them more likely to cause fat gain than protein (which also causes an insulin spike). Most people are more likely to over-eat carbs; they’re more likely to get a second helping of pasta than they are to order another salmon fillet. But fat loss is a matter of hormone manipulation and calorie counting, not cutting out any one macro-nutrient.
Should You Avoid Sweets During A Cut?
Yes. Cakes, chocolate and candy are delicious, but they don’t provide a lot of bang for your buck. That is, they don’t provide any real nutrition other than carbohydrates and fat. When you’re dieting, you only have a certain amount of calories to apportion per day. You need to make sure that every calorie counts because you still need to get in all your vitamins, minerals, protein, and complex carbs.
An example might help. A slice of cake from Starbucks can contain 500 calories, but it is unlikely to give you more than about 5g of protein, and no vitamins or minerals whatsoever. You would then have to get all your daily protein, vitamin and mineral needs with 500 fewer calories to play with.
Cutting is difficult. There are no cheats, no tricks, and no short-cuts. If you could eat red velvet cake and cookies but look like Jay Cutler on the Olympia stage, then a lot more people would look like Jay Cutler on the Olympia stage!
Can You Have A ‘Cheat Day’?
Of course you can, so long as you’re not going crazy. Dieting is a long process, so you shouldn’t put too much importance on every single meal. Most professional bodybuilders take about 12-16 weeks to fully prepare for a major show. That’s 16 weeks of dieting for a professional who fluctuates in weight much more than is ideal for health and longevity. For you guys, we think you should take an even longer-term view. It’s therefore perfectly reasonable to have a cheat day once in a while.
In fact, it’s kind of vital for your sanity; going 20 weeks without any desserts or stuffed crust pizza would send us insane, that’s for sure. If your cut is 20 weeks in duration then you’re going to have some social events come up. You’re not a top level bodybuilder, so don’t act like your life depends on your diet going well. If your friends are having a party, go, have a slice of pizza, some cake, drink a couple of beers, and enjoy yourself. You’ll probably find that a cheat day every 2 weeks or so actually helps with your diet in the long-run. It not only gives you something to look forward to, but it can make you realize that your cravings were just cravings – you don’t miss jalapeno poppers more than you enjoy having visible abs after all.
It’s important that you don’t go crazy here. A cheat day doesn’t mean drink a bottle of vodka and eat a bucket of KFC chicken. It means eating more calories than you normally would, and slipping in a few foods you know you shouldn’t be eating. Most of your meals should be the same as usual, but your dinner can be whatever you want, and you can sneak a couple of beers in there.
How Quickly Should You Lose Weight?
As a general rule, the longer you take to lose fat, the easier it is to keep it off. Extreme diets DO NOT WORK. If your plan is to lose 20lbs in 2 weeks, your weight will just yo-yo down and back up again. Not only that, but you’ll probably end up sick and miserable. You should aim to lose fat at a nice, steady, gradual pace. Our recommendation is to try to cut 10lbs of fat over 2-3 months, while trying to keep muscle mass the same. That translates to between 1.2lbs and 0.8lbs per week. It mightn’t sound like a lot, but if you’re keeping muscle mass the same, 10lbs of fat off your frame will make a visible difference.
Anyone who tells you that “1lb is nothing, I lost 4lbs this week” is probably an idiot who has no idea how to maximize progress over the long term. If you want a good physique this summer, then you probably want an even better physique next year too. Don’t do things in extremes.
How Much Muscle Will You Lose During A Cut?
This depends entirely on your diet, training, and your recovery. We therefore can’t give you a set answer here; it will vary too much person to person. It will also depend on your own natural genetics; what your testosterone levels are like, and how muscular you are naturally, how heavy you are, etc. But generally speaking, you cannot lose a significant amount of body fat without also losing some muscle mass. It is practically impossible to lose body fat without losing at least some muscle mass. Certain anabolic compounds might make this possible, but not for a prolonged period of time.
The trick is to minimize muscle loss while you maximize fat loss. If your diet is on point, your training is ideal, and you are using the right supplements, you can definitely make this happen. Even if you do lose muscle, if you lose significantly more fat then the effect will be to appear much more muscular than before.
Does Dietary Fat Cause Fat Gain?
There is nothing inherent to normal dietary fat which makes it likely to cause fat gain any more than protein or carbohydrates. Any healthy diet should contain fats. Dietary fat contributes to good hormonal balance, to support new cell growth, and for energy. Without fat, you wont be a healthy, functional athlete, and you certainly wont have a very aesthetic body (since your hormones will be all out of whack).
Of course, this depends on what type of fat you’re talking about. Trans fats – both naturally occurring and synthetic – are known to promote fat gain, even when controlling for calories. These fats not only seem to cause more rapid fat accumulation than other foods (controlling for calories), but they potentially redistribute fat to the areas where we don’t want it – the abdomen!
Should You Eat In The ‘Anabolic Window’?
The anabolic window – or metabolic window depending on who you ask – is the term used to refer to the period of 30-60 minutes post-training when food will put the body into an anabolic state, stimulating muscle growth and tissue repair. The ‘anabolic window’ is the reason why you see guys running to their lockers after working out so they can guzzle their protein shakes. They believe that if they don’t, they’ll miss the anabolic window, and so their workout will be for nothing!
As you might have guessed, the anabolic window is total BS. It is an invention of the supplement industry, for obvious reasons. You can’t cook at the gym, and most people don’t bring food to the gym. So if you believe that you need to eat within 45 minutes of your workout, you only have one practical option – a protein shake. What a wonderful turn of events for the supplement manufacturers! As you’ll see if you read this study, there is no clear pattern linking protein consumption post-exercise and greater muscle gains, at least not relative to eating pre-workout or a few hours afterwards.
Does Eating Before Sleep Make You Fat?
When you eat is significantly less important than what you eat, or rather how much of it you eat. However, in our experience, eating right before bed does leave you feeling a little bloated and sluggish the next day.
Some people believe that eating shortly before sleep hinders both fat loss and muscle growth. They say that eating causes an insulin spike, which in turn inhibits the secretion of growth hormone. Growth hormone is released primarily at night. It is an extremely anabolic hormone and it has powerful fat burning effects (it triggers tissue repair, muscle growth, and mobilizes fat). Inhibiting its action by filling your blood with insulin is therefore not a great idea. However, there is a lot of disagreement about this. If you are eating a caloric deficit, you;re exercising and you’re eating the right food, you will lose body fat regardless of when you eat.
How Important Is Breakfast?
Despite the reams and reams of evidence seemingly showing that a proper breakfast helps you lose weight, we just aren’t convinced. There are relatively large studies, such as this one, which link early-morning calorie loading (i.e eating a big breakfast) and better weight management. However, we can’t find a convincing mechanism to explain why eating a larger portion of your calories in the morning would help with fat loss. The only real explanation we can come up with is that eating a big breakfast helps prevent snacking throughout the day. In our experience (which has limited scientific merit of course) a small breakfast and a large post-training meal is perfectly compatible with fat loss.
Some of our review team follow and intermittent fasting protocol, where they don’t eat until after midday. They find this is excellent for promoting fat loss. Obviously this is just anecdotal evidence, but it is certainly a common experience. The only caveat to this is that our review team all have a lot of experience dieting – discipline is not a real issue.
How Important Is Fiber?
If you want to have an easy, successful cut, fiber can be your best friend. Dietary fiber makes you feel nice and full for a very long time for very few calories. Certain fibrous foods absorb a lot of water in the digestive tract. They pass through your system largely undigested, leaving you feeling satiated for hours after you’ve eaten. A small number of fibers, such as glucommanan, form a thick paste in the stomach which makes you feel extremely full after a relatively small meal.
Fiber is generally a good thing to have plenty of in your diet. It feeds your gut bacteria, helps your digestive system, and helps prevent bowel cancer. Most foods high in fiber are also full of nutrients. If you’re cutting calories, then you need to make every calorie count. Eating more nutrient-dense plant foods is a must while on a serious cut.
How Important Are Minerals During A Cut?
It is absolutely vital that your diet provides all of the minerals that you need to be a healthy, functional athlete. When people plan out a diet, they usually focus exclusively on total calories. Some people go a little further, and plan out macro-nutrient ratios. But cutting calories inevitably means eating less food, which usually means consuming fewer minerals. But it is precisely when you’re dieting – when you’re putting your body under serious strain – that you need to be getting plenty of nutritious minerals. Things like iron, potassium, zinc and chromium are all absolutely crucial for a successful cut. Without plenty of these minerals, your body wont be able to carry out vital functions like hormone synthesis or energy metabolism.
Make sure your diet plan has taken into account how you’ll still get plenty of these minerals. During a bulk, you probably don’t have to worry. You’re eating plenty of food, and the body is happy with the situation. Not so while cutting – plan smart!
How Important Are Vitamins During A Cut?
Like minerals, vitamins are something that you absolutely must factor in when planning out your diet. When cutting, you need to be eating fewer calories, but that doesn’t mean that you need fewer vitamins. In fact, you need more than usual, as your body will be in a state of constant stress. This is a difficult thing to manage because you’ll invariably be eating less food.
Vitamins are needed for various bodily functions, including energy metabolism and food digestion. To maximize results on a cut, be sure that your diet is full of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables. If you want to be extra sure, add in a standard multivitamin. The most important things to get down are Vitamin C (for immune system function), Vitamins B6 and B12 (for energy), and Vitamin D (for good hormone function).
Should You Increase Protein Intake During A Cut?
The generally accepted wisdom is that you should increase protein intake during a cut. The idea is that this will help preserve muscle mass more effectively. Now, there is some truth to this. We have seen a lot of very compelling evidence showing that the amino acid lutein acts as a kind of anabolic trigger. Basically, the presence of lutein tells your body to start using protein to build muscle tissue. This simultaneously stops the body from breaking muscle down for energy. So eating lots of lutein throughout the day will help preserve muscle mass more efficiently than carbohydrates or fat. After all, lutein consumption doesn’t seem to have a powerful fat-storage response like glucose does. The problem is that things like whey, steak and chicken do cause a powerful insulin spike immediately after eating. So while they contain lots of lutein, they don’t act exactly like lutein in the body.
So to answer the question, it is best to increase intake of BCAAs during a cut to help preserve muscle mass. But if you just mean eating more fish and less potato, the science is just not there to back this up. Things like whey protein have a similar insulin response to pasta; they will put your body into an anabolic state and they will have a roughly equal fat-storing response.
Growing muscle mass requires protein, fat, complex carbs, and water. You need all of these things to preserve muscle mass. Protein is not the only constituent of muscle.
Is There Such A Thing As Slow-Release Protein?
You’ll often see supplements like casein powder or specialist peanut butter cakes sold as providing “slow-release protein”. In reality, this is more of a sales gimmick than a genuine property of these foods. What “slow release protein” usually means is that the food in question takes a long time to digest. That would indeed give you a nice, sustained supply of lutein, thus keeping your body in an anabolic state for longer.
However, this really isn’t necessary. Being in a catabolic state doesn’t mean that your muscles are going to rapidly disappear. Catabolism is necessary for health and longevity. You need to be able to get rid of old, poorly performing cells at the end of their life cycle in order to replace them with new ones. The rate at which you get catabolize muscle is extremely slow in normal conditions. If you just eat healthy, balanced, nutrient-dense meals, then you’ll be fine. You don’t need to make sure you have protein dripping into your system 24/7, so “slow release protein” isn’t necessary at all.
Does Alcohol Cause Fat Gain?
Yes, absolutely it does, in several different ways. First of all, alcohol is incredibly calorie-dense. Each gram of alcohol contains about 7 calories; much more than protein or carbohydrates. Your average pint of beer contains 160 calories. So every pint of beer you have is like having another regular slice of pepperoni pizza. A small glass of wine contains about 130 calories, or the same as a medium sized donut. Clearly, you wouldn’t need to as us if a few slices of pizza after your main meal will lead to excess fat gain – it’s obvious that it would. Well, so it is with alcohol.
But alcohol is actually worse than that. Alcohol reeks havoc on your hormones. In men, it causes a rapid increase in estrogen levels, which causes fat storage in all the wrong places. It also lowers your free testosterone levels, which obviously isn’t a good idea if you want to maximize muscle mass and minimize fat mass. Finally, alcohol makes you hungry, unlike pizza. After a few pints of beer, the bag of chips you have in the kitchen will start to look mighty appealing. If you’re drunk, not only is your diet likely to go out of the window, but tomorrow’s training session might do too. You would be better off having the extra slice of pizza after dinner instead of a beer or a glass of wine if fat gain is your main concern.
Is The Keto Diet Effective For Fat Loss?
The only reason the Keto Diet sometimes works for people is because it is the first time these people have practiced dietary discipline. If you cut out carbs altogether, then you can’t cave and grab a muffin at Starbucks when you’re hungry; you are forced to be disciplined with your diet. Quite often, people don’t replace the calories they have dropped through cutting carbs; if they don’t eat the usual 500 calories of rice and beans they have with their chicken, they don’t usually make up for it with 500 extra calories of chicken. So the results typically come from being in a caloric deficit, not from the lack of carbs.
Another reason why people do well with the keto diet is because of portion control. A piece of chicken breast is a piece of chicken breast. You can’t kid yourself that you’re having a small meal; you know exactly how much chicken breasts weigh and how many calories they provide. Once you’ve eaten them, you can’t go back for seconds. This doesn’t apply to pasta, potatoes or rice. People who have a problem with estimating calories or with over-eating at each meal typically do well on keto because it is the first time they’re actually controlling calories.
So no, the keto diet isn’t effective for fat loss. Dietary discipline is effective for fat loss. Keto helps people stay disciplined, but the adverse health effects far outweigh the benefits. Just develop some discipline and measure your portions!
Is Paleo Effective For Fat Loss?
Like with keto, many people lose body fat while eating a paleo diet because it is the first time they are practicing successful diet control. If they simply can’t eat any wheat or dairy or potatoes, then they’re a lot less likely to snack, or to sneak in an extra meal, or to go back for seconds – after all, you can’t really go back for seconds when all you’ve cooked is a beef steak.
The Paleo Diet (and it isn’t really a paleolithic diet – our foods today bare no resemblance to the foods eaten in that era) has no inherent fat burning effects. If you eat a caloric deficit, then you’ll lose weight. If your diet contains lots of complex carbs, fats and protein, and your training is right, you’ll lose more fat than muscle. Don’t concern yourself with gimmick diets and fads – especially those based on the diet of humans who lived for around 30 years.
Should You Cut Gluten To Lose Fat?
There is absolutely no reason why a healthy person who does not have celiac disease should cut out gluten. Gluten is a collective term for the proteins found in wheat. It has been in the human diet for a very long time, and it is not harmful to the vast majority of the population. It is actually a great thing to consume if your interest is building muscle mass; wheat and pasta are relatively high in protein compared to things like rice and potatoes. Very few people are intolerant to gluten in any way. Most people who complain about digestive discomfort after eating gluten are in fact just over-eating, or they routinely pair bread with sugary, salty, oily processed food (burgers, pizza, kebabs, etc).
Should I Drink More Water During A Diet?
Yes, you should increase water intake during a diet to make up for the water you are no longer getting from food. The food you eat contains a lot of water. If you end up eating half of the food you were eating during your last bulk, then you’ve lost a significant amount of your usual water intake.
There is, however, no scientifically-verified “water target” to aim for each day. We recommend letting your body tell you how much you need to drink. Just filling up a liter bottle and sipping at it regularly throughout the day. Drink tea and coffee too. Then whenever you start to feel thirsty, fill up a glass and get it down the hatch. Got a mild headache? Get a half pint down your neck! Waking up early with a dry mouth? Drink a pint in the hour leading up to bed. This isn’t rocket science – just drink enough water to keep you feeling healthy and hydrated.