If you've ever been on a low-carb diet, then you know how much of a PAIN it can be when you deny your body it's most common energy source. Carbohydrate deprivation is sometimes to only way lose those extra pounds. But along with the excess fat, many people also end up losing their sanity. I've put together a little survival guide to help those who dare venture into the Sahara of bodybuilding—low-carb dieting!
1. Split 'Em Up
Going cold turkey on a low-carb diet is not for the faint hearted. Often times, people cannot handle the sudden decrease in carbohydrate consumption and quit within the first week. You want to prep your body mentally for the dietary onslaught to come. The best way to low-carb is to gradually introduce the concept to your body. You can accomplish this in two phases.
Continue eating the same amount of carbs you normally have, except spread your total daily carbohydrate consumption over several meals. You should already know by now that a bodybuilder friendly diet involves eating several smaller meals throughout the day. This is essential to keep your muscles well nourished. The smaller food portions also increase your body's metabolism, since it has a constant source of food streaming in.
I consider this phase a pre-low carb phase, one during which you introduce your body to smaller portions of carbs. It can last anywhere from one to three weeks, depending on how much time you want to spend getting lean, and should not be considered part of your low-carb dieting phase. So let's say your daily carb consumption is 300 grams a day. In reality, it may be more, may be less.
To start, plan to have six or seven meals a day:
- Meal 1: Breakfast (60g)
- Meal 2: Mid-morning snack (30g)
- Meal 3: Lunch (60g)
- Meal 4: Late-afternoon snack (30g)
- Meal 5: Post workout drink (70g)
- Meal 6: Dinner (50g)
- Meal 7: Bedtime snack (0g)
Total Carbs Consumed: 300g
Note: No carbs before you go to sleep or else they will be stored as fat. Eat complex carbs such as brown rice, wheat pasta, potatoes, yams, multigrain-breads and plenty of veggies. The only exception is after your workout, during which you can consume a simple sugar drink with your protein in order to speed up recovery.
Here's when you actually start cutting carbs! This is where the fun begins (or for many of us, the sheer agony.) You can do this very scientifically by carefully manipulating the portions—such as only reducing your carb intake later in the day. You could also record how you feel at certain points during the day and adjust carb intake to suit your taste. Or if you're like me and you hate writing and measuring everything, simply cut your carbs at every meal by HALF.
- Meal 1: Breakfast (30g)
- Meal 2: Mid-morning snack (15g)
- Meal 3: Lunch (30g)
- Meal 4: Late-afternoon snack (15g)
- Meal 5: Post workout drink (35g)
- Meal 6: Dinner (25g)
- Meal 7: Bedtime Snack (0g)
Total Carbs Consumed: 150g
This phase is what your low carb diet is probably going to look like. You can continue it for as long as you want, 6 weeks, 8 weeks, 12 weeks. Basically, repeat until ripped.
2. Keep The Greens Coming
This is probably one of the most important aspects of low-carb-ing. Veggies provide you with plenty of vital nutrients, vitamins and minerals. The fiber helps you feel full and the bulk ensures you won't be spending hours in the bathroom, if you get my drift. Not to mention the variety that veggies offer on a low-carb diet. If any of you have tried eating nothing but chicken breasts and egg whites for 12 weeks, let alone one week, we all know it ain't fun. Seasoned chicken breast on a bed of fresh crisp romaine lettuce with fat-free ranch dressing sounds a lot more appetizing right?
Fiber also prevents any carbs you eat from being absorbed too quickly, thus preventing an undesired spike in insulin (too much insulin production promotes the storage of carbs as fat). Fiber also passes through your body undigested. Therefore, when eating vegetables, do NOT factor them into your daily carbohydrate intake. To kill late night hunger pangs, chomp freely on broccoli chunks and celery sticks dipped in fat free ranch.
3. Drink Plenty Of Water
Carbohydrates in the body hold water. When you cut them out of your diet, your body will naturally lose water. Some people think that drinking too much water while trying to get lean will cause them to lose definition in their muscles. While that is true to an extent (if you hold water, you will look less "ripped"), why deprive your body of water NOW while you are dieting? The last thing you want to be on a low-carb diet is dehydrated.
Then you will really feel like crap. It will also lead to very unproductive workouts and even cramping. Even bodybuilders who are preparing for a competition don't cut back on water consumption until a few days before their contest.
Cutting out water to increase muscle definition is only a TEMPORARY fix. Our bodies are 70 percent water. Keep drinking water (at least a gallon or two a day) and keep your body well hydrated.
4. Cheat Clean
If you are going to cheat, there are two rules. Cheat OCCASIONALLY, and cheat CLEAN. By cheating clean, I mean simply increasing your carbohydrate intake for that meal or day. Doing so will help replenish energy stores, and take the stress off dieting for long periods of time. Make sure you continue to eat complex carbs only. Instead of pigging out on a sack of potato chips for your cheat meal, go ahead and enjoy an extra serving of brown rice or pasta. If you have a sweet tooth, kill the sugar cravings with diet soda or sugar free popsicles.
Cheating occasionally means what it says. If you cheat every other day, then don't say you are low-carb-ing, because everyone else will laugh at you when they see you pile on the ice cream at the local buffet. You have to determine when and how often you are going to cheat. People with faster metabolisms can cheat more often and get away with it. If you have a snail-pace metabolism, you might want to only cheat one meal a week. That's right - one MEAL of the week, not one DAY! Or you could even try not cheating at all (which will entitle you to serious bragging rights to your buddies at the gym!)
5. Stay Hungry
I find it hard to believe when people tell me that that it's possible to go on a low carb diet and have no feelings of hunger, no cravings, and no pain at all. When you are depriving your body of carbs you are going to feel SOME hunger, no matter what. If it's not hunger from food then it will be hunger and withdrawal from carbs. Any diet is going to be a pain in the butt because your body is not used to it. The $2.50 box of sugar-covered donuts is going to be screaming at you when you walk down the isles of the grocery store, beckoning you to have "just one bite". Be prepared mentally for what you are about to face.
Low-carbing is hard, and you have to be very self-motivated and disciplined in order to succeed. Find some way (anyway!) to stay motivated. Maybe it's reading Arnold's The Education of a Bodybuilder every night before you go to sleep, or maybe it's hanging a poster sized picture of your girlfriend/boyfriend in your room, to remind you of the promise you made to yourself to get in shape for him/her. Whatever it is, having a source of inspiration can help alleviate some of the mental stress of dieting because it helps you focus on your goals, and drives you to work even harder. Now that you can survive a low-carb diet, conquer it and achieve your best physique yet!