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Appetite For Construction - Issue #2.

Topics include why not to train on an empty stomach and how to eat around early morning workouts, how to diet without going too low with the carb intake, and what rate of fat loss is acceptable/ideal.

AM Training and Nutrition

[ Q ] I train early in the morning, soon after waking up. I know this isn't ideal, but it's truly the only time I have. What can I do diet-wise to maximize my efforts?

What should I eat before training, if anything? What should I consume during training? After? When should I eat my first solid meal? How many times should I chew it? Help!

[ A ] Let's put things into their proper perspective. The most important thing is that you're getting up and draggin' your glutes to the gym.

Yes, my focus is nutrition, but in terms of a trainee's hierarchy of needs, find your way to the gym first and then worry about nutrition. After all, slightly sub-optimal training and nutrition is better than no training and piss poor nutrition. So keep up the good work.

A.M. Nutritional Needs

Now, to take it the next step and optimize your personal situation, let's consider the nutritional needs you have when training in the AM. Since it's probably been about eight hours since you've last eaten, your liver is probably somewhat depleted of its glycogen (stored glucose).

The liver giving up its glycogen in the form of glucose is one of the only ways for the body to maintain an adequate concentration of glucose in your blood, especially overnight. Without adequate blood glucose, not only will your workout suffer, that little thing you call living and breathing will also suffer.

Since there's no dietary glucose coming into the blood while you sleep, the liver must deplete itself in an attempt to supply this blood glucose. But in the morning, even with the liver's efforts, blood glucose is probably lower than it needs to be for optimal functioning, especially in the gym. So the morning is the time that one should begin to normalize blood glucose and replenish the liver glycogen with food.

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Although the main focus at this time should be the carbohydrate situation in the body, understand that blood amino acid content is low in the morning as well and this isn't the ideal scenario to "get your bulk on."

Since waking up and beginning your day will require significantly more calories than sleeping, and your body is already running on stored energy, the body must begin to rely even more on stored calories to function.

Those calories will come from fats, carbohydrates, and protein. However, assuming you did eat within the last eight hours or so, you're not necessarily "catabolic" in terms of muscle mass (when you're doing normal morning things).

What you're simply doing is breaking down stored glucose in the liver to manage blood glucose, stored glucose in the muscle to provide for muscle contraction, and stored fat within the muscle and from adipose tissue to also provide for energy needs.

Ultimately, if this "fasting" situation persists, muscle loss begins. But getting up, draining the plumbing, brushing the teeth, and waxing the moustache won't make you catabolic.

Destructive metabolism; the breaking down in living organisms of more complex substances (such as muscle tissue) into simpler ones, with the release of energy (opposed to anabolism).

However, head to the gym and start exercising with this physiological situation and things take a turn for the worse. Since weight training uses predominantly glucose for energy, and your blood glucose and muscle and liver glycogen stores are low, your training intensity won't be statistically different from zero unless you provide some carbohydrate.

In addition, even this small amount of stress on the muscles will begin to tax the protein reserves. Without adequate amino acids in the blood, say goodbye to your dreams of building those peptide chains you call muscles.

What To Eat

So in the end, training after an overnight fast is a mistake because strength and intensity will be lower than they should be and your efforts in the gym will slowly eat away at the muscle. So how can you remedy this situation and ensure optimum intake? Well, as I've written before:

  1. Weight Trainers: Eat a protein and fat meal about two hours before training. This will provide the body with adequate calories and spare muscle glycogen for the exercise effort to come.

  2. Endurance and Interval Trainers: Eat a carbohydrate and protein meal about two hours before training. This will help restore liver and muscle glycogen as this type of exercise is severely glycogen depleting and you may simply run out of gas if these tanks aren't "topped off."

  3. All Athletes: Drink 1/2 - 1 serving of a fast-digesting protein and carbohydrate drink like Biotest Surge during training to spare muscle protein, force a positive protein balance, and to maintain blood glucose.

  4. All Athletes: Drink 1/2 - 1 serving of a fast digesting protein and carbohydrate drink like Biotest Surge immediately after training to promote recovery.

  5. Eat a solid food meal that's moderate to high in carbohydrate and protein with little fat about an hour or two after training. This will help promote recovery and enhance glycogen resynthesis for your next workout.

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But, with your morning workouts, that doesn't work for you, does it? Well, for all those reading this who can eat two hours before training, use the above schedule. But for you guys rushing off to the gym as soon as the sun pops up (or earlier), here's what you need to do.

  1. Regardless of your exercise, begin drinking a specially concocted beverage within ten minutes of beginning your workout (in the car if necessary). This beverage should contain 1/2 - 1 serving of a fast digesting protein and carbohydrate drink like Biotest Surge and an additional serving of Gatorade or other simple carbohydrate powder (an additional 33 to 40 grams of carbohydrate above that already in Surge). This will provide adequate blood glucose and help accelerate glycogen synthesis in the liver and muscle.

  2. Drink 1/2 - 1 serving of a fast digesting protein and carb drink like Biotest Surge immediately after training.

  3. Eat a solid food meal that's moderate to high in carbohydrate with little fat in it, about one to two hours after training.

This program, while not as complete as the first, will yield comparable results in terms of muscle mass gain. The failure to replenish glycogen completely after the overnight fast may cause your workout intensity to suffer a bit (if you're doing high intensity anaerobic interval training or aerobic training), but it won't be terribly detrimental to a normal weight trainer.

Carb Intake: How low is too low?

[ Q ] I know you don't like low carb diets that much, but how low would you personally drop carbs when dieting? How low is too low?

[ A ] I don't like extremely low-carbohydrate diets for both personal and physiological reasons. When it comes down to it, I believe that extremely low-carbohydrate diets make people who exercise suffer more to achieve the same result (and in some cases this suffering constitutes sub-optimal health).

Sure, low-carb diets may work more quickly in sedentary or obese people who need to lose weight fast, but to the serious weight trainer, these types of diets aren't practical to follow over the long haul and they often negatively affect mood, decrease workout intensity, and impair normal daily functioning.

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With this said, I often do manipulate carbohydrate intake by lowering it. I just don't take it too low. So here's an example of how I might diet over the course of eight weeks, primarily manipulating my carbohydrate and fat intake. This is an example regimen in which I want to lose the maximum amount of fat in the shortest amount of time.

    Week 1: 250g protein, 500g carbs, 150g fat
    Week 2: 250g protein, 500g carbs, 100g fat
    Week 3: 250g protein, 400g carbs, 100g fat
    Week 4: 250g protein, 300g carbs, 100g fat
    Week 5-6: 250g protein, 200g carbs, 100g fat
    Week 7-8: 250g protein, 200g carbs, 50g fat

Keep in mind that this is just an example that I've used before with good success. The numbers are based on how I feel at each calorie and macronutrient level. With each of my clients and myself, I use physiologic feedback (exercise performance, mood, and daily function) to determine how low I go.

I certainly try not to go below 100 grams of carbohydrate per day. But if I ever found that a client needed to go that low and could tolerate it, we'd certainly go for it. In the end, it all comes down to individual tolerance. However, I usually look for a better way before resorting to a low-carbohydrate diet.

I want you to also remember that exercise is a key component to fat loss when dieting. I will integrate cardio, weight training, and other modes of exercise (plyometrics, etc.) as necessary based on the client's goals. In some clients, athletes in particular, we simply can't use low-calorie (or carbohydrate) diets as the primary means to lose weight. In these athletes, I use exercise exclusively with good results.

The "Pound O' Week" Rule

[ Q ] Everyone always says that losing about a pound a week on a diet is good and any more than that could be bad and lead to muscle loss. Is that a hard and fast rule? Any new research in that area?

[ A ] I don't know when or where this little "rule" became weight loss dogma but let's examine it now to see if it makes any sense. The central tenant in the "pound o' week theory" is that losing more than a pound a week will decrease lean body mass (and with it, muscle mass) and this decrease will cause the metabolic rate to slow down, preventing further fat loss. So is this true?

Well, certainly dropping calories too low will cause weight loss from all body compartments (fat compartment, lean mass compartment - water, muscle, bone mineralization, etc). But does the rate of weight loss affect this? Does losing weight more rapidly increase the likelihood of unacceptable muscle loss?

Before I answer the question, it's important to define our timeframe. Remember, whenever beginning a hypocaloric diet, especially one low in carbohydrates, there's an initial phase of rapid weight loss.

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This weight loss occurs within the first two weeks on the diet as muscle glycogen and total body water is diminished. During this time it's not unreasonable to expect weight loss rates of five to ten pounds per week (depending on the diet chosen).

Since a caloric deficit of 35,000 calories is necessary for a 10-pound loss of body tissue, the 10-pound weight loss comes mostly from body fluid. To lose 10 pounds of tissue in one week you'd need to under-eat by 5000 calories per day.

And that's almost impossible unless you go on the "prison camp" diet. So let's assume that the "pound a week theory" only applies to the timeframe after this initial rapid weight loss.

So again, does losing weight more rapidly increase the likelihood of unacceptable muscle loss? The answer is yes, but only if you're very lean already. If you're starting out with a good bit of fat to lose, I believe that it's not the weight loss per day that determines your loss of lean mass but it's the interaction between the rate of fat loss and initial body-fat percentage that determines this.

Recent Fat Loss Studies

I've addressed this before in one of my columns but I'll review the concept now with some new data. Basically, it's been shown time and time again that when following a hypocaloric diet, the fatter you are at the start, the less lean mass you lose.

The body is smart. When holding on to excess fat, it drops the fat first. When starting a diet already pretty lean, both fat and lean mass are lost. Here are just a few examples of data demonstrating this phenomenon:

  1. Researchers in Brazil monitored weight loss in eight people on a 43-day hunger strike. These individuals, who ate no food during the strike, began at 50% body fat and ended 43 days later at 20% bodyfat with minimal loss of lean tissue.

  2. Researchers at Northeastern Illinois University put obese men and women on very low calorie diets (< 1000 kcal) for 12 weeks. The average rate of weight loss was 2 kg per week (4.4 lbs.) and 75% of this loss was fat mass (25% was lean body mass with only a minimal loss of actual muscle protein).

  3. In another study done at Cambridge, two groups of overweight women were fed hypocaloric diets yielding weight losses of 3.5 lbs./wk or 2.2 lbs./wk and there were no differences in the proportions of fat and lean mass lost.

These data are pretty clear in demonstrating that the rate of weight loss is relatively unimportant in the composition of the loss in obese individuals. So let's change the focus to something more important. Let's look at what happens after severe hypocaloric diets (such as the diets above) end.

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While the same results may be achieved during the diet, those who lose weight faster as a result of a lower calorie intake tend to have reductions in metabolic rate during and after the diet. In the second study above, the resting metabolic rate decreased by 23.8% during the 12 weeks of the study despite the minimal loss of "metabolic tissue" (i.e. muscle).

In addition, in refeeding studies in rats, the already depressed metabolic rate can remain depressed even after normal feeding is resumed. In this case, "refeeding" calories are then "saved" as a result of this metabolic adaptation (as opposed to tissue mass adaptation) and are deposited as fat rather than protein.

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After the energy cost for depositing the extra fat is accounted for, the metabolic component represents a net 15% lower energy expenditure when normal food intake is resumed. Therefore, after a diet, it's the undereating itself that causes the problem and not the loss of lean mass.

At this point you may notice that most of this information comes from over-fat humans and rats. The data in lean individuals is lacking. However, since lean individuals tend to lose more lean mass when dieting, they may have to pay closer attention to their rate of weight loss.

Otherwise their demands for an even lower calorie diet to drop the fat will lead to a measurable loss of lean mass and especially a loss of metabolic power during and after the diet.

But don't make the mistake that most trainees do. They assume it's easy to lose muscle mass when dieting. Please understand that it's simply not possible to lose a lot of muscle mass when following a short-term weight lifting and smart hypocaloric regimen.

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So muscle loss isn't the problem, it's the loss of metabolic rate that will lead to the need to drop calories even further. This will end up decreasing performance in the gym and a further loss of metabolic power.

In the end, we need more data on lean individuals. But as it now stands, I believe that if you're overly fat, your rate of weight loss can safely approach an average of four pounds per week for short periods of time (12 weeks).

However, if you're already lean you should stick to slower rates of fat loss. But this is more due to the fact that a fast rate of fat loss in these individuals is indicative of a very low calorie diet and this type of diet will decrease their performance and their metabolism, making fat loss harder and making them more prone to fat gain after the diet. Patience is, in fact, a virtue.

About The Author

John M Berardi is one of the world's foremost experts in the field of human performance and nutrition. His company, Science Link, provides unique and highly effective training, nutrition, and supplementation programs for high level athletes as well as recreational exercisers. John is a prolific author and a sought after speaker and consultant. Visit for more information about John and his team. Also, check out his new DVD entitled No Nonsense Nutrition.

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