Many athletes struggle with their bodyfat levels. A lean body is a prime goal for athletes in most sports, partly for aesthetics, but also for performance. Having lots of extra bodyfat is inefficient, since you carry extra weight that isn’t serving your performance in any way. Having more muscle serves your performance directly (up to a point), but excess bodyfat just takes away.
Becoming incredibly lean is simpler than you think, and there are just a few steps to take to ensure maintenance of low bodyfat. Notice that I say simple, not easy. If you’re used to eating lots of sweets, fruit, and bread, then you’ll find these steps harder.
If you really want to be lean, you’ll find these steps easier. Notwithstanding the performance gains and extra mobility and enhanced health, having a lean body makes you look fantastic. However, always prioritise sport performance, and don’t allow aesthetics to become your main goal.
Insulin sensitivity is THE KEY, guys. It’s literally the foundation for everything else you need to know about staying lean.
Basically, you might already know that protein, carbohydrates, and fats are the three main macronutrients that make up all food. All food is comprised of these three, no exceptions.
And carbohydrates in particular are molecules that the body can break down instantly for quick energy. At their simplest, carbohydrates are sugars.
When we consume carbohydrates, and we get higher blood sugar levels, we get a spike in the hormone insulin within our blood stream.
Insulin is a steroid, and long story short it gets your cells to absorb nutrients. More nutrients mean that cells can repair themselves and grow bigger.
However, when we eat a large amount of carbohydrates all throughout the day, your lean body tissue becomes less insulin sensitive. This includes your muscles.
This means our muscle becomes less likely to take up nutrients, and so more of the nutrients we consume get used for lipogenesis, a.k.a. body fat.
Eating fat does not make you fat. Eating lots of sugar and carbs throughout the day makes you fat.
So what we really want to achieve when we want to get leaner, is we want to make our body partition nutrients preferentially to lean body tissue, especially your muscles.
So how do we do that?
Great question, and that’s the point of this article. There are a few simple ways that I’m going to explain to you that you can start using today, so you can start getting leaner today.
Lowering your carb intake, a.k.a. ‘keto’
What we want to achieve with this is to regulate our blood sugar levels, by making some changes to our diet.
Foods that are made up of carbohydrates each have different effects on blood sugar levels. This is called their glycemic index.
For instance, a baked potato or a bowl of cereal will make your blood sugar spike through the roof, whereas brown rice won’t as much. Foods that have trace/no carbs in them, like meat and eggs, won’t make your blood sugar jump at all.
Did you know that wholewheat bread has a higher glycemic index than raw sugar?
So what you can do then is aim more for foods that either have a low carbohydrate count to begin with, or go for foods that are lower on the glycemic index scale.
After exercise though, particularly weight training or any other higher-intensity exercise, your muscle insulin sensitivity is much higher. So your nutrient partitioning abilities are greatly enhanced.
Therefore, a great tactic used by many athletes all over the world is to eat either foods with no carbohydrates, or foods with a low glycemic index before exercise, and then consume the bulk of the day’s carbohydrate allotment in the post-workout period.
You’ve probably also heard of the keto movement that has become more popular.
The keto diet focuses on having a very low carb intake overall. Usually recommended is 50 grams per day of net carbohydrates, that’s total carbs minus fiber.
This near elimination of carbohydrates from the diet forces the body to adapt more to using fat for energy rather than carbohydrates, a process called ketosis, hence the diet’s name.
It’s a very difficult regime to follow, because most foods that companies have tried to force down our throats with marketing are full of carbohydrates, so you have to avoid a lot of stuff you might already be eating a lot of.
It is very effective though, as Sarah can testify if you ask her.
But isn’t low-carb unhealthy? Didn’t people get sick on Atkins?
I wouldn’t recommend going zero-carb for any time longer than two weeks, because you risk missing out on a lot of nutritional value that some carbohydrate foods provide, for example starchy vegetables like carrots are highly nutritious.
However, I certainly wouldn’t agree that limiting your carbohydrate intake to 50 grams / day is unhealthy by any means. You can have a very healthy diet with that kind of carb parameter.
You could eat some cooked meat, cheeses, and healthy vegetables, and feel perfectly satiated without going over 50g of carbs. You’d get all of the macros, vitamins, and minerals you’d need in a meal without much need for imagination.
My personal opinion on the Atkins diet is that I think it takes it a little to the extreme, and the people who do it don’t educate themselves on why it works beforehand. They’re lazy and just want a step-by-step plan to follow day by day.
If people educated themselves on the human body and nutrition properly, they would know what looks right and what doesn’t. In addition, it’s far more valuable to have the background knowledge and context to make your own diet programs to follow.
I’m not making any case against Atkins at all, I think it can be resourceful and effective for many. My point once again is that you should want to invest time in learning the background and context of a diet before doing it and risking affecting your health.
Paleo sort of fits in with keto, in that it’s more of a lifestyle philosophy than a strict diet program per se. Circumstantially it will usually end up being a low-carb diet, and many do have great results with it.
Paleo is all about living a lifestyle akin to our paleolithic ancestors, motivated by the increasing consumption of processed foods in our society that are often unhealthy. The idea is that unadulterated, organic foods are of greater purity.
This means that the diet favours all sorts of meats, vegetables, and animal products like eggs. These things in the diet will definitely lead to a healthy body.
The best thing about paleo in my opinion is that it cuts out cereals. Cereals and other grains are, in my opinion, one of the chief causes of insulin resistance among the general population. Most breakfast cereals have an astronomically high glycemic index.
The western world as a whole has been sold on the marketing lie that breakfast is essential for good health, and that cereals are the best way to do that. Absolute rubbish. Correlations between breakfast eating and being healthy prove nothing.
So for that reason, I am glad that the popularity of paleo has brought about greater awareness and skepticism of not only carbohydrates but cereals and other grains as well.
And while conventional wisdom told us to eschew dietary cholesterol and get plenty of whole grain bread and “heart-healthy” cereal, paleo taught overweight people that these behaviors were precisely the things making them fat.
– Dani Shugart, author and physique competitor
The only problem with paleo is that it cuts out a lot of perfectly healthy foods. Great foods like brown rice and porridge made from steel-cut oats are off-limits, as are certain supplements that are extremely beneficial.
In addition, many paleo followers end up getting most of their carbohydrates from fruits and other fructose-dominant carbohydrates due to the time demands of, say, baking a squash. Fructose is hard to digest for most of the population, and it turns to fat faster than any other kind of sugar.
And for that reason, I don’t personally follow paleo or advocate it much. Unless you find your beliefs resonating with the ideological facets of the paleolithic lifestyle, you might do just as well if not better nutritionally on a ketogenic diet or practicing intermittent fasting.
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My own method of choice: intermittent fasting
My own personal method for keeping my body fat low and my insulin sensitivity at a good level is intermittent fasting.
Particularly, I follow the 16 hour fast / 8 hour feed split that Martin Berkhan recommends on his website, Leangains. There are absolutely dozens of health benefits to intermittent fasting as well, that are also listed on his website.
This 16 hour fast is perfectly timed to help lower blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity. I eat pretty much whatever I want during my feeding period, partly because of that fact, but also because I train with such a high frequency.
There is a very popular myth that’s floated around the fitness industry that frequent eating is good because it makes your metabolism chug on faster. This makes people wary of taking long periods without eating, and consequently any kind of fasting.
The origin of this myth is probably the correlation between smaller meals and thinner waistlines, and the anti-correlation between huge meals and thicker waistlines. Correlation does not imply causation.
The Thermic Effect of Food also contributed heavily to the idea of the myth, which refers to the fact that the body has to use energy to digest food for energy. So people got the idea that frequently making the body digest food would ‘stoke the metabolic fire’.
A much-ignored study in 1997 that specifically looked at meal frequency found no significant benefits either way from eating small, frequent meals:
Studies using whole-body calorimetry and doubly-labelled water to assess total 24h energy expenditure find no difference between nibbling and gorging.
– Bellisle et al.
Again, in 2012, the myth was debunked, and covered in a Leangains post. This study actually gained large press attention and dealt a big blow to the frequent eating myth.
Yet another myth that makes people afraid of intermittent fasting is the idea that it makes the body go into ‘starvation mode’, where the body starts to shut down by lowering the metabolic rate and breaking down muscle proteins for energy.
Again, nonsense. Metabolic rate actually increases a small amount during fasting for almost two days, lasting up to 60 hours. The function of this is to make us better able and willing to go out and hunt us some prey. It’s a desirable thing to happen from an evolutionary perspective.
Actual starvation takes much longer to set in. Humans can go without food for a long time.
In any case, in the eight hour feed you still get the total amount of calories that you normally would in a regular diet. You just condense all your eating into that eight hour window.
The lesson is, if fasting for up to 60 hours does no damage, then 16 hour fasts are child’s play. You’ll need some willpower to make it through the first 16 hour fasts, but after that it becomes easier. Your body definitely adapts to when it’s used to eating, thanks to the hormone ghrelin, and you’ll stop being so hungry in the mornings.
The reason it’s my personal method of choice though, is that it’s the one that I can most easily follow as a lifestyle. And that’s the most important thing about any diet.
It’s completely useless to follow an extreme diet for several weeks, only to stop it completely and pile on loads of weight again afterwards.
Being lean is a lifestyle, and some people out there have a really bad attitude to losing weight and keeping it off. This article is not for the lazy.
Intermittent fasting is just so awesome for all these reasons. It’s almost magical in its fat-stripping ability, it helps you live longer, and it’s easy to follow every day as a lifestyle.
C3G has magical Jedi wizard powers
Imagine a chemical that’s common in lots of fruits and berries, and literally instructs your body to be more insulin sensitive, and make your muscles absorb all the nutrients you eat.
Cyanidin 3-glucoside belongs to a class of pigments called anthocyanins that will directly impact your insulin sensitivity in particular doses.
The supplement, a compound found in various berries, profoundly increases the insulin sensitivity of muscle cells while decreasing the insulin sensitivity of fat cells.
That means the glucose uptake in muscle cells increases, and glucose, nutrients, and BCAA’s are partitioned into these same muscle cells while fat storage in general is hindered and fatty acid oxidation is increased.
– Christian Thibeaudeau, strength and bodybuilding trainer
It’s not cheap, however, to get in the right quantities. You can buy a direct supplement from Amazon, or you can eat a lot of purple berries. Cherries, blueberries, and blackberries aren’t always cheap, however, and you might end up spending a lot of money to get enough C3G.
The cheapest way to get lots of C3G into your system by far that I’ve found is to buy packs of frozen berries from the supermarket. No nutrition is given up from freezing them at all.
I recommend eating some berries 45 minutes to an hour before any big carb-heavy meals. A great idea you could try is to consume your C3G before a big meal out or a party with family or friends, if you think you might eat some carbs, junk food, or carb-heavy alcohol.
Oh, and it may also protect against cancer.
Drink more water, and stop adding sugar to your hot drinks
It literally amazes me how many people out there have some kind of aversion to drinking water. It’s the most natural, pure thing we can consume, and some people just avoid drinking a simple glass of water.
Drinking solely juice, cordial, and sugared pop drinks is not only a bad way to get carbohydrates, it’s also terrible for the teeth. Sugar + S. Mutans = cavities.
You need to get over the fact that water doesn’t taste sweet, and realise how natural and good it is for you. It should be an easy thing to do when you realise how bad all those sugary drinks are for you.
The same also goes for putting loads of sugar and excess milk into your hot drinks as well. Cut out the non-calorie sweetener crap too – the calories aren’t the point. It’s about getting over any obsession with needing your food and drink to always taste sweet.
Be a man and drink some black coffee. Give it time, it’ll grow on you. Just don’t drink it after midday. The caffeine in the morning will also give your fat burning capabilities a good kick too.
Go outside and do something
Clearly, keeping active is important too, so make sure you’re exercising at least three times a week.
Preferably this should be a higher-intensity form of exercise, such as lifting weights. If you do it right, you’ll also get a nice pump, which’ll further encourage nutrients into your muscles when you eat.
Also, when you go and do intermittent fasting, it’s good to do something while in a fasted state. Go for a walk for half an hour. You’ll feel great afterwards. Experience the often-underappreciated pleasure of a simple walk around town.
If you want you can also do cardio during your fast. You shouldn’t lose any significant amount of strength and muscle so long as you also engage in strength training and high-intensity activity while maintaining a high protein intake during your feed.
In fact, in Leangains the common practice is to take 10g of a BCAA supplement before a fasted weights workout, to counter muscle breakdown.
The idea is that the branched chain amino acids help to keep catabolism at bay because of the anabolic ‘switching on’ effect that leucine has on muscle.
Two grams per kg of body mass is a great amount of protein to ensure you’ll keep all of your muscle and additionally build on it. If you’re on a budget, here are some tips to getting those extra grams of protein, and then some more.
I’ve been doing intermittent fasting for years now, and in the last six months my upper body strength has improved dramatically. Clearly fasted training does not have any limiting effect on strength or muscle gains.
But Jon, I heard such and such from that TV program and another thing from that Daily Mail article blah blah blah
Shut up. This is what works, and it’ll work for you too. I guarantee it. Just go and try it, you’ll see.
I’ve experimented personally with quite a few diet schemes combined with particular workout plans, and I’ve come up with what works in my experience. As always, you don’t have to believe me on this, I am just providing a perspective based on experimentation and empirical evidence.
I think because of the fluid nature and inherent random chaos and errors with exercise, I personally value this over certain types of scientific research, particularly correlation studies. Correlation does not imply causation, and many researchers have not touched a barbell in their lives.
I am not making a point against scientific research – quite the opposite, I am a science graduate – but I am cautioning you to value your own empirical evidence from experience over weak correlation in research studies.
- Insulin sensitivity is always the key when it comes to fat loss
- The ultimate goal is to make your body better at partitioning nutrients
- You can do this by lowering your overall carbohydrate intake…
- …or making sure your carbs are of a low glycemic index persuasion
- Intermittent fasting is super-effective for improving insulin resistance, and it’s often the easiest method to fit into a lifestyle
- C3G is awesome
- Only drink water, tea, and coffee, without sugar and without lots of milk
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