When it comes to optimizing body composition, best results come from adopting habits that allow you to eliminate the stress and confusion from your nutrition.
Unfortunately, most people have poor eating habits to begin with and don’t have the skills or expertise necessary to get results from game-changing strategies like intermittent fasting, carb cycling, and glucose monitoring. In order for you to see results with these approaches, you need to lay the groundwork by adopting baseline healthy eating habits, such as the ones covered in this article.
For example, you need to be able to be able to correctly monitor food portion, reliably eye-ball calorie content, and estimate macronutrients in foods in order to effectively use carb cycling. Even getting protein intake right requires you to correctly estimate protein needs and have an understanding of which foods qualify as “high-quality” sources of protein, providing the amino acid make-up that maximally stimulates tissue repair.
Once you have these foundation skills dialed in, you can use the advanced nutrition habits listed below to truly optimize health and body composition for the long-term.
#1: Use Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting (IF) refers to using pre-planned windows of eating and fasting, which can allow you to control overall calorie intake and improve metabolic health by lowering insulin and increasing fat burning. IF can also improve biomarkers for cardiovascular health including triglycerides and cholesterol levels.
There are many IF protocols that can yield positive results. A few of the most popular include the following:
A 12-12 protocol has you eating several meals during a 12-hour period and then fasting for 12 hours. This might not sound all that revolutionary since it is how people used to eat in normal life, however, research shows that your average person is eating more or less non-stop during their waking hours. One study found that the average person eats over a 16 hour period, with minimal time in between meals and a shortened overnight fasting window of 8 hours or less. Many experts theorize that this distorted eating pattern is contributing to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, since people are consuming excess calories and never giving their body’s a chance to burn fat.
Often simply called “time-restricted” feeding because it limits the hours in which you eat daily, a 12-12 model is the first step to getting your eating under control. Studies show it can improve health markers, aid weight loss, and set the ground work for more rigorous fasting protocols.
An 8-16 model has you fasting for a 16-hour period and eating 1 to 3 meals during an 8 hour period. Best for people who are already have their eating under control with time restricted eating, an 8-16 model can be a great tool for reducing body fat and improving health markers in both sedentary and active individuals. One study of male bodybuilders who did an 8-16 IF protocol in which they ate 3 meals between 1 and 9 pm produced a significant loss of 1.6 kg of body fat. Muscle mass increased by a small 0.5 kg and the bodybuilders were able to improve their strength, significantly boosting lower body strength by the end of the study. Insulin and glucose levels also decreased notably.
This study was eye-catching because participants were asked to maintain their calories, clocking in at 2,800 calories a day, all of which were consumed during their 8-hour feeding window. The researchers concluded that in strength training individuals, by constricting your eating window to 8 hours, it’s possible to significantly reduce body fat, improve metabolic health, and become stronger and more muscular.
An alternate day fasting model (ADF) has you limiting meals and calories on certain days of the week but eating normally the other days of the week. One of the most common ADF protocols is the 5-2 model that allows you to eat normally 5 days with only one moderate-sized meal (usually around 500 calories) on the remaining two days. Fasting days are typically spread out to improve compliance and maximize the metabolic benefits.
In one 12-week trial that used a 5-2 ADF model, subjects lost an average 3.2 kg more body fat than a control group that had no dietary changes. The ADF participants also lowered triglycerides by 20 percent, improved cholesterol, and had a 13 percent a reduction in inflammatory markers that are linked with heart disease (Varady). A more rigorous ADF trial that used three “fast” days a week in which obese subjects ate one meal containing 450 calories alternated with four days of normal eating resulted in a 21 percent decrease in LDL cholesterol and a 32 percent decrease in triglycerides, both of which were associated with loss of body fat (subjects dropped 5.6 kg by the end of the trial) (Varady 2009).
Clearly, IF is a game changer for health and body composition and the coolest thing is that it can be used by a variety of populations. The key is to match the optimal protocol with the individual. Athletes and leaner individuals will do better with longer feeding windows and need to ensure they are hitting their calorie and protein targets. Obese individuals can get results with ADF or shorter feeding windows that allow them to benefit metabolically, as long as they can maintain healthy eating habits and don’t veer off the rails.
Get Started: Begin by establishing a structured 12-12 TRF eating plan that will allow you to get in tune with your circadian rhythm and improve your insulin sensitivity so that your body starts burning fat again.
Take It To The Next Level: Shortening your eating window to 4 to 8 hours, or trying an ADF protocol can allow you to reduce stubborn body fat, or maximize body composition in conjunction with training. One thing to be aware of is that IF protocols often work best when they are done for a set period of time (say three months) in which you give it all you’ve got.
The body will adapt to anything, so it’s important to mix things up every so often. You can try a different IF protocol, or go back to a 12-12 time-restricted eating model now that you’ve restored your circadian rhythm and improved metabolic health. Additionally, experts suggest that for best results with ADF, you should use a moderately high-fat diet to improve fat burning in the body, consume high-quality protein for the maintenance of lean mass, and eat plenty of phytonutrient fruits and vegetables to promote fullness and counter inflammation.
#2: Employ Carb Cycling
Carb cycling is a useful tool for reducing body fat and restoring metabolic health by alternating the amount of carbs you eat on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. It can be as simple as eating a higher carb diet on workout days and then limiting carbs on rest or off days. Exact carb requirements will depend on several factors including the volume and intensity of your training and your overall goals.
For example, on days you do high-volume strength training workouts, you could eat anywhere between 150 and 300 grams of carbs. On rest days, drop your carb intake down to 50 to 100 grams. This sort of activity-based carb cycling is generally best for weight maintenance or individuals who are new to healthy eating and still learning to monitor carbs and the other macronutrients, protein and fat.
If you are overweight and interested in reducing body fat, you may want to try a more rigorous carb cycling protocol. In this case, try a very low-carb, high fat diet in which you eat around 50 grams of carbs daily (from healthy sources like low-carb vegetables, fruits, and beans), but include a higher carb day ever 5 to 7 days. Known as a “re-feed,” a “carb-up,” or a “cheat meal,” this protocol works because during the period that you are restricting carbs, fat burning increases and you deplete muscle glycogen, which is a storage form of carbs in the body. Then the carbs you eat on the higher carb day aren’t stored as fat, but are used to replenish glycogen stores. Carb cycling also keeps the cells sensitive to insulin and the brain responsive to the hormone leptin so that you don’t experience deranged hunger.
A more advanced carb cycling option is to reduce carbs for a few weeks while you up you focus on reducing body fat and then increase carbs when focusing on building muscle or maximizing exercise performance. In this case, you might eat a very low-carb diet for four weeks (under 50 grams) but incorporate a high-carb day every 5 days in which you eat upward of 250 grams of carbs. Then after you’ve leaned up, use a higher carb diet on training days to fuel peak performance, focusing on intense workouts higher volume workouts.
On lower volume or off days, moderate carbs, but don’t go as low as you might in the first example that calls for 50 to 100 grams. Success is more likely with this sort of protocol if you opt for high-quality, complex carbs in the form of starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes and other root vegetables), beans, grains, and fruit.
Carb cycling also includes carb timing strategies, such as eating lower carb meals during the day and saving higher carb foods for dinner when you want to relax and wind down for bedtime. Delaying carbs until dinner allows you to eat a high-protein breakfast, which will set up your blood sugar and brain transmitters for a productive day, while saving those delicious carbs for evening when will power is lowest. Having carbs at night has the added benefit of raising the mood boosting hormone serotonin, while lowering the stress hormone cortisol so that you can unwind and have a restful night’s sleep.
Timing carbs around workouts is another tool for your arsenal. When on a lower carb diet, post-workout is prime time for carbs because training automatically sensitizes the muscles to insulin, and any carb calories you consume will be used to restore muscle glycogen. Having carbs after training has the added benefit of lowering cortisol and helping you get into rest and recovery mode after intense training.
Get Started: The first step to carb cycling is to optimize your carb intake by removing refined carbs (bread, crackers, foods with added sugar, sweets, pasta, junk food, and most packaged foods) in favor of whole, complex carbs: Sweet potatoes and other root vegetables, fruit, lentils and other legumes, and whole grains with the germ and bran intact. Once your diet is composed around healthy carbs, start with basic carb timing: Eat protein and lower carb for breakfast, saving higher carb foods for dinner and your post-workout meal. Try going low-carb on rest days and higher carb on training days.
Take It To The Next Level: Once you get your carb intake dialed in it’s time to individualize carb intake to your goals. First you need to identify what you want to accomplish and how much discomfort you’re willing to put up with. For example, if you want to lose fat ASAP, try a very low-carb diet for one to three months (depending on how much fat you need to lose). Start with a two week completely low-carb phase in which you eat as much protein, fat, and vegetables as you want (be sensible!), keeping your carb intake at 50 grams a days. After 14 days, start carb cycling with a higher carb (100 to 200 grams) day every 5 to 7 days.
#3: Monitor (& Optimize) Blood Sugar Levels
You probably think monitoring blood glucose levels is a complicated hassle only required of diabetics. In fact, anyone interested in losing body fat or maintaining their current physique should be regularly testing blood sugar because it gives you a window into how your body is using energy.
Chronically elevated blood sugar can be a sign that you are eating too much or too often. Or it can indicate that you’re spending too much time in a sedentary state. It’s also a useful way to determine what to eat: High blood sugar indicates you need to focus on nutrition that supports insulin sensitivity and slows digestion to regulate how quickly glucose hits your blood stream after eating. It can also guide you in determining the best macronutrient ratios for weight management, athletics, or cognitive performance.
Why is high blood sugar such a problem?
People who have poorly regulated blood sugar experience large spikes of insulin in response to a meal. Over time, insulin levels stay elevated and cells develop a resistance to binding with insulin. Even more insulin is needed to maintain blood sugar in a healthy range. Insulin is a storage hormone, which means that when levels are elevated, the body uses glucose for energy, storing any extra calories as fat. Fat burning is essentially “turned off,” making it harder to maintain body weight let alone lose body fat.
Another problem is that high blood sugar damages blood vessels and causes oxidative stress. When glucose is elevated in the bloodstream, it will attach itself to circulating proteins in a process called glycation. Glycated protein causes oxidative stress, and over time increases disease risk. One of the protein that is easily glycated is LDL cholesterol. In addition, when you are insulin resistant, triglycerides, which are the level of fat molecules in the blood, are elevated. This combination of high triglycerides and inflammation in the vasculature system increases dangerous plaque deposition in the arteries of the heart, which leads to heart disease over time.
Monitoring blood sugar with a glucose meter before and after meals is the first step to optimizing your metabolic health. Glucose monitors are available online and at most drugstores and they give you a window into your insulin health.
Whereas body fat assessments and scale weight provide a longer term indicator of the success of a nutrition and training program, glucose monitoring provides immediate feedback on your body’s energy status. Over the long term, a decreasing weight on the scale can be a useful indicator that you are not overeating, however, in the short-term blood glucose levels can be a more useful indicator of whether you really need to eat or if you are just eating out of habit, boredom, or comfort.
Get Started: The first step is to buy a glucose meter online or at a drugstore. This will allow you to assess how tightly your blood sugar is regulated during the day. Take your blood glucose in a fasted state and after eating for several days to give you an idea of your average blood glucose levels in each state. A general rule is that if your fasting blood sugar is greater than average, you don’t need additional fuel because you’ve still got ample energy (glucose) circulating in your blood stream. You may want to delay eating and/or exercise to reduce glucose.
If your blood sugar is slightly less than average and you are hungry, then it’s meal time and you should eat nutrient dense, whole foods that align with your overall goals and insulin sensitivity.
If your blood sugar is low (below 73 mg/dL) and you are hungry, you can benefit from bringing your glucose and insulin up with foods on the higher end of the glycemic index (starchy vegetables, whole intact grains, fruit).
Take It To The Next Level: Although below 100 mg/dL is considered normal in the mainstream medical community, the rule for optimal blood sugar when fasting is that blood sugar should be between 80-90 ng/dl and ideally below 84 mg/dL. After eating, blood sugar should be less than 130 ng/dl. If your blood sugar numbers are above these values, focus on improving diet, physical activity, and lifestyle:
- Improve diet by eating whole foods and planning meals around high-quality protein, healthy fat, and leafy green vegetables.
- Work out with weights and perform regular conditioning sessions, either doing intervals or aerobic cardio.
- Consider ways to improve lifestyle factors such as sleep, physical activity, and stress.