Written by Dr. Mike Israetel
Disclaimer: We have presented some articles on the subject of contest dieting and it’s potential pitfalls but feel it is important to present you, our readers, with multiple perspectives so you can make your own conclusions.
One of the most recent topics of conversation in the fitness industry centers around the controversies associated with extreme approaches to fatloss dieting, and the gurus notorious for promoting them. Many have weighed in on this topic, with most seeming to side (at least publicly) with the opinion that diet gurus often take their interventions too far. Strategies such as cutting out entire food groups, cutting out all carbs and/or fats, and taking clients down to the mid-hundreds in calories per day have been targeted as some combination of ineffective, dangerous, and ridiculous by most of the critics thus far. While many of the points made on the subject are absolutely correct, others are not quite as clear, and still others are downright wrong.
Let’s get one thing VERY straight from the get-go. Dieting sucks. If you’re dieting and successfully losing weight, and don’t happen to be genetically freaky, it’s not going to be a super fun process. There will be times in which you are tired, hungry, irritable, and downright miserable. Does all dieting have to feel like the end of the world? No. But if you’re reading articles online that describe almost any deviation from normal training and life enjoyment caused by dieting as abnormal, you’re setting yourself up for a wild goose chase, trying to find that perfect diet. If dieting was easy, walking into a Walmart wouldn’t seem so much like walking into an obesity conference, and people wouldn’t compliment you for losing 20lbs and getting into great shape because such an accomplishment would be run-of-the-mill. Dieting should be expected to suck somewhat, but how much is the norm? Certainly there’s such as thing as too much suffering? Their sure is, and that brings up the next point.
Conventional Fatloss vs. Contest Dieting
A diet designed to allow a regular fitness enthusiast to drop a bit of fat and get into shape for the summer is a wholly different animal than a contest diet. What’s slightly bothersome is that certain articles on dieting seem to be conflating the two. If you have a relatively average metabolism and moderately ambitious goals (a 200lb person losing 15lbs in 3 months, for example), then any coach that programs no-fat days or takes your training day carbs down to 30g right off hand is likely way off base, exactly as the current critiques suggest. Conventional dieting for average goals is a most often a matter of reducing cheat meals, reducing carbs and fats somewhat, and increasing cardio a bit. Such an approach works for most people in most situations, and is of course uncontroversial. However, please, please, PLEASE don’t confuse this approach with contest dieting. While the first few weeks or even months of contest dieting may look much like conventional dieting, the final few months and weeks absolutely do not. The last remnants of bodyfat don’t come off easily, and relatively extreme measures such as longer periods of no-carb and no-fat dieting, higher cardio expenditures, and very low calorie intakes become very useful. In fact, for most people they become indispensable.
Genetic Factors and Dieting Extremes
Pushing the body close to its limits of fat percentages is no easy task, and expecting the interventions that get you there to be anything short of extreme is in my view a bit too optimistic. Unless you’re one of the gifted few, reaching an exotic goal of body composition may require some very difficult approaches to be taken. This of course applies to contest dieting, but can apply to extreme cases of conventional dieting as well. Formerly obese female clients with genetically slow metabolisms have made the successful journey to normal bodyweights (going from 215lbs to 150lbs over the course of a year, for example). But in my experience, many of these clients require periods of profoundly restrictive dieting to achieve such goals, simply because their genetics keep trying to pull them back up to what they are “supposed” to weigh.
There’s a bit of the naturalistic fallacy surfacing in some of these discussions of dieting, whereby it’s expected that if you just eat “healthy” and engage in exercise, you’ll float down to an average (or below) bodyweight and the fat will just melt off. Unfortunately, the reality is that being very overweight is “natural” for some, and just eating healthy doesn’t cut it if they want to make serious changes to their appearance. In a similar vein, there’s nothing “natural” about having striated glutes or winning figure shows. It’s a look that only the genetically gifted can attain without much intervention. Most people who endeavor to look exotic have to come to the terms with the fact that attaining such a look will require some very radical approaches which may include highly restrictive dieting. It’s quite simple… if the look is “out of this world,” then oftentimes, so will be the sacrifices that get you there. Some of the testimonials out there about “extreme dieting” border on comical. For example, something to the effect of:
“I was dieting for a figure competition and I was miserable… I couldn’t focus in school and even my sleep suffered.”
Yeah… and what did you expect it took to look like a goddess? Posting Facebook statuses about your awesome delt workout and then getting some frozen yogurt afterwards? Sorry, but you picked the hardest sport in the world. Suffering comes standard.
Dr. Israetel is the author of “The Renaissance Diet.” If you’re trying to get strong and lean, it is a must-own resource:
Rebound Effects and “Metabolic Damage”
The recently popularized term of “metabolic damage” has been adding a bit of fuel to the fire in this discussion. Using such a term denotes both a serious matter and the suggestion that it is a well studied and established scientific phenomenon. In reality, neither is true. Unless your mitochondria are falling apart, your low-carb diet is likely not causing metabolic “damage,” and the research on the after-effects of restrictive dieting is far from comprehensive. That research which does exist demonstrates a reduction of metabolism after extreme dieting, and that reduction stems from a combination of a lower bodyweight and a reduction in thyroid hormone production. While several weeks of relatively normal eating typically resolve hormone alterations, the only way to get back to “your old, faster metabolism” is to go back to weighing what you used to weigh. Expecting to lose 20lbs and continue eating the same amounts of food you did 20lbs ago is just plain old magical thinking. You’ll have to stay more active or eat less or both if you want to stay 20lbs lighter for good, plain and simple. Most people who finish a very restrictive (or contest) diet will see some weight gain from water retention that can last for several weeks after the end of the diet. But the actual tissue weight gain after the diet is a question of intake and caloric expenditure. Many of the same people that complain about their diet “ruining” their metabolism and causing rapid weight gain for months after the show also stopped doing cardio for months and ate the kitchen sink all the while. If you can resist the temptation to eat everything in sight after your diet, you can absolutely keep most of the weight off and return to a healthy, relatively normal lifestyle.
Dieting sucks, and contest dieting sucks much, much worse. If you hire a capable diet coach, they should absolutely be able to help you with losing a bit of weight and getting into better shape without an overwhelming amount of suffering. However, if you’re looking make a massive alteration in your appearance or even to step onstage and look exotic, please, be under no illusions; it’s going to be an unbelievably difficult process. After the “usual” reductions in food intake and increases in cardio, your weightloss will eventually stall, as will your fatloss. To keep losing fat beyond this point, very “unusual” methods must be employed, and some of them won’t be the healthiest interventions in the world. The thing is, if you wanted to just be healthy, you would have maintained your active lifestyle at your normal bodyweight. However, you chose to compete in figure, or bodybuilding, or what have you, and with that choice came the implicit acceptance of the sacrifices required. If you really think you can look like a sculpture without an unreal amount of willpower and suffering, I’m just not sure what to tell you. Good luck?
Born in Moscow, Russia, Mike Israetel is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”Online Training, Website, Facebook