Low Carb Limbo, Keto and Building Muscle While Burning Fat

Low carb limbo is essentially a grey area between keto dieting and a normal carb based diet. I discovered this term reading through a blog that I will cite at the bottom of the article. Low Carb is a very vague term. Most people know that 3-400 grams a day is not low carb, but is 150grams low carb? I think many people get stuck in Low carb limbo, myself included in the past, and I think a lot of it is just poor advice, even from experts. I have read a lot of articles stating that anywhere from 50grams – 100grams is good for fat loss. Where did this number come from though? I mean that’s not a good number for fat loss if you eat 200 grams of fat a day. Many people think that ketosis develops when carbs dip under 100 grams of carbs. It may, but it may not. Even if it does develop its usually not enough ketones to replace all the glucose you still need for basic basal functions. After going back and reading some articles by Jacob Wilson I think people should take one of two approaches to stay out of this low carb limbo. Staying out of this grey area should greatly increase your energy levels, protect your muscle (I’ll explain why in a minute), and should allow you to bust through your body composition plateaus.

The first approach is to go straight ketogenic. A perfect healthy and safe diet, but in  my opinion very difficult to achieve in today’s society, especially if your social. This requires you keep carbs under 30 grams for a long period of time. No one really knows how long it takes, but for many that have achieved full ketosis it can take a long time, such as weeks or more at a time. Probably depends on the diet you were on before you attempted it. You also have NO carb refeeds at all. Refeeding throws you out of ketosis and can take you a while to get back into it, which ruins the effectiveness of the diet. You also need a very high fat intake and need to keep protein below 120grams and it may be even lower than that. Eating too much protein will throw you out of ketosis and ruin the effectiveness of the diet. Doesn’t sound too fun anymore does it. By eating carbs and protein in too high of an amount the body starts to shift over to glucose burning again and this can be very bad for your muscle mass. Ketones displace glucose only when the body has no source of glucose. The diet would likely get pretty stale after awhile, because you would be eating the same fatty foods over and over. But some people do like it. Jacob Wilson also found that when carb totals were increased above 30 grams to 60g and 104g, even a high protein intake couldn’t prevent muscle loss on a diet. Now I know that low carb limbo is responsible for this and I’ll explain why during the second approach. So with keto, you’re either on or your off. There isn’t a middle ground with this diet and protein and carbs NEED to be controlled and kept low for it to work. Personally, even though keto has some really interesting benefits, there is no way I would ever attempt this diet.

The second approach and what most people need to stick to is a carb based diet of around 150grams a day minimum on average. I consider 150grams to be a low to moderate carb diet and with this many carbs you are not on keto and you aren’t in low carb limbo. After reading through how much glucose needs you have in your body the answer for most people under restful conditions is about 150g-170g a day. This is to regulate glucose needed by the brain, liver, red blood cells and immune functions. This is also doesn’t change much based on a person’s size. If you weigh 400lbs or 120lbs these are likely unchanged, because organs dont really vary in size.

Guess what happens when you eat 50grams of carbs a day… you start to lose muscle unless your protein is extremely high. Protein can displace carbs almost at a 1:1 ratio so that body can get its glucose, but you dont want protein to be used in this manner. You want protein to be used for structural functions and muscle building. Well at least people that want to look good do. So bascially the protein you eat is being used as an energy source. This means no muscle building and strength loses, because the basic structural functions of the body are more important than building muscle. So lets take our example of someone eating 50grams of carbs a day. Lets say the body requires 170grams of carbs (under restful conditions) so you ate 50g of carbs, but you still need another 120grams of glucose. Say goodbye to your protein intake. Let’s say you eat 120grams of protein a day. Many consider this low if your a bodybuilder, but I feel like most people consider this high. All of that protein is going to be used as carbs, to feed the brain and basic functions and this leaves none left over for your actual protein needs. Now it probably doesn’t work exactly like that in the body, but the point is when your trying to build or even protect muscle on a diet, you DO NOT want gluconeogensis to occur in a manner such as this. I guess you could eat 300 grams of protein to prevent this if you truly didn’t like eating carbs, but that’s up to you. I will say though that is a saving grace of high protein diets. If you do consume this much, you are eating enough glucose to provide the brain, liver and immune system with glucose and still have enough protein left over to protect and maybe build muscle. I also forgot to mention that those are the needs you have BEFORE activity is factored in. If you lift weights you needs go up even more. Lifting on too low of a carb intake doesnt really sound like a good idea anymore. Not unless you carb cycle, but in reality all cycling does is balance out your weekly intake anyway.

So summing up the second and recommended approach: When dieting or just eating at general maintenance, you want at least 1200 calories a day worth of glucose before activity is factored in. This can be achieved with 150grams of carbs and 150grams of protein. Protein has been shown to be toxic in large amounts, so I would honestly ditch the excessive protein (eating in excess of 200grams) and eat a more normal diet including a decent amount of carbs. The sources likely dont matter as Menno Henselmans has pointed out in his article: Is a Carb a Carb?. Once 1200 calories of glucose are achieved your muscle mass will be protected and likely allowed to get bigger, since none of the carbs will be needed for gluconeogensis.

Weight lifting also increases your needs, but its probably not as much as you think. If you do a pretty normal 4 day split routine with a combo of isolation and compounds and with not much cardio besides just walking, then your probably need an additional 300grams over the course of the week to replenish what you used on TOP of the glucose needs I stated above. 300 grams may even be stretching it, as the ATP system is relied on sometimes far more than glucose when lifting weights, but lets play it safe.

So if someone that weighed around 75-80kg was trying to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, then this is what I would recommend based on this information.

The first step is to factor in your daily glucose needs on a weekly basis. 1200 calories of glucose a day maximizes your glucose needs under restful conditions, but lets factor in exercise. 1200 x 7 = 8400 calories. Add in another 300grams or 1200 calories for the workout and you are now at 9600 calories a week. 9600 / 7 = 1371 calories a day. 1371 / 4 = 342 grams of glucose a day to provide everything the body needs. 342 / 2 = 171grams of carbs and 171grams of protein if you split it evenly down the middle. If you want to go higher or lower carb or vice versa, that is individual and up to you, but you want to consume at least this. An example, lets say you are carb sensitive and like eating protein more. You could eat 220 grams of protein and 122g of carbs or lets say you hate protein and do well with higher carbs, then you could do 240 carbs and do 102 grams of protein. The total glucose needs are the most important factor. Now factor in your fat intake. I wouldn’t recommend going below 40grams of fat ever, because under this level absorbing vitamins and minerals, testosterone, diet adherence and maybe even depression can become a big issue. There doesn’t seem to be an upper limit to fat intake however. As I stated the glucose needs are somewhat of a minimum and maximum. This means that this is what the body requires to fuel bodily functions and to build and protect muscle mass on a non ketogenic diet. But going above this amount serves no additional benefits and if you go to high in carbs, you’ll probably just get fat if you dont handle carbs well. This means that fat can fill up the rest of your needs if you wish. That’s quite a large range from fat, but this person wants to build muscle and burn fat at the same time. That means that body fat needs to come into play as an energy source, so eating a ton of fat would negatively impact the burning of the body’s fat stores.

(Sidenote) – After looking this up, its kind of interesting how this looks strikingly similar to many precontest diets that bodybuilders have known about for years, even if they didn’t know the actual science behind how it worked. Anecdotal evidence at its finest.

So lets go back to the minimum calories and carbs/protein/fats this person needs to achieve his goal. Carbs 171grams / Protein 171grams / Fat 40grams – Total Calories – 1728 calories a day. Based on this persons needs he would likely lose muscle if he dipped below this amount of calories based on his size. If not lose muscle, then he would definitely not be building any muscle dipping below this intake. I would honestly set his fats to at least 50grams, so that would move him right up to 1820 calories a day, but if he liked 40grams of fat he would likely be fine. If he wanted to reduce his calories to lose fat faster, then he would need to reduce his weekly workout volume to ensure recovery. If this person was completely sedentary for a week or so then he would need a minimum of 1200 glucose calories and 40 grams of fat at least, so about 1560 calories.

Also I sort of mentioned this earlier, but carb cycling could work for a plan like this, but is completely unnecessary unless you actually enjoy it. As long as the weekly average is the same it really doesn’t matter if you cycle your intake.

Be careful of refeeding and cheats on a plan like this. What I presented was your daily balance of all you need to burn fat and build muscle. That means if you want to burn the max amount of fat you need to be between 1720-1820 calories a day averaged out over the week. If you refeed or cheat, then you need to factor that in to your weekly balance. So if you go 6 days of 1750 calories and have an all out cheat day of 4000 calories, your weekly calorie balance is 2070 calories. Which can negatively impact your fat burning. Consistency is crucial on a plan like this. If you have a big meal coming or party coming up then, go low calorie or intermittent fast until the big event so you can stick to your numbers. Or you can go higher calorie that day, but will need to go low calorie the next day to balance it out.

Also cheats and refeeds are not the same. Cheats are rarely a good idea and can set you back a week if it had a lot of fat, because almost all fat is stored in a surplus, especially if lots of carbs and protein were along side it. (Which I’m sure they will be on a cheat)

Refeeds are a much better approach, but their effectiveness is questionable. Refeeds seem to be much more effective if you are not eating enough carbs or glucose to begin with. So if you are dieting in low carb limbo, between 40g-140g or so and not eating enough protein to compensate, then refeeds can help balance you out and upregulate metabolism and leptin for a max of about 24-48hours or so. I would only recommend these if you hit a plateau and you have been consistently on point for at least 2 weeks. I do think a refeed is probably a good idea at this point. Until you reach this point though, you should have plenty of glucose to prevent leptin and energy from going to low anyway, so I wouldn’t mess around with these too much.

References:

http://primalnorth.blogspot.com/p/keto-adaptation-vs-low-carb-limbo.html

http://zerocarbzen.com/2015/10/05/a-high-fat-ketogenic-diet-is-protein-sparing/

http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/ketogenic-dieting-frequently-asked-questions.html

http://perfecthealthdiet.com/2011/03/protein-for-athletes/

http://bayesianbodybuilding.com/is-a-carb-a-carb/

http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/ask-the-nutrition-tactician-whats-the-difference-between-a-refeed-and-a-cheat-day

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5 comments

  1. Michael, thank you very much, very interesting and useful post! After failing on low carb diets and resulting yo-yoing I came to conclusion that moderate carb consumption brings me to the results I would like to achieve better than a low carb diet. No refeeds and cheat days are needed because you don’t feel deprived from carbs consuming complex carbs three times a day in moderate volumes.

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    1. Yes sir.

      Yeah many people eat excessively high protein which does work, because the vast majority gets turned into glucose AKA carbs. So technically you could get away with zero carbs and lots of protein, but its much healthier just to eat a moderate amount of carbs. It doesnt have to be just complex carbs either. You can get your carbs from fruit and tons of vegetables if you prefer. Also I agree many low carb diets revolve around refeeds and cheat days and that is not a healthy way to live in my opinion. You shouldn’t be salivating over a cheat day, because you should be satified from your every day diet, even when losing fat. Eating enough glucose ensures your appetite is kept under control and allows you to build and maintain muscle mass.

      Thanks for the comment.

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  2. Well I’m not sure where the carbs 170 came from…Best science ive seen to date is roughly 120-130.
    I think Lyle’s article talks all about the subject in great detail here http://www.bodyrecomposition.com/nutrition/how-many-carbohydrates-do-you-need.html/

    This doesn’t address cycling….because 90% people do not count things and wont eat the exact same thing everyday,
    example if you eat 300 carbs one day and 50 the next you should have enough glucose not an ideal situation but again it should be enough to not cry about muscle loss.

    Also calories are not emphasized because anytime you are in weekly defecits you stand the chance of muscle loss not to mention other downreugulations. If you had a huge deffecit for 4 weeks straight and got 150 grams of protein and carbs you would probably still have issues plenty.

    NOW making clear I am a big carb fan especially since I’m an ecotomorph not looking for fat loss and eat surpluses most of time. I firmly believe once the goals of protein and fat are met you fill in the carbs. Carbs get a bad rap but they shouldn’t they play great role in the body for various reasons. The only folks who should really be bashing carbs are obese and diabetics because those people cant have or shouldn’t have much of them in the first place really.

    Addresing the idea of why low carb diet are so treasured for fat loss is misunderstood….I think most lower carb diets simply contain less calories, more healthy foods, and plenty of protein…..thus allowing for calorie defcit with adequate protein…hence FAT LOSS. BUT it was not because cutting out carbs had some sort of magical effect and thus carbs are the devil. In fact here was a recent study that I must notify and again ill use article posting on it…http://www.bodyrecomposition.com/research-review/reduced-fat-reduced-carbohydrate-diets.html/

    So at the end of the day I agree with your reccomendations. If someone wants to loose fat and maintain muscle through a reasonable calorie defecit than something with adequate protein carbs (150 or whatever depending on size of person) and a bit of fat would work well since it will work for one, it wont cause health issues, and it can still be enjoyable.

    ULTIMATELY in my opinion the best diet for those after fat loss is the one that people can stick to with adherence, still enjoy life, and not cause health problems.

    I may sound like I bashed this article but not the case lol just presenting perspective I think.

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    1. Carson,

      Yeah the 170grams came from Perfect Health Diet and if you check out the second reference it links to an article that states 130g for the brain/liver and 40g for red blood cells.

      Yeah the article states that by eating certain minimums your provide everything your body needs to function normally, allowing protein to be spared and to do its job and eat enough fat to maintain health, and this adds up to your minimum intake to consume each day. The rest comes from fat tissue, which is an enormous energy source even for lean people.

      Yeah low carb diets work, because of the high protein. By biggest problem with Keto diets is your food volume goes way down. All fatty foods are very dense and don’t pack any volume whatsoever. This can bring on a lot of issues with fullness. I love eating certain types of fat, but not to the exclusion of both protein and carbs.

      But yeah the main point of this article was how to achieve muscle growth in a calorie deficit. Going low carb and high protein is not enough, because by not eating enough carbs, the protein you eat gets converted into an energy source and not used to build muscle. By eat carbs you spare protein and allow it to do its job. I should restate this, I mean the body needs a certain amount of glucose, not really carbs. So you could probably eat 1200 calories AKA 300 grams of protein and have enough glucose to fuel the brain and liver and still have plenty left over to build muscle. However, probably not a good idea haha.

      I really dont eat a whole lot of starch though to be honest. A lot of my carbs come from incidentals, vegetables, fruits and some crackers. Very rarely do I ever have a big bowl of pasta or rice. But it really doesnt matter where you get them from haha.

      But yeah to sum up this is to get people out of the grey zone, in which a lot of protein gets converted into energy to fuel basic functions, which is not what you want. To build muscle, 1200 calories of GLUCOSE – either from protein or carbs should be consumed at least. That’s not to say you would lose muscle on a low carb diet, but you would be maintaining at best. Sure as hell not building it.

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    2. Also kind of mentioned this already, but I do think a diet where you eat very high fat, but very high protein AKA 300grams does work for building muscle. Its not a keto diet, but your eating enough glucose to cover your needs. You probably get a nice blunting of the appetite as well because glucagon is so high from the protein. If I did something similar, I would still include at least 100grams of carbs and then jack up protein to at least 200grams and eat the rest fat. I actually know a few guys who love diets like this, but they mistakenly think its KETO, which its not haha.

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