I decided this year I was not going to reverse diet. I tried it last year and it sucked.
There is a nice sensible theory behind reverse dieting – gradually increase your calories at a measured pace, re-introducing foods if they’ve been eliminated, increasing the volume of food if your calories and hence portions got significantly smaller, all with the aim of allowing your body to re-adjust gently and reset itself to more normal levels of body fat and bigger volumes of food. Great in theory, but I seriously struggled with the practice of it!
I was good during the day – I pretty much stuck to my existing comp diet, which was a fair amount of food anyway – lots of green veggies and some protein and a sensible amount of good fats. But at night I transmogrified into a raving sugar crazed monster and stuffed myself with all sorts of crap – packets of biscuits, bags of lollies, chocolate coated raspberries, burnt fig and orange ice cream, caramel popcorn and honey in particular, even better if the caramel popcorn was covered in the honey!
What a nightmare.
I hated it, felt fat, bloated and out of control and the more I tried to control it, the more out of control I felt!
It lasted about 7 weeks post comp and amazingly I only put on about 2 kg in that 7 weeks which when you look at it is actually a perfectly acceptable rate of weight gain – since I’d lost it at a steady 0.5-0.7kg for 12 weeks straight in the lead up to comp, putting it back on at 0.3 (ish) kg/week was quite slow really.
Whilst this entire emotional/hormonal war zone was going on in my head and body, some tiny semblance of the rational part of me made sure I kept up the training 5 days a week and I added 1 HIIT session a week.
Turns out, completely unknowingly, I’d hit a potential metabolic jackpot.
Yep, eat crap and grow whilst staying lean. The holy grail of offseason or indeed all year for most people.
Enter Carb Backloading.
So what is Carb Backloading?
Well as the name implies, at a particular point in the day you load up on carbs – not all day, and not all kinds of carbs. You load up at a very specific time of the day and on hi gi carbs only…
Yes, it does somewhat fly in the face of ‘conventional wisdom’ and yes you can screw it up and become the fat kid.
Ok, maybe I need to back up a bit and get into some theory – I’ve got a whole book on it, so I’ll try and summarise it in a way that sounds sensible without getting too sciency!
And yes I do realise that what I’m summarising is infinitely more complicated than how I’m about to describe it. But none of us are PhD students…and if you want the full details go buy the book!
The essential premise behind carb backloading revolves around the careful timing of carb intake to take advantage of your body’s natural hormonal production cycle (insulin, cortisol in particular) in combination with a specific metabolic window of opportunity the occurs immediately and up to a few hours after heavy resistance training.
This only works in conjunction with heavy resistance training.
There is another version of this which is actually my entire comp prep that you can do without training – and indeed I have done it when I was recovering from all my injuries and couldn’t exercise – carb backloading lite if you like, is where you are ketogenic all week except for one night where you can eat crap – reefed night.
Let start with insulin.
Insulin is highly anabolic; It wants to build stuff – muscle, fat it doesn’t really care, its main job is to transport raw materials (cholesterol, glycogen, triglycerides…) to cells for storage. So with high insulin levels it can stop muscle breakdown, which is good, but it also increases fat storage efficiency – excess fat will get stored as fat and excess glycogen will be converted to fat and stored as fat.
Insulin sensitivity changes on a daily basis, when sensitivity to insulin is high, cells react strongly and soak up whatever nutrients have been brought to them by insulin transport. When sensitivity is low, cells don’t react as much to insulin and hence don’t absorb nutrients so well.
Insulin sensitivity (not levels…) is high first thing in the morning and gradually decreases towards the end of the day. As you know, carbs cause the release of insulin, so adding insulin into an insulin sensitive environment when your cells are in a highly absorptive state, will increase the storage of nutrients. Brilliant! Instant energy! But if there are excess nutrients at this point it will be stored as fat.
The total opposite of insulin, it is highly catabolic – it breaks stuff down…like muscle tissue, during heavy resistance training. But, releasing glucose from glycogen stores is catabolic, as is releasing fat from fat cells…starting to see where this might be useful?
When cortisol is acting naturally (i.e not in a stress condition) and in the absence of elevated insulin levels, it triggers the breakdown of triglycerides into free fatty acids for metabolization…i.e fat burning.
Guess when cortisol is naturally highest and insulin levels naturally lowest – first thing in the morning when you get up – at this point your body is in a prime fat burning state.
If you then go and eat a carby breakfast, your insulin levels rise and due to your cells being at their most sensitive they will store those nutrients you just added, overriding the effect of cortisol i.e you will switch from fat burning mode to nutrient retention mode…
And depending on how much you ate (it could be as little as 30g) fat burning will decrease…and stay decreased for the rest of the day.
The longer you delay intake of carbs, and hence insulin release, the longer cortisol will continue to release fat to keep up with energy needs.
But don’t you need carbs to be converted into glycogen and stored in your muscles to provide energy for training? And, if you’re not eating carbs until night….when insulin sensitivity is low and hence nutrient storage is reduced, how do you replenish those glycogen stores to avoid tanking at training the next day due to lack of energy?
Enter GLUT’s – a group of proteins that actually do the carrying of sugar into your cells. There are a whole range of GLUT’s, but the important ones are 4 and 12 – known as tGLUT – which are found in skeletal muscle. So, insulin brings the sugar to your cells, tGLUT carries the sugar inside your cells. Increasing insulin levels causes an increase in tGLUT .
Unfortunately fat cells also contain plenty of tGLUT, hence your muscles suck in nutrients, but so do your fat stores.
Ok, enough of the sciency stuff – we’re growing muscle but still growing fat at this point, how do we separate out the muscle growth without the fat storage?
This is where the resistance training is important…and not just any old resistance training either – this only works with hypertrophic resistance training.
Because (and this is the magic bit) hypertrophic resistance training triggers a whole host of cellular reactions within muscle including non insulin based elevation of tGLUT.
i.e it prepares the muscles to soak up sugar without the need for insulin…
So once sugar does hit your bloodstream, your muscles are already in absorption mode whilst your fat cells have to hang around waiting for insulin levels to rise enough (and hence tGLUT levels) to enable absorption.
Spike insulin levels with hi gi carbs immediately after a resistance workout and your muscles will grab as much of it as they can before your fat cells get a look in…by the time your fat cells are up to speed, insulin levels will be either back to normal or well on their way down, meaning there is less nutrients around for your fat cells to absorb.
Muscle growth without the fat gain!
In fact there’s an even bigger benefit…resistance training not only elevates tGLUT, it increases the concentration of it…so not only it is more active, there’s more of it to activate and hence absorb more sugar, faster for more growth!
Too slow fat cells!
So your muscles get filled with glycogen, your fat cells are crying, your insulin levels have spiked and returned to normal so it doesn’t affect your growth hormone production whilst you sleep. You wake up in fat burning mode, don’t eat for a while, train at the appropriate time using up all that glycogen from the night before and repeat!
But what about being hungry in the morning? Well this was the bit I was concerned about – I wake up and I’m HUNGRY. In fact I wake up BECAUSE I’m hungry.
This is where, when I started reading about Carb backloading, I noticed a number of similarities with another protocol I’ve been wanting to try out – the Bulletproof diet.
On the Bulletproof diet, you also don’t eat until about lunchtime, then you eat what you like as long as its clean, unprocessed whole foods, low gi fruit, lean protein and good fats. All the stuff I usually eat, but it’s the ‘don’t eat breakfast’ bit that I wasn’t sure about.
Both these diets turn to coffee and fat, specifically Medium Chain Triglyceride oil (MCT) or Coconut milk which is about 3/5 MCT oil. MCT oil is a rapidly absorbed fat that converts nicely into ketones…which your body can happily use for energy…remember what we said at the beginning about cortisol releasing triglycerides for metabolization…
So on waking up – coffee with 2 tsp MCT oil – kills hunger, fat doesn’t affect insulin levels so you stay in fat burning mode. Combination of caffeine and ketones provides plenty of energy that lasts for hours.
Mid morning – another bulletproof coffee.
Lunchtime – proper meal of protein, fibrous veggies/salad and good fats – NO CARBS
Mid afternoon – snack protein and fat – NO CARBS
Pre-Workout – 10g WPI, another bulletproof coffee
Intra Workout – 10g WPI, 5g Leucine (or BCAA’s – enough to ensure you get 5g Leucine)
Post workout – 20g WPI + 20-40g CARBS! Preferably very hi gi – raw glucose is ideal here or an overripe banana
Dinner – protein + veggies/salad + something heavy and carby e.g steak and chips, pizza, doughnuts, ice cream, cake, mashed potato, muffin.
How many carbs? Well that depends on your weight and body fat leves and in my case for my weight – up to 90g of carbs.
So the key points of carb backloading are:
- Skip breakfast – have a bulletproof coffee
- Avoid eating carbs for as long as possible – less than 30g/day up to the post workout loading phase
- Eat protein, good fats, fibrous veggies up to the loading phase
- Train at or around 5pm
- Load up on starchy carbs post workout and at dinner (NOT all night tho, don’t be a pig!)
Well, that’s not ALL of it, there is a lot more detail to it for instance what if you don’t/can’t train at the optimum time of 5pm, what do you do on days off, specific supplements – e.g fish oil, creatine, casein – all at specific times and quantities, and getting yourself into ketogenic mode to start with (I’m already there as that is what my comp diet is) but I’ve outlined the essentials.
Now I realise at this point, this diet would seem to fly in the face of my usual approach to diet – skipping meals, relying on fat and coffee then chowing down crappy carbs? Where’s the huge quantities of real food that I usually get through – well its still there, during the low carb part of the day, and within the protocol I’m going to try and keep it as close to what I normally would eat as possible. For example I could have things like muffins, ice cream, fries for crappy carbs but I’m going to try and keep it to things like the overripe bananas, grapes, higher gi veggies like sweetcorn, white rice, mashed potatoes (no butter or milk). I will have my usual refeed night of steak and chips or pizza once a week and for the lo carb part of the day I’ll stick to comp diet – meat and mountains of green veg.
I’m going to set my total calorie limit at 2200 to start with – about 200-300 above what I’ve been on recently to allow resetting, but not too much so that I do start to put on too much on fat – that starts at about 2500cals – and I’m going to try it for 8 weeks, since that was roughly the amount of time last year it seemed to take my body to reset itself. I will put on some fat but I’m really hoping that it’s no more than 2-3kg.
What I am hoping is that by specifically eating hi gi carbs and quite a lot of them, I will be able to avoid the raving sugar beast mode. I know that sounds counter intuitive – eat crap carbs to avoid craving carbs and eat them at night, and I fully expect scepticism from the majority of people. But it appeared that I stumbled onto something last year and my curiosity led me to discovering that there is a formal protocol. And now seems to be the logical time to give it a whirl. With my goal of holding off season at less than I did last year whilst re-adjusting and then moving into another growth phase…who knows this really could be that holy grail.
And here’s another thing – if this does work, then because it involves being in a ketogenic state, it will dovetail nicely into my comp prep next year – I’ll just drop the crap carbs and hey presto! Instant comp diet. Easy.
Keep you posted!