What Can We Learn About Extremes in Diet From A Bodybuilder?

I have a tremendous amount of respect for bodybuilders and figure competitors. What athletes in these sports are able to accomplish and the discipline required to adequately prepare for contests as well as recover in the months afterward is nothing short of amazing. However, there are downsides to reaching some of these extremes in fat loss. In this article we will briefly cover a case study that looked at the physiological effects and consequences associated with contest prep and recovery, and discuss it’s relevance to normal folks like us.

The case study followed a 27 year old male bodybuilder for 6 months leading up to competition and 6 months of recovery from competition. Link to the abstract can be found here. The study tracked numerous parameters leading up to the contest and in the months following the contest. Here are some of the findings: resting heart rate went from 53 BPM down to 26 BPM (too low) leading up to competition, and returned to 46 BPM in the 6 months after competition. Blood pressure went from 132/69 down to 104/56 (too low) and returned to 116/64 after recovery. Predictably, body fat went from 14.8% down to 4.5% then returned to 14.6% in the months following competition (still a healthy level of body fat, but it was all gained back). Strength parameters dropped below baseline, and did not recover to baseline levels following 6 months. Last, but certainly not least, testosterone levels went from 9.22 down to 2.27 (a very significant change in hormonal and metabolic function)!

So how is this relevant to you and me? First, let’s remember that bodybuilders are eating and training to meet very specific goals of maximizing aesthetics. They understand the inherent risks involved in their sport, and understand how unsustainable contest prep can be. This is why many of them periodize their entire year around very few contests to allow themselves ample time to recover. With that said, I found this paper to be relevant to something we have been seeing a lot of in our office (and in the cesspool that is social media) for the past decade.

One of the more alarming trends we have seen more often has been the popularity of counting macros in an attempt to restrict calories and maximize physique and fat loss. For those of you who are unaware, macros refers to macronutrients, carbs, fat, and protein. Numerous online “coaches” charge a good deal of money for nutritional templates that individuals follow that are designed to lower calories and focus in on eating a certain amount of carbs, proteins, and fats. Counting macros is nothing new. Bodybuilders have been weighing and measuring food for years to dial in their nutrition to meet exact parameters needed to achieve their best appearance for the contest stage. In fact, I often count macros while I’m in training for an upcoming race just to ensure I’m eating enough to train well, but not so much that I gain too much weight while training (any runner can tell you the detriment of an extra five pounds when you’re trying to run fast). Macro counting itself is not unsustainable. What is unsustainable is when I have patients tell me what macros they are trying to fit into their day when their only goal is simple weight loss. In the past decade I have encountered more than a handful of people whose goal is weight loss, but they are following a dietary protocol best suited for someone in serious training for an upcoming contest. Worse yet, some of these online “coaches” encourage people to follow these protocols for long sustained periods of time. Dr. Anna and myself have seen people follow some of these “plans” and end up: losing hair, losing their menstrual cycle, develop weak and brittle fingernails, suffering significant drops in testosterone levels, develop insomnia, develop thyroid disfunction and many more. We have even encountered people who have been following a 1200 calorie a day diet for periods up to ten months. Folks, go back a few paragraphs and read what happened to the male in the case study. It didn’t end well for him. Severe caloric restrictions for a long period of time HAS NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES. PERIOD. Diets that effectively mimic starvation are not good for you. Yes, they will produce weight loss, but at what cost?

So, what do we recommend? In short, the first recommendation we make is that your approach is sustainable and easy to adhere to FOR A LIFETIME. (Hint: fad diets generally don’t fall into that category). Second, we aim to teach you to create a SLIGHT caloric deficit that you are able to maintain FOR A LIFETIME. Not a severe restriction, just a 5-10% caloric restriction.

The lesson we can learn from this is that dietary extremes and crash diets will cause short term fat loss, however, as we saw in the case study there a multitude of potential negative metabolic and physiologic consequences that take years to recover from.

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