BodyBuilding Principles with Shelby Starnes Vol. 3 – Very Low Carb Diets

BodyBuilding Principles with Shelby Starnes Vol. 3 – Very Low Carb Diets

Sure, you can always pick up unsolicited advice from your local locker room guru, but what are the chances of it actually being good advice? Unfortunately, the odds aren’t in your favor.

That’s why we gave renowned nutritionist and successful bodybuilder Shelby Starnes his own column to answer your training and dieting questions. You see, unlike the big guy at your gym, Shelby has worked with hundreds of athletes who are looking for the same thing as you: a ripped, muscular physique.

In this installment, Shelby shares how to transform yourself from a sugar-burning fatty to a fat-burning champ by using Very Low-Carb dieting.

Read it, learn it, and apply it…and then print out a copy and give it to your locker room guru.

Is It Me or the Diet?

Q: Low carb diets always make me feel lousy. Does that mean they aren’t for me?

Shelby: There are a few possibilities here:

You may have the diet set up incorrectly in terms of macronutrient amounts and ratios. Review your diet and make sure that your amounts of protein, carbs, and fat are where they should be. See my Simple Guide to Very Low Carb Diets Guidebook for specific recommendations.

You may not be giving the diet enough time. Switching over from being a “sugar burner” (who predominantly uses glucose from carbohydrate as a fuel source) to being a “fat burner” (who predominantly used fatty acids as a fuel source) takes a while. For some people this transition period is only a couple of days, while for others it may take a week or even longer. Not only must your diet be set up properly (see the first bullet point), but you must also give it enough time to “do its magic.” Once you make the switch from sugar burner to fat burner you will feel a lot better. Your body will feel more stable all of the time, without the constant ups and downs from blood sugar fluctuations associated with a carbohydrate-based diet.

They may indeed not be for you. If you still feel lousy after following a properly setup, very low carb diet for a couple of weeks, it’s very possible that your metabolism is better suited to a diet with more carbohydrates. I would suggest looking into carbohydrate cycling (see this article – Carb Rotation – An In-depth Guide to Personalizing Your Diet).  This another very effective diet style that implements carbohydrates in varying amounts on different days. See my Troponin Nutrition Macronutrient Guidebook for more details.

Too Much Fat = Too Much Fat

Q: Is there a limit to the fat one should be eating during low-carb periods?

Shelby: Yes, it’s definitely possible to consume too much fat on any diet. Although most of the “magic” of a very low carb diet lies in its hormonal and metabolic effects, calories still play a large role.  If you’re consuming too many, your fat loss will be slow to nonexistent.

I personally like to keep fat at about half a gram per pound of lean bodyweight (in pounds).  So if you’re 200 pounds and 15% body fat, your lean body mass would be 170 pounds. Multiply that by .5 to get 85 grams of fat per day (765 calories).

Good fat sources include fish oil, evening primrose oil, olive oil, macadamia nut oil, tree nuts, and animal fats found in eggs, salmon, and grass-fed beef.

Fat as Fuel

Q: Is it true that if you stay on a low-carb diet for long enough and provide your body with enough fats, your body will eventually begin use fat for fuel on a regular basis?

Shelby: Yes, I touched on this a bit in the first question when I discussed the switch from being a “sugar burner” to being a “fat burner”. On a carbohydrate-based diet, the body is accustomed to using glucose (sugar) for fuel, which it gets from the carbohydrates that we eat.

In fact, if you don’t get enough fat in your diet your body will horde its own stores, making it very difficult to lean out.

If you keep carbs low for long enough and also supply your body with enough dietary fat, it will “learn” to use fat as its preferred fuel source.  This is an ideal state, and typically feels much better (mentally as well as physically) than the constant ups and downs associated with the blood sugar fluctuations of a carbohydrate-based diet.

Many people refer to this state as “ketosis”, but in my opinion and experience you don’t have to reach true ketosis for a low carb diet to work. So don’t get caught up in what color your “ketostix” turn when you pee on them. Just keep carbs low and protein and fat at reasonable levels, and in time your body will change from being a “sugar burner” to being a “fat burner”.

As for how long it will take to get into this state? It depends on a host of factors including diet specifics, genetics, hormonal profile, and training specifics (volume, intensity, frequency, etc).

Just Where the Heck Do I Stick the Carbs?

Q: How should carbohydrates be used in a very low carbohydrate diet? Pre-workout?  Post-workout? What if you’re doing post-workout cardio? Also, what are the best carb sources for a very low carb diet?

Shelby: It depends on what variation of a very low carb diet you’re referring to. For the version I outline in my e-book, there are no carbs in the diet except for the weekly refeed in addition to the incidental carbs you get daily in foods like nuts and vegetables. If you’re not ready to go that hardcore yet, try limiting your carbs to just Meal 1 and pre- and post-workout.  Good carb choices include whole food complex sources like oats, brown rice, and sweet potatoes. Low GI fruits like berries, peaches, cherries, and oranges would be all right too, in moderation. If you’re going to include some fruit, I would suggest mixing it with a complex carbohydrate (something like oatmeal and blueberries would be perfect) so you’re not just getting simple sugars.

Regarding post-workout cardio, I always advise waiting until after you finish cardio to have your post-workout meal, regardless of whether it contains carbs or not. You’re in a prime fat-burning state immediately post-workout and want to capitalize on that. Waiting another 30-60 minutes to eat is not going to make you shrivel up and lose all your muscle.

 Good carb choices include whole food complex sources like oats & brown rice

A Very Simple Question for a Very Low-Carb Diet

Q: My question is in regards to fiber. During my refeed I plan to eat one of my favorite carb snacks, which is high-fiber oatmeal. Out of the 36 grams of carbs, 10 are fiber. Do I count these towards my macros for the day?

Shelby: No, only count starches and sugars.

Low Carb in the Off-Season

Q: Do you think low carb diets are effective for lean bulking, or is a more balanced diet more effective

Shelby: You definitely want insulin release in the offseason, so carbs are a must.  How much and when will depend on your individual body type. Too much and you’ll gain fat, too little and you won’t optimize lean gains. The specific numbers can vary greatly from one individual to the next, which is why I never use “cookie cutter” diets with any of my clients – I always start out with a base plan that I think best fits the person’s body type, then monitor and adjust as we go along.

A very simple way to structure offseason carbohydrate intake is to eat more carbs on your training days (especially around your workouts), and less on your rest days.  This type of carb cycling ensures you get carbs when you need them most and minimizes them when you don’t need them, which in turn allows for more fat burning. 

For most people, keeping carbs sky-high day in and day out will only result in massive fat gain.  It might be fun to see the scale moving up every day after a diet, but when you look in the mirror a few months later, don’t be surprised to see all your hard work thrown out the window.

Another option for those that are more carb-sensitive is what is often referred to as a “targeted ketogenic diet”, in which you keep carbs very low during all times except for the pre-, during, and post-workout window. This is another approach that optimizes carb intake at the right times and keeps it very low at others. With this type of approach, you may also need to include a weekly re-feed of some sort, where you eat a high amount of carbohydrate (perhaps two to three grams per pound of bodyweight) for just one day.

As with any diet approach, nothing is set in stone, and you’ll need to experiment, monitor, and adjust as needed to keep things headed in the right direction.

Bottom line: Carbs are not evil, but they are a double-edged sword. They can contribute greatly to anabolism (muscle-building) and anti-catabolism (prevention of muscle breakdown), but they can also inhibit fat burning as well as store fat. Manage them properly to make sure you’re maximizing their benefits and minimizing their detriments.

The Two (Possibly Three) “Must-Have” Supplements

Q: What supplements do you recommend taking on a very low carb diet?

Shelby: Two “must-haves” are essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) and a multivitamin. I also suggest adding a high potency green tea extract for its health benefits and ability to stimulate  metabolism.

Essential Fatty Acids: These are fatty acids that the body cannot make on its own, so they must come from your diet. There are two types of essential fatty acids: omega-3 and omega-6. The omega-3 acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and these are found in fish oils. Omega-6 acids are very prevalent in most diets, but it’s a good idea to supplement with gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which is found in evening primrose oil and also in borage oil.

Suggested dosing: a minimum of 3 grams of fish oil per day, and 2 to 3 grams of evening primrose oil.

Fish Oil is an excellent source of Omega-3 Fatt Acids

Multivitamin: Because fruits and vegetables are minimized on this diet, it’s important to supplement with a daily multivitamin. A fruit and veggie supplement like JuicePlus would be a great addition as well.

Green tea: Known for its numerous health benefits and metabolism-increasing properties,  green tea is an excellent addition to any diet. Green tea is also in a class of natural substances known as adaptogens. Adaptogens are known for their ability to help the body combat stress and fatigue as well as to maintain homeostasis and well-being.

Suggested dosing: The “magic” of green tea is mainly due to its high levels of catechin polyphenols, namely epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Different extracts contain different percentages of EGCG, so read the labels carefully.

For dosing purposes, I recommend getting 200–400 mg of EGCG, 1–3 times per day (pre-cardio and pre-workout especially). Drinking green tea is another way to obtain its benefits and also serves as an excellent appetite suppressant. A cup of hot green tea in between meals is a great way to keep hunger at bay (other calorie-free beverages like black coffee and diet soda will help here too).

Also note that since fiber is pretty scarce on a very low carb diet, it would be advisable to add a couple of servings of a sugar-free fiber supplement per day.  Any psyllium-husk based supplement will do. Take 1 teaspoon mixed in at least 8 ounces of water, twice daily.

Written by Shelby Starnes

Got a question for Shelby? – The next edition will be on Cardio for Fat Loss and Conditioning. You can either post your questions on the forums (Next Q&A: Cardio for Fat Loss and Conditioning) or you can send them via email to Shelby at Be on the look-out for the next installment of his Q and A!

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Bodybuilding Principles with Shelby Starnes – Vol 3 – Very low Carb Diets discussion thread.

About Shelby Starnes

Shelby is a successful National-level Bodybuilder & Powerlifter and has helped hundreds of athletes get into the greatest shape of their lifes.

  • 2009 NPC Central States Championships – 1st place Middleweight and Overall
  • B.A. in Psychology with Departmental Honors – estimated completion May, 2008
  • 2nd place 198-lb class – 2004 APF Michigan State Powerlifting Championships
  • Overall Novice Champion – Motor City Bodybuilding Championships, 2005
  • 2nd place open middleweight- Motor City Bodybuilding Championships, 2005 (nationally qualified)
  • 5th place middleweight – NPC Junior Nationals, 2006

Whether you are a competitive bodybuilder looking for pre contest/off season assistance or simply just striving to achieve a specific physique, Shelby is available to set up custom diet and training programs to suit your goals.

For more information on his diet and training programs and prices, see here.

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