Healthy Men on Low Carb – building muscle while burning fat

Much of the time in podcast interviews and in articles, I highlight the particular challenges that women face, especially when it comes to losing fat without losing muscle, but women aren’t my only clients.  I also help  healthy middle aged and older men who want to lose weight and gain muscle, and young men who want to gain muscle and shed excess fat, as well as those who are metabolically unwell and who have much weight to lose. The amount of protein, fat and carbohydrates that is best for each of these groups of people will depend on multiple individual factors; including their age, activity level and whether they are insulin sensitive or insulin resistant and whether they are taking any medications.

Much to the frustration of their women friends, men — whether young, middle aged or older often lose weight fairly easily and it often doesn’t matter whether they add protein or fat, provided they cut their carb intake. If men want to lose body fat however, adding lots of extra dietary fat doesn’t make much sense.  Generally women need to be more diligent with respect to how much added fat is in their diet and find reaching their goal easier when focusing on good sources of leaner protein— especially when they are peri- or post-menopausal, when the tendency to lose muscle mass along with body fat is a concern.

One common theme amongst my male clients is that regardless of age, they often want to build muscle along with reducing their body fat but don’t necessarily have lots of time to dedicate to going to the gym. What I’ve noticed in practice is that this often occurs quite naturally provided their muscles are challenged regularly. It doesn’t necessarily need to be engaging in ‘resistance training’ or ‘weight strengthening’ but can be as mundane as engaging in tasks under a weight-bearing load.  I’ve seen quite a number of men of all ages who have been able build muscle while losing excess body fat simply by the work that they do in labour jobs, as well as those that spend their leisure time being modestly active in activities such as camping and hunting.

This post documents the progress of one healthy young man in his mid-twenties who initially wanted to follow a low carb lifestyle in order to lose a bit of excess body fat, and who hoped to ‘tone up’ in the process. With his permission, I’ll share what he’s been able to accomplish by changing nothing other than what he ate.

Note: Individual results following this or any dietary plan differ. This article simply documents what one person accomplished and how.

Two years ago, a young man who I’ll call “Nathan” was slightly overweight, with a BMI (body mass index) of 25.6. His height was 5 foot 6 inches-and-a bit-tall and he weighed 160 pounds. He wasn’t what anyone would have described as “overweight”, in fact, he was unremarkably average for his age. Nathan worked as a carpenter, so while he was used to engaging in regular weight-bearing activity it was not what one would think of as extremely demanding.

When I first assessed Nathan, his waist was 37 – 3/4 inches when measured halfway between his lowest rib and the top of his hip bone, his hips were 41 – 1/2 inches and he wore size 32 pants.

The photo on the left is a photo that is fairly close to what he looked liked 23 months ago.

Nathan’s diet was healthy by conventional standards — breakfast was a bowl of whole grain cereal with 2% milk, a cup of coffee with 2% milk and a piece of fruit. Lunch was usually a sandwich or a sandwich and a half made on whole-grain bread which consisted of anything from lean cold cuts or cheese and lettuce, to peanut butter, sliced banana and a drizzle of honey. At lunch, he would usually eat a piece of fruit. Dinner was usually some kind of lean protein with rice or potato or a plate of pasta with sauce, or perogies and sausage, along with some type of salad and usually a cooked vegetable, too. He rarely ate “junk food” — having an aversion to it from having worked at a fast-food restaurant during high school, but tended to enjoy ‘treats’ such as ice cream, a chocolate bar, or a slice or two of pumpkin pie a few times per week. Before bed he would usually have a large glass of chocolate milk, made with 2% milk and some chocolate syrup. There was nothing particularly remarkable about his dietary intake except perhaps that it was incredibly ‘average’, even healthier than most.

Except for being slightly overweight and a little insulin resistant, Nathan was in good health. He wanted to lean out and maybe put on a bit of muscle and while he intended to work out with free weights at home, that never ended up occurring as he worked full time and began attending school two night per week, and studying occupied much of his spare time.

I started Nathan on a moderate low-carb diet and over the first few months we lowered his carbohydrates down to around 50 gm per day, which is usually a ketogenic level for men.

He never counted ‘macros’ (grams of protein, carbs and fat) but rather focused on building his meal around good quality lean protein, the fat that came naturally with his protein source, and plenty of non-starchy vegetables. I encouraged him to eat enough so that at the end of the meal he felt satisfied, but not “stuffed”. When it came to added fat, I explained that if he liked the skin on chicken when it was fresh off the barbecue to go ahead and enjoy it, but if he didn’t really like it if the chicken was was cooked in the oven or on top of the stove, then to eat it without the skin and explained something similar when it came to meat; remove the excess fat trim or ‘fat cap’ before grilling a steak, but then enjoy the steak with the fat that came with it. Nathan rarely added cream, butter or oil at the table, but would be very generous with adding a good quality olive oil on salad. He often topped his salad with pumpkin seeds and a healthy handful of Parmesan curls, and when available a few berries.

Breakfast was almost always some form of eggs (almost always 3) and several slices of cooked breakfast meat or an omelette with fresh veggies and cheese — something he never seemed to tire of.  If after his egg and meat breakfast, he was still hungry, he would open a few cans of tuna or salmon and mix them up with a good quality avocado oil mayonnaise and eat that too. He liked a big breakfast because in his work, he wasn’t always able to stop to eat, but when he did, lunch was almost always a reheated container of leftovers from a supper meal which included protein and non-starchy vegetable. Dinner was usually 6 oz or more of some kind of meat, fish or poultry along with non-starchy vegetables (cooked and/or raw) and the occasional serving of whole-food carbohydrate in the form of cooked yam, winter squash or a 1/2 cup of berries on top of a mixed green salad. When freshly barbecued burgers were on the menu for dinner, Nathan admitted to eating 3 or 4 of those, wrapped in a lettuce leaf “bun” and topped with a slice of fresh tomato and dill pickle, along with a big side salad, as described above. If he could, he’d forego the salad and eat just burgers wrapped in lettuce and stuffed with pickle (and skip the tomato). His food wasn’t complicated, but it was real, whole food with the simplest of preparation. Nathan was encourage to eat until he was satiated and to avoid snacking between meals or after dinner, with the exception of an ounce or two of 72% dark chocolate immediately after dinner. Admittedly, he often at more than an ounce or two of dark chocolate on the weekend and sometimes indulged in some “low carb” ice cream.

Even though he had a scale at home, Nathan literally never weighed himself.  He bought smaller sized pants and shirts after about 6 months, when adding more holes to his belt wasn’t enough. He kept doing the same amount of physical activity as he did before (mostly at his job) but noted how much easier those tasks became and how he could carry more without effort and without getting more tired. After almost 2 years of adopting a low carbohydrate lifestyle, Nathan asked me for a “weigh in” and to have me take measurements, which provided some very interested data. Most of the weight loss occurred in the first 6 months, but according to Nathan the muscle changes occurred gradually in the months following. With his permission, I am sharing those here.

In 23 months of doing nothing different but eating low carb (mostly higher lean animal protein with moderate fat), this was Nathan’s progress;

Weight lost: 22 pounds
Waist (inches): -6.5 inches
Hips (inches): -5.5 inches
Body Fat: from 15.7% to 7.7%

Nathan is not the type person who is interested in posting photos of himself without a shirt, but he certainly could do so with pride.  He is now muscular with a defined chest and abdominal muscles, with little discernible fat. His  BMI is 22.1, and for his height his muscle to fat ratio is excellent.  Nathan didn’t deliberately “work out” in any way— only continued in his trade as a carpenter, while eating low carb, higher protein and the fat that came naturally with his protein source. I’ve observed other male clients to have made impressive progress in weight loss and muscle gain when combining a low carb diet with resistance training, but what I found quite remarkable with Nathan was the change in his body composition given the only thing he changed was how he was eating!

If you would like to learn more about how I can help you or a family member achieve and maintain a healthy body weight while building and/or toning muscle, please send me a note using the Contact Me form located on the tab above.

To your good health!

Joy

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LEGAL NOTICE: The contents of this blog, including text, images and cited statistics as well as all other material contained here (the “content”) are for information purposes only.  The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, medical diagnosis and/or treatment and is not suitable for self-administration without the knowledge of your physician and regular monitoring by your physician. Do not disregard medical advice and always consult your physician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or before implementing anything  you have read or heard in our content.

 

 

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Author: Joy Kiddie, MSc, RD

Joy Y Kiddie MSc., RD - I'm a Registered Dietitian in private practice in British Columbia, Canada that provides low carb and ketogenic services in-person in my Coquitlam office, as well as by Distance Consultation (using Skype / telephone).