December is a tricky month for bodybuilders, and for the more OCD members of the iron fraternity it can be a carb & fat minefield. Usually the indulgence kicks off in late November with a few 10,000 calorie feasts, followed by a month of family dinners and calorie-laden get-togethers with friends. (We won't even mention the office Christmas party that featured Irish coffees, a photocopier, and Grace, the 22-year old accounting temp.)

All that holiday indulgence usually means fat-loss diets are kicked into high-gear January 1st (or 2nd or 3rd, depending upon how hung over you are). But while many T NATION readers can set-up and jump on a diet with relative ease, how successful these dieters are depends on how well you navigate the bumps along the way.

Virtually every successful bodybuilder or fitness model has a top-notch nutrition coach in their corner to help them avoid the pitfalls and show up in winning shape. And Shelby Starnes of Troponin Nutrition is one of the most respected coaches in the business.

So without further ado, we bring you installment number two of Nutritional Leverage with Shelby Starnes.

T-Nation: Shelby, I'm like a Terminator on my diet. No cravings, no discipline issues, I'm a rock...till about 8 pm. Then the carb cravings kick in and I have to restrain myself from destroying a box of Fig Newtons. What can I do to help with this? My coach said just to drink Diet Coke and go to bed, but even my 7 year old stays up until 11 watching TV.

Shelby Starnes: You watch too much TV my friend. And who the hell let's their 7-year old stay up until 11?

It's shocking that you need a license to drive a car, but any fool with an erection is somehow qualified to become a father.

What was your question again? Oh yes, evening munchies. That's a common problem, especially those who use stimulants. You see, stimulants curb appetite nicely, but you shouldn't take them later in the day to prevent developing insomnia. So in the evening, you're forced to deal with hunger without the stimulant crutch.

Here are some tips to stave off the evening munchies:

  • Include some healthy fat in your last meal of the day. This will not only help slow the digestion of the protein in the meal, but also keep you satiated for longer.
  • Drink carbonated drinks. Your coach was right—Diet Coke (or any other carbonated drink) can definitely help. The carbonation keeps your stomach full. I would personally opt for a caffeine free option though, like a carbonated flavored water drink, Diet 7-Up, or Diet Sprite.
  • Stay busy / occupied. Start a project that keeps your mind occupied in the evenings (and off of food). My friend Justin always starts making something every time he starts a diet; one year he built a deck in his backyard, the next year a rocking horse for his daughter. It sounds rather simplistic, but keeping your mind busy and challenged can help you forget about food.
  • And finally, stop watching so much evening TV. Mindless snacking during network TV commercial breaks has sabotaged many a diet. Think about it—you're hungry, and you're sitting on your arse like a zombie, being bombarded by a constant stream of sales pitches for burger joints, pizza delivery, and 5-dollar foot longs. Why torture yourself?

Besides, I get the impression both you and your poor kid could use a break from Jon and Kate Plus 8.

T-Nation: The market by my house has started selling grass-fed beef. It's more expensive, like twice as much, but I hear it's better for you. Considering I eat a lot of beef every day, should I just stick with grain-fed beef cause it's cheaper, or grass-fed cause it's healthier?

Shelby Starnes: Grass-fed beef certainly has its advantages. It's higher in omega 3s (ALA, DHA, EPA), CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), vitamin A, vitamin E, and also typically lower in saturated fat than the grain and corn-fed beef typically found in supermarkets.

The question is really, "How much better is grass fed beef?" and, "Is this difference worth the additional expense?"

If you look at the omega 3 content, grass fed beef has about 25mg. per ounce, while corn fed has about 15mg. (both these values can vary, depending on the particular cow, the environment, etc.).

While significant from a purely mathematical standpoint (roughly 60% more omega 3's per ounce in the grass fed beef), in reality this difference is marginal at best. Really, we're talking 10 measly milligrams here; cows just aren't a rich source of omega 3's regardless of their diet. Salmon, by comparison, has about 250mg per ounce.

So in terms of omega-3s, my advice is to not stress about getting your EFAs from meat and simply eat more salmon and take a fish oil supplement like Biotest Flameout™.

As for CLA content, it's significantly higher in grass-fed beef than corn-fed, as much as five times more. Though human studies with CLA are still in their infancy, CLA has been shown to reduce fat mass (albeit somewhat modestly) in humans.

Editor's note: Biotest's Flameout™ also contains appreciable amounts of two different CLA isomers.

Bottom line: If you can find an affordable source and can spare the additional expense, grass-fed beef certainly has its benefits. If you're on a budget though, stick with what you can afford. After all, tons of great physiques have been built on grain-fed beef.

T-Nation: Shelby, I love stimulants, but if I have anything that contains caffeine after 3 o'clock, I'm counting sheep till the wee hours. What else can I use?

Shelby Starnes: Those who tolerate caffeine-based stimulants can't imagine dieting without them, and for good reasons. A quality stimulant provides the calorie-deprived lifter a much-needed energy boost and increases mental focus, all while keeping hunger at bay. Add in a nice boost to the metabolic rate and you can see why stimulants have such a loyal following.

That being said, it seems like half the population are either extremely insensitive to caffeine (can drink a case of Diet Mountain Dew and fall asleep) while the other half is the exact opposite: a cup of coffee at lunch-time will keep them up until 4 in the morning.

For those in the latter category, all is not lost. There are alternatives that might just fit the bill.

L-tyrosine. Tyrosine is a very cool amino acid that is especially helpful during periods of stress and fatigue (such as a diet). It is a precursor to neurotransmitter production, and is also linked to norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline) production. L-tyrosine is also linked to thyroid production and supplementing with it can help correct hypothyroidism.

Suggested dosing: 500-3,000mg, 1 to 3 times per day (pre-cardio and pre-workout).

Acetyl l-carnitine (ALCAR). ALCAR is an acetylated form of l-carnitine. Like l-carnitine, it is involved in the metabolism of energy (from food), and helps transport fat through the cell membrane into the mitochondria, where it is used as fuel. ALCAR's acetyl group helps support the production of acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter in both the peripheral and central nervous systems. It also stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter commonly associated with the "pleasure, reward, and motivation" centers of the brain.

Suggested dosing: 500-1500mg, 1 to 3 times per day (pre-cardio and pre-workout).

Green tea

Green Tea Extract. Aside from its many health benefits (including being an excellent antioxidant as well as an anti-carcinogen), green tea has a host of powerful effects that make it very helpful for dieting, including burning fat directly (via beta oxidation), increasing metabolism, and improving insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance.

Green tea, along with Rhodiola rosea, is in a class of natural substances known as adaptogens, known for their ability to help the body combat stress and fatigue as well as 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 labels carefully.

For dosing purposes, I recommend getting 200-400mg of EGCG, 1 to 3 times per day (pre-cardio and pre-workout especially).

Drinking green tea (as opposed to taking it in pill form) 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.

It would also be wise to take a supplement to help with sleep, like Biotest's ZMA® or Z-12™. Supplements that facilitate sleep aren't sexy, but whether you're trying to bulk up or get ripped, a good night's sleep is essential to making progress. Time and resources spent maximizing sleep are a rock-solid investment.

T-Nation: Shelby, how important is dietary fiber? I keep reading I should eat something like 40-50g a day, and I doubt if I get half of that in. Should I take an inulin fiber supplement like Benefiber? What about other fiber sources?

Shelby Starnes: Dietary fiber is very important for a host of reasons: it helps regulate blood sugar levels, increases feelings of satiety, improves blood lipid levels, assists in bowel regularity, and reduces the risk of health issues like heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and colon cancer.

Low fiber consumption is very prevalent in developed societies and very likely contributes to the rising level of obesity and obesity-related diseases in these countries.

While dieting, fiber can be a godsend both for its increased feelings of fullness and its blood sugar regulating actions.

To increase your fiber consumption, focus on the following foods:

  • beans
  • oats
  • bran
  • nuts and seeds
  • potatoes and sweet potatoes (leave the skin on!)
  • fruits like apples, pears, berries, and plums
  • vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and green beans

It would also be wise to supplement with something like sugar-free Metamucil (a psyllium-based fiber supplement) at least a couple times a day.

T-Nation: All this talk about insulin sensitivity is confusing. I'm pretty sure I'm carb intolerant. I get sleepy after high carb meals and usually need to get under 100g of carbs a day to see any fat loss. Once and for all, what's a practical way to gauge my insulin sensitivity? Are there any supplements out there that might help?

Shelby Starnes: The proper question is, "Am I insulin resistant?" which is the opposite of being sensitive to insulin.

You want the answer to be no. Insulin resistance means your body doesn't respond to insulin properly (it doesn't use insulin to shuttle glucose to the liver, muscles, and other tissues of the body), and therefore creates more of it than normal (a situation known as "hyperinsulinemia"). This increased insulin production makes it very hard for the body to burn fat.

The quickest and easiest measure of insulin resistance is the mirror; if you look into it and see a fat person (especially a person with an appreciable amount of abdominal fat), it's pretty safe to say you're looking at someone with at least a slight degree of insulin resistance. Photos work nicely, too.

Sometimes insulin resistance is the cause of being overweight though, and sometimes it's the other way around (being overweight can be the cause of insulin resistance). Genetics can play a large role as well; even though insulin sensitivity is improved when you're leaner, your genetics haven't changed, and if your hormonal blueprint leans more towards "carb sensitive" you'll still have to pay close attention to diet and exercise to stay insulin sensitive and subsequently, lean.

So the bottom line is: If you've been on a moderate to high carb diet for longer than a couple months and are starting to pack on weight in a not-so-appealing manner, it's very likely that your insulin sensitivity is suffering, and you would benefit from at least a temporary reduction in carbs to drop some weight and improve your sensitivity.

T-Nation: Shelby, I just saw that Tiger Woods has been cheating on his wife, who just happens to be a gorgeous Swedish swimsuit model. She's hotter than any woman I've ever seen, and he cheats on her- with multiple women! What does that say about me? Am I that much of a loser?

Shelby Starnes: The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Regardless of how good someone has it in life, they'll always want something more, something different. This is human nature.

But yes, you're probably a loser.

Keep reading my articles, though. My methods have an uncanny ability to make winners out of losers.

T-Nation: Bottom line: Cheat meals: how do I know if they're something that would help my diet? I keep reading that they up-regulate leptin or something, but I'm not sure if my leptin is low to begin with! Are they three steps forward/ two steps back?

Shelby Starnes: Whether or not a cheat meal (or a high-carb "refeed") is warranted is based on a variety of factors, including an individual's metabolism, body fat level, how long they've been dieting, how far out from their show they are (if competing), etc.

Utilized properly, and under the right circumstances, they are a great way to stimulate metabolism, refuel glycogen stores, and give some mental relief. But all too often I see guys (and gals) giving themselves a cheat meal because they "think they deserve it." Maybe they completed 8 hours of dieting successfully, or something equally unimpressive. This is obviously a case of a cheat meal being misapplied.

Some signs to look for to indicate a cheat meal or refeed is warranted:

  • fat loss has stagnated
  • weight has dropped significantly in just a few days (indicating too muchglycogen and water loss)
  • body temperature is lower than normal (you feel cold all the time)
  • you feel like complete shit (as opposed to the normal 'sorta shitty' feeling typically felt when dieting)

* Please don't follow your diet for three days, cheat, and then rationalize your lack of discipline by telling yourself that you're "up-regulating your metabolism." A cheat meal or a reefed is a dieting tool that should be employed only when the situation warrants; it's not intended to absolve you of the next-day guilt you feel after demolishing your kid's SpongeBob SquarePants birthday cake on what was supposed to be a low carb day.

But if you really do need to take a cheat meal or refeed, they won't set you back at all. In fact, NOT taking one is what can you set you back!

It's not always about who can diet the hardest; it's about who can diet the smartest!

T-Nation: Shelby, how do you measure bodyfat? What do you think of calipers or those Tanita scales?

Shelby Starnes: I personally don't use body fat measurements to track progress for myself or my clients. I go strictly by photos and the mirror.

Measuring body fat can be a useful tool; not because the numbers are necessarily accurate but because as long as the measurements are consistent, they can provide a good gauge of whether or not your diet and training is providing the results you seek.

Monitoring body fat measurements can also be helpful "mentally" for those who freak out when the scale doesn't budge, when in reality they are replacing adipose with lean tissue.

But the key to making this work is "consistency." In other words, if you get Mikey, the pimply-faced 24 Hour Fitness trainer with all the degrees on his wall to measure your body fat on day one of your diet, get him to do it again on day 7, and day 14, and day 21 etc. How accurate he is at measuring bodyfat isn't that important- it's consistently using the same methods/personnel that's key.

Once you get more serious (or decide to hire me to dial you in), you will need to start taking progress photos. Remember, you're judged on contest day by the shape and condition of your physique, not by how that Tanita scale your wife got you for Christmas says you're 4.267%.