Virtually every successful bodybuilder or fitness model has a top-notch nutrition coach in their corner.

Now these coaches aren't your garden-variety nutritionists that give you a food pyramid and tell you to follow a "healthy diet." These guys are more like masters of manipulating nutrient levels to get a specific, visual, physical effect, and they're employed by even the most studious physique competitors to take the guesswork out of their nutrition plan.

While it might surprise you that even professionals still need nutritional guidance, keep in mind that athletes just want to focus on "doing" – training, eating, and resting – and let the coach worry about all the why's and how's of getting them into their best shape possible.

T-Nation: Shelby, gurus like Charles Poliquin and Jonny Bowden hate egg whites, saying a healthy individual should eat whole eggs. But every dieting coach I see uses egg whites in their meal plans. What do you think?

Shelby Starnes: Egg whites vs. whole eggs? Why discriminate? I use both versions in fat loss and muscle gain plans.

Whole eggs are an excellent source of protein and healthy fats, especially if you get omega 3 eggs (eggs from chickens that have been fed omega 3-enhanced feed). Whole eggs also offer a host of vitamins (including vitamin E), minerals, and lecithin that's tough to beat.

So why not just stick to whole eggs completely? Calories, my friend. Whether you like to count them or not, your body counts them; so swapping whole eggs for egg whites as a diet progresses is a relatively easy & painless way to cut calories to allow continuing fat loss.

That said, I rarely suggest eating strictly egg whites. I typically recommend one whole egg for every 6 egg whites. That's still an acceptably lean protein source, and offers a more favorable nutrient profile than just straight pasty egg whites.

T-Nation: I am about 6' tall, 319lbs and around 23-25% body fat. I am looking to shed as much fat as possible without losing muscle/strength; actually building up a bit, if that's possible.

Do you think it's possible to lose body fat while still having carbs in the diet or is it more productive to go into a high protein/moderate fat/low carb diet? Any advice you can share is appreciated.

Marc Bartley Before and After

Shelby Starnes: It is definitely possible to lose body fat while still having carbs in the diet - I do it all the time with myself and with my clients.

As long as you're cycling your carb and setting up the diet properly (i.e. not consuming too many or too few carbs, protein, and fat), you will definitely lose fat while retaining muscle, and also very likely getting stronger.

Carbohydrate allows you to continue training hard. It also controls the body's insulin levels - and insulin is a very anabolic and anti-catabolic hormone. Proper insulin management / manipulation is a HUGE factor in losing fat while maintaining (and even gaining) muscle.

Don't be afraid of carbs - just be afraid of mismanaging them. A good general rule is to keep carbs in your first meal or two of the day, and also in the peri-workout window.

T-Nation: Shelby, I've read a lot about artificial sweeteners. Some authorities say they're fine, while others make it seem like even moderate doses are bad news. From your perspective as a physique coach, what's your opinion of artificial sweeteners? And do they make you hold water?

Shelby Starnes: In a carb-based diet, I think they're fine. I use quite a bit of Equal (Aspartame) and Splenda (Sucralose) when I carb cycle, and obviously allow my clients to do the same. On a very low carb (aka keto) diet one must be wary of the packets of artificial sweetener as they contain a small amount of maltodextrin as a binder, so if you use a lot of these packets a day, the trace carbs will add up. But a couple packets per day is fine.

As for water retention, artificial sweeteners shouldn't cause any water retention and can even be used right up to the day of a bodybuilding show.

T-Nation: Hey Shelby, hands down, what is the best way to eat to lose fat and maintain mass? Carb cycling? Ketogenic dieting? Cyclical Keto diets?

Shelby Starnes: All the aforementioned have their advantages and disadvantages, and I use them with my clients depending on the situation.

Generally speaking, I prefer using a carb cycling approach both for fat loss as well as muscle gain as it allows us to take advantage of the powerful effects of insulin. But for some individuals (those with very slow metabolisms and a lower insulin sensitivity), insulin must be "kept quiet" pretty much all the time for efficient fat loss. For these folks, more of a low-carb Keto approach may be indicated.

Another reason I prefer carb cycling is that it allows for a much greater variety of food choices which tends to keep dieters from getting bored, and everyone knows what a bored dieter ends up doing...

A good example of how I set up a carb cycling diet can be found here.

T-Nation: Shelby, I'm really confused about cardio. I have to do it to get lean when I'm dieting, and I accept that, but it's the off-season that confuses me. What do you recommend for cardio in the off-season for guys wanting to gain mass but still maintain acceptable bodyfat levels? A bit of steady state, plus a bit of HIIT? The dreaded "it depends"?

Shelby Starnes: I generally have my clients do 3 to 4 sessions of cardiovascular work per week in the off-season, not only to help stay lean but also as a form of active recovery. Moderate intensity cardio (65-70% of heart rate max) constitutes the bulk of it (preferably done in the morning on an empty stomach), but one or sometimes even two high intensity interval sessions per week can be a good idea, especially for those that are not "metabolically gifted."

If a client needs more then 3-4 sessions per week to stay lean, they probably need to reassess their diet and whether or not they should really be in an "off-season" mode.

Here's an example of how I might have a client set up their training and cardio during the off-season, mixing High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) with Steady State (SS) cardiovascular work:

  • Monday:
  • AM: off
  • PM: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
  • Tuesday:
  • PM: off
  • Wednesday:
  • AM: off
  • PM: Back, Biceps
  • Thursday:
  • AM: 30 mins SS CV
  • PM: off
  • Friday:
  • AM: off
  • PM: Quads, Hamstrings, Calves
  • Saturday:
  • AM: 30 mins SS CV
  • PM: off
  • Sunday:
  • AM: 30 mins SS CV
  • PM: off

T-Nation: I've heard about dieting "mini-breaks" for years, but now everyone is talking about off-season "mini-diets." When and how do you implement a mini-diet during an off-season phase?

Shelby Starnes: Mini-diets are implemented during the off-season if body fat starts getting too high, and insulin sensitivity starts getting too low. What I typically do is implement a two to four week diet, similar to a pre-contest diet (but without a drastic increase in cardio) to drop some of the bloat, lose a bit of fat, and regain some insulin sensitivity. Depending on your metabolism and your diet you may want to do this as frequently as every six to 8 weeks, or as infrequently as every 12 to 16 weeks.

These periodic mini-diets also have the added benefit of setting one up for a small anabolic rebound when they resume their normal off-season diet.

If you cycle your training (de-loading or "cruising" every handful of weeks) like many do, the de-load weeks provide a great opportunity to reduce calories a bit and take advantage of this rebound effect.

T-Nation: What do you feel is an acceptable bodyfat percentage for a natural bodybuilder trying to gain mass? Also, how do you get past the "mental bloat" that an off-season diet sometimes brings?

Got bloat

Shelby Starnes: I don't really go by body fat percentages. The general guideline I use is to always keep an outline of your abs visible.

It really depends on the individual, though. For someone who is not naturally very lean, I wouldn't expect them to try to stay "leaner than normal" during the off-season, as that would interfere with optimal gains.

Still, I always keep the abdominal outline as a general guideline.

As for off-season bloat, it's just something that most have to learn to push through to make appreciable gains from year to year.

I'll admit though that deep in the off-season, when bloat is at its highest, is one of my least favorite times of the year. That's why, strange as it may sound, I always welcome a pre-contest diet.

In fact, I usually plan on periodic "mini-diets" during my off-season (as mentioned in a question above), to drop some of the bloat, lose a bit of fat, and regain some insulin sensitivity. This also sets me up for a nice little rebound when I resume off-season eating.

T-Nation: Do you think it's possible to achieve a great bodybuilding physique without bulking or cutting stages? Am I foolish to try to stay lean all year round and slowly add muscle? I'm not a fitness model or anything; I just feel better when I'm leaner. But I still want to make progress! Help!

Shelby Starnes: It depends on what your definition of "a great bodybuilding physique" is, and also what your genetics are like.

It takes calories to build muscle, just like it takes bricks and mortar to construct a building.

If you aren't giving your body enough calories to grow (calories BEYOND what it takes to maintain your current physique), then it won't build new muscle despite how you train.

That's not to say that you need to get fat to grow muscle, but you do need to provide a surplus of calories (from the right macronutrients) so your body is in the best position possible to grow.

Unless you have incredible genetics, or unless you consider an Abercrombie and Fitch model to be a "great bodybuilding physique," I would advise you not worry about trying to stay crazy lean year round. The people who do so are the ones who end up looking exactly the same after years and years of hard work.

Just train hard and provide your body with a caloric surplus of nutritious food while following my "ab outline" guideline from above. You can always scale back your calories or schedule a mini-diet if your conditioning starts to suffer. Remember, gaining mass and losing fat are two very different horses; and you can't ride two horses with one ass.

T-Nation: Okay Shelby, bottom line: Milk: good or bad when bulking? What about dieting? And what about cottage cheese? I make these cottage cheese + Metabolic Drive + natural peanut butter puddings that put DQ to shame.

Shelby Starnes: I never use milk and I don't allow my clients to either. Lactose is just not a good carb source, not to mention many people are allergic to it. Casein and whey are exceptional protein sources though, but get them on their own (in high quality powders like Biotest Metabolic Drive) without the fat and lactose found in milk.

As for cottage cheese, again I think casein powder would be a better choice as it has the lactose removed. This recommendation would apply both for fat loss and muscle gain scenarios.

That being said, the average Joe who's just trying to look better naked would probably fare alright with a bit of cottage cheese in their diet. And if that yummy Metabolic Drive- cottage cheese concoction satisfies your cravings enough to keep you out of the DQ parking lot, then I'm all for it.

As a nutritional consultant and coach, my goal is always "exceptional," never "average." If you were my client, at some point I would suggest ditching the training wheels and see what you could accomplish without comfort foods like peanut butter and cottage cheese.

T-Nation: I'm 200lbs and about 20% bodyfat. How long do you think it would take for me to drop to 10-12% and then gain lean mass until I'm 200lbs again (but this time at 10-12% bodyfat)? And what's the best way to approach such a goal? Thanks in advance for your help.

Shelby Starnes: That's a lofty goal, but certainly not unattainable with the right approach.

A transformation of that magnitude would entail losing a substantial amount of fat, and gaining approximately 20 pounds of muscle. In other words, it would be a very drastic visual change.

The first thing you need to realize is that there are a lot of factors involved here such as gender, age, metabolism, training style, training age, supplementation, etc. So a cookie cutter answer is obviously out of the question.

That being said, the best approach would definitely be to get your body fat down to the 10-12% range first (or possibly even leaner), then keep it around there while you slowly build your weight back up.

As for a time-frame, I would be very surprised to see it done in less than 18-24 months, and wouldn't be surprised if it took longer than 3 years. And that's doing everything right, every day of the year.

But don't be discouraged. Everyone starts somewhere, so get at it!

T-Nation: I love fruit, and I hate having to yank it from my diet. Is that really necessary?

Shelby Starnes: Generally speaking, not at all. Whether or not you can have your fruit all depends upon the type of diet you're following. Obviously, fruit is a no-go on a zero carb diet, but in a carb-based diet like carb cycling it can definitely have its place. Despite their sweet taste, most fruits are surprisingly low in the glycemic index, and the fact that they don't contain a lot of calories makes their glycemic load low as well. They're also chock full of vitamins and minerals, something many lifters don't pay much attention to.

I always get suspicious whenever someone suggests that it's the fruit in their diet that's making them fat. I've seen a lot of crazy things in my time, but I've yet to encounter anyone whose admitted to polishing off a bag of apples while watching Dancing with the Stars...