T Nation

Low Carb Diet vs Zero Carb Diet


Hey everyone,

Can you still gain on a low carb diet, and how?

Recently (past couple of months) I have cut a lot of weight by limiting my carbs (and also following a paleo diet where easily possible), I seem to be pretty carb sensitive, pack on the carbs I put on fat quickly, limiting htem I've got quite lean quite quickly... So, because of this, I've been thinking about a zero carb approach.

From my limited understanding - zero carb works as you are in ketogenesis for a few days (eg starvation), your body fuels itself off fat, you train hard, refeed on carbs, your body is happy, you return to zero carb, rinse and repeat. Hence it's possible to gain muscle whilst at the same time, staying lean.

How about low carb? What dyou do after you have trained? You arent in ketogenesis, so you wouldn't need to carb refuel? Or would taking in lots say one day a week screw up the whole low carb idea, because you arent in the ketogenesis state, so really you are just bumping up the intake needlessly? Or would you just not make any gains because you don't have the carbs present after training? Can you gain muscle whilst low carbing?

OR is the best low carb solution to do tabatas/complexes etc to shred yourself after your weights sessions?

On a sidenote, since i've been low(er) carbing, my gut hates me and the toilet gets many (often liquidy) visits.....

If it matters - train bjj 2/3 times a week for 2 hours, lift 2/3 times a week on the off days, no cardio. following a basic progressive 5*5 plan (eg upping %s every set, i just started this so haven't yet started to add weight to the bar)

Finally, I don't want to move to totally zero carb because that means killing fruit / veg intake, which I feel I want to keep right now.

Thanks everyone, always nice to hear what you guys think, I do a lot of lurking here.


Yes it is possible to gain on a low carb diet if your body and genetics are a good match for such a diet. Get your carbs and fiber from veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, and kale among other sources and you shouldn't have any problems with your "toilet visits". I follow a hybrid Paleo Diet and have been gaining just fine, and I never count the carbs from veggies.

In order to gain, you simply need to consume more calories, and if your going low carb, you can turn to extra protein and fats for those calories.

You should still make sure to get some carbs, possibly from fruits, before your workouts, in order to maintain optimal nutrition and keep your engine running. I eat as many veggies as possible and limit my fruit consumption to the morning or pre workout meals.

Poke around with the search function also, as this has been discussed previously and I have to much to take care of at work to give a good in depth answer.


You do not needs carbs. They are non-essential, and you can make gains without them. You can stay in ketosis indefinitely. Your brain, for example, actually fuels itself more efficiently on ketons than sugar. Your body will be just fine. There is no need to re-feed. If you keep the calories high, you will still see gains. Your body can also get more efficient at making ketons.

Some people get irritable while in ketosis. These are usually fat people who have damaged their insulin receptors from a high-carb diet for too long. Their body can't regulate blood sugar on its own correctly anymore.

You also don't need fiber to survive. It's another non-essential. But good sources of fiber (like kale) are also good sources for vitamins and minerals. So make sure you get them somewhere. If you having trouble with your bowels with a lack of fiber it's probably a combination of 1) your body getting used to not having fiber helping it along and 2) eating less than ideal protein and fat sources. I assume you're avoiding it, as most dairy has carbs, but other than cultured dairy, most of it is pretty rough on the bowels. Also, if you are over-cooking your meat, you can really slow things down.

However, you cannot gain optimally without carbs, for a variety of reasons.

Re-feeds are used to restock glycogen, which makes sugar readily available to the blood stream. Any carb you eat will be stored as glycogen and not fat until your "store" is full. Then excess becomes fat. Most low-carb diets the idea is to never let your glycogen stores get full. So you have glycogen that can be used as fuel (instead of ketones), but you're eating carbs at less than maintenance level, so that at some point you will need to "re-feed" to stay out of ketosis, but the carbs you're eating will not be stored as fat.


I agree with what has been said, but also consider this checking out CT's "CARBS: Not as Bad as Many Think When it Comes to Fat Loss" http://tnation.tmuscle.com/free_online_forum/sports_body_training_performance_bodybuilding_thibaudeau/carbs_not_as_bad_as_many_think_when_it_comes_to_fat_loss?id=3736678


edit: I noticed that you asked about gaining, and I was talking about loosing fat. I just want to state that IMO, fat loss diet and muscle gain diet are very similar, one just has more overall calories. If you are carb sensitive, I would add additioanl calories in the form of fat like EVOO and coconut oil, the latter has MCTs and is good post workout for the fast calories that are non-protein, and non-carb.


How much muscle have you built following this approach?

I'm not going to say that carbs are absolutely necessary, but in general more balanced diets are more effective for performance and building muscle over the long term for most people.


I used to be Carb-Phobic myself,.. the general publis jumps at the quick results that you can achieve when your glycogen depleted and not holding as much water as you normally might. I quickly revised my thinking when prepping for my first contest, as the goal was not to just lose weight, but to maintain as much muscle as possible, and that's where carbs will really help you out, even though you're technically trying to lose (and this, in fact will keep your BMR HIGHER!) I'm not saying this is the only way, people can become 'fat adapted', at which point your body will run just fine off of a low carb diet. As far as bulking goes,.. well, to be honest, I haven't known anyone who has really bulked well off of low carbs,... off of 'timed carbs'? Yes, in fact, I keep my own carbs at the moment (my offseason) to specific times of the day,... the rest of the day could be considered low carb, as there really isn't much call for carbs at those times (I'm not really doing much of anything strenuous). Keep in mind that the body views both carbs and fats as fuel sources, so you can set it up to run off of each. Of course everyone is different, so a bit of experimentation is always necessary to some degree.



For me: I cannot gain muscle with low carbs. Not with weekly refeeds (AD). Not with twice-weekly refeeds. Not even with just pre-workout carbs.

As far as the whole "carbs are non-essential" argument: this means you won't die without them. But my brain does not function as well, my sleep is impaired, and my vision deteriorates on low carbs. Eventually, my thyroid and adrenal function decreased as well.

It is nearly impossible to get all the nutrients you need on a low-carb diet, particularly minerals. In studies of ketogenic diets for weight loss, subjects are given minerals and nutrients deficient in the diet. Even the studies that end with recommendations for ketogenic diets state that they are not suitable for those participating in intense athletic activity.

For those who have been on a low carb diet for awhile and then believe carbs easily make them fat, this is true, but it is a transient effect of exaggerated response to insulin, and the water retention. John Berardi's article "Get Unshredded" explains the hormonal effects and how to transition to a diet with more carbs without getting fat in the process.


Thanks for the fast replies - I'll check out all the given links tomorrow and reply.


Using what approach?

I was describing ketosis vs. low carb.


I was looking for your results to support your statement that "You do not needs carbs. They are non-essential, and you can make gains without them."

Except in a few rare exceptions, the people I see making such claims haven't built any muscle.

The same things goes for low-carb diets that require re-feeds.

My experience has shown that such diets are counter productive for the vast majority of athletes, including bodybuilders. Yes, some individuals may be able to perform on such diets, but rarely do they perform optimally while eating this way.

Note: I'm talking about performance and building muscle, not fat-loss.


I was talking about living, not building muscles when I said essential. Also in the post I said that it was not ideal. It just gives you a perspective on the macros to understand that protein and fat are essential, you literally can't live without either, but you don't absolutely needs carbohydrates to survive.


I have an associate who is an accomplished bodybuilder that more or less goes "full-time" low carb, he is big, so in his case it is possible to gain quality muscle with low & no carb plans

have you ever heard of the "spill-over" method of carb adjustment... basically start with zero carbs & start adding 20 grams every 5 days, take a skin caliper reading every morning, when your caliper reading goes up scale back to the carb serving you used prior to the increase in the reading & see how long it takes for your # to drop back down, if carbs are assisting in the acummulation of muscle they are good, accumulation of fat? they are bad (duh!)

over time your threshold of carb intake will change also, more muscle & better conditioning usually means a higher tolerance for carb intake


So did this accomplished bodybuilder GET BIG on full-time low carb?

And "low" can be tremendously different than "no" carb.

"Spill-over" method sounds useless to me. Your caliper reading will go up not because of fat storage but from water retention. That doesn't mean you're storing fat.

And trust me, you're NOT STORING FAT from adding 20 GRAMS OF CARBS EVERY 5 DAYS! This stuff is carb-phobia at its most irrational! Do the math! It's not possible!