Can slow carb get you below 10% bodyfat?

This is a controversial question, for a few reasons. But that’s not going to stop me writing this article. I am taking a very hard look at the slow carb diet, for one simple reason: I have a goal. Much like anyone else’s goals, it has been set, and I am working to achieve it. But that doesn’t stop any of us considering that there might be a better way than what we are currently doing. So, in this article, I will look at the slow carb diet with a more focused goals than simply ‘fat loss’, and decide if slow carb is the right option if your aim is to get into muscle-defining bodyfat percentages.

At first, my gut told me that it was unlikely slow carb was the best choice.

Why? Simple prejudices of mine counted against it. For starters, most people who cut into those single-digit bodyfat numbers do so by being a lot more meticulous with their food than simply eating 4 meals a day and not thinking much about calories, or energy expenditure.  Maybe my expectation that getting into those numbers is ‘very hard’ meant I assumed that it meant it took a lot of effort to match up to the difficulty. Secondly, there have been some people who write in to us and explain that they feel like they’ve hit a plateau, somewhere around the 5 lb-to-go mark, which got me thinking. Thirdly, the book itself has a chapter dedicated to ‘The Last Mile” which indicates much, much more strict eating plans that slow carb, and explains that this is what’s needed to lose the last 5-10lbs.

Now, here’s a prime example to me of how things can be a little misleading, or misunderstood in the book. I have a feeling, having read those chapters, that the last 5-10lbs being talk about, could be 5 or 10 lbs on a bodybuilder, who might be 220lbs. So, that equates to, perhaps, a bodybuilder at 8% bodyfat (that means carrying17.6lbs of fat), looking to lose, let’s say, 8lbs. That would get him from 8%, to 5%. Now, that’s quite a change, and 5% is around where someone headed to competition would be wanting to get to (most likely lower actually).

Take a different example, however. How about a guy who is 170lbs, who is thinking about losing ‘the last’ 5 or 10 lbs, and expecting that to get him down to 8% bodyfat. What do those numbers look like? If he gets down to 160lbs, without changing his muscle mass (which is 147.2lbs lean body mass), then he would have started at 13.5% bodyfat.

What does this show?

  1. That everyone’s perception of ‘the last 5 or 10lbs’ is different
  2. That 5 or 10lbs can have very different effects, depending on the size of the person.

For our bodybuilder friend, he only lost 3% bodyfat, and in the range where it becomes increasingly more difficult to lose more percentage points.

For our average guy, he went from 13.5% down to 8%. Think this is going to look different? Damn right! This will take him from looking like a desk jockey to an athlete most likely. Many people cite 10% bodyfat as being the milestone below which abs pop out, and muscles become obvious. The difference in muscle definition at 8%, vs 13.5% is huge – people will be commenting on how ‘ripped’ and ‘cut’ he looks.

So, while I was reading ‘The Last Mile’, thinking that it all sounded like a bit too much effort, I was reading a plan for someone who was cutting that last bits of bodyfat off their frame. That’s most likely not where most of us are, but we could be hovering around 12% or so, having done slow carb for a few months.

But I want a plan that will get me to under 10% bodyfat – actually I think around 8% would be ideal. Having seen some recent photos of people at 5%, I think they look just too much like a pro bodybuilder, with veins and muscles bursting through the skin, and that’s really not what I’m keen to look like. They definitely looked ‘ripped’ and ‘cut’, but there’s something about that look that seems a little unhealthy.

So I have been searching around online, to see what else is out there. Lots of people have heard of the paleo diet, which looks like one some people use to get into lower bodyfat percentages, and there are countless other options out there in the form of ebooks, and other similar products. Let me say that I’m sure that the reputable ones most likely all work.

I looked very carefully at slow carb and how it is set out, compared to other plans. Many other plans mentioned eating more often than 4 times per day.

The thing in common seemed to be a range of meals that allowed ample energy, but kept blood sugar fairly constant all day long. Many systems use a 6 times a day routine for this, which means eating every 2-3 hours. A great many of the options I looked at in fact offered more variety than what slow carb does.

But back to the question: Can slow carb get you, or me, under 10% bodyfat (if you’re a guy, let’s say around 15% if you’re a girl)?

To answer the question, we need to take a quick look at calories.

Our old friend, the calorie, I have learned recently, is actually not so much of an absolute measure of food energy, but more of a guideline. Because of the way the body processes different foods, calories, as noted in nutrition panels, really are about what the food offers, outside of the body, and not what it delivers to the body. Accounting for personal variations too would be difficult, so it’s not a bad measurement, just an incomplete one.

I know from doing the calculations that I could be using around 2700-2900 calories per day, in theory, and putting on some muscle, whilst not putting on any fat. This could mean eating up to 3000 calories per day. A quick inspection of my slow carb meals tells me that I’m far from that mark – averaging around 1800-2200 per day on the 4 slow carb meals alone. This is due in part to the fact that I train with weights twice a week, and that I am also moderately active the rest of the time, plus I’m aiming to put on some muscle.

It’s not that I’m saying we need to be in calorie deficit to get under 10% bodyfat, but that calories need to be paid attention to a little more than if we’re losing the first 5 or 10lbs in our fat loss journey. The last thing I want to be doing is eating over, because I do believe it’s less likely for bodyfat to be lost in that state (though it’s not impossible if you are controlling other dietary variables).

But I like simplicity.

If at all possible, I don’t want to be getting into daily logging, or calculations, and I want to keep my food practical. Exercise and diet shouldn’t consume the majority of your thoughts, or your day. They should support what you do in your mind and during your day.

So I want a reasonably simple system to follow, which is why slow carb is on my radar, for this phase of my body recomposition.

The goal is simple, and I think a simple program should be able to achieve it.

To answer the question – whether slow carb can get you below 10% bodyfat, I believe the answer is yes. But that comes with a proviso – to achieve this, I personally believe you would need to be doing some kind of exercise or training. For me personally, I am wanting to do it without losing muscle mass, and while I continue gym training. I don’t feel that slow carb, in it’s 4-meals per day format is the best option to deliver this, however.

What’s the best option?

For me, I have worked with the slow carb principles for long enough now that I can eyeball a serving, or a meal, and have a very good feel for how much energy it will deliver. Therefore, keeping to the same food makes a lot of sense, rather than learning a whole new system, like Paleo, or other glycemic control diets that include many other food types. Going to one of them would mean more thinking about food and food timing during the day much more than my modified slow carb method and I don’t want to add any additional burden.

Slow carb is my base, delivering great amounts of fibre, protein and energy, on top of which I will add 2 to 3 protein shakes, daily, in between meals, plus a handful of almonds. This gets my calories up closer to what I could be using, keeps within the slow carb method of using fat, protein and fibrous carbohydrates for energy (protein drinks to be made with water), and addresses eating more often, rather than eating larger meals (which would most likely not be good for fat loss). I think this is a good blend, and I am very interested to see the results. It is a bit different to the Occam’s Protocol eating regime, which includes a brown starch 2/3 times per day, and which left me with meals that were so large I was feeling sick after them. Likewise, trying to get in a protein shake with breakfast wasn’t practical, so this method should be more stomach friendly. I will be continuing with a routine of 2 weights sessions per week at the gym, and 2 fast-cardio sessions per week, for a total exercise time of under 2 hours per week.

Has slow carb brought you to a low bodyfat percentages? Or are you testing it at the moment to see how low you can go? Have you tried with and without exercise? I’m very interested to hear your thoughts. Even if you think there’s a better method out there! Leave your comments below.

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17 Responses to Can slow carb get you below 10% bodyfat?

  • Harry Shore says:

    Totally see what you’re saying about the last mile not being necessary for everyone. I’m sticking with the slow carb diet, but might add some protein shakes, as my workouts get more intense.

  • Justin says:

    Luke, you always write about what I am thinking about, it is crazy.

    After listening to Gary Taubes book “Why We Get Fat” I am convinced even more that calories are a bad measurement. There are cited cases of people becoming extremely obese on severe caloric restricted diets.

    Not sure why you would say Paleo is more difficult than slow carb, actually I think it is the opposite, mainly because I like fruit and hate beans LOL. But all you do is swap out beans for yams/sweet potatoes, and add some fruit as a treat. Yeah no cheat day, but most people realize cheat day is mostly a physiological trick to make you feel sick and not do them anyway :)

    Now that I have done the slow carb then paleo diets I think that I have become pretty “fat adapted” and am not experimenting with keto to get to single digit bf%. I eat meat and green leafy veggies for meals (which are bigger than I used to eat) and I snack on nuts or meat if I need a snack. I am pretty sure my calorie intake is more and I am also pretty sure I am losing fat, but its a n=1 experiment and not very accurate.

    Do you know what kind of insulin response you are getting from the protein shakes? They might be detrimental to fat loss for you.

    • Luke says:

      Hey Justin, thanks for your comments. Always great to have your perspective here.

      Calories are just a little too convenient, and a little too inaccurate to be effective for a lot of people. I really love the idea of fat loss, without feeling terrible, in mood/focus/energy – which is how a lot of people feel on a calorie restricted diet. Slow carb provides that, as do other methods of eating, like Paleo I think.

      From my point of view, Paleo is more difficult because it seems to involve snacking in order to have continued energy, though I might be wrong of course. I do like the lack of snacking with slow carb, it keeps things very ‘clean’. Even the protein shakes in between meals, with my modified version is still very straightforward and simple.

      Your Paleo diet does sound appealing, I’ll admit, though I am a big fan of beans in general, and find them a little more portable than yams. Minor details though!

      I might mention that my cheat days are now more like cheat meals, and don’t necessarily come every weekend, but perhaps around every 10 days, and always after a weights workout afternoon. Generally it will include cheese, and nacho chips. Two things I love and stay away from generally. I might have some chocolate too.
      I think your Paleo approach will definitely get you into the single digits.. I don’t see how it couldn’t in fact! Barely any opportunity for the body to store fat, but if you’re training your body will be burning fat for energy which is good news.

      I’m not sure of the insulin response from the protein shakes.. right now what I have does have artificial sweetener, as I ran out of my natural unflavored powder and due to travel wasn’t able to get another tub. I add cinnamon to the shake, to hopefully reduce any impact it has, but you’re right, that the shakes may be reducing fat loss progress. Very hard to say, but I definitely need the protein in between meals with the workouts and cardio. Some days, when I feel more recovery active in my body, I add in a tablespoon of pure peanut butter to the shake too.

      All the best! It’ll be interesting to learn more about how our approaches go, and what results we get!

  • Adam says:

    Slow carb worked for me for a bit. Now I’m full on a 0 carb diet (Apart from those taken via meat and veg of course) I desperately want to get to single digit BF and as you say, the common consensus is you need to be strict as hell. Havent touched a carb in over a week, I feel fine. My weights have suffered but my cardio has got better. Any muscle mass lost can be put back on in a controlled way.

    The way I see it, I’ve done over 20 years damage eating whatever the hell I like. A month of 0 carb to ‘reset’ the bodyfat meter, then a rigorous training routine after to build and define is a small price to pay to be in shape.

    I’ve read Gary Taubes book also. He does make a good argument if you can see past the majority of the book that seems to be saying ‘I’m right, other people have been right, why is everyone so much stupider than me now, I can’t belive this’ etc etc. A shame he doesn’t really go much into what to do AFTER you burn your way to ideal bodyfat.

    I’m thinking keep eating 0 carbs but eat a piece of fruit or a protein shake with milk after/before a workout.

    • Luke says:

      Hey Adam, thanks for leaving your comment!

      Sounds like you’ve got a great approach to this. I’ll be interested to hear more about your progress as you continue with this method. I think it depends a little on what you’re doing, once you’ve achieved your desired body fat – if you’re maintaining it would be different to eating to gain more muscle (which would be done in a very controlled way to ensure no blood sugar spikes).

      All the best,

      • Adam says:

        As it stands, over the last two weeks the caliper skinfold measurement has gone from 15mm to 12mm. Bearing in mind though, that this was after a month long holiday so some of that was holiday weight.

        Using both calipers and the Navy 3 point method I have confirmed I’m at 12% BF. My abs arent defined, although the outline is there. Last week I switched to a routine of a 10m HIIT row (Started with 20 seconds all out, 40 sec rest, repeat until rowed 2000m, I’m at 25 secs all out atm, basically challenging myself to row further within 10 mins) and then an occams based weights approach. This is twice a week – twice a week at home I’m doing kettlebell swings and myotatic crunches.

        Loving the crunches since purchasing a dumbbell set, means I can feel it in my abs after 10 reps rather than 35.

        Diet is going fine, although I do find myself drinking more diet coke when I get a craving for something sweet. It was my birthday yesterday, so I did cheat today, but it was controlled and excusable. (Ate scampi, breaded chicken strips and a burger without the bun, with a salad, Although my ‘definition’ did suffer from a food baby!)

        • Luke says:

          Hey Adam, thanks for the update! Measuring with skin fold tests is a great way of keeping an eye on how things are going. I think your HIIT rowing will have a great effect, combined with the Occam’s weights program. Maintaining slow carb, or slow carb plus protein shakes made with water should give you plenty of muscle recovery.

          All the best,

  • Blair Slavin says:

    I have been following the Slow Carb method for about 6 months now. Though I guess not as strictly as I went from 198lbs – 185lbs (28% bf down to 22/21% bf). Until recently I probably cheated a at least once a week beyond my cheat day with a small frozen yogurt (my kryptonite) or sometime about 3TBS of Half/Half in my coffee throughout the week. Thought I have tightened it up quite a bit the last month…why? Because I plataued out at 22%bf and can’t seem to make it budge. I have played with ice packs and cold showers (based on your future article it may be too few calories as I tend to eat 1600 – 1950 calories in a day) I am 5-11″ and people say I have had quite the dramatic change (I even wear Athletic Cut shirts more often than not nowadays and it isn’t very tight on me). … but as I said, I am stuck and want to get my BF numbers into the mid teens. I either case. My exercise is Spin 2x a week, Deadlift / Bench Press 1x a week, KB Swings Heavy 2x a week and a general exercise day of KB Presses and grinds and such or Heavy Sandbag carrying and lifting. Some days I mix in Rope Jumping for 20 min on any of these days. So all in all 7 hours a week of exercise. (not counting the 5-8 massage clients I work on). So I would like to think I can get my numbers down as I have always had trouble with my weight… my highest being 245 lbs.

    • Luke says:

      Hi Blair,
      Congrats on your progress so far – that is a really good result.
      If you’re finding that you’re plateauing for an extended period of time, but you believe you’re being strict on slow carb – it might be worth checking ingredients lists of foods you’re eating regularly, in case there’s hidden sugars or other white starches.
      It sounds like you’re very active – you might be on the low side of calories for that amount of activity, so you could test doing 2 weeks of substantially less activity, with the same amount of food and see if your results change. Also, check you sleeping routines – perhaps sleep could be the missing key for you.

      All the best,

  • Dave M says:

    I can say for me, at least, that I was able to get into single digits using only the slow carb diet. I’m 6’1″ at 189 pounds and 16 percent body fat in March 2011. By most standards, I was an average to skinny-average person but there was more of a belly than I wanted. I wanted to see my abs, if that was possible. I have about as strict as possible on the slow carb diet unless on vacation. I also do the geek to freak workout twice a week where one workout day always coincides with my cheat day.

    Please keep in mind that I’m using a handheld bioelectric impendence monitor:

    Tim Ferris said they weren’t as accurate as other tests, but it’s accurate enough to get the general idea.

    Anyway, as of Saturday, I’m down to 163 pounds and 7 percent body fat according to the device. There’s a vertical outline to my abs, but I can’t see the horizontal lines in my abs which is extremely frustrating. It’s probably hard to believe at 7% bodyfat, but I promise it’s true.

    I find it hard to believe that anyone could get stuck at above 10% bodyfat when following the diet strictly. I’m very dedicated to it and kept losing weight month after month when sticking to the diet. There has to be a lower limit where slow carb won’t take off any more fat, but from my experience, that lower level is not above 10%.

    My weight loss by month (in pounds):

    Month 1 – 9.4
    Month 2 – 3.2
    Month 3 – 4.8
    Month 4 – 2
    Month 5 – 3.05
    Month 6 – 1.25

    • Luke says:

      Hey Dave,

      Great progress!! Thanks so much for sharing with us.
      I think your result is a great one. Using the same device consistently is the key to getting good data, even if the absolute number isn’t going to be accurate, for example, compared to hydrostatic weighing.
      The important bit is that a strict slow carb regime has got you to where you are today.
      It’s likely that it’s different for different people – genetics play a role in insulin response, and the body’s natural tendency to either store food energy in fat, or to burn it in muscles, and for that reason the level of carbohydrates in slow carb might be around that point for some people where the body won’t really ‘cut’ fat, but for others it will. It’s different from one person to the next. Lifestyle factors such as how long large amounts of sugars and starches have been consumed also factor in.

      Keep up the great work! And soon enough you’ll see all the abs you want most likely.


  • John says:

    Hey Luke, do you have a facebook or a messenger where i could speak to you live like on facebook chat etc..? I just need a few things cleared up to get my meal plans straight.. if you do it would be much appreciated thanks!


  • Al Love says:

    What a good look for your blog. And the content you have will do us all a great service. With all of the regular sites and same old re-hashed content it is very refreashing too see.

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