Revisiting the Anabolic Diet

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What if I told you about a diet that not only mimicked the effects of steroids but also allowed you to gorge on meats, eggs and cheese for days at a time before indulging in pizza and pancakes on the weekend? A diet that would help you get leaner, stronger and more muscular. A diet that seemingly had it all?

This isn’t the stuff of fairytale but some of ways that Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale’s Anabolic Diet has been advertised since it’s inception in the early 90s. A cyclical diet, Di Pasquale’s high fat approach came at a time when the majority of Bodybuilders, along with the American public, were stuck in a low-fat mindset.

Whilst the majority of gym goers nowadays are unaware of DiPasquale’s work, the Anabolic Diet was one of the seminal eating programmes of its time.

So in today’s post we’ll look at the history of the diet itself, what the diet entailed and just why it was so revolutionary.

The Birth of the ‘Pork Chop Diet’

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In the late 80s and 90s Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale had a weekly column in MuscleMag International entitled “The Doctor’s Corner”. A curious haven for common sense and evidence-based research, ‘The Doctor’s Corner’ covered everything from injuries to steroid abuse and even the effectiveness of supplements. A world champion powerlifter outside of the medical profession, Pasquale was one of the biggest authorities on bodybuilding during the 1990s. Heck Pasquale was so well regarded that when Vince McMahon was having trouble with steroid use in his World Bodybuilding Federation, he turned to DiPasquale for help. It was with the WBF that DiPasquale’s dietary ideas came to the fore.

Clamping down on the rampant use of performance enhancing drugs in the WBF, Di Pasquale put many of the competitors on a high fat, low carb diet, which he said mimicked the anabolic effects of steroid use and despite what they may have thought, the competitors weren’t guinea pigs for a new experiment. Di Pasquale practiced what he preached. Over his decades long powerlifting career, the good doctor had eaten this way for many years and gotten stronger and leaner doing so.

Although the WBF experience with his diet was mixed, Di Pasquale and Musclemag writer, Greg Zulak, soon began publishing variations of Di Pasquale’s diet in the popular press. Interestingly Zulak initially called the eating plan, the ‘Pork Chop Diet’, a name which stuck for nearly three years until Pasquale published The Anabolic Diet in book form. Far from receiving a positive reception, Di Pasquale’s book received rather mixed reviews. For some, he was a madman bent on raising people’s cholesterol whilst for others he was a genius, brave enough to go against the anti-fat dogma with a diet that was not only simple to understand, but highly effective.

So what was the Anabolic Diet all about?

The Anabolic Diet

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Knowing that different people are at different stages in their weight training career, Di Pasquale provided three different phases to the Anabolic Diet. A maintenance phase, a cutting phase and a bulking phase.. The maintenance or start-up phase, centred on weaning people off their carbohydrate dependency and introducing more healthy fats. Regardless of how experienced someone was, this phase was usually a pre-requisite as many people were (and still are) sucked into thinking carbs are wholly necessary for training. During this phase, which usually lasted three to four weeks, people ate a strict ratio of 60% fat, 35% protein, and only 5% carbs, eating calories equivalent to 18 times their bodyweight. So for example, a 200-pound male would consume roughly 3,600 calories per day.

This was done for five days a week before the diet would be switched around on the weekend to 30% fat, 10% protein, and  60% carbs. The idea being that a re-feed on the weekends would replenish glycogen stores in the muscles for training the following week. This pattern would continue for roughly a month until you adjusted to this style of eating. After that, you could try out the bulking or cutting phases.

The Cutting Phase

Similar to the maintenance phase, weekday macronutrients were kept to the ratio 60% fat, 35% protein, and 5% carbs. Regarding calories, Di Pasquale recommended dropping the calories (calculated during the maintenance phase) by 500-1,000 calories every week until you’re losing 1.5-2 pounds per week. However if you lost more than two pounds a week, you were encouraged to add 500 or so calories back in until you reach the two-pounds-per-week maximum. This would, in theory ensure maximum fat loss with minimal muscle loss a.k.a the holy grail of dieting.

To make matters even more appealing, the weekend re-feeds were still permitted in the same ratio as the maintenance phase. Importantly, Di Pasquale encouraged people to cut weight until they attained a single digit body fat. The book was aimed at natural bodybuilders after all!

The Bulking Phase

The bulking phase was a little bit tricker than the other two as the calorie requirements far exceeded what most people would consider manageable. It was this phase that separated the men from the boys so to speak!

In explaining the bulking calorie requirements, Di Pasquale often used the example of a 200-pound competitive bodybuilder looking to reach 215 pounds. DiPasquale recommended taking this ideal weight (215 pounds) and adding 15% to it, which was the weight to shoot for while bulking. In this instance, the 200-pound bodybuilder would overshoot his ideal weight by 15%, putting him close to 250 pounds. To do this, he would consume20-25 calories per pound of desired bodyweight everyday. In terms of daily calories, this was between 5,000 and 6,250 calories! Admittedly it is an extreme and importantly, Di Pasquale discouraged gaining anymore than two pounds a week. Excess of two pounds was most likely fat gain.

This eating pattern would continue until a trainee reached the ideal weight plus 15% or reached 10% body fat. After that you would switch back to the maintenance phase, or cutting phase if their bulk had been too ‘enthusiastic’. Di Pasquale was keen to stress that although professional bodybuilders could ballon up in the off-season, natural bodybuilders couldn’t afford the same luxury that performance enhancing drugs provided. Therefore going over 10% body fat on a bulk was a bad idea.

Putting it all together

Di Pasquale encouraged going through the three phases several times during the calendar year. If things had gone to plan, you would come into competition leaner and more muscular than before. What’s more, you wouldn’t have suffered during the dieting phases!

Regarding what foods to eat, Di Pasquale recommended getting the necessary fat and protein from steak, hamburger, eggs, and fish. Turkey, chicken, and tuna alongside full-fat cheeses, pepperoni, sausage, and certain nuts. Leafy greens were also encouraged. A simple trick was to remember to eat less than 30 grams carbohydrates a day whilst getting in sufficient fiber (DiPasquale often recommended a supplement).

Re-evulating the Anabolic Diet

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So what can we say about the Anabolic Diet?  A diet that went against pretty much everything people knew about nutrition and how the body worked?

First off, the publication of this work was an incredibly brave decision to take. Aside from Vince Gironda and Dan Duchaine, very few coaches were recommending high fat diets to the bodybuilding community at this time. Given the emotional attachment people hold to ‘correct ways of eating’, Di Pasquale’s diet, which went against the common way of thinking, was an important moment for the sport.

Secondly for those suited to a high fat diet, the Anabolic Diet was and still is, an extremely effective way to lose body fat and gain muscle. Furthermore, Di Pasquale’s book (available here under a different title) was broken down in simple, easy to understand language, making the diet extremely accessible.

Finally, even if people didn’t subscribe to his high fat approach, Di Pasquale’s stress on cycling carbs encouraged new ways of thinking about dietary approaches. That alone is good enough for me.

If you’re interested in learning more about the diet, I encourage you to try one month on the maintenance phase as it’s only after trying a high-fat low carb diet that you begin to understand what makes it so different from normal approaches. Happy eating!

14 comments

  1. Great article on the Anabolic Diet! I had a few questions that I was curious to see if you had any insights into. Does sustaining this high fat diet have any negative long term side effects? Also if you are above that 10% body fat which phase of the diet would you start with?

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words! Regarding long term side effects, genetic complications aside, there seems to be no real negative to a long term low-carb/high fat approach bearing in mind your fat sources come mainly from unprocessed natural sources like meat, fish (lots of salmon!), avocados etc. Likewise a good finer intake helps maintain health (I find flaxseeds a blessing as they’re low carb, high fibre and high fat). I’ve followed this approach for two years now with no complications and am more energetic than ever. Similarly my father used the approach to drop upwards of 40 pounds. For a time he experienced slightly high cholesterol due mainly to an overzealous consumption of heavy cream (500ml a day!). Once he went back to moderate amounts of cream he was fine.

      Regarding which phase, I’d always encourage people to do the maintenance phase first as this allows you to get the hang of the diet and figure out how to work it into your life. Usually 3 weeks will suffice and you’ll probably experience some initial body fat reduction during this time anyway! If there’s anything else I can help you with let me know. Alternatively the Keto section on reddit has some great info on recipes and supplements. Hope your journey is going well!

      1. Those are great recommendations! It’s always nice to hear from someone who has done it firsthand rather than someone would just does a little bit of research on the topic and then tries to write about it. I hope to give this a try in the coming month and see how is matches my body type. I continue to learn new things with every post!

  2. Another brilliantly written article Connor. I was so tentative in trying the Anabolic Diet when it appeared 20 years ago because it was flamed by the WBF guys, especially Mike Quinn, for wrecking their physiques (when really it was coming off the drugs that was responsible). Mauro was basically standing on the shoulders of the keto-giants that came before in the previous century before him, but it’s interesting the evolution that’s proceeded the AD since from Duchaine, McDonald, Paleo etc to the modern day IF incarnations.

    I’m sold on higher fat, lower cal diets now since this recent contest run. My strength and health has never been better.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by.

      It’s funny isn’t it? The Mike Quinn ‘incident’ initially put me off high-fat dieting for a long time as well. It really is something that needs to be tried though, as if it works for your body it can make weight loss and gain a lot easier. It’s fantastic that you’ve found it so beneficial for your contest run and I’ve been fascinated to see you’ve gotten progressively stronger during this time, which is the greatest indicator that something’s gone right in your prep. Can’t wait to see how things go for you now in competition.

      You’re right about Mauro standing on the shoulders and its sad that outside McDonald’s works, very few people mention Duchaine anymore, even though many of us are borrowing bits and pieces from his works!

  3. Thanks for sharing this great concise review of The Anabolic Diet! I’ve experimented with various macronutrient combinations over the past few years and have recently started on this plan. Everyone in the popular media is in love with the ketogenic diet right now but the returns are limited because of decreases in lean mass over a extended period of time.(Also your BMR will eventually adapt down to match the lower calorie intake which will produce diminishing returns.) For athletes serious about maximizing performance and holding on to lean mass this plan is a no-brainer!

    1. Hi Jason,

      Thanks so much for the kinds words, I really do appreciate it. It is funny that the Anabolic Diet and other cyclical approaches are non existent in the popular media. In my own experience Cyclical Keto can work particularly well for weight trainers.

      Will you give us an update on how you get on?

      1. I will most definitely do that! I dropped 2 lb of pure body fat in week one. My goal for week 10 is a total fat loss of 18 lbs. I have dropped that much weight before to reach peak condition but in the past I had to sacrifice lean mass to get there. This protocol shows so much promise for people who don’t want to restrict dietary choices but have the discipline to follow the guidelines and stick with the set times. The dogmatic, all-or-nothing approach concerning carbohydrate intake that is rampant in the diet scene sometimes causes more harm than good.

      2. That’s fantastic Jason – a fine start I would say!

        The target certainly seems within your grasp. Will be fascinated to see how you find strength and lean muscle retention. As someone who experimented with that all or nothing intake on carbs (400grams a day, then 30grams) I can attest that this programme does find that middle ground. Provided you have the discipline as you rightly point out!

        Waiting to hear how it goes 🙂

  4. Great article! Quick question re the 30g carb/day. Are those total carbs or net carbs (carbs-g of fiber). Ie: if I eat 50g carbs, but have 25g of fiber, my net carbs are 25.

    Thanks for the informative article

    1. Hi Aaron. Thanks so much for stopping by and the kind words. I’ve always run it with net carbs with good results. The same has been true for my training partners, so I’d strongly suggest using net. Have you used the Anabolic diet before?

      1. I’ve done general keto before but like the guidelines above for managing maintenance and cutting caloric values. That’s a helpful built in structure.

        One thing I struggled though on keto, was the inability to eat fruit on non-re-feed days! So much nutritional goodness and fiber and just tasty pleasure in fruit, but the fructose replenishing liver glycogen stores is, as I understand, pretty much forbidden.

        Do you know with the anabolic diet, if fruit would be “permissible“ on refeed days? I’ve heard other schools of thought promote “only carbs on refeed days that don’t contain fructose”.

      2. Hi Aaron, that’s a really good question to ask. Like you I eventually found Keto difficult due to the like of variety (no tasty fruits!). So after four years I moved to a moderate fat, lowish carb approach

        Regarding the Anabolic Diet, I’ve run it in the past using fruit without issue. Admittedly I went for fibrous fruits like pears, apples and bananas. When I pushed the boat out I had pineapple. None of this caused an issue with weight loss or lean bulking. Just make sure you follow the protocols and eat satiating foods.

        Not sure if this is helpful for you but I found this list useful

        https://caliberstrong.com/the-complete-list-of-anabolic-diet-foods/

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