Q & A: How Lean Do You Have to Be to Prep for a Competition?

Got fitness or food questions? Ask away! Or see if you can relate to some of the former questions here and here
Body Composition and Competition Prep
Hi Dani,
I am around 19 percent body fat, and one of my goals in the next few years is to enter a bikini competition. My goal is to get to 15 percent body fat before preparing. I don't have the financial means to get a competition coach, so I've been researching on my own. I have three big questions: 
1) How long do you wait before eliminating a part of your diet, like dairy or carbs? 
2) Can not eating enough calories keep you from losing weight? 
3) How do you know what kind of cardio works best for you? How long should you try one before trying something else? Or should you always change it up? Should you always do fasted cardio?
Thanks for your amazing blog-it's great inspiration! Amber
Hi Amber, 
Those are excellent questions. First let me state that most body fat percentage measurements are pretty inaccurate and can fluctuate greatly based upon stupid stuff like water retention, the person administering it, and the device that is used, so don't let the 19% keep you from preparing for a show. A couple months ago I was tested by two different body fat measuring devices. One said I was 8% the other said I was 18%. That was on the same day.
No need to worry about cutting down to 15% before you start your prep; it'll happen if you have enough weeks to intentionally prepare. Use your mirror to guage your leanness.
Then go slowly with this process so that you won't have to damage your metabolism or catabolize muscle in order to lean down enough to step on stage.
Doing your first show will teach you what you need to do in order to improve for your next one. You could even pick out a very small local show that's a few months away, prep for that, assess how you did, take progress pictures, then make changes for your next show. In a way you'd become your own coach. And if you do it intelligently, you'll bypass a lot of the crap that happens to competitors who blindly follow some not so great advice without using their best discretion. 
You know your body better than anyone else, and if you're already a healthy person, you'll get a feel for leaning down in a safe manner.
Another important thing for you will be protecting your body. I touched on this above, but building and keeping muscle mass is going to be hugely important for you. Muscle tissue is metabolically expensive tissue. Which means it will help you expend a lot of calories, and if you do things to it that force it to catabolize, then you'll damage the rate at which your body expends energy. Don't let that happen.
You don't need to be on a chronic low carb or low cal diet for months on end in order to prepare. If you're a hormonally healthy individual, then when you consistently nourish yourself, your metabolism will rise up to meet what you're giving it. Depriving yourself over a long period of time will make your metabolism adapt, decrease, and cause major fat loss plateaus, if not rebound weight gain. This is another reason I don't think you should strive for a 15% body fat percentage before preparing for a show.
What I think you should strive for are healthier behaviors and a rock solid commitment to your fitness before you start competition prep, so that you don't have to overhaul your everyday life just to get on stage. Make little tweaks in your lifestyle until you are comfortable eating a really healthy diet and working out like a machine.
If you're a junk food eater, become a person who consistently chooses healthier foods. If you're an inconsistent exerciser, become a person who consistently works hard at the gym. Figure out what these mean for you. Some people can train 6-7 days a week, some people thrive with more rest days. Some people can have a treat meal or refeed on the weekend and it helps them, some people get completely derailed with those.
So do you see what I'm getting at here? Instead of making 15% body fat your goal, make healthy habits your goal, then the lower body fat percentage will just happen naturally as a byproduct of the awesome things you're doing on a daily basis.
Become a pro at taking care of yourself and competition prep will be a breeze. You won't feel deprived without shit food, and you won't feel like a martyr for working out hard come prep time. Ease into a disciplined lifestyle and you'll actually enjoy competition prep. It doesn't have to be stressful unless you or someone else is making it that way for you. 
Now for your questions:
Question 1. The dairy thing totally depends on the individual.
But if your main goal is to build muscle, which is something I recommend for any kind of competitor, dairy is a pretty great muscle-building component of a diet. I've got a weakness for low fat cottage cheese, but everybody's body is different. At 8 weeks out I cut dairy, and after I did, the amount of water I was retaining went bye bye. Going without dairy makes me look leaner, but if you're not sensitive to it and don't have any intolerances then you may be able to keep it around longer. Play around with that. Take it out of your diet for a couple weeks, see how your body responds, put it back in and see how your body responds. This will help you guage whether or not it has an impact and how far out you'll need to drop it.
If you find that you're dairy sensitive or dairy intolerant, it may be wise to keep it at a minimum and always choose the best stuff, grass fed, etc. And, here's something else: I never recommend cow's milk to anyone except baby cows and ectomorph skinny guys who need to bulk and don't mind being farty. The processing and additives in most conventional cow's milk make it a frankenfood.
Question 2. Yes, not consuming enough calories over an extended period of time will greatly impact the amount of calories your body can burn.
You've probably heard the term "starvation mode" before. When your body doesn't get enough calories then it will hang onto every ounce of energy you give it instead of expending that energy. It's a very real phenomenon.
And another thing: Better workouts will lead to a better body. But if you're not fueling up enough to support those workouts, then your body will stagnate and you'll basically be spinning your wheels in the gym.
Consume enough of the best stuff around workout time in order to support your workouts.
Question 3. For competition prep and fat loss purposes there are two kinds of cardio that I'd recommend: the very hard and fast, or the very slow and easy. 
Check out this article for more info. Now, if you just enjoy long duration cardio because it helps you blow off steam, then do it, but realize that once your body adapts to it, you'll be swimming against the current when it comes to fat loss and you'll need to continually add more mileage to get the same bang for your buck.
Amber, glad you got in touch and if you have any other questions, feel free to drop me a line!