Read the title of this article again: note that it says ‘fat loss’, not ‘weight loss’. This distinction is not merely an exercise in semantics; it represents the most fundamental difference between the athlete and the non-athlete.
The diet industry and the diets it produces are designed for weight loss. Weight loss includes not only fat, but also water and more importantly muscle mass. A program that has a quick start element will utilise the fact that water is lost whenever a person switches to dietary restriction aimed at weight loss to give the illusion of progress.
The athlete and commercial diets
Because commercial diets are aimed at weight loss they are not suitable for the athlete. They will not preserve hard earned muscle, nor are they designed to ensure adequate hydration status – and as such will negatively affect not only athletic performance, but also how the athlete feels and performs generally.
A quick guide to some popular diets:
The Atkins Diet: This is a low carbohydrate, high fat diet. It has high levels of protein, but is not designed as a high protein diet. Low levels of carbohydrate are problematic for the athlete; performance drops quickly as glycogen stores are depleted and not replenished. With glycogen depletion, the body will switch to an alternative fuel source, ketones to survive. The body is designed to run on glucose, and uses ketones as a back up source of fuel; the brain in particular runs best on glucose and slowly switches to ketones for fuel because running on ketones negatively affects its performance.
Muscles will break down muscle tissue to provide the glucose they need, when not running on fuel from fat stores (typically muscle is broken down for explosive bouts and to provide the fuel for fat mobilisation). Red blood cells only run on glucose, so maintenance of their function requires the break down of precious muscle. In addition to depleting muscle, and negatively affecting cognition and mood, the Atkins Diet is low on fibre which often results in constipation. It is also low in vitamins and minerals – further hitting your body’s capacity to function normally, while being high in saturated fats which are not good for either the heart or general health.
Very Low Calorie Diets: As the name suggests these are diets with low daily calorie totals – usually below 1000 calories per day, some may be even lower. They don’t tend to emphasise a particular nutrient, instead they are calorie focussed. These diets do not provide the energy, protein or fat content for optimum performance. The body will breakdown muscle tissue along with the fat to survive. This type of diet has the added complication that low calories will signal to the body that there is a famine, resulting in a slow down of metabolic rate. The net result is that body tries to hold onto all tissue to survive and slowing metabolism helps achieve this. On a very low
calorie diet you will be very tired and sleepy as the body tries to protect itself until food becomes available. The lack of fuel will not only hit athletic performance but also cognitive ability and recovery – when food is available again the body will have a lower metabolic rate and a propensity to store fat ready for the next famine. This result is why people after severe calorie restriction put on weight quickly and need even more dramatic restriction to achieve any future losses.
Single food group diets: These are a spin on calorie restriction; achieving the overall calorie reduction by focussing on a single food, such as cabbage soup. These diets are usually bordering on very low calorie, and their single food group bias means vitamins and minerals are very lacking. The gut can take a real battering trying to cope – resulting in gas, diarrhoea, bloating and other unpleasant effects. Needless to say single food groups do not provide the nutrients an athlete requires; in fact often they fall very short of the requirements of the sedentary individual.
Low carbohydrate diets: Such as the South Beach diet – these are popular because they don’t have the high fat content of the Atkins and are so better for general health. The biggest drawback is that they are designed for a sedentary population not athletes and as such lack the ingredients and calories for athletic endeavour.
Ketogenic diets: These are very low carbohydrate diets designed to induce a state called ketosis. Ketosis means that the body is using ketones instead of glucose for fuel. Ketosis happens in starvation as a means to survive. Ketones are sub premium fuel and result in sub premium performance. The body can run on ketones, and weight loss can be impressive using this technique. However, glucose is essential and when the body has no stores and insufficient consumption to meet demands it will break down muscle tissue to provide it. It will also slow metabolic rate in order to protect itself. The ketogenic situation is not conducive to optimum performance or recovery.
Macro-biotic style diets: These are dietary restrictions and are very unlikely to give the nutrient profile that an athlete requires. These too tend to be very low in calories – restricting intake below the level an athlete requires to perform at their best or even close to it.
Note on vegetarian and vegan diets: Athletes can follow these diets and perform very well; indeed some top athletes do. Vegans face the biggest challenge because protein, iron and vitamin B12 are readily available from meat sources, and calcium is readily available in diary products. A vegan athlete may find supplementing with calcium, iron and B12 beneficial. To ensure adequate protein consumption the vegan athlete has to get a good variety of foods in their diet; notably beans and pulses so that a complete spectrum of essential amino acids are available.
Planning Fat Loss
A fat loss program needs to be integrated in to the athlete’s training cycle; preferably it needs to be as far away from the competitive season as possible. It also needs to have a specific goal that is realistic and achievable within a set time frame. The athlete also needs a way of measuring if this has been achieved.
It is tempting to set a weight loss goal; however, weight loss includes lean muscle and water. Instead it is better to take a waist measurement at the start of the program and use that as a measure. It is entirely possible to gain weight via muscle while your waist measurement drops indicating fat loss. Often it can be helpful to look in the mirror and use the; ‘if it jiggles it’s fat principle’ to supplement the waist measurement (although an honest independent set of eyes is recommended). If you need to make a weight then the scale needs to be used in conjunction with the tape.
It is also helpful to understand why fat loss is required: if it has resulted from off-season laxity then that needs to be addressed to avoid having to repeatedly implement fat loss measures when the season starts. Fat loss cannot compensate for a lack of lean muscle or training, although it can be tempting to think that it will. Unfortunately nothing makes up for training time, and nothing helps lean muscle gains and retention like a bit of gym work.
Losing fat: the athlete’s way
Athletes cannot escape the laws of thermodynamics. Therefore they need to consume fewer calories than they expend to achieve fat loss. Unlike a sedentary individual the athlete is mindful of the need to be able to train effectively and retain muscle mass – and so their approach is significantly different.
Protein: this is the building block of muscle, enzymes, hormones and body tissue in general. Fortunately most athletes already consume enough protein to supply what they need for effective performance and recovery.
Fats: most athletes usually consume very little fat. In fact many will be consuming too little fat for optimum health. Fat is an essential component of cell walls, and playing an important metabolic role in recovery, nerve function and general health. People are increasingly aware of the importance of the omega fatty acids, (which are important for the athlete too); however, the important role of saturated fat is usually neglected. A small amount of saturated fat is essential for optimum hormone function, especially testosterone.
Carbohydrate: the athletes’ energy source. Athletes have long been aware of the importance of carbohydrates as a fuel, and the need to replenish glycogen. Less emphasised have been carbohydrate sources and the timing of carbohydrate consumption. When eating for fat loss, these two factors are the key components of dietary manipulation.
How much do we need?
It is tempting to use calorie restriction as the basis of fat loss; a common recommendation is 500 calories less than maintenance intake, with a diet composing of 50% carbohydrate, 20% fat and 30% protein. Although, there is no agreement on the levels of protein, fat and carbohydrate an athlete needs, and ratios can be hotly debated.
However, a more productive approach is to look at foods and meals. The guiding principle of an athlete’s fat loss diet is to provide the fuel for performance training from carbohydrate, and then utilise fat for as much of their non athletic energy requirement as possible.
The basics of dietary manipulation
When an athlete trains muscle glycogen stores are depleted and energy is expended. The priority when training has finished is recovery, primarily the replenishment of muscle glycogen. After an intense bout of training muscles are in a heightened state of nutrient receptivity. The optimum method of glycogen replenishment after exercise is to combine a simple sugar with a rapidly digested protein; whey isolate and glucose is an effective mix. This combination causes a rapid rise in insulin, driving nutrients along with the glucose and protein to the muscle, the result is the inhibition of cortisol (aiding recovery).
This rise in insulin also causes a cessation or inhibition of the mobilisation of fat for fuel. Because of this some athletes choose to forgo the instant glycogen replenishment after training and refill their glycogen stores more slowly. Glycogen can be refilled slowly if there is more than 24hours between training sessions without the potential of a negative effect on performance. However, if there is less than 24 hours or multiple sessions then optimum performance dictates replenishing glycogen stores immediately.
Post training is a key time for the athlete, post training nutrition signals the start of recovery and adaptation. Providing the body with fuel prior to training is the other key element of dietary manipulation for the athlete in order to ensure optimum performance. The aim is to provide the body with the fuel it needs too complete the session performing at its best. It is important to eat slow releasing carbohydrates, such as oats, brown rice, wholemeal pasta, granary bread, sweet potato, jacket potato before the session, leaving time for the athlete’s stomach to settle so the meal is not re-visited during their training session. These carbohydrates not only provide fuel but also allow the efficient utilisation of fat during the training session.
Outside these key times carbohydrate requirements are determined by the individual’s level of activity, an office worker requires less than a builder. Intake needs to be tailored to the demands of an individual’s lifestyle.
Putting principles into practice:
Many athletes still eat three square meals a day, which is not the best schedule; three squares is the result of industrialisation not biological imperative. We are at our best if we eat smaller more frequent meals that are matched to our level of activity. For the athlete this means, eating less carbohydrate when they are inactive, and more around their training, to facilitate performance and recovery. Many athletes find the best way to eat around the demands of sport and life is to have three larger meals and three snack-sized meals, as opposed to six equally sized ones, which is an effective strategy.
A sample day:
This example is based on a cyclist who normally consumes around 600g grams of carbohydrate a day, and is maintaining weight; on a training day they have a 3-hour ride.
Porridge cooked in skimmed milk
Small chicken breast sandwich on granary bread
Green banana, apple
Tuna and pasta salad
Yoghurt (low fat, low sugar pro/pre biotic variety)
Cottage cheese and pineapple in pitta bread
50g chicken breast and basmati rice
Directly after training:
25g whey isolate and 50g of glucose in water
Steak with potatoes, vegetables and gravy
Based on a maintenance level of 600g of carbohydrate this plan would provide 500, without any other manipulation the cyclist is consuming 400 calories less, but is optimising their training performance and recovery.
This type of plan where carbohydrate consumption is focused optimises fat loss while maintaining lean mass and optimum performance. An athlete does not require a radical reduction; in this case 16% of carbohydrate intake, protein and fat intake has been left untouched in terms of totals. However, the diet does focus on providing the nutrition support that hard training demands, and supporting the general health and well being of the athlete.
An athlete’s diet does not need to be restrictive, instead it should have a variety of foods, rich in vegetables and fruits, utilising lean protein sources and fish at least twice a week. The main difference between the athlete and the sedentary individual is their total calorie intake, which is significantly higher. Hard training and recovery from it requires both fuel and raw materials to keep the athlete performing at their best. Therefore, an athlete’s diet needs to incorporate a wide range of foods.
A note on Glutamine:
The use of oral glutamine as a supplement is hotly debated. Glutamine is a conditionally essential amino acid; adults can usually make enough glutamine from other amino acids, however at times of increased metabolic stress demand outstrips supply, for example in burns patients. A burns patient who would benefit from glutamine would receive it intravenously. This use led to the development of oral glutamine as a supplement; however results are less than conclusive for oral glutamine. There are indications that glutamine is beneficial to athletes. Glutamine can be used as a fuel – the body has a particular metabolic pathway dedicated to using glutamine as a fuel – and so if the athlete is
training hard and restricting their intake glutamine can be used to provide fuel without a calorie increase. Secondly glutamine plays a key role in immune function, and supplementation could aid in decreasing susceptibility to infection – especially those of the upper respiratory tract – the bane of many an athlete’s life.
Because of these potential benefits, and the relatively low cost of oral glutamine (bought in bulk) it is worth considering supplementing at 10g per day split into two doses, while endurance athletes seeking fat loss could benefit from using 5-10g during their training and reducing their simple sugar intake – to help maximise fat mobilisation.
It is easy to complicate fat loss for athletes; however, it is relatively simple:
1) cut overall calorie intake below that used per day
2) achieve the calorie reduction by reducing carbohydrate intake
3) place the majority of carbohydrate intake around training to optimise performance
4) only have simple sugars directly after training to replenish glycogen, combined with a rapidly digesting protein
5) eat a variety of foods, lean protein sources (including red meat), fish, fruit and vegetables, and not forgetting dairy products
6) enjoy your food
Get this right and there will be no need for multi vitamins, no need to feel tired and lethargic and no need to see a drop in performance while getting leaner.
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