Jan 29, 2015
For a Loss

Whatever their sport, athletes looking to lose weight often have questions: How do I avoid a drop in energy level? How do I lose fat without losing muscle? How fast is too fast to shed pounds? This seasoned sports nutritionist provides answers.

By Josh Hingst

Josh Hingst, MS, RD, CSCCa, is a Sports Nutritionist at the University of Nebraska. He can be reached at: [email protected].

Weight control among athletes represents an interesting paradox. Hypothetically, it should be easy for active individuals to achieve and maintain an ideal weight–after all, we know what factors govern body weight and how to manipulate energy input and output to produce changes in body size and composition. Yet if you asked a group of athletes what they would most like to change about themselves to improve performance, at least a few of them would probably talk about wanting to weigh less. For many athletes, striving for optimum weight is an ongoing struggle.

Weight management means vastly different things to different areas of the sports world. In track and field, elite athletes tend to have very lean builds, and optimal performance comes when body weight-to-strength ratios are maximized. Meanwhile, sports like wrestling require athletes to “make weight” while maintaining strength, power, and stamina to perform. In most sports, including baseball, softball, basketball, and football, virtually every team has at least one member whose performance is significantly hindered by extra weight.

Many athletes feel pressure to lose weight to improve performance, and they’re bombarded by advertising for name-brand diets, fat-melting supplements, and countless other products offering a quick fix. Others are drawn in by bad advice, such as skipping breakfast, not eating after 6 p.m., or staying away from valuable post-workout recovery shakes. A few sports, such as gymnastics and wrestling, have long struggled with unhealthy dieting cultures. With so much misinformation, it’s vital for athletes to understand that healthy weight loss is a realistic goal, and that it can be pursued without putting health or performance at risk.


In the simplest terms, all weight loss plans are based on an individual taking in fewer calories than they expend. Calories, of course, are consumed through food and drink and expended via physical activity, normal resting metabolism, and the thermic effect of food (the energy utilized in digestion). In humans, physical activity and resting metabolic rate (RMR) account for 90 to 95 percent of calorie expenditure.

When an athlete doesn’t consume as many calories as they expend, the resulting calorie deficit forces the body to tap into its energy stores–primarily adipose tissue (fat) and muscle, resulting in weight loss. The main goal for athletes is dropping fat through this process while keeping lean body mass and still having enough available energy to meet daily training and competition demands.

That’s the simple equation, but like so many aspects of athletic performance, the devil is in the details. Metabolism is highly variable and adaptable, and as caloric intake decreases, resting metabolic rate can slow down as well, making weight loss more and more difficult.

A 2005 study found that when a group of non-athlete men reduced their calorie consumption by 40 percent for 21 days, they did lose weight–on average roughly 8.5 pounds of fat and lean mass–but their RMR decreased by 15 percent, or an average of 165 kcal per day. Other studies have observed similar declines in resting metabolism due to decreased caloric intake.

Athletes likely won’t experience this drop in metabolism due to dieting–at least not at first–because of their higher than normal physical activity level. Earlier this year, a group of researchers studied the effects of caloric restriction on trained cyclists instead of non-athletes, and found no difference in RMR due to the lower calorie supply. However, the normal RMR doesn’t last forever. In a 2007 study, active individuals who followed a diet and exercise regimen for more than half a year did experience a decrease in RMR, starting at around the six-month mark.

Together, these studies suggest that athletes can maintain a healthy RMR during short-term calorie restriction, but that over time, continued restriction hurts metabolism and thereby undermines weight loss goals–and possibly hurts performance as well. The take-home message is that moderately decreasing caloric intake to a level below energy expenditure is an effective way for athletes to lose weight over the course of two or three months, but the altered eating habits and resulting energy imbalance shouldn’t become a permanent lifestyle change.


Working within this limited timeframe, some basic guidelines can help athletes drop weight without losing significant amounts of muscle, experiencing performance declines, or harming their overall health. When I counsel athletes who want to shed pounds, I focus on five main points of advice.

Establish calorie goals. There’s an obvious first question when looking to safely restrict calories for weight loss: How much is enough? It’s possible to measure energy expenditure and pinpoint calorie needs using direct or indirect calorimetry, but this is not practical in most settings.

A better strategy is to simply estimate, and the sports nutrition community has a reliable equation for this purpose. It’s called the Lohman Equation, and it was developed in 1999 specifically for athletic populations:

(9 x weight in kg) + (11.7 x height in cm) – 857 = Resting Metabolic Rate

For example, to apply this equation to a 175-pound (79.5 kg) athlete who stands 5-foot-11 (180.3 cm), the calculation would look like this:

(9 x 79.5) + (11.7 x 180.3) – 857 = Resting Metabolic Rate: 1,965 calories per day

Once resting metabolic rate is determined, you can apply a multiplier to account for the athlete’s activity level–this provides an estimate of total daily energy expenditure. The American Dietetic Association recommends a multiplier of 1.6 for those performing moderate activity during the day, and 2.0 for those engaged in vigorous activity.

At the University of Nebraska, we have adapted activity factors to create our own figures for athletes looking to lose weight. For those who are actively training, we use a multiplier of 1.6, and for those in a period of relative inactivity, we use 1.3. So if our 5-foot-11, 175-pound athlete was looking to lose weight while training, he should consume roughly 3,140 calories daily. If not actively training, he should aim for 2,550 calories.

Since these numbers are approximations and can’t account for individuals’ exact metabolism, daily activity level, and other relevant factors, it’s best to monitor the effects of a calorie restriction plan on a regular basis. Our multiplier for athlete weight loss attempts to produce a daily energy deficit of 25 to 30 percent, which equates to roughly 500 to 1,000 kcal depending on energy needs. The goal is to achieve a weight loss rate of one pound per week, and we’ll make individualized adjustments if athletes are dropping pounds faster or slower than that.

If an athlete is losing weight significantly faster than one pound a week, the more severe energy deficit can pose serious risks to health and performance. One recent study from Japan evaluated the impact of intense calorie restriction on competitive judoists, and found that while the athletes lost an average of more than six pounds in just 20 days, they experienced side effects ranging from immune suppression and decreased vigor to a marked increase in fatigue and tension. They were also found to have higher than normal levels of creatine kinase, a marker of muscle damage, which suggests they lost not just fat but also lean muscle.

Increase meal frequency. Most athletes have busy schedules, and it’s not uncommon for them to skip meals and go for long stretches of the day without eating. Some may even believe it’s better to eat less often, as they can stick to a daily calorie goal more easily when they only have to keep track of intake twice a day instead of five times. But research shows that smaller, more frequent meals produce healthier weight loss than larger, less frequent ones.

In one excellent illustration of this effect, a 1996 study compared two groups of boxers who were following a weight loss plan. Both groups took in the same number of calories per day, but one group had the calories spread out over six small meals, while the other had two larger meals. After two weeks, both groups had lost weight, but the group consuming just two daily meals lost an average of one kilogram more of lean body mass. In addition, the six-meal athletes had lower levels of a compound called 3-methylhistidine/creatinine in their bodies, suggesting that their energy deficit was made up mostly by breaking down fat instead of lean muscle tissue.

Epidemiological studies have found that spreading food intake across even just one extra daily meal produces benefits such as improved insulin resistance, blood glucose control, and blood lipid profiles. And anecdotally, athletes who eat smaller, more frequent meals often report having more energy throughout the day, which is helpful for everything from getting the most out of practice to remaining alert in class and while studying. At Nebraska, we recommend that athletes who are following a weight loss plan eat five to six small meals at roughly even intervals throughout the day.

Time nutrition wisely. When athletes are restricting their food intake to lose weight, it’s especially important that they consume the right nutrients at the most critical times–specifically, before, during, and after training. A lack of available protein and carbohydrates during training is known to decrease exercise performance and throw off protein balance. Pre-exercise carb consumption is linked to the ability to maximize and maintain muscle glycogen stores during exercise, while pre-exercise protein limits protein breakdown in muscles.

Exact protein and carbohydrate needs depend on a number of variables, most importantly exercise intensity and duration. The International Society of Sports Nutrition published a position paper in 2008 recommending that athletes consume one to two grams of carbohydrate and .15 to .25 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight three to four hours before exercise to promote optimum performance and muscle response. For the 175-pound athlete, this would mean taking in around 120 grams of carbohydrates and 16 grams of protein in a pre-workout meal.

For exercise sessions lasting 90 minutes or more, ingesting carbohydrates and protein during activity can help improve performance and delay fatigue. Particularly for athletes with an energy deficit due to a calorie-restricting weight loss plan, fueling with carbs and protein during exercise will boost endurance and prevent muscle breakdown. The research varies on exactly how much is ideal–and a few studies have found that protein consumption during exercise has no discernable benefit–but a sports drink containing around seven percent carbohydrate and up to two percent protein is a good starting point.

Post-workout nutrition is also vital, and there’s a large body of research showing that adequate carb and protein consumption within an hour of working out is essential for recovery, glycogen replacement, and muscle preservation and growth. Most studies recommend carbohydrate intake of 1.0 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight within 60 minutes of completing exercise, and at least 20 grams of protein.

Not all carb sources are created equal, and when eating for recovery after workouts, it’s especially important to focus on high-glycemic carbohydrates. (See “Simple Recovery” below for some specific suggestions.)

Maintain a balanced diet. Adequate vitamin and mineral intake is critical during energy restriction. Limiting portion sizes and scaling back on certain types of foods decreases athletes’ opportunity to get a full spectrum of micronutrients. And once athletes adjust to a calorie-restricting plan, they may find themselves gravitating again and again toward the same few foods that suit their tastes while not exceeding their calorie allowance.

Narrowing food choices must be actively discouraged when athletes are losing weight. Different fruits and vegetables in particular provide a wide variety of nutrients, antioxidants, and essential vitamins, and their high fiber content also helps control appetite.

Likewise, protein should come from a rich variety of sources as well, including lean red meat, poultry, low-fat dairy products, legumes, nuts, and eggs. And because protein helps maintain lean body mass during weight loss, this category especially shouldn’t be shortchanged. A daily protein intake of two grams per kilogram of body weight, preferably spread across five to six meals throughout the day, is ideal.

Take a multivitamin supplement. This recommendation is the easiest to follow. Any time athletes are changing their dietary habits, there’s a chance their altered food choices will leave them with a deficit of one or more important nutrients, such as iron, calcium, or vitamin D. Eating a varied diet will eliminate most of the risk for serious deficiencies, but an over-the-counter multivitamin is a simple insurance policy against health problems associated with a shortage of individual dietary vitamins and minerals.


Educating athletes, coaches, and support staff on healthy dieting strategies is key. Athletes often attempt to lose weight on their own in response to personal pressure, peer pressure, or pressure from coaches–perceived or real. Telling an athlete that they need to “lean out” or improve their body composition without giving them proper resources and education on how to do it sends a dangerous message and usually results in unhealthy eating and activity habits.

One important area to discuss with athletes is having realistic expectations. Healthy weight loss takes patience, so they shouldn’t feel discouraged if they do not see dramatic results in the first few weeks under a weight loss plan. By monitoring body weight and composition over the course of a month or more, athletes can see their efforts paying off even if the changes from one day to the next are too gradual to observe.

A final note involves when to follow a weight loss plan. Due to the demands of the competitive season, there’s little margin for error with dietary changes at this time, so athletes should plan on making serious weight loss strides only in their off-season. During the season, weight and body composition should be monitored, but mainly to determine whether the athlete is successfully maintaining a consistent weight.

Athletes should always be encouraged to talk openly–with an athletic trainer, their coach, or a sports dietician–about their weight goals. With proper education and a responsible approach, they’ll realize that achieving optimal weight can add a rewarding new dimension to their performance enhancement program.

Sidebar: SIX MEALS = 2,500 KCAL

Optimal daily calorie intake for athletes looking to lose weight varies based on criteria discussed in this article. But whatever their calorie goals, athletes should look to spread their energy consumption across five to six small meals per day. Here’s one example of a day’s food intake that achieves this benchmark while providing roughly 2,500 kcal of energy.

Breakfast: One cup of cottage cheese, a banana, and a cup of healthy cereal

Mid-Morning Snack: Apple and one cup of yogurt

Lunch: Turkey sandwich (with cheese and three ounces of meat) and one cup of broccoli

Pre-workout: Two cups of skim milk and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich

Post-workout: Recovery shake or 16 ounces of chocolate skim milk

Dinner: Grilled chicken breast (six ounces), mixed vegetables (1.5 cups), and pasta (1.5 cups)


These suggestions for post-workout recovery fueling require little to no preparation and provide a good balance of energy, protein, and high-glycemic carbohydrates.

• Two cups of skim milk and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (455 kcal, 22 g of protein, 54 g of carbs)

• Two cups of chocolate skim milk (260 kcal, 16 g of protein, 48 g of carbs)

• One cup of cottage cheese, a banana, and one cup of a healthy cereal (505 kcal, 33 g of protein, 73 g of carbs)

• Turkey sandwich (with cheese and three ounces of meat) and a banana (500 kcal, 33 g of protein, 57 g of carbs)

In addition to these options, several types of recovery shakes are available that have been specially formulated to meet athletes’ post-workout needs.

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