Jul 26, 2017
Rethinking Weight Loss
Monica Van Winkle

The conversation around weight loss in athletes is tricky because it has the potential to do more harm than good. When weight or body fat percentage becomes the focus, performance often suffers.

This happened to Eric, a 5-foot-11-inch, 180-pound distance runner. Eric was referred to me by his coach after complaining that his legs felt like bricks during runs, and he couldn’t keep up with his teammates on hill workouts.

During Eric’s initial evaluation, he revealed he had been trying to lose weight. He wanted to be 155 pounds because he read this was the ideal weight for a runner his height. Yet, he also admitted that this number came from an unscientific blog.

In an attempt to reach his goal weight, Eric had adopted the Paleo diet, which emphasizes protein, fruit, and vegetable consumption, while eliminating grains and dairy. Two weeks in, his weight dropped from 178 to 170 pounds. However, over the next several weeks, it rebounded to 180 pounds. He disclosed having relentless cravings for high-sugar and high-fat foods at night and even described feeling out of control while he was eating.

At our first visit, I took Eric’s measurements and recorded his medical history. He had 23 percent body fat, which correlated to 138.6 pounds of fat-free mass and 41.4 pounds of fat mass. His estimated resting metabolic rate (RMR) was 1,872 calories, while his actual RMR was 1,600. Eric indicated that his family had a history of heart disease and said he was taking 1,000 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C a day to avoid getting sick, as he had been experiencing more colds. He was also taking 600 mg of calcium citrate twice a day to make up for the lack of dairy on the Paleo diet.

To get a detailed look at what Eric was eating, I had him do a 24-hour food recall. His results are listed below:

Before morning run: 8 ounces of water

Breakfast: 3 egg whites, 2 cups of spinach, 1 cup of black coffee

Lunch: 8 ounces of grilled chicken, 1/2 cup of sweet potatoes, 1 cup of steamed broccoli, 8 ounces of water

Afternoon snack: 2 sports bars, 12 ounces of water

Dinner: 8 ounces of grilled chicken, kale salad with lemon, 12 ounces of water

Before bed snack: 3 pieces of dark chocolate, a handful of dried fruit, 3 sports bars, 8 large spoonfuls of peanut butter, 12 ounces of water.

From this, I determined that Eric had fallen victim to one of the most common weight loss mistakes — calorie restriction. Although he experienced temporary weight loss and increased energy when he first switched to Paleo, this was due to the fact that his body was upregulating hormones that delayed fatigue during starvation. Eventually, Eric’s body couldn’t keep up, his performance and health suffered, and he regained the lost weight.

My solution was to have a frank discussion with Eric about the realities of calorie restriction. If any weight loss is achieved through a way of eating that cannot be sustained, that weight loss understandably cannot be sustained. Examples of this include cutting out entire food groups or a rigid focus on clean eating. The most ironic consequence of dieting is increased body fat and future weight gain.

To get Eric’s diet back on track, I designed a new meal plan that focused on supporting Eric’s lean muscle mass and improving his metabolic rate. To start, I took him off the Paleo diet and saved him a little money by stopping vitamin C and calcium supplementation. I then suggested he increase carbohydrate intake before and after training, as carbohydrates are the primary fuel for muscle. When athletes don’t consume enough, glycogen levels deplete, and muscle endurance and recovery suffer.

Furthermore, reduced glycogen levels prompt the release of cortisol, a catabolic hormone. Consuming carbohydrate before and after exercise blunts this response, minimizing muscle breakdown.

Cortisol can also suppress antibody production and the immune system. So smart carbohydrate timing can ward off illness, and it can be more effective than supplementing with vitamins, as long as the individual is consuming fruits and vegetables, which Eric was doing.

Because Eric attributed his initial weight loss to cutting back on carbs, he was fearful of adding them back into his meal plan. I explained that much of the weight he originally lost was not body fat. Rather, he had just depleted his glycogen stores, which were stored fuel and water weight. Once his body got used to having carbs in the tank again, he would see how quickly he could turn them into energy to support performance.

To achieve our goal of boosting Eric’s metabolism, we had to better meet his energy needs. One way to do this was by increasing his fat intake. Given his family history of heart disease, Eric was hesitant to add in more fat and felt it contributed too many calories to aid in weight loss. To ease his fears, I showed him the research connecting unsaturated fats to a decreased risk for heart disease, and we looked at three other benefits of fat:

• It creates comfortable fullness, which helps counter urges to binge.

• It helps make hormones to support lean muscle, including testosterone.

• It helps absorb fat-soluble vitamins, which help the body heal and recover.

I also suggested Eric continue consuming high amounts of protein, as muscle is a key player in determining metabolic rate. Since the body can only use around 25 grams of protein toward muscle synthesis at one time, I decreased Eric’s protein portions at lunch and dinner and increased them at breakfast and snacks.

Here’s what Eric’s new diet plan looked like:

Before morning run: 20 ounces of carb/electrolyte drink

After morning run: 16 ounces of low-fat chocolate milk

Breakfast: 3 whole eggs, 1/4 of an avocado, 1 cup of spinach, 1 cup oatmeal with cinnamon, 16 ounces of water

Mid-morning snack: Apple and peanut butter; carrots and hummus; or trail mix with nuts, dried fruit, and dark chocolate; 12 ounces of water

Lunch: 5 ounces grilled chicken, 1 to 2 cups of sweet potatoes, 1 cup of roasted veggies with olive oil, 1 medium chocolate chip cookie, 16 ounces of water

Afternoon snack: Trail mix with nuts, dried fruit, and dark chocolate; 12 ounces of water

Dinner: 5 ounces of grilled chicken, 1 to 2 cups of brown rice, kale salad with lemon and vinaigrette dressing, 1 ounce of cheese, 16 ounces of water

Before bed snack: Full-fat Greek yogurt and berries or 2 pieces of dark chocolate and a handful of almonds, 12 ounces of water.

Following this meal plan, Eric’s weight settled at 178 pounds. He dropped to 20 percent body fat, correlating to a fat-free mass of 142.4 pounds and fat mass of 35.6 pounds. When nutrient quality, timing, improved hydration, and flexibility became the focus, Eric’s intense late-night cravings disappeared.

As Eric’s strength-to-weight ratio improved, so did his running times. His legs no longer felt like bricks, and he could keep up with his running partners. Most importantly, Eric rediscovered the joy he had in running and learned how much energy he had when he made performance, not weight, his priority.

If an athlete has adopted weight loss habits that don’t support performance — such as Eric’s calorie restriction — their weight might be above their genetic set point. Changing their diet to better support their energy needs may result in a decrease in body fat, as was the case for Eric.

And if an athlete has adopted a high performance fueling plan and does not lose weight or body fat, it’s key that they seek self-acceptance. Although it’s a revolutionary concept, it will take any athlete’s performance to the next level by reminding them of all the reasons they became an athlete in the first place — learning to stand after falling, becoming part of something bigger than themselves, and pushing their body and mind past the limits. The number on the scale cannot change this.

Monica Van Winkle, MS, RD, is the owner of Nutrition in Action in Seattle, where she consults with athletes from recreational to professional levels. She is also the Sports Dietitian for the Seattle Mariners, Seattle Pacific University, and TN Multisports. Van Winkle currently serves as a board member for the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals.

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