Aug 10, 2018
Weight Loss Truths
Michelle Rockwell,

Simple science says that eating less calories than you expend will lead to weight loss. Friends and popular magazine articles will tell athletes the latest secret to weight loss. But, for an athlete in-season, this advice could be dangerous. They need to limit intake much more carefully.

Since counting calories is foreign to many athletes and can also easily become obsessive, I advise more subtle dietary changes. I’ve found the following tips resonate well for today’s athletes:

Practice Mindful Eating

Skipping meals may seem like an easy strategy to cut calories, but it’s also a sure way to slow metabolism and deplete energy levels. Athletes should eat four to five times per day. The two most important fueling times are breakfast (within one hour of waking up) and refueling (within one-half to one hour of completing hard workouts).

However, athletes should identify times when they are consuming calories that aren’t contributing to beneficial fuel intake. For example, if snacking on junk food during the evening is the athlete’s biggest issue, they can make a grocery list for healthier items to keep around. One athlete decided to start studying at study hall where food was not allowed to prevent snacking on her typical potato chips and candy. Another athlete reminded herself to drink water rather than snack at night–she realized she was mistaking thirst for hunger. A third athlete started going to bed one hour earlier–when he got more sleep, he was less hungry. He also stopped keeping coins in his dorm room to prevent visits to the vending machine.

I also try to get athletes in touch with when their bodies are actually hungry and when they’re full. I often start by having them keep a food log that includes a hunger rating, which is a measurement of how hungry they feel when they start eating a particular food or beverage.

For example, by filling out the log, a gymnast I worked with realized that she was snacking on sweets later in the evening partially because she didn’t find her dinner or 8 p.m. snack very satisfying. (See “How Hungry Are You?” below.) By adding a baked sweet potato at dinner and substituting a high protein snack at 8 p.m. (yogurt), she satisfied her cravings for something sweet and felt full longer. She also recognized that she was bored and lonely at 9:45, the time when she and her boyfriend used to talk on the telephone (they had recently broken up). Instead of snacking at this time, she decided to walk her dog and call a friend on her cell phone.

Modify Portion Sizes

Try to modify the portion sizes of favorite foods. Sometimes it even helps to simply use smaller serving dishes. I have athletes try this experiment: Prepare a cup of pasta and put it on a regular dinner plate–it will look lost in the middle of that big plate. Put the same cup of pasta on a small plate, and it looks huge. Try the same thing with cereal or ice cream bowls and drink glasses. There is no harm in playing mind-games with yourself! (See “Portion Control” below.)

I also caution athletes to beware of “sneaky calories,” those foods that people eat throughout the day almost without realizing it–the bite of a friend’s dessert, the spoonful tastes while cooking dinner, the leftovers eaten as you do dishes. The athlete attempting to lose weight needs to become conscious of these calories, because they really add up.

Modify Nutritional Content

Some athletes find success by modifying the nutritional composition of favorite foods. That way, they can still eat the foods they like and are used to without the undesired calories. For example, one athlete saved over 400 calories per day just by changing from regular ranch salad dressing to lite salad dressing. Changing from full-fat to lower-fat or fat-free versions of milk, other dairy products, condiments like mayonnaise, and creamy soups can also be very helpful. One athlete liked to have ice cream before bed every night. We determined that between ice cream and fudge sauce, she was getting 800 calories per night. Imagine how many calories she saved when she switched to a fudge pop (160 calories), low-fat frozen yogurt (180 calories), or an all-fruit popsicle (70 calories), which she ultimately found just as satisfying.

Another trick is to add more water to a diet. High-liquid foods such as fruits, vegetables, and soups (broth-based, not cream-based) can work wonders. They allow an athlete to eat until they’re full without getting a high volume of calories.

Modify Drink Calories

During the day, it would be wise to substitute sports drinks with water or other calorie-free drinks (unless the athlete has specific problems with dehydration or is in two-a-day practices). Many athletes are surprised to learn how many calories they are getting from beverages. An NFL lineman was able to cut over 2,500 calories from his daily diet and lose two pounds per week just by changing his drink selections.

Eat a Sports Diet

A sports diet is one that focuses on carbohydrates, nutrients, and lowering fat. Carbohydrate intake should match the athlete’s training level. As the season progresses, training volume and intensity decrease, meaning the body is likely burning and requiring less carbohydrate foods. For example, a male lacrosse player should reduce his servings of carb-containing foods by 60 to 70 percent from start to end of a season–if he needed 14 servings of carbohydrate in the beginning of the season, he should cut down to nine by the playoffs. The drop isn’t drastic, but it should take place.

Protein is also important, and should be included in all meals and snacks. One reason for this is that protein needs are enhanced during weight loss to preserve muscle tissue. Second, including protein in meals helps prolong fullness. Examples of quality protein foods include lean meats, egg whites, low-fat dairy products, beans, nuts/peanut butter, and soy/tofu products.

Fiber, vitamins, and minerals are another focus. Eating more high fiber foods will increase fullness. Good examples are whole grain breads and cereals, beans, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables, along with meat, will lead to proper vitamin and mineral intake.

High-fat foods are the primary place for the athlete to cut back. Fatty foods are jam-packed with calories. Examples are fried foods, high-fat cuts of meat, meat with skin, whole dairy products, eggs, mayonnaise, cream cheese, sour cream, butter, snack foods, and desserts. Some athletes also get a lot of excess calories through bacon, sausage, and butter at breakfast. Try ham or Canadian bacon instead of the higher-fat meats and either low-fat margarine, whipped butter, or real-fruit jelly instead of regular butter. Athletes may not even notice if they skip the butter on pancakes, waffles, or French toast.

Athletes should also decrease their intake of foods high in added sugar like candy, desserts, pastries, doughnuts, syrups, and sodas. These are “empty calories” that fail to provide nutrients and long-lasting energy.

Michelle Rockwell, MS, RD, is the former Coordinator of Sports Nutrition at the University of Florida and now serves as a nutrition consultant for several sports teams ranging from youth to collegiate to professional.

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