Jan 29, 2015
When It’s Okay to Lose

By Dr. Karen Reznik Dolins

For those athletes looking to lose weight, a plan should be developed that enhances health and minimizes the negative effects of reducing energy intake on athletic performance.


Athletes hoping to improve in their sport by becoming leaner need guidance on how to trim calories from their diet without compromising nutrient requirements. Cutting calories indiscriminately is counterproductive, as it leaves the body short on the ingredients needed to get the most out of training.

Overall, weight loss should always be undertaken during the off-season. In addition, the degree of calorie restriction should be minimized and the nutrient mix optimized.

Often, starches are the first to go, as many misunderstand the role of carbohydrates in weight gain. While eating any food in excess will cause weight gain, eating too few carbohydrate-containing foods translates to inadequate energy for working muscles. This forces the body to divert protein from muscle to the liver, where it will be converted into sugar to maintain blood glucose levels. In fact, when calories and carbohydrates are reduced, protein needs actually increase, so including a variety of lean protein sources such as lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, and low-fat dairy foods is important.

Fat is also an essential nutrient and a vital fuel during activity, but is often eaten in greater amounts than is helpful. Moderating the amount of fats consumed will effectively cut calories, and focusing on oils from plants, nuts, and fish while minimizing saturated fats from meats and whole fat dairy foods will help prevent the accumulation of fatty plaques in the arteries.

Active individuals, like their more sedentary counterparts, often have a limited understanding of the calorie content of foods. For example, many are surprised to find that large muffins can yield 600 calories, while many restaurant meals have well over 1,000 calories.

Any athlete would benefit from the following recommendations:

• An athlete’s diet should emphasize whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables, which all provide carbohydrates for fuel along with the vitamins and minerals needed to metabolize them. In addition, the high fiber and water content of these foods make them more satisfying than more highly processed choices. Include at least three servings of fruit (one medium-sized piece or three-quarters of a cup) and at least one cup of raw or cooked vegetables daily. • Limit portion sizes and reduce mindless eating. Remind athletes to pay attention to when they feel satisfied, and stop eating before having a sensation of uncomfortable fullness. • Reduce fat intake by avoiding fried and sautéed foods. Stick with grilled, broiled, or stewed dishes. Hidden fats are found in muffins, cookies, candy, and ice cream. Salad dressing can be high in fat, so tell them to ask for it on the side and limit the amount to two tablespoons. • Watch out for super-sized portions of sweetened drinks. Whether it’s soda, fruit drinks, teas, or lemonade, these contain hundreds of calories. • Include low-fat dairy products for an excellent source of carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals. • Include lean meat, poultry and fish while avoiding fattier ribs, burgers, bacon, and sausages. Beans can be substituted for animal sources of protein. • Limit alcohol. • Always include breakfast. The high school and collegiate athlete often struggles with finding time for an adequate breakfast, but it is essential to fuel muscles and the brain after an overnight fast. Going without food in the morning starts the day with an energy deficit that will result in an unfavorable hormonal response. Breakfast is not a time to “save” calories. Meals can be planned that are quick yet nutritious, such as yogurt with fruit, cereal, and whole grain toast with cheese. • Limit the amount of time that passes between meals and snacks. For time-challenged student-athletes, this is often best accomplished by carrying homemade trail mix of dry cereal, fruit, and nuts. • Be sure to fuel workouts by including pre-workout and recovery meals or snacks.

Karen Reznik Dolins, EdD, RD, CSSD, CDN, is Coordinator of the Nutrition and Physical Activity specialty program and Adjunct Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is also the Sports Nutritionist for Columbia Intercollegiate Athletics. A recipient of the Sports and Cardiovascular Nutritionists (SCAN) Achievement Award in 2005, she has been a nutrition consultant for USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming, the U.S. Tennis Association, the New York Knicks, and the WNBA. She can be reached at: [email protected]

Note: This article accompanies the feature story, In The Dark, which is also authored by Dr. Dolins and appears in our November 2010 issue.




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