Jan 29, 2015
Winning and Losing

Can athletes win and lose weight at the same time? In this article, we discuss the delicate issue of losing weight during the competitive season.

By Michelle Rockwell

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. She has recently launched RK Team Nutrition, at: www.rkteamnutrition.net, and can be reached at: [email protected].

The official position of the American College of Sports Medicine, which most sports nutritionists agree with, is that athletes should not try to lose weight during their competitive season. That’s because dieting can very easily jeopardize energy and nutrients critical for training and performance. In addition, the mental stress of restricting calories can become all-encompassing and turn into a performance-distracter.

But what happens when an athlete shows up for preseason physicals with frantic weight-loss goals? The off-season, which is when weight loss was supposed to happen, went by too quickly and the athlete ended up relaxing on their nutrition habits instead of making important changes.

Can athletes lose weight during the season without compromising their training? The answer is yes, but it must be done carefully.

IS IT A GOOD IDEA? Before any talk of dieting or calorie cutting begins, it’s critical to discuss whether a particular athlete who wants to lose weight truly needs to. It’s easy to say, “No dieting now, let’s write a reminder to focus on it during the off-season.” But the reality is that excessive weight or body fat can impair athletic performance in some cases. The challenge is determining whether the risks of making weight changes in-season outweigh the potential performance benefits.

Therefore, to start, take the time to talk to the athlete one-on-one about why he or she wants to lose weight. At least half the time, athletes’ weight-loss goals are inappropriate and unrealistic. Many times athletes want to lose weight for aesthetic reasons, not performance-enhancing reasons. I have worked with professional athletes, both male and female, whose weight goals are based strictly on how they will look in photographs and advertisements. Sometimes athletes have competing interests–a college volleyball player who models on the side is a good example.

Others have a “magic number” in mind that they believe is their ideal competition weight, but it’s not based on anything scientific. Take the example of a high school cross country runner I recently worked with. He was convinced that his optimal race weight was 142 pounds since that is how much he weighed when he scored at the state cross country meet his sophomore and junior seasons. At the start of his senior season, he weighed 156 pounds and was tremendously under-confident. His coach grew concerned when he started skipping meals and doing extra runs at night in an attempt to cut weight.

During our initial conversation, the athlete revealed that he had started lifting weights since last season and had grown 2.5 inches taller–both very good reasons for gaining lean mass! We ultimately created a meal plan that helped him get to 150 pounds, which he was content with, and he raced quite well at the higher weight. But the most important aspect was to get him to understand that 142 was not a magic number.

An intense desire to lose weight may also be a sign that something else is going on with an athlete. How many times have you heard a young female athlete say, “Everything would be fine if I could just lose 10 pounds.” So much emphasis is placed on weight and body image in our society (and in sports) that athletes may feel losing weight is the cure to all their problems. They could have personal issues or stressors they need to deal with, and may need the help of a mental health professional.

Athletes in sports with weight classifications, such as wrestling and lightweight crew, are clearly in a different category as they typically have no choice but to try to achieve a specified weight. However, even with these athletes, it must be determined whether they can achieve the desired weight without decreasing performance, or whether they need to move to a higher weight class or heavyweight crew for the season.

Here are six questions to ask athletes who want to lose weight in-season:

• What is your weight-loss goal? • Is this realistic? • When is the last time you weighed this amount? • Why do you want to lose weight? • How will this make you perform better? • Is there any chance that changing your diet will detract from your training or performance, both physically and mentally?

A discussion based on the above questions should allow you to get a clear picture of the athlete’s perspective. Then decide if his or her goals are realistic, appropriate, and can be reached without harm. Many times it’s beneficial to involve a sports dietitian or even a team physician in this process. Don’t hesitate to enlist further professional help if you detect signs of disordered eating.

GENERAL GUIDELINES If you decide to help an athlete move forward with an in-season weight-loss plan, it’s important to put some strict guidelines into place. The first is to communicate often. Remind the athlete that there is a reason why the regular season is not the preferred time to focus on weight loss. Low energy levels, poor recovery, and poor concentration may occur on any restricted-calorie diet. Any physical or mental changes should be consistently communicated with the sports medicine team.

The second guideline is to start immediately. Initiate the weight-loss program as early in the season as possible, ideally in the early preseason when training volume and intensity are high and before competition begins. This will allow more time to space out the weight loss and lessen the chance it will have detrimental effects.

Third, keep it gradual. Athletes should lose no more than one to two pounds per week, and even that may be too fast in-season. Losing weight more rapidly is likely to cause loss of muscle tissue and potentially strength, speed, and power. Emphasize that drastic and rapid weight loss is always a health risk, but it is even riskier during intense training. Watch out for symptoms of inappropriately fast weight loss or excessive calorie-restriction, including increased injury or illness, decreased energy levels, poor recovery, and decreased performance.

Low-calorie diets are also more likely to lead to low intakes of important vitamins and minerals which can affect an athlete. For example, it is well known that iron deficiency impairs performance. Research has also shown a strong relationship between chronically inadequate calories (“energy drain”) and amenorrhea (loss of the regular menstrual cycle). Amenorrhea can be a concern in terms of reproductive health, but also in terms of bone health. Athletes with amenorrhea are more likely to have low bone mineral density, which predisposes them to fractures and eventually osteoporosis.

Even athletes in sports with weight classifications should shed pounds gradually. A wrestler who is 10 pounds over his weight class is much better off losing two pounds per week throughout the beginning of the season than crash dieting to lose it all at the last minute. The best scenario is when you can convince these athletes to stick to low-fat, but consistent diets.

If you need to make a specific calorie recommendation to the athlete striving to lose weight, I recommend assessing what they currently eat on a typical day (not a “good day” but a “typical day”), and reducing that amount by 10 to 20 percent. For example, a female swimmer who currently eats about 3,200 calories per day should be able to achieve weight loss without jeopardizing training and performance by cutting down to 2,500 to 2,700 calories per day.

DO’S AND DON’TS Once athletes have committed to following the above rules, they’ll want some specifics on how to lose the weight. 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 do’s and don’ts resonate well for today’s athletes:

Don’t Skip Meals …

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).

… Do Practice Mindful Eating 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.

Don’t Eliminate Favorite Foods …

There is no reason to completely eliminate favorite foods or foods eaten frequently. This will just make the athlete crave them more.

… Do Modify Portion Sizes

Instead, advise the athlete to modify the portion sizes of favorite foods. Sometimes it even helps to simply use smaller serving dishes. I have them 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.

… Do Modify Nutritional Content

Others 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.

Don’t Risk Dehydration …

Some athletes are pleased by the weight they lose during training sessions. But they should not be. Weight lost during exercise is almost exclusively fluid loss that must be replaced to support recovery.

Athletes should also understand that fluid needs are often higher during calorie restriction. Those watching their intake sometimes make the mistake of restricting the amount they drink. But drinking plenty of water is an important part of both weight loss and athletic performance.

Athletes should also continue to use sports drinks before, during, and after activity. Some athletes who are losing weight worry about the calories in sports drinks, but these should be the last calories they’re concerned about. Sports drinks provide a small amount of energy in the form of sugar that can help delay fatigue. These are not the calories to cut.

… Do Modify Drink Calories

However, 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. (See “Beverage Board” below.)

Any athlete trying to lose weight should also avoid alcohol. Calories from alcohol are not used as productive fuel and eliminating or reducing them is often very helpful in weight loss. In addition, alcohol is an appetite stimulant, which can lead to a larger intake of food calories.

Don’t Follow Fad Diets… Fad diets, especially low-carbohydrate diets like Atkins, South Beach, and Sugar Busters, are extremely inappropriate for athletes training intensely because carbohydrates are the primary fuel for both exercising muscles and the brain. Any diet or meal plan that is extremely strict or excludes a major food group will wreak havoc on an athlete’s ability to train well.

… Do 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.

Changing one’s diet is difficult, no doubt about it, and athletes interested in losing weight in-season will need a lot of support from the sports medicine staff. Make a special effort to monitor the athlete’s progress without overemphasizing it. Monitoring should include not only how much actual weight is lost, but body composition changes, changes in energy level, training capacity, recovery, mood and mental status, menstrual function, quantity and quality of sleep, and general well-being. And remind them that, next season, they need to plan ahead!

Table: How Hungry Are You?

Below is a log entry in which a gymnast rated her hunger before eating evening meals and snacks.

Time of Day……Food or Drink……Hunger Score (10= the hungriest I’ve ever been, 1= not at all hungry)……Comments 6:45 p.m…..1 grilled chicken sandwich with mustard and pickles, 20 oz. diet soda, 7 baby carrots…7……I felt really hungry because it was right after practice and showering. 8:00 p.m…………….24 animal crackers……………..7.5……………..While I was studying. 9:30 p.m………………Bag of Skittles…………………4 9:45 p.m………..2 chocolate chip cookies…………….2………….I wasn’t even hungry but couldn’t stop thinking about the cookies in my roommate’s cabinet.

Table: Portion Control

Here are some examples of easy portion size changes. Look at the calorie differences!

McDonald’s Big Mac, large fries, large soda (1,380 calories) vs. McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, medium fries, large diet soda (800 calories)

King size Snickers candy bar (510 calories) vs. Regular Snickers candy bar (275 calories) vs. Fun size Snickers candy bar (110 calories)

Regular size bagel (320 calories) vs. Mini bagel (100 calories)

Full bag of microwave popcorn (620 calories) vs. Single serving bag light microwave popcorn (100 calories)

Table: Beverage Board

This table shows how an NFL lineman was able to reduce his caloric consumption significantly by changing his drink choices.

Meal…………………………..Original Drinks……………………………..Substitution

Breakfast…….2 20 oz. bottles orange juice (480 calories)……….2 20 oz. bottles water and a fresh orange (60 calories)

Throughout the morning…..1 can soda (200 calories), 2 large glasses fruit punch (700 calories)…………1 can diet soda, 2 bottles water or sugar-free flavored beverage (10 calories)

Lunch…………………..Large lemonade (300 calories)……………Large water (0 calories)

During training session…..72 oz. sports drink (135 calories), water……..72 oz. sports drink (135 calories), water

After training session……..Recovery shake (350 calories)………Recovery shake (350 calories)

Dinner……….Restaurant soda with free refills (650 calories)………….2 restaurant unsweetened teas, water (0 calories)

After dinner………..Large glass Kool-aid (400 calories)…………Water or sugar-free flavored beverage (10 calories) Totals……………………………..3,215 calories…………………………………565 calories

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