The meal plan for an athlete trying to lose weight is similar to the meal plan for any athlete, but it contains slightly fewer calories than are necessary to maintain weight. Exactly how many fewer depends on your body size or total energy requirements and training and performance goals. I firmly believe that athletes should not restrict calories during the regular season or peak season, unless of course they have been benched, are sitting out that season, or are not expecting a peak per formance that season. Restricting calories is a goal for the preseason and off-season. During this time, athletes on a weight-reduction plan should strive to eat 300 to 500 calories per day less than their required energy needs, which would promote a weight loss of about half a pound to a pound (0.22-0.45 kg) per week. Athletes weighing more than 200 or 250 pounds (90-112 kg) can get by restricting up to—but no more than—1,000 calories a day, which should promote a reduction of one to two pounds (0.45-0.9 kg) per week. An athlete wanting to cut weight or body fat during the season should instead strive to improve his or her eating habits, and then embark on weight-loss efforts during the off-season. Although it is common for athletes in certain sports to restrict calories to make weight or cut body fat, this practice is not healthy and may result in poorer-than-expected performance.
The biggest mistake an athlete can make during his or her efforts to reduce body weight or body fat is to choose a diet that excludes one or more of these vital nutrients: carbohydrate, protein, vitamins, minerals, and, yes, even fat. Another mistake is to follow a diet that excessively restricts calories. The next sections discuss why a balanced diet is vital to your performance and why weight loss should occur slowly.
Get Your Carbs Carbohydrate is the only fuel that can sustain the moderate to high level of activity that is required in most sport and athletic endeavors and is the one preferred by the brain and central nervous system. Excessively restricting carbohydrate diminishes your ability to train long and hard, which most likely will come back to haunt you. For example, if you go out for an hour run with low glycogen reserves caused by a low-carbohydrate weight-loss plan, chances are you will run at a lower percent effort and cover fewer miles. This, of course, will burn fewer calories and, unless it is your easy day, induce less of a training effect. If you have enough energy to make it through the run, you most likely will finish the workout more tired than usual and seek the comforts of your couch or cozy office chair and be less likely to expend effort (calories) getting out of the chair to walk down the hall, up the stairs, or into the kitchen. If you somehow make it into the kitchen, your carbohydrate-craving liver and muscles will most likely strain your willpower and . . . well, you get the idea—suddenly you are eating ravenously.
How much carbohydrate you need on your weight-loss plan depends on your body weight and level and type of training, but a good general rule is to eat about one or maybe two grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight less than you should be striving for. For example, a 242-pound (110 kg) baseball player would most likely require six to seven grams of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight (660 to 770 g of carbohydrate) during preseason training. If this athlete wants to reduce his body weight, he should strive to consume five to six grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight (550 to 660 g of carbohydrate). This would reduce his caloric intake by 440 calories (4 kcal per g × 110 g of carbohydrate) and be close to the 500-calorie deficit recommended to lose about a pound (0.45 kg) a week. You will know you have restricted carbohydrate intake too much if you experience early fatigue during your training or note a rapid change in your body weight. Typically, losing a pound or two over the course of a day or two can be attributed to the lost water weight that occurs when glycogen stores in the liver and muscle are low. This happens because every gram of glycogen in the muscle and liver is stored along with three to four grams of water. So if you reduced your body’s glycogen stores by 500 grams, you would notice a 1.5- to 2-kilogram (3.3 to 4.4 lb) weight loss almost overnight.
Get Your Protein Although the obvious goal of a weight-reduction plan is to restrict the intake of energy and energy-producing nutrients, this does not hold true for protein. During active weight loss, when your energy balance is negative, you may need to increase the percentage of calories you take in as protein to help reduce the loss of muscle tissue and to prevent your resting metabolic rate from slowing. This is because more dietary protein is “burned” for energy when the body has a negative energy balance, resulting in less protein available for building and repairing lean body tissue. Thus, extra dietary protein during weight loss spares body protein. In addition, some researchers believe that protein, compared to fat and carbohydrate, may help you feel fuller sooner, produce alertness, and requires that your body expend more energy to digest and metabolize a meal (called the thermic effect of food). Hence, a little extra protein may be advantageous during weight loss.
Unfortunately, although most experts agree that there may be an advantage to including more protein in an energy-restricted diet, it is not known just how much protein is beneficial for a typical dieter, let alone an athlete. Nevertheless, it has been my experience that athletes fare well when they strive for a protein intake in the upper range recommended for endurance or strength athletes (see chapter 5) and emphasize protein from higher-quality sources. What this means is that vegetarian athletes may want to consider eating complementary proteins at most meals during active weight loss. Although this is not necessary when energy is balanced because the limiting amino acids consumed from a single plant source are buffered by the body’s amino acid pools, it may be beneficial during weight loss when these amino acid pools are not as plentiful because of the lower energy intake combined with the body’s increased use of protein for energy. Although no research currently supports this suggestion, it does not take much effort to complement or eat higher-quality proteins because these foods are a natural part of our culture (see chapter 5 for further detail).
Include Fat Judiciously Although it is true that we should reduce dietary fat during weight loss, particularly to ensure that we get enough carbohydrate and protein, athletes should by no means attempt to follow a diet that is nearly fat free. The main reason is because humans like fat. It tastes good and allows us to enjoy eating, even when we are trying to drop a few pounds. If we deprive ourselves of fat by eating the bread without the olive oil or having the raisins without the walnuts, we may be setting ourselves up for an “I can’t stand the deprivation any longer” binge. That said, however, athletes also need to recognize that a substantial amount of research suggests that it is easier to overeat fat-containing foods.
Therefore, you should continue to include small amounts of smart fat choices— nuts, seeds, flavorful oils, full-fat soy products, and strongly flavored cheeses—in your daily diet, but cut back on fat-containing foods, such as chips, crackers, fried tofu, or any food that triggers the “I have to eat the whole thing” effect. In fact, if you have a binge food, such as ice cream, chocolate, or cashews, avoid bringing them into your house or keeping them in your desk drawer, or purchase them only in very small packages.
Include Fruits, Vegetables, Vitamins, Minerals, and Energy-Dense Foods When you restrict your energy intake, you increase your chance of taking in inadequate amounts of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. You can avoid the low-vitaminand-mineral trap if you continue to eat nutrient-dense fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables—without limits. These foods are also high in soluble and insoluble fibers, which may promote satiety. Athletes who struggle in their decision about which foods to eliminate or reduce to create a calorie deficit may want to emphasize low-sugar, low-starch vegetables such as carrots, cooked and fresh leafy greens, onions, tomatoes, and parsnips and cut back on fruit juice and starchier vegetables. Athletes who restrict energy may also want to consider taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement even though it is typically only imperative for those consuming less than 1,200 calories a day.
Drink Plenty of Fluids and Cut Back on Supplements As mentioned in chapter 9, it is important to drink enough fluids daily to keep well hydrated. This is additionally important during weight loss because the body’s need for fluid is often misinterpreted as a desire to eat. During weight reduction, drink plenty of water throughout the day and avoid high-calorie fluids, such as regular soda, sweetened tea, and full-fat milk. Also drink fluid-replacement beverages only when needed, for example, during a long training session. These and other sport supplements add calories and may even suppress fat oxidation during and after exercise. When you are actively seeking weight loss, it is better to drink water and snack on carbohydrate- and protein-rich snacks such as a banana with peanut butter and dairy or soy yogurt with fresh fruit. Save the supplements for when you need them.
Watch Portion Sizes As mentioned earlier, an eating plan that promotes healthy weight loss should look like the meal plan in chapter 12 but contain slightly fewer calories than required to maintain weight. Thus, if you already eat well, you may simply want to watch your portion sizes. If you don’t eat well, you should go ahead and create a meal plan for weight reduction. It is interesting to note that the amount of food considered to be a normal portion has escalated over the past 20 or 30 years. Research from the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University has found that portion sizes in eating establishments are now two to eight times greater than recommended serving sizes. This has also influenced what we consider to be normal at home. Because you consume more calories when more food is on your plate, you can reduce energy intake simply by putting less on your plate and focusing on smaller portions. Although this may be difficult in certain social situations, for example, when eating with your running buddies or when celebrating with the team at the postgame meal, remember that everyone has a different metabolism. Either find a vegetarian buddy to split a healthy meal with or take half of it home for the next day. Another option is to choose a healthy soup and salad or a small entree with steamed vegetables. And by all means, avoid all-you-can-eat buffets, even if their options for vegetarians are limited.
Go Slowly If you are an overweight athlete, losing slowly is not necessarily the message you want to hear. College athletes and students in my sports nutrition course have often asked me why an athlete shouldn’t simply go on a more extreme low-calorie diet for six to eight weeks during the off-season and be done with it. Why prolong this “dieting thing”? Although there are probably a zillion reasons to go slowly, the first and most important reason not to rush things is that these extreme diets do not typically contain real foods and thus do not teach athletes how to make the appropriate changes to their eating and lifestyle habits necessary for long-term success. Second, rapid weight loss tends to promote greater loss of valuable lean tissue or muscle than does slower weight loss and also does not allow for much training apart from moderate walking. No athlete wants to lose muscle and also experience a six-to-eight-week detraining effect. Chances are they may never perform the same again. Third, athletes are typically overachievers. If you placed one on a 1,000-calorie diet, he or she would strive for 500, which could endanger his or her life. I saw an extreme case in which a football player placed himself on an extremely low-calorie diet after being called “fatty” by his coach. By the time the team physician referred him to me, he had been consuming just a six-inch (15 cm) sub sandwich and a liter of soda daily for eight weeks. He had dangerously elevated concentrations of creatine phosphate, an enzyme that dwells in skeletal and cardiac tissue and is released with tissue damage. Indeed, he dropped 30 pounds, but he had been experiencing such an amazing breakdown of muscle tissue that he could have ended up with acute renal failure. The final reason is simply that lowest-energy diets do not always bring about the best weight-loss results because they reduce lean mass, resting energy needs, and spontaneous physical activity. They are rarely successful.