Fat Burning and Weight Loss Strategies
Laffit Pincay Jr. is a jockey of legendary status in U.S. racing. In a career encompassing over 35 years, he rode over 9,500 winners, the most of any rider before he retired in 2003. A story is told of Pincay, who, while on a plane flight, took a single peanut from the packet, broke it in half and ate the first portion, saving the second half to eat later in the flight!
Be assured, you will not have to go to the lengths Laffit Pincay went to, to control your own body fat. Active people are normally lean, but plenty of fit people still have difficulty shedding very small amounts of weight. This chapter details the best eating strategy for long-term success in losing body fat, or not gaining any, and keeping lean. If you are looking for a quick fix, a magic diet or a rapid weight loss program, you will not find it here because they rarely work, are generally unhealthy and certainly won’t help you stay fit. They work only for as long as you can handle plain starvation.
Questions Athletes Ask
If you are carrying a little too much body fat, then your first step is to set yourself a realistic goal. Your goal may not even be a set weight. Your goal could rightfully be just to feel a lot better and fitter than you do now. Be warned, before you go any further, that this is not a food-obsessed chapter that will ask you to measure everything you eat and delete every taste pleasure you ever pursued. If you want that, buy the latest diet book. This chapter is about eating to successfully control your weight while including such foods as wine, chocolate, pizza or ice cream on occasions. Successful people don’t ‘diet’. Success depends more on what goes on inside your head than on what goes on your plate. That is, your attitude will determine your success. Let me answer five common questions before I explain further.
‘No pizzas, toasted cheese sandwiches, hot chips, potato chips, sausage rolls, vanilla slices—there’s not much left for me except for cereal and some baked beans’, revealed Australian cricketer Shane Warne in a 2002 press briefing during a tour in South Africa. ‘I haven’t eaten pizzas or drunk beers for the last couple of weeks. I’ve dropped about eight kilos’ (Crutcher 2002).
1. Why Do I Put on Body Fat?
Please appreciate that you are designed to gain body fat. Humans evolved to gain body fat easily when food was abundant; that extra stored body fat acted as an energy reserve during food shortages. Those who put on body fat easily were better able to survive the rigours of human survival. If you gain body fat easily, you are normal. If it is difficult to lose body fat, you are normal. To lose body fat, or not gain it, you must treat your body as it was designed. That often means eating more vegetables and fruit, eating less treat foods, drinking less alcohol and sugared drinks and doing more activity even if you are already fit.
As we age, our body weight tends to increase and our body shapes change. One contributing factor is that our metabolic rate decreases with age, but the more common reason is that we do less activity as we age without eating less food (and often eating more). Regular exercise and weight training to increase muscle mass will keep your metabolic rate elevated and slow any age-related weight gain.
- What Causes Athletes to Gain Weight?
- Off-season. Less training and more time for partying can be a simple recipe for gaining extra body fat. This is common in athletes involved in team sports that often have a two-month break after the season has ended.
- Injury. Again, a lower training level is the key reason for weight gain. Being injured can also mean feeling depressed because you can’t compete, possibly turning you to food for solace. A sports psychologist can help you with your thinking.
- Alcohol. Alcoholic drinks are strongly associated with male team sports. Alcohol is also strongly associated with dehydration, poor sports performance, poor recovery from injury and increases in body fat. Alcohol needs to be treated with respect. Excess alcohol does not mix well with sport or life.
- Grease. Too much fat in foods, and a reliance on take-away foods, can easily make your navel move farther from your spine. Take-aways are often chosen for convenience, especially by athletes who have just left home and don’t have any cooking skills. Choosing less energy-dense foods and drinks will help control body weight (see chapter 11 for ideas for healthy take-away choices).
2. Am I Too Fat?
Scientists use all types of formulae to judge whether someone is too fat. One is the waist circumference (see figure 13.1). Ideally, for good health, your waist circumference should be 80 centimetres (31.5 in.) or less for women and 94 centimetres (37 in.) or less for men. Having a waist circumference above 88 cm (35 in) for women and above 102 cm (40 in) for men is linked to a much greater risk of problems such as heart disease. Health authorities say that above those waist measurements you are likely to have stored excess fat around the pancreas, liver, kidneys and heart, which is not good news for your health. The waist circumference measurement should be done in line with the belly button for men and at the narrowest part of the waist, just above the hips, for women.
Why measure here? The fat around your middle is the most dangerous to your health. Once that gets above the recommended circumference, your health can decline. Fat here will raise blood cholesterol and blood pressure, while dramatically increasing your risk of diabetes. Get a tape measure and find the circumference of your middle. If you are overfat, change your eating and exercise habits such that your belt goes in a notch every few weeks or so. If your waist is normal, then eat sensibly and remain active to ensure that it stays that way.
You can also determine your body mass index (BMI), a common indicator of fatness based on your height and weight using the following equation:
BMI = Weight (kg) / Height (m)2
For example, if you weigh 80 kilograms (176 lb) and you are 180 centimetres (1.8 m; 5 ft 9 in.) tall, then your BMI is 24.7:
80 / 1.8 ×1.8 = 80 / 3.24 = 24.7
A BMI between 20 and 25 is considered a healthy weight. A person with a BMI over 25 is considered overweight, whereas someone with a BMI over 30 is considered obese. The BMI is not always the best measurement of overweight in athletes because it doesn’t account for muscle mass. A well-muscled athlete is likely to have a BMI higher than 25, yet can still have a low body fat level. In these circumstances, your waist measurement is a better gauge of fatness.
A common way to determine the fat levels of athletes is to measure their skinfolds. This should be done by a trained kinanthropometrist using a set of skinfold callipers to determine the levels of body fat just below the skin. Various sites can be measured, but the most common are the biceps, triceps, subscapula (just beneath the shoulder blade) and abdomen (just beneath the rib cage). A sum of the measurements gives an indication of the level of fatness. The same person should do the measurements with the same callipers on the same sites to ensure consistency. The measurements are commonly done on elite athletes to find the measurements that provide the best performance and to give some extra incentive to lose fat. Recreational athletes probably need no more than a waist measurement to determine whether they need to lose body fat.
Please be aware that not all athletes want to be superlean. Obviously, some sports require bulk rather than speed, in which case a little extra body fat is acceptable. Yes, sumo wrestlers are an obvious example, but consider long-distance open-water swimmers. They often swim in cold waters, and extra body fat provides insulation against the cold as well as some buoyancy.
3. Can I Lose Weight Fast?
The answer is no—well, not if you want to remain healthy and sane. It is easy to believe that we have become fat really fast and that Christmas, Easter or the annual holiday is to blame for the excess weight. This is very unlikely. Most athletes remain at a steady weight over their competitive lifetimes. Any weight is likely to be slow and gradual over a period of months or years. Sometimes, body weight can fluctuate significantly. During a lay-off as a result of injury or the end-of-season break, an athlete could gain 2 to 5 kilograms (4 to 11 lb). This process needs to be reversed gradually and permanently, ideally at a rate of 0.5 kilogram (1 lb) per week. It may sound frustratingly slow, but a faster rate could result in a loss of muscle.
Some simple changes to your diet could be all you need. For example, if you changed from drinking 600 millilitres (20 oz) of full-cream milk a day to a reduced-fat milk, you would save 150,000 kilojoules (35,800 cal) a year. Potentially that’s a loss of 5 kilograms (11 lb) per year. Instead of two cream biscuits for morning tea, eat a piece of fruit instead to save well over 200,000 kilojoules (47,800 cal) a year, a potential loss of 6.5 kilograms (14 lb). Simple changes to your eating can make a big difference—over time. (Note: I say a potential loss of a certain weight because that is what the math suggests. In reality, the body adjusts as weight is lost and fewer kilojoules are burned because the body is carrying around less weight; as a result, actual weight loss is less than potential weight loss.)
If you are a jockey, boxer, lightweight rower, bodybuilder, wrestler, diver, synchronised swimmer, figure skater or gymnast, you are probably under pressure to be a certain weight or shape. Being 2 or 3 kilograms (4.4 to 6.6 lb) over your ‘fighting weight’ can come as a shock, so you want to get it off fast.
The first problem with this issue is the term fast. Fast means that you will have to do just that: fast . . . as in go without food. Without food, or following a very restricted diet, your body runs out of glycogen and dumps the water needed to store that glycogen. In other words, you run out of energy and lose weight mainly as water.
Rapid weight loss, especially by dehydration, will torpedo your endurance as well as your sprinting or intense training programs. Rapid weight loss can also affect your thinking and concentration—and feeling tired and irritable is not the best way to go into an event.
You may need to ask yourself, ‘Am I competing in the right weight class for my natural weight and health?’ There is little point in becoming weak and wasted just to make a lower weight class and risk injury for not being at your optimal weight, too. A thin athlete is not always a fast athlete, and a hungry athlete is a weak athlete. You would be smart to plan weeks, not days, ahead and get that extra weight off slowly and permanently. That way you retain your health, strength and ability, both physical and mental.