It’s a diet-obsessed world out there. It’s sad, really, how much our society focuses on looks and thinness. Working in the eating disorder field, I’ve grown to hate the “D” word. But I’m not here to talk about the pitfalls of our society. No, I’m here to talk about finding the balance between managing our weight for sports performance without sacrificing our mental and physical health in the process.
There are many athletes with unhealthy and disordered eating habits. In fact, athletes are thought to be at a higher risk for developing eating disorders. This is not surprising, seeing as the reality is that weight does to some extent affect endurance sports performance. Some runners talk about their racing weight as if it were a holy grail they would do anything to obtain. You hear stats like “your mile time improves by ten seconds for every pound lost” and other crap like that. Cyclists talk about how every pound lost improves power output by so much; I don’t remember the specific statistic because I don’t care.
I mostly ride my bike because it’s fun. It’s important not to lose sight of that in the process of trying to lose weight. You probably started running or riding because it was fun, too. Sure, there’s a correlation between weight and performance to some extent, but I challenge any athlete to cut off a hand (that weighs about a pound, right?) and suddenly drop ten seconds from their mile time! Okay, I kid, but seriously, the point is that the mere act of losing weight will not necessarily guarantee that your performance improves. Lose too much weight or lose weight too quickly, and your performance will actually suffer. Plus you might lose your love for the sport in the process.
If you want to lose weight solely because you feel you don’t look like the stereotypical runner/cyclist/fill-in-the-blank-kind-of-athlete, you need to stop right there. Athletes come in all shapes and sizes, and I’m a firm believer that we should never modify our diet and/or exercise just to change how we look. If your only motivation for weight loss is that you think you “have to” or that you want to look better in your underwear, you might as well stop reading right now. Trust me; it’s not worth risking falling into disordered eating or even a full-blown eating disorder. I admit to my eating disorder patients that sure, you can modify your nutrition and exercise to manipulate your body to look however you want, but at what cost? What kind of life would that be? How about working on body acceptance instead of weight loss?
Losing weight for health or sports performance is different, but even those motivations can be taken too far. It’s not always easy to know when an innocent desire to drop a few pounds to become a better athlete starts to become an unhealthy obsession with weight. As an athlete and an eating disorder professional, I am acutely aware of the issue and believe that I have developed a pretty healthy and moderate approach to the subject. I truly believe that if you focus on training right and eating well, your weight and body composition will take care of themselves over time. However, if you feel that some weight loss is truly justified and want to get a jump start, read on to learn how to do it as healthfully as possible for both mind and body. I could probably write a book on this topic (and maybe I will someday), but here are some of my top tips.
Don’t count calories.
Just because you meet your body’s caloric needs doesn’t mean you’re eating right or getting the nutrients your body needs. You could meet your daily caloric needs with ice cream, for heaven’s sake! Calorie counting can easily become compulsive, as it puts so much emphasis on hitting numbers and looking at nutrition labels. Instead of counting calories, count servings from the food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, proteins, and fats. Everything else (desserts and alcohol, for example) falls into the category of extras, and you wouldn’t have a target for those; you just aim to not have too many of them! (If you’re not sure how many of each group you need, consult a registered dietician!)
Keep a food journal.
But not all the time, especially if you know this tends to become a compulsive “diet” activity for you. Keeping a food journal for a few days will give you a picture of how much you’re getting from each of the food groups mentioned above. Once you know your baseline, you can work on eating more from some of the food groups and possibly less from others. Keeping a food journal can also help you keep tabs on mindless eating and boredom eating, which are common problems. A handful of food here and there might not seem like a lot in your head, but it can add up quickly, and seeing it on paper helps put it in perspective.
Keep an eye on portions.
Most people have no concept of portions, and it’s not surprising given the ridiculous amount of food we’re served in some restaurants. For example, a giant plate of pasta does not count as one serving. One serving of pasta is actually only ½ cup, the size of half a baseball.
Focus on what you want to eat more of, not less.
The answer will probably be vegetables and fruits, as most Americans don’t meet the minimum recommendations of 5-9 servings/day. It’s mentally more helpful to focus on what you want to eat more of than what you want to eat less of, since telling yourself you can’t have something will likely make you want it more (blame human nature). Plus I find that when I’m able to up my vegetable intake I naturally don’t have room for or crave the less than healthy foods I typically like (desserts and wine, mmmm).
Choose foods that don’t come in a package more often than not.
You’ve probably heard that it’s best to shop the perimeter of the grocery store because that’s where most of the whole foods are, like fruits, veggies, meats, dairy, and to some extent whole grains. There are plenty of healthful foods that come in packages, though, so don’t avoid the inner aisles completely. When buying packaged products, aim for ones with very few ingredients (i.e., if you are buying brown rice the ingredient list should look like this: “Ingredients: brown rice”).
Don’t make food rules.
If you make rules, you’ll quickly fall into the good-food-bad-food trap and feel like a bad person when you eat “bad” food. Stop. Take the judgment out of eating. There are no “good” foods and “bad” foods. It’s just food. Some foods you should eat more often and some foods should be occasional treats.
Don’t skip breakfast.
I truly believe it’s the most important meal of the day. Studies have consistently shown that breakfast eaters tend to weigh less than breakfast skippers. This could be because skipping breakfast makes you hungrier and more likely to overeat later in the day.
Listen to your body.
Try to check in with your hunger. If you’re hungry, eat. If not, wait until you start to feel some hunger. Don’t wait until you’re starving, though, as you’ll be more likely to reach for high sugar or more processed foods and more likely to overeat. Eat until you’re satisfied, not stuffed.
Think about what you want to make for your meals during the week and make sure you have the food on hand. I know that if I leave work hungry and with no dinner plan I’m not going to have the patience to go to the store and cook something healthy; I’m doing takeout. Same with snacks; bring your own snacks to work so you don’t have to rely on the office doughnuts for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up.
Water, that is. Thirst is often mistaken for hunger, so make sure you’re meeting your fluid needs. Not sure if you are? Hint: Your urine should be a very pale yellow.
Know when to use sports nutrition products.
Sports drinks, energy gels, and protein shakes are all great when used appropriately, but if you’re drinking Gatorade throughout the day or eating gels on 45-minute runs, you’re taking in more sugar and calories than you need to be.
DO NOT use diet pills, laxatives, diuretics, or any other weight loss aid. Period.
Monitor your body fat too, not just weight.
Your body fat percentage tells you a lot more than a number on the scale. Healthy ranges are:
and Michael Gleeson, PhD; Human Kinetics
from Sport Nutrition, 2nd Edition, by Asker Jeukendrup, PhD,and Michael Gleeson, PhD; Human Kinetics
Don’t weigh yourself more than once a day.
Don’t even weigh every day if you can help it. Your weight will fluctuate naturally from day to day, and seeing those fluctuations may psych you out. It’s more important to look at overall trends, taken into consideration with body fat percentage, than daily numbers.
Set small and slow weight loss goals. If you lose too much weight or lose it too quickly, you’ll sacrifice your performance. You shouldn’t lose more than one or two pounds a week. You might not lose any weight one week, and that’s okay, too; it doesn’t mean you need to lose more the next.
Monitor your sports performance as you lose.
You may not need to lose as much as you think to hit those time goals. You may also need to accept that your body is built a certain way and that to change it may involve extreme deprivation or excessive exercise. If you find you have to cut your intake to the point of starving to drop weight, your body is telling you something. Listen to it.
As I mentioned above, to some extent your body will adapt and change naturally in response to your training. Be patient with this process. Try to focus more on your training then your weight.
Don’t try to lose weight during the middle of your racing season.
Your performance will likely suffer if you do so. The off season and pre-season are actually the best time to tackle weight loss goals.
Your best weight on race day (or any other day) is when you are most healthy, both in mind and body!
Jen Sommer-Dirks is a registered dietitian, a certified specialist in sports dietetics, a former NASM certified personal trainer, and a self-appointed mountain girl. As a cyclist, skier, hiker, and runner (among other things), she knows firsthand the importance of proper nutrition and training.