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Weight Loss for Athletes: Top 10 Tips for Controlling Calories

posted by Jennifer
Weight Loss for Athletes: Top 10 Tips for Controlling Calories

For many sports, losing weight, and in particular, reducing body fat, can result in serious gains in athletic performance.  For a lot of runners, shedding a few extra pounds means an increase in power-to-weight ratios and less body weight to move over long distances.  Other athletes often wish to lose weight in order to compete in a specific weight class or because appearance is an important element of their sport.

The benefits of losing a few pounds of body fat are enticing to any runner, but as most people know, successful, long-term weight loss is not an easy task.  With the wrong approach, running performance can suffer, injury and illness may become more frequent, and the scale may not budge despite all of the hard work and sacrificing.

Consider the following before attempting any weight loss:

● Desirable weight loss = fat loss
● Fat loss is desirable only if it leads to improved athletic performance and maintains good health
● Many athletes already at their optimal weight believe they are too fat and sacrifice muscle, strength, health, and performance in attempt to reach an unattainable body weight
● Excessive calorie reduction can result in muscle loss and a slower metabolism
● Rapid weight loss achieved by restricting fluids or promoting excessive sweating is water loss, not fat loss.  Dehydration can reduce strength, endurance, concentration, and overall athletic performance, not to mention can become life-threatening if taken to the extreme.

Goals with Weight Loss:

  1. To reduce body fat.
  2. To maintain existing muscle mass.
  3. To provide adequate fuel for training and normal metabolic functions but to create a minor caloric deficit that facilitates slow, maintainable fat loss.
  4. To maintain a healthy intake of nutrients and fluids.
  5. To provide a balanced diet that contains a variety of familiar and satisfying foods.
  6. To maintain a healthy relationship with food, nutrition, exercise, and physical appearance.

Weight Loss Guidelines:

Timing of Weight Loss: The best time to implement a fat loss regime is during the off-season, well in advance of any major competitions when training demands are less.  Trying to cut calories significantly when in-season can lead to chronic fatigue, poor training sessions, a weakened immune system, and a decline in performance if energy needs are not being met and sufficient carbohydrates are not consumed to restore glycogen fuel reserves on a daily basis.

Have Realistic Expectations: A realistic goal is to lose about 1 lb (0.45kg) of body weight per week.  To achieve this, you will have to create a caloric deficit of approximately 500-750 calories per day.  If you want to lose 5 lb (2.3 kg), plan on taking about 5 weeks to lose the weight; for an 8 lb weight loss, expect it to take around 8 weeks.  Remember, slow and steady wins the race!

Emphasize a Balanced Diet of High Quality Foods: Ensure that you eat a high carbohydrate, moderate protein, and moderate fat diet by selecting nutrient-dense foods from all four food groups.  This will provide plenty of fuel for training.

Drink Plenty of Fluids, Especially Water: Weight loss from dehydration and/or fluid restriction is not fat loss and is dangerous to health and detrimental to performance.

Top 10 Tips for Athletes Controlling Calories:

1. Eat small, frequent meals and snacks to help control hunger and maintain your metabolism.

2. Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast. If your body senses that calories are in short supply because of hours of fasting, it readily adapts by reducing your metabolic rate, making it tougher to lose weight in the end.  Always start your day off with a good breakfast.

3. Eat most of your food during the day to fuel your training, rather than overeating at night.

4. Plan your food intake for the day in advance. Get organized and prepare / pack appropriate meals and snacks rather than relying on cafeterias and fast food outlets at school, work, or to or from practice.

5. Practice mindful eating. Eat meals slowly, chewing your food thoroughly.  Learn to eat only to the point of satisfaction – don’t continue to eat until you are stuffed.

6. Don’t drink your calories. Stick to drinking lots of plain water.  Limit juice, pop, flavoured or iced coffees, and alcohol.

7. Limit sources of saturated and trans fat in your diet. Replace full-fat dairy products with low-fat or non-fat versions.  This applies to milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, cottage cheese, and sour cream.  It’s also important to remember to include a small amount (2-3 Tbsp) of heart-healthy unsaturated fat each day, from sources like canola, olive, or soybean oil; soft margarines; nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds, or flaxseeds; and fatty fish like salmon.

8. Eat foods that fill you up, not out. Start a meal with a bowl of soup, a salad, or a small plate of steamed or fresh vegetables to help take the edge off hunger pangs.  Filling up with high-fibre,  lower-calorie, nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, fruit, beans, or lentils can help you feel satisfied at the end of a meal, while consuming fewer total calories in the process.  Make sure you include a source of lean protein at each meal to feel satiated after eating, and to maintain muscle mass while cutting back on calories.

9. When dining out, watch portion sizes and ask for extras on the side. In general, it’s best to cook most of your meals at home and limit the number of occasions you eat out.  Most restaurant meals have large portions that pack about 1000 calories per dish.  The meals also tend to be very high in sodium, which can cause you to retain water weight.  Fat calories can add up quickly, so be mindful of sauces, gravies, and dressings that are fat-based and always ask for these to be served on the side so you can choose how much to consume.

10. Allow yourself to occasionally eat that to-die-for treat, but adjust the portion size. Completely disowning a food you can’t seem to live without will set you up to crave it even more, and ultimately will lead to overeating the forbidden food.  Instead of completely disallowing certain foods, give yourself permission to indulge in the occasional treat.  Stick to a small amount once or twice a week – it won’t cause you to gain weight, but it’s enough to keep you sane and on track with your weight loss efforts.

If you’re trying to lose weight this spring while still actively exercising, you may find it helpful to meet with our Runners Feed Registered Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist, Jennifer Broxterman, who can help you identify your exact calorie, carbohydrate, protein, and fat requirements to help you lose weight in a healthy and achievable way.  To schedule a one-on-one nutrition consultation with Jennifer, please e-mail

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