Nutrition and How It Applies to Fitness vs. Weight Loss

    Over the past 15 years I have been constantly asked about how to maximize weight loss while still managing to train for a goal endurance event. This short post serves to clear up some of the misconceptions with losing unwanted weight while still trying to improve fitness. In addition, can we discount the potentially devastating affects that diets have on our long-term health? The weight you gained did not come on overnight. Why would you think it would come off overnight without negative ramifications? 

     I want to make something very clear, there is a significant difference between our diet and diets. Universally, I despise weight loss programs, or what we commonly refer to as diets.  You can search the internet and find literally dozens of proposed programs that promote an emphasis on consuming an abundance of fat, others espouse high protein, while some advocate that carbohydrates are the answer. There is yet another subset of diet programs that utilize gimmicky pills or potions that are unregulated by the FDA and often do not contain any of the substances they claim.  How scary is that?

     While some of these programs can work, it is largely dependent upon the individual undertaking the particular weight loss program. What works for one athlete will not necessarily work for another. Consider this for a moment…what if a heavy red meat eater was to suddenly be forced into a totally vegan diet, or into a diet that focuses on a large percentage of calories from fat? How long do you think they would last? We are all different and enjoy different types of foods. We need to find a solution that will work for each athlete and make it palatable enough that they will create a permanent change in their lifestyle. Most diets fail because they simply are not sustainable and the athlete finds themselves falling back into old habits and regaining all the weight lost, and sometimes more.

     The loss of body fat from any of the aforementioned means is largely due to one thing…it initiates the athlete to look far more closely at their caloric intake and at what types of food choices they are making in the process. Here is what I propose:

  1. That athletes look first at what they are eating and begin a process of making better food choices, choices that focus on an abundance of high quality, natural alternatives and reduce the intake of highly processed foods that often contain large amounts of added sugar.
  2. Next, focus on total caloric intake and determine where the athlete can make better choices in their diet (notice not in italics) & reduce that total intake to a reasonable level that will allow the loss of adipose body fat, yet preserve lean mass and metabolism levels. Physics is at play here and the common saying that “if you expend more calories than you take in, you will lose weight” works. This notion of calories-in versus calories-out is complex and does not exist in a vacuum, however the basic premise does hold true.

     Fitness and the loss of body fat exist on opposite ends of the same spectrum. You can focus purely on fitness gains, or prioritize your fat loss, but you cannot maximize both at once. Sorry, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. The reason for this is that the body requires a reasonable amount of quality nutrition to properly fuel the workouts that provide the overload for the physiological adaptations. If the body is severely calorically restricted, its ability to effectively produce energy is reduced. Then comes the inevitable reduction in the body’s metabolism. What’s worse, is that prolonged, energy restricted diets can have lasting, negative effects on the body’s metabolic function.

     An athlete training for fitness must also refuel after training sessions so that energy levels from day to day remain high. Consuming a variety of high quality, macronutrient dense foods in adequate quantities provides the athlete with the ability to repair the musculature and advance the energy delivery systems, which results in increases in overall fitness. Over time, strictly reducing the energy intake component of the fitness equation will result in smaller and fewer gains and potentially put the athlete’s health at risk. My takeaway:

  • For athletes that have some unwanted weight to lose, it is important to recognize the importance of balancing the desire/need to reduce body fat %, improve fitness and maintain long-term health. Many athletes ignore the long-term health consequences that some diets create for the short term gains in weight reduction.  

     Unfortunately, there is no magic remedy or weight loss pill that allows an athlete to reduce fat mass and maximize fitness gains at the same time. There are many fad diets that promise the miracle of substantial weight loss. The harsh reality is that this loss is often temporary and can come at the expense of the long-term health of the athlete. My solution:

  • Making a permanent lifestyle change that incorporates an abundance of high quality food choices in reasonable amounts that fluctuate based upon the energy demands of a particular fitness program.