This post will be quick and dirty. These aren’t commonly acknowledged tips (although they really should be). As it relates to mobilizing fat, athletic populations have some unique needs and abilities that need to be discussed. The standard path to fat loss (eat less and exercise more) may be applicable to completely sedentary individuals, but as far as high-performing athletes are concerned, it grievously leads them astray.
Not only do you not need to create a large calorie deficit to mobilize fat, but if you’re very active, it can often times work against your favor. Most sport training is a distinctive combination of cardiovascular conditioning and resistance training; as such, it places an incredible strain on both your central nervous and musculoskeletal systems. While acute bouts of stress are necessary to trigger positive adaptations, chronic metabolic stress kills progress as it relates to body composition. As an athlete, you are infinitely better off keeping your calories high so you have the materials and energy necessary to recover from your training, especially when you first start off. Don’t fall into the trap of eating chicken and broccoli every day because conventional wisdom says it’s “healthy”. This brings me to my next point; energy density.
Whether you follow “Paleo” or “The Zone”, you are probably doing it wrong. The diets themselves aren’t necessarily to blame; a lot of my frustration stems from individual application under improper context. Despite the “marriage” between the two, Paleo was not intended specifically for athletes. It does not provide us with many energy-dense food options.
For a sedentary person, this is an advantage; however, for athletes, it can become a big problem. Because of the emphasis on eating high quality animal proteins and fats, it’s incredibly common to feel satiated on Paleo while operating on a caloric deficit. This can lead to a highly efficient metabolism that will gradually stall fat loss, muscle gain, as well as performance. I’m not crazy about The Zone diet either, but I’m not a real hater; it’s my experience that for the effort, it’s not worth it to adhere to strict 40:30:30 ratios of carbs, protein and fat. You should ask yourself, “Can I do this for life?” For most people, I don’t think The Zone fits that criteria. Paleo has similar shortcomings that can be made up for by exercising a little common sense and integrating “friendly” starches around training. Human metabolism is flexible and athletes can benefit from both high fat and high carb days.
People often come to me and say, “I have twenty pounds to lose. Can you help me?” The answer to that particular quandary is typically “No.” because they likely don’t have nearly as much to lose as they think they do. You can bet that they’ve been riding the “eat less, do more” train for a while and more often than not, they’re using a low carb approach to do it. When I suggest to them that going very low carb could potentially be part of their problem, they are baffled. Here’s why:
For each gram of carbohydrate you eat, your body is required to hold roughly 4 grams of water. This is part of the reason why a lot of people are chronically inflamed and heavy.
If you lose 20 lbs. on a low carb diet, a good portion of that weight loss will amount to extracellular dehydration.
This dehydration means that your body will also deplete glycogen storage, leaving your muscles starved for energy during your training.
This makes it increasingly difficult to perform at a high level and maintain a healthy metabolism while you lose weight. In the end you will be weaker, skinny-fat, and as confused as ever.
By following a more balanced approach, one that doesn’t put you into a state of chronic cellular dehydration, you get a much better idea of how much fat you’re actually losing. Eat more food, stop restricting carbs too severely, lift more heavy things; you may establish that you only needed to lose 5 pounds, and that by focusing on your performance, it just kind of came off naturally. If you eat to perform, you can lose fat, build some muscle on the way, and achieve the lean, athletic physique you’re after.
No matter how much or how hard you diet, you won’t see a terrible amount of muscular definition anywhere on your body unless you’ve already spent some time building mass. If you diet down without a solid foundation of strength and dense muscle tissue, you’ll end up skinny-fat, weak and unhealthy. You might have “abs” but they won’t be very impressive; without a doubt, you’ll have better pancreas definition than anything else. As an athlete, you should almost always be in muscle-building mode. Training for your sport will keep you lean, and if you aren’t there yet it might just be because you can’t stay out of your own way. It could be (as I talked about in the previous section) that your plan isn’t working out; you’re diligently banging away but the nail won’t budge. Listening to your body and using the signals it’s sending you to balance training and nutrition become increasingly important as you perform at a higher level.
Homeostasis is physiological stability. What this means is that the systems of your body automatically regulate their functions to achieve a suitable, sustainable balance. When your endocrine system is working, and if you provide it with the right stimuli, your homeostatic balance will shift positively towards a more muscular, lean version of you (the organism).
However, prolonged periods of improper signaling (underfeeding, overfeeding, under-sleeping, poor nutrition, overtraining) can result in a negative homeostatic shift; in extreme cases, this can manifest itself in the form of obesity, diabetes, hyper/hypothyroidism, loss of immune function, cardiovascular disease or worse.
Less insidious adaptations like stalls in weight loss and poor performance are the tip of the iceberg, so you need to pay attention to how you look, feel and perform to determine whether or not you’re giving your body the right stimulus to get where you want to go.
It could mean the difference between success and failure. Fat loss is best achieved through a gradual, sustainable approach that allows you to maintain training intensity and continually improve at your sport. Short-term weight loss on low carb diets is misleading and there’s really no such thing as a one-size-fits all fat loss approach; you have to figure things out for yourself and balance theory with practice.
Always take into consideration that what’s in trend isn’t necessarily what works for everyone. A gradual approach to body re-composition is usually the best place to start, and minor adjustments that suit your lifestyle can often times result in some major changes, without all the heartache.
You don’t need to eat at a deficit to mobilize fat; your training will keep you lean. Stress is good, but the stress of dieting compounded with the stress of training intensely day in/day out will probably be too much and will likely have a negative impact on your body composition. You’ve got to eat to perform and let your body do what it needs to do!
Most diets work, but the wrong diet for the wrong person can be a disaster. A diet should ideally become a lifestyle that you can adhere to long-term. There is no magic macronutrient ratio ala The Zone Diet.
Energy-dense foods are the way to go if you’re an athlete. Sedentary people may benefit from the standard “eat fewer carbs” Paleo diet but active people will tend to underfeed if they avoid starches and fatty meat.
“Eat less/do more” low carb/low calorie diets can help you lose weight quickly, but most of it’s water. It can be hard to tell how much fat mass you’re losing vs. how much water you’re expelling on a low carb diet, and it definitely has an impact on performance due to chronic glycogen depletion.
You need a significant amount of muscle mass before you worry about having abs! You can starve yourself for months and strip off every ounce of fat on your body but you won’t look the way you want to without a solid foundation. Focus on training and eating to fuel performance/muscle gains; you’ll look and feel much better.