Fat Loss for Athletes: Part 2

In Fat Loss for Athletes: Part 1, I addressed some basic concepts regarding fat loss for athletes including a look at the different ‘categories’ of athletes that I delineate and a hierarchy of factors that can or should be modified when an athlete is trying to lose fat. In Part 2, I want to look at the first 4 of those factors.

1. Total Calories and the Rate of Fat Loss

As mentioned above, this is the single most important aspect of fat loss as far as I’m concerned. It’s usually pretty trivial to out-eat the calories burned from training and if you don’t control calories you’re not going to lose fat no matter what you do. And all of the weird macronutrient manipulations still don’t make a shit’s worth of difference if calories aren’t controlled so you can stop worrying about food combining, or not eating carbs after 6pm or whatever. With no exception all of those strategies only work to hide caloric restriction in the guise of something else. It’s still calories at the end of the day.

So the next question comes in terms of where to set calories. A typically generic recommendation used by bodybuilders is 10-12 cal/lb starting weight depending on metabolism (higher value for higher, lower value for lower) and this isn’t bad for someone doing fairly moderate amounts of training (e.g. an hour or so daily). But for athletes with very high caloric requirements this will be too low.

Many endurance athletes can have energy requirements up near 20 cal/lb, occasionally higher. Athletes who have to do a lot of metabolic work will have elevated requirements as well. Strength/power athletes can vary massively; Ol’ers have been reported to have fairly high caloric requirements but when you train 4-6 hours/day, even with low reps, this isn’t shocking.

Arguably a better way to adjust calories is to first determine maintenance calories (the number that will maintain your current weight) and then reduce it by 10-20% as a starting point (I’d note that fatter athletes can usually sustain a larger deficit than leaner). This should then be adjusted based on real world changes in fat loss and performance changes.

A reasonable goal for fat loss might be 1-1.5 lbs fat loss/week with no major reduction in performance. If an athlete is losing less than that, a further reduction in calories (or increase in activity, discussed below) may be needed. If an athlete is losing more than 2 pounds per week or performance is crashing, calories would be adjusted upwards by 10%. Eventually that sweet spot will be found. Note that as folks get lighter and caloric requirements go down, calories will eventually have to be adjusted down even further to keep fat loss going.

Finally I’d note that lighter athletes (women, lighter males in weight class sports) may have to be happy with half of that fat loss, 0.5-0.75 pounds per week. Yeah, I know, that’s only 2 pounds per month. Tough titty, don’t get fat next time.

2. Protein Intake

After calories have been set, the single next most important aspect of a fat loss diet is protein intake as consuming sufficient protein is perhaps the single key to limiting (or eliminating) muscle and performance loss. It’s also where a lot of athletes not of the strength/power type fuck up.

Endurance athletes tend to overemphasize carbs as it is, they often get sufficient protein only by dint of eating so much food; when calories are restricted protein goes down and problems start. Females often seem to fear fat and protein altogether, living on starch. Performance craters.

Getting large amounts of dietary protein is one place that bodybuilders and other strength athletes have long been ahead of the curve, especially while dieting. As modern research has found that higher protein intakes have numerous fat loss benefits (including but not limited to sparing muscle loss, maintaining blood glucose at stable levels, blunting hunger, limiting drops in metabolic rate), bodybuilders can just give a hearty “We told you so” to the labcoats who said they were full of shit for so many years.

Of more interest, and seemingly ignored by most mainstream dietitians, protein requirements go UP when calories go down, yet most diets seem to reduce protein. Research proved that fact 30 years ago, why the RD’s haven’t caught on is anybody’s guess.

As outlined in detail (and with full references) in The Protein Book, I recommend that pure strength/power athlete consume at least 1.4-1.5 g/lb protein. In some cases (usually athletes seeking extreme leanness) 2 g/lb may be required. I see no reason for more than this. Since, as you’ll see, strength/power athletes don’t generally have the high carbohydrate requirements of other athletes (although this depends on the specifics of the sport), they can ‘get away’ with more protein and less carbohydrates without hurting their training.

Endurance athletes, who could normally get by with perhaps 0.7-0.9 g/lb under maintenance conditions, should increase their protein intake to at least 1.2-1.4 g/lb while dieting. Given the often absurd caloric requirements for endurance athletes, this more than allows for sufficient intakes of other macronutrients to support training and recovery.

Mixed sport athletes have to ‘cover’ the requirements for both their strength/power and metabolic training and should use the high end of recommendations at 1.5 g/lb. Again, this can potentially go higher if extreme levels of leanness need to be reached. The problem, as I’ll discuss below, is that these athletes often need more carbohydrate in their diet and consuming too much protein tends to limit carb intake. This can hurt performance. So it becomes a greater balancing act. These athletes need to eat enough protein to spare muscle loss, while still allowing sufficient carbohydrate to maintain training.

3. Fat Intake

You might be surprised that I put fat intake before carbohydrate intake but outside of setting up ketogenic (very-low-carbohydrate) diets, this is how I do things. The reason is this: very low fat diets tend to do negative things to hormones, on top of making the diet bland and tasteless. More often than not very low-fat diets leave the dieter exceptionally hungry which makes it harder to control calories. So before folk worry about carbohydrate, they need to take care of dietary fat.

Now, while I don’t generally like diets set up by percentages, fat intake is where I do exactly that. 20-25% total calories from fat is usually about right for most situations. Sometimes it may be a bit higher, it’d be a rare situation indeed where I’d take it much lower. I’ve sometimes used a rough intake of 0.45 g/lb and that’s a good starting point but issues of total caloric intake become a problem here and that can’t always be adhered to.

Of the total fat intake, the only requirement are fish oils. A minimum of 6X1 grams standard capsules (180 mg EPA/120 mg DHA) should be taken daily. This can be increased to 10 capsules per day for athletes who are either larger, simply want to, or have the calories to do it.

Beyond that, I don’t get overly hung up on fat intake. Research shows that both MCT’s and di-glycerides (in the form of Enova oil) can slightly increase fat loss during a diet but the impact is not massive, maybe a few tenths of a pound a week if that. Both fats do seem to help control appetite which might be one reason to include them in a diet.

4. Carbohydrates

So all that’s left is carbohydrate and this is generally where my diets will vary the most. As discussed in How Many Carbohydrates Do You Need, the simplest comment I can make is that carbohydrate requirements can vary….a lot.

It’s also one place where following the lead of bodybuilders can get athletes into trouble. Recall from above that, for the most part, bodybuilding is not a performance sport, it’s an aesthetic one. Maintaining performance in the gym is purely secondary to coming in ripped. So carbohydrates are often removed completely from the diet to achieve this. Depending on the type of sport you’re talking about, this can either be workable or about the single worst thing that an athlete can do.

A pure strength/power athlete who’s dieting and doing repeat triples in the weight room or what have you may not need many (or any) carbs in their diet. As mentioned, bodybuilders often cut carbs down or nearly out to get to the pinnacle of leanness. Those athletes can often get away with a carb intake of perhaps 1 g/lb or even lower. Carb cycling approaches tend to be popular, common and successful, carbs can be higher on training days and cut down on non-training days to facilitate a larger caloric deficit and greater fat loss.

Endurance athletes typically have the highest carbohydrate requirements although even that depends on the type of training they’re doing. An hour spin on the bike doesn’t require that many carbs, a 6 hour ride may deplete glycogen almost completely. Carb intake here can vary massively. Maintenance carb recommendations for these athletes often approach 10-12 g/kg (4.5-5.5 g/lb or so) but this has to be cut back while dieting to some degree. If volume is high enough, an intake of 2-3 g/lb might work, a lot of it will depend on where calories are set.

Mixed sports athletes are generally going to have carb requirements somewhere in the middle. It’ll probably end up being higher than 1 g/lb on heavy training days but unlikely to reach the higher levels of endurance athletes. So you might see 1.5-2 g/lb as a rough average.

At the end of the day, much of the above discussion is moot. Once you’ve set calories, set protein and set fat, carbs will simply be what’s left. So that makes more sense, let me set up a sample diet for a 200 lb strength/power athlete with 15% bodyfat (170 lbs lean body mass) and with an estimated maintenance calorie intake of 16 cal/lb on training days. So his maintenance requirement is 3200 calories/day.

  1. Set calories: 20% deficit. 3200 * 0.20 = 640 calories. 3200 – 640 = 2560 cal/day
  2. Set protein: 1.5 g/lb lean body mass = 255 grams protein * 4 cal/g = 1020 cal/day
  3. Set fat: 25% of total calories. 2560 * 0.25 = 640 calories / 9 cal/g = 71 grams
  4. Set carbs: 2560 calories – 1020 calories from protein – 640 calories from fat = 900 calories / 4 cal/g = 225 grams. Just slightly over 1 g/lb.

Now, if his calories had to be lowered for some reason, he’d make the reduction from carbohydrate. So if he needed to take another 200 calories per day out of his diet, he’d reduce his carbs by 50 grams more to 175 grams. Hopefully you get the idea.

Those calories would be roughly spread across however many meals the athlete will be eating during the diet. Of course, there’s no reason that they have to be spread completely evenly, many people like to put more of their carbs earlier in the day or around training and slightly more fat and less carbs in the evening. It’s all fine.

On the timing issue, I strongly feel that at least some proportion of every athlete’s daily carbs and protein should come around heavy training sessions. A lot of athletes try to cut out those calories but I think it’s a mistake. It is usually done out of some misguided idea about GH release or fat loss; female athletes do it because they think they are ‘saving’ calories but all they are doing is hurting themselves in the long run.

Total fat loss will be mostly determined by the caloric deficit, insufficient calories around heavy training only hurts performance and recovery which is never a good thing on a diet. Carb cuts should therefore come mainly from meals not around training. Fat intake at those meals can be slightly increased as well.

Which isn’t to say that the same amount of pre/during/post workout nutrients would be consumed on a diet as when mass gains or performance improvements are the goal. Just that something should still be consumed around most workouts (low-intensity metabolic stuff being the major exception). If you eat too many calories around training, you don’t end up with enough at the other meals to stay full.

Continued in Fat Loss for Athletes: Part 3.