Some athletes, such as wrestlers or rowers trying to make a specific weight for an event, need to lose weight quickly. Others, like my client who insisted that slow weight loss would not work for her, just want to lose weight quickly.
“I know everyone says to lose weight slowly, but I want to get rid of this excess flab NOW!!!!” she declared with disgust.
So what is the best way to lose weight quickly? Do you simply “starve yourself” by eating as little as possible? The answer depends on your long-term goals:
• If you want to lose weight quickly for an event and don’t mind regaining the weight quickly, you can indeed “starve yourself” for a few days to drop to the desired number on the scale. Obviously, the better plan is to lose the weight pre-season, to minimize the agony and optimize performance.
• If you want to lose weight and keep it off for the rest of your life, don’t even think about quick weight loss. It backfires.
Why “quick weight loss” is a fantasy
While the promise of quick weight loss is enticing, dieters who lose weight quickly on a severe diet inevitably regain the weight, if not more. That’s because the body overcompensates for extreme dieting with overeating. You will never win the war against hunger…
Hunger is physiological. Just as your body needs to breathe, urinate and sleep, your body also needs to eat. Urges to overeat (that is, blow your diet) often have less to do with will power and more to do with the physiology of hunger. Just as you will gasp for air after having been trapped under-water without oxygen, you will devour food after having been denied calories during a crash diet. Yes, you can white-knuckle yourself to stick to your crash diet, but your well-meaning plan to quickly shed some pounds has a high likelihood of exploding into a demoralizing pattern of binge eating followed by yet-another attempt to crash-diet. Don’t go there…. it’s depressing.
Tips for successful weight loss
To lose weight and keep it off, you must keep in perspective you did not gain the weight quickly and you should not plan to lose the weight quickly. The better plan is to chip away at slow but steady weight loss, targeting 0.5 to 2 pounds a week. Why? Well by just knocking off 100 calories at the end of the day (one cookie, one heaping spoonful of ice cream), you can theoretically lose 10 pounds a year. Knock off 200 calories at the end of the day (16 ounces of cola, 4 Oreos), and you’ve lost 20 pounds a year. By eliminating just a few hundred evening calories, you will lose weight when you are sleeping, not when you are training or trying to deal with the stresses of your busy day. Plan to eat your calories during the day, when they can help you the most. Then, diet (by eating just a little bit less) by night.
Tips for athletes who need to lose weight for an event
Wrestlers, rowers and figure skaters who need to shed pounds for an event generally try to eat as little as possible. They fail to understand they could reach their goals by eating more than air. That is, if you eat less than 1,000 to 1,500 calories, your metabolism slows to compensate for the “famine.” The less you eat, the more your body conserves:
•You will feel cold all the time, especially your hands and feet. You won’t “waste calories” keeping your extremities warm.
• You will feel lethargic and have little energy to (enjoy) exercise, to say nothing of performing well. Observe how you conserve precious calories by fidgeting less, moving minimally and doing less spontaneous activity than usual in the non-exercise parts of your day.
• Your resting metabolic rate can drop by as much as 20%. This conserves calories and slows weight loss.
• Weight loss might be half muscle, half fat. Losing muscle is counter-productive to athletic performance. (Be sure to lift weights and eat some protein with each meal to help reduce loss of muscle.)
Should you add on extra cardio to burn calories and hasten fat loss? No. Research suggests exercising while crash dieting does not result in additional weight loss as compared to crash dieting without exercise. Plus, you might end up injured and overtrained, to say nothing of fighting deeper hunger. That is, after grinding through an extra spin class to burn off 600 additional calories, you could quickly wipe out that calorie deficit in less than 3 minutes by succumbing to 12 Oreos the instant you get home. White-knuckling yourself away from food is not fun—and is not sustainable.
Instead of doing extra hard training, plan to increase your non-training activity by walking more, doing projects, cleaning the house, playing with the kids and staying off the couch. Daily activity counts; keep moving during your waking hours so you do not become a “sedentary athlete.”
You certainly should not eat less than your weight x 10 calories per pound (your resting metabolic rate—what you body requires to breathe, pump blood, and function). Targeting 13-15 calories per pound is still very restrictive for an athlete. That’s about 2,000-2,200 calories if you weigh ~150 lbs. Alternatively to counting calories, reduce your food portions by about 20-30%, depending on how much time you have to lose the weight.
Divide your limited calories, eating evenly sized meals on a time-line, at least every four hours throughout the day. That could be 500 calories at 7:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m (either a second lunch, or divide the calories into pre- and post-workout fuel) and 7:00 p.m. Spend your calories on wholesome foods that include protein (to help keep you from feeling hungry) and “bulky” foods like vegetables and brothy soups that help fill your tummy with less calories that compact foods (burgers, fries).
Athletes who need to lose weight quickly often restrict fluids. One pound of water can be easier to lose than one pound of fat— but this option should be a last resort. Ideally, you should have planned ahead and lost the weight in the off-season! Do not sweat away more than 2% of your body weight. (That’s three pounds of sweat for a 150-pound person.) More than that can hurt your performance, to say nothing of endanger your health. Hence, if you currently weigh 150 lbs. but need to be 140 in two weeks, you can reasonably lose about 3 pounds of sweat. You will then need to lose “only” 7 pounds of fat, of which half will likely be muscle, if you crash diet.
The bottom line
Losing weight quickly is hard work. The smarter plan is to lose weight slowly and be able to keep it off for the wrestling, crew or other sport’s season—and the rest of your life. Although slow weight loss sounds less enticing, it is easier and sustainable! Do you really want to do suffer through a restrictive weight reduction diet, regain the weight, and then have to lose it again?
This article has been provided by Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) who counsels both casual and competitive athletes in her practice at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill MA (617-383-6100). For weight loss help, read her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners, soccer players and cyclists, available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. See also sportsnutritionworkshop.com.
Position Stand of the American College of Sports Medicine: Appropriate Physical Activity Intervention Strategies for Weight Loss and Prevention of Weight Regain for Adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 41(2):459-471, 2009
Position Stand of the American Dietetic Association: Weight Management. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 109: 330-346, 2009.
Thompson JL, Manore MM, Skinner JS, Ravussin E, Spraul M. Daily energy expenditure in male endurance athletes with differing energy intakes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 27::347-54, 1995.