If you’re an athlete who wants to shred body fat to become better at your sport, this article is just for you.Dropping body fat is undoubtedly beneficial for an athlete. Now, I don’t mean that every athlete has to become shredded, what I am saying is that every athlete needs to be the correct shape for their position and sport if they want to maximise their ability to;
This is all in the name of power to weight ratio. Simply put, becoming lighter whilst maintaining your strength and muscle mass will skyrocket your performance due to the benefits listed above. But here’s the thing, I’ve encountered so many athletes (even at international level) who get this completely wrong and screw up their performance and health. The goal of a fat loss phase is to benefit your performance, not ruin it. When getting this wrong, you’ll;
With all this being said, you’ll probably have a terrible relationship with food, feel overly deprived and obsess about the tiny things that cause a huge amount of stress that offers next to nothing in return. Therefore, the aim of this article is to give the lowdown on fat loss nutrition to successfully shred body fat without shafting your performance and health.
Calorie restriction; the fundamental principle of fat loss nutrition is a balancing act of energy intake Vs energy expenditure. When it comes to how much you eat, three things will happen;
Knowing this, we must make it our highest priority to follow point number 3. In essence, the aim is to create a calorie deficit in order to drive fat loss. Achieving a calorie deficit can be done in two ways;
For the athlete, further increasing your energy expenditure by ‘moving about more’ may not be a wise choice as you’ll most likely have a mega high training load. This means that you’ll dig yourself into a big hole where your performance, recovery, fatigue, adaptation to training etc will go south pretty quick. Therefore, by default we need to look at reducing your calorie intake, which means reviewing how much food passes your lips.
But not so fast champ; it’s not as simple as this due to many interfering behavioural and social factors making calorie restricted diets really hard to stick to. I always say; the principles of fat loss nutrition are simple, but the application is very difficult. Nonetheless, it’s simply a case of finding an approach that works for you and is built around;
If you can get this right (just like I taught my coaching client Ryan), you can make serious progress in a very short period of time.
I always hammer home the message that the intricacies of fat loss nutrition; nutrient quality, meal frequency, meal timing, supplements etc will not overcome a calorie deficit – If this is not the primary focus, then the dieting phase will end in failure and you’ll be back in square one. I feel that this needs reiterating as it’s always overlooked – No fancy gimmicks will get you real results; hard work whilst maintaining a calorie deficit will always comes out on top.
It’s been well established in research that a calorie restricted diet is needed for fat loss, yet people (even academic professors) still argue about carbs and fats. For the non-athlete, macronutrient ratios play an extremely small role in how much fat you can shred – it really makes zero difference. In an extensive review by Wu et al (2013); it was concluded that different types of diets within a similar time frame (and calorie restriction) only differ by 1-2kg. On paper, it’s 1-2kg, in the real work it’s sweet F’all. If you drop 10kg or 11kg in the next 6 months, does it make the result significant in the real world? Not really.
Therefore, once your protein intake has been set, your food likes and dislikes will determine what macronutrient you want to follow. I.e. if you love avocados, nuts and cheese, perhaps drop your carbs so you can have more fatty foods? This doesn’t really matter assuming that you consume adequate amounts of protein and that you remain in a calorie deficit.
For the athlete, these guidelines become far more rigid to ensure exercise performance is maintained. In this instance, it would be wise to follow a higher carb and lower fat approach. Within your daily calorie budget, carbs will give you more of a performance ‘bang for your calorie buck’ than fat it you want to fight fatigue during training and competitions. Since carbs are a ‘rate limiting’ factor for performance, your performance will hit the fan pretty quick if you overly restrict these as we always need to fuel the work required. As an added bonus, higher carb diets appear to be ‘protein sparing’ and better for retaining your precious muscle mass during a dieting phase (Garthe et al, 2011; Maestu et al, 2010; Walberg et al, 1988). So, even during fat loss phases, we need carbs; they’re an athletes best friend to drive performance, aid recovery and retain muscle mass. Do yourself a big favour, eat some carbs and you’ll mostly be showing green lights through your fat loss phase.
One widely received message for athletes is to consume carbs, pre, during and post exercise to support fueling, performance and recovery.
Your carbohydrate availability; i.e. the carbs stored within your muscles/liver and the carbs eaten through your diet are going to dictate how well you perform. During periods of low carbohydrate availability, performance is generally pretty poor, where the opposite is true when carb availability is high. Therefore, we can say the amount of carbs you consume is rate limiting to your performance. So, what’s the point of being shredded and looking great if you can’t perform…Just be a bodybuilder.
The amount of carbs we need to eat is dependent on the type, intensity and duration of the exercise session or event. To reiterate the motto; fuel the work required. Knowing this, there should be little dispute with regards to macronutrient ratios within a calorie restricted diet for athletes. Therefore, all athletes need to follow a higher carbohydrate and lower fat approach unless you want your performance to suck. Period.
In terms of the continued fat for fuel debate that is always a hot topic amongst the endurance folks, I’ve ‘gone to town’ on a more extensive review on the issue HERE.
If you ask any good strength and conditioning coach, they’ll most likely periodise your training into; high, medium and low demanding days. Therefore, we need to adopt and apply the same approach through calorie periodisation. Calorie periodisation is otherwise known as calorie budgeting. In my opinion, this is the best f’cking method for fat loss whilst being able to sustain exercise performance. When it comes to calorie budgeting, it encompasses the daily tasks and how you opt to meet them. You have two options here; will you spend your calories wisely, or poorly? Since carbs drive exercise performance (just an FYI in case I haven’t said it enough), opting for a different carbohydrate intake on different training days would be advisable in order to fuel the work required. Therefore, undulating your carbs will ensure that you fuel properly to avoid those unwanted heavy legs – nobody likes the feeling of running through honey!
So far, we’ve discovered that we need to budget our calories to offset poor performances. However, there’s always going to be an element of sub-optimal performance as you’re still energy deprived. I.e. calorie budgeting through the week is simply making the best of a bad situation.
During season, many athletes will compete on the weekend and their performance has to be shit hot. Since lower calorie and carb days impair performance, you MUST NOT restrict your intake on the days you wish to perform. Therefore, you’ll have two phases to your week; a fat loss phase and a performance phase.
As fuelling and recovery demands require high calorie intakes, a more aggressive calorie restriction will be needed during the week to compensate – therefore we need to look at your week as a whole; where can we cut calories and where do you need to add some back in? Here’s the thing, calorie restricted diets are a compromise, we simply can’t have everything. Since you need to perform on the weekend, your calorie intake will be further cut during the training week – Despite our best efforts with carb and calorie budgeting, your gym performances may temporarily get worse. Sorry.
Wouldn’t you agree that it’s perhaps better to have a poor(er) training performance, as opposed to a poor competition performance? I believe this tradeoff is definitely worth considering. So, if you only compete one day per week, why do you need two ‘performance’ days?
As our carbohydrate availability is key, we need to make sure that your glycogen stores are topped up in time for competition. Again, low carb availability = piss poor performances. Therefore, we’ll look to start carb loading 24-36 hours prior to your event. The extent of the carb load is decided on a few factors;
I.e. if you cut aggressively throughout a hard training week and you have an 80 minute rugby game to play, you better get some carbs in you – About 6g of carbs per kilogram that you weigh should be adequate (600g for a 100kg player).
As previously mentioned, higher protein diets help you retain lean body mass during a fat loss phase. Contrary to popular belief, you can actually gain muscle in a calorie deficit if the training stimulus is adequate. For example, Longland et al (2016) looked at the differences between a low protein diet (1.2g/kg/bw) vs a high protein diet (2.4g/kg/bw) during an intensive four week training block. To make things even more difficult, 40% of their calories were removed, FML. Interestingly, 1.2kg of muscle mass was gained by eating lots of protein, where the low protein dieters unexpectedly maintaining lean mass. This is surprising as the lower protein intake is deemed to be ‘too low’ to support muscle mass maintenance. Not this time hombre, not when the training stimulus is sufficient. It gets even better; the higher protein group lost more body fat than the lower protein group too; 4.8kg and 3.5kg respectively. In this instance, adding more protein to your diet is beneficial for packing on muscle mass and shredding body fat when calorie intake is severely restricted.
Following on from this, Anonio et al (2015) looked at whether an even higher protein intake was better for gains. Over an 8 week period, forty eight trained participants trained five times per week and followed either a high protein diet (2.3g/kg/bw) or an ultra high protein diet (3.4g/kg/bw). At the end of the eight weeks, both groups gained 1.5kg of lean mass suggesting, and in agreements with previous research that more protein does not equate to better gains. That being said, a very high protein intake does appear to be better at shredding as participants lost 1.6kg compared to 0.3kg. Reasons being are still unclear, however, it’s reckoned that it’s because protein has a higher thermic effect – I.e. simply burning more calories to break down and utilise the protein you eat. It’s worth noting that very high protein diets are often associated with low carb and low fat diets, which could negatively impact performance and health over a long period of time. I.e. somethings gotta give.
For an in depth review on how to optimise your protein intake to pack on serious amounts of muscle and become strong AF – check out my free downloadable resource below.
During a dieting phase, compromises and tradeoffs will always exist. In most cases, the harder you diet, the more these will bite you in the ass. These compromises are seen in lean body mass retention, recovery, fueling, immune function, injury rehabilitation, cognitive function and well-being. Since the level of energy deficit controls this, we need to look at how fast you drop body fat on a weekly basis. In other words;
Therefore, it’s recommended (Helms et al, 2014) that rates of fat loss in already lean individuals should be gradual with the aim of 0.5kg loss per week. I’ve found this to be very close to the goal I set my coaching clients; to lose on average 1% of bodymass per week. During the initial week of dieting, rates of weight loss will be higher due to losses in body water, glycogen, food bulk etc. Therefore this initial 1-2 week period of elevated rates of weight loss will mask the true rates of fat loss (As a reminder, weight loss does not equal fat loss) – This should stabilise by the end of ~10 days and you can see what exactly happening.
When using these guidelines, realistic and safe goals can be set if bodyweight goals are a concern, i.e. weight making sports. If rates of weight loss beyond this are required to meet a deadline, then these compromises will become more apparent and you won’t be able to hide from them. It’s worth noting that these guidelines are mostly for long term periods of weight reduction where more aggressive diets can be followed short term. For example, the participants in the Lanland et al (2016) study lost on average 1.2kg per week and were still able to gain muscle. For the larger athlete who needs to shift some weight quick, rates of weight loss can be higher as these compromises won’t hinder them as much.
Fat loss is never linear. Unfortunately, you can’t cut 500kcal per day and continually lose body fat. A process known as adaptive thermogenesis (AT) occurs in response to lower energy availability (EA); i.e. the amount of calories you have left over after fuelling exercise. Since there’s less energy coming in and your stored energy lowers, metabolic rate, i.e. the amount of energy that you expend will reduce to preserve energy.
In this sense, fat loss will slowly decline until a plateau occurs. This is a normal part of fat loss, it will happen to everyone, it isn’t a case of; will it happen, it’s more of a case of when will it happen? Therefore, it’s very important to understand the ‘why’ and through what component of metabolism this effects in order to preempt and put strategies in place to overcome this decline in progress.
This in part, has a large impact on the amount of energy we expend and is referred to as Total Energy Expenditure (TEE). TEE plays a huge role during a fat loss phase, and can be divided into four categories;
During a dieting phase, TEE lowers (which kinda sucks). This is an uncontrollable adaptive process of dieting and is mainly a consequence of;
Since NEAT is essentially our energy expenditure through movement such as walking and fidgeting , it becomes one of the MAIN ways our body looks to preserve energy, i.e. survival. I like to call this ‘subconscious laziness’. Picture this;
Again, this is over simplified, but being mindful of the fact that this will happen can be used as a strategy to offset this compensatory mechanism. This is where measuring movement through activity trackers can be highly beneficial as it’ll highlight the level of laziness and can give you the needed kick up the ass to ensure that you maintain the same level of energy expenditure outside of the gym. Yes, this is even true in pro athletes who train 3 times a day. Their exercise level is high, but what about outside them gym? Xbox, Netflix and sleep? Ultra sloth.
The principles of fat loss is super straightforward; eat less than you burn. But it’s the application that becomes very difficult where 95% of you will mess up and shaft your performance and long term progress. Pretty much all the athletes I’ve worked with have initially missed the bigger picture and placed a tonne of time and effort on he finer details that yield very small results. Things like;
Don’t get me wrong, they have a small role in helping us shred body fat, but it’s not the main priority here. It’s like mowing your lawn when your house is on fire…Yes, everyone likes a well mowed lawn, but who gives a f#ck if your house is on fire, you have bigger things to deal with first.
For Janine, the office worker who casually jumps on the cross trainer and does three sets of ten tricep kick backs to get rid of her bingo wings; placing a huge amount of effort on calorie and protein intake whilst improving eating habits will help her drop a tonne of bodyweight and feel amazing. For the athlete, they’ll need to get far more rigid with their macronutrient ratios, meal timing and daily/weekly budgeting of calories. If this isn’t done, then they’ll be shafting their performance, lean body mass retention and health.
One of the main reasons why fat loss diets fail is because they are difficult and uncomfortable, as is any form of restriction in our lives. If fat loss goals are achieved through a dieting phase, rarely are they maintained long term. This is why sustainability and longevity of the approach is very important for the individual. When I build meal plans for my athletes, I really focus on;
By all means, dieting is tough; however the goal would be to make it a little less tough and somewhat more enjoyable for long term success. I.e. we need to build a dieting approach around our lives, not the other way around.
For myself, knowledge is mega important here; simply becoming educated in the process will play a factor in adherence as you’ll simply know what’s coming – therefore can mentally be prepared for it. Many athletes or general population don’t know why they’re finding something difficult and are unaware of what the next step is, so they default back to normal eating habits because it’s much easier and more comfortable.
Finally, many people believe that they must stick to a fat loss diet for the rest of time to maintain their new found levels of shreddedness – This is simply not true. In the grand scheme, fat loss phases are a short term process, a short term restriction. Once your fat loss goals has been achieved, calorie intake and portion sizes can return to maintenance to MAINTAIN bodyweight. Albeit, still lower than they’re previous maintenance intake; smaller people simply need less calories, nah mean?