BACKED BY SCIENCE: The Ultimate Nutrition Guide for Athletes to Shred Body Fat without Sacrificing PerformanceIf 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;
- Increase work capacity.
- Increase top end speed.
- Improve agility.
- Improve repeated efforts.
- [Bonus] Look like an actual athlete and turn a few heads.
- Feel flat.
- Become exhausted.
- Battle fatigue.
- Be more likely to get injured.
- Run the risk of getting ill more often.
- Under perform in the gym and in competition.
- Be in a terrible mood and not ‘show up’ and fulfil your true potential.
- Probably lose more often than you win.
Some FundamentalsCalorie 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;
- If your calorie intake is the same as the amount of calories you burn, you’ll stay exactly the same and won’t shred body fat.
- If your calorie intake is greater than the amount of calories you burn, you’ll gain fat.
- If your calorie intake is less than the amount of calories you burn, you’ll drop unwanted body fat.
- Decreasing calorie intake.
- Increasing calorie (energy) expenditure.
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;
- Your life.
- Your training schedule and demands.
- Your work and travel commitments.
- Your social events.
- Your food likes and dislikes.
- Your activity level outside of the gym.
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.
Athlete vs Non-Athlete: The low carb Vs low fat debateIt’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.
Some PerformanceOne 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.
Some BudgetingIf 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.
- Monday-Friday – Fat Loss Phase.
- Saturday-Sunday = Fuelling and Performance Phase.
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;
- How hard your training week was.
- How restrictive your carb intake was throughout the week.
- The duration and intensity of the event/game.
Some ProteinAs 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.
Some Rates of Fat LossDuring 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;
- Large calorie deficits = Fast fat loss = More compromises.
- Small calorie deficits = Slow fat loss = Less compromises.
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.
Want to know more about this? I’ve written a super important article on the consequences of getting shredded and not eating enough. If this sounds like you, I would highly recommend that you read HERE.
Some AdaptationFat 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;
- Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) – the energy required to run cellular processes within the body.
- Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) – the energy required to break down and process foods eaten.
- Thermic Effect of Exercise (TEE) – the energy burnt through exercise
- Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) – the energy burn through movement that is not classified as ‘exercise’.
During a dieting phase, TEE lowers (which kinda sucks). This is an uncontrollable adaptive process of dieting and is mainly a consequence of;
- Reduced BMR.
- Reduced bodyweight (smaller people simply need less calories).
- Reduced NEAT (sloth mode).
- You remove 300kcal from your diet to become deficient in calories.
- This reduction in calorie intake turns you into a sloth, therefore you’re less active and you move about less. Let’s say that this decrease in expenditure is 300kcal.
- The calorie balance (in vs out) would be the same, therefore your calorie deficit would equal zero. The subconscious laziness has over-ridden the calorie reduction and you’re back to square one, just more hungry and miserable.
Some Closing ThoughtsThe 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;
- Meal timing.
- Macronutrient Ratios.
- Food quality.
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;
- Personal preference; food likes and dislikes.
- Training demands.
- Work demands.
- Travel demands.
- Personal beliefs and values.
- Meal preparation, i.e. how much time do they have to cook and prep meals.
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