By Dr. Johnathan Edwards
What is often the number-one goal for a cyclist who’s looking to increase performance? Weight loss. And I’m not talking about lighter-weight carbon frames and wheels. I’m talking about body weight. Food constitutes our very existence, yet cyclists are eternally embroiled in a dilemma between eating and their weight. We all know the role weight plays in cycling, and it’s baffling how much money we spend to save 400 grams on a frame while hesitating to invest the time into understanding our basic nutritional needs. For a century, nutrition scientists have been striving to find “the one diet” for everyone; and yet, only a few of us listen to the mantra, “move more and eat less.” One third of Americans are considered obese. Forget about the notion that one diet is perfect for everyone. Nobody can tell you what diet you should be on without knowing your individual situation. Every one of us is unique, with different genes, environments and cultures. Principles of healthy weight loss include realistic goals/rewards, improving diet quality, balancing energy sources, timing portions and managing appetite. Successfully shedding pounds usually requires a reward or goal attached.
CALORIES IN VS. CALORIES OUT
The most popular model to explain why people gain weight is that dietary calories exceed total daily expenditure. After which, the excess calories are stored as fat, leading people to think that cutting calories is the only way to lose weight. This is certainly not the case, and things are much more complex when we throw in chemistry, math, physics, nutrition and psychology of weight loss.
The word “calorie” itself is confusing. Most believe a calorie is something that will make us fat. In fact, humans don’t really “burn calories.” The term “calorie,” as it applies to human energetics, is the energy needed to heat 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius. Human cells are driven by nutrient-derived adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP). The trouble with counting calories is that it somehow makes us believe that our bodies are using exactly what we ate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Food labels differ wildly from the calories you actually extract from digestion. For example, recent research reveals that eating a bag of almonds that claimed 170 calories per serving actually only provided 129 calories. A lot also depends on whether you cook the food. The amount of energy we extract from food depends on many complex interactions, such as how food is prepared, the speed of sugar release (glycemic index), which bacteria are in our gut, if we are resting or exercising, nutrient density, and so on. Even more, if two people eat similarly prepared meals, they will not receive the same number of calories. When the focus is on calories, everything is about the numbers rather than nutrition. Digestion is far too messy of a process to perfect into neat numbers.
Try to forget about the word calorie for now and focus on food providing ATP for energy. The body attains energy from three main sources: carbohydrate, fat and protein. Fats contain the most energy per gram, carbohydrates and protein less. These sources of energy produce the ATP that drives the human body. Most of this energy actually goes to producing heat, and only 25 percent goes into pushing the pedals.
THE DOS & DON’TS
A diet affects you in numerous ways, and all need to be taken into context. To improve diet quality, first and foremost we should eat real food, as many would argue this is what our bodies are intended for. Paying attention to what you are putting into your body is paramount. For example, sugary food boluses will cause your body to over-release hormones like insulin, which works to store sugar in your muscles, but it also wants to store it as fat. Most of the sugar we consume, whether it be from sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice or fruit itself, is converted into fat by our livers. This is a reason why people gain weight from energy drinks and sports beverages.
If you want to lose weight, cutting out the cheap carbohydrates is crucial, especially cookies, cereals, candy bars, potato chips, and any liquid form of fructose, such as juice and many sports and energy drinks when not exercising. Consider that just a hundred years ago obesity and diabetes were uncommon and that one person might consume about 9 pounds of sugar per year. Today, most Americans consume 10 times that amount of sugar per year. Focus on quality, fresh, unprocessed, nutrient-dense food, regardless of the eating style you adopt. Consume foods that are nutrient-dense, such as spinach, kale, beets, quinoa, lentils and strawberries, just to name a few. Eat real food and avoid processed foods, such as fake meats, processed soy and the junk carbohydrates described above. The highest-quality amino acids come from grass-fed beef and eggs from pastured hens, and quality essential oils come from sardines, anchovies and wild salmon.
THE POST-WORK-OUT FUELING MYTH
For years physiology books talked about a magic window of 60–90 minutes after exercise to replenish carbohydrates in the muscles. This is simply not true for everyday applications. Most of that research pertains to exercising in a fasted or semi-fasted state. One big mistake I often observe is cyclists rewarding themselves with a high-calorie protein smoothie after a short ride. A good rule of thumb is that for rides less than two hours, a post-workout meal is not necessary, even if you perform hard intervals. However, if you are riding in a fasted state or performing double workouts, then a post-workout meal may be warranted.
When it’s okay to be hungry: Let hunger be your guide. If you exercise regularly, you will naturally need more food and nutrients. Your body will ask for those nutrients by making you hungrier. Your stomach is the best measure for how much to eat. Allen Lim of Skratch Labs says it best: “When you are training just a little, it is okay to be hungry. When you are training a lot, you only want to be a little hungry. When you are close to competition or an event, make sure that you are not hungry.” Also, get used to the idea that hunger is not an emergency. Often, hunger is actually psychological rather than physiological.
And when it’s not okay: Calorie restricted diets are among the most popular conventions to lose weight. These diets often produce respectable weight loss for about six months before the weight returns. Even though these diets are proven to be ineffective for long-term weight loss, these are the ones prescribed by practitioners the most. Starving yourself is never a good idea. Dangers of weight loss via starvation are numerous, but one thing to consider is malnutrition. Perhaps not the malnutrition seen in some less economically developed countries, but a relative nutritional deficiency that cyclists often inflict upon themselves by losing weight. Unhealthy weight loss leads to decreased immune function, depression, decreased testosterone, decreased hematocrit, lower power and energy, increase risk for fatigue and sickness, abnormal cholesterol profile, and the list continues.
Many paths to weight loss: No one can recommend a diet for you without knowing many details. A diet is truly a personal journey of advice, education, enlightenment, experience and scientific analysis. A vivid example is a study from Stanford University called the “A to Z trial.” This study was published in the Journal of American Medical Association (the gold standard of medical journals). It consisted of four diets; all have been proven to help healthy humans lose weight.
• Atkins diet (very low carbohydrate/ high fat)
• Traditional (low fat and moderate carbohydrate)
• Ornish (very low fat/high in carbohydrate)
• Zone diet (low in carbohydrate/moderate fat)
These diets are all very different from each other, and the bottom line is that everyone lost weight. Perhaps, surprisingly, the Atkins group lost the most, kept off the most and were able to stay with the diet the easiest. None of the patients had a bad rise in their cholesterol; in fact, they all improved. The point here is to show that there are many approaches to losing weight, and that there is no right or wrong answer.
FIND WHAT WORKS FOR YOU
The benefits you will see in your riding from dropping a few pounds can be huge. It cannot be stressed enough to go out and find the facts for yourselves. What really matters is how you feel and perform on a diet. I have seen many amazing examples of weight loss during my medical career and some that seem to defy logic and science. Whatever eating style you choose and find success with, be methodical, stick with it and stay determined. Once you achieve success, be careful not to revert back to your old ways, and remember how far you’ve come.
“Morning pre-breakfast rides can work very well. Chris Froome and
Bradley Wiggins (and many others) are reported to practice this.”
SEVEN TIPS TO HEALTHY WEIGHT LOSS
1.) Start with a 10–15-percent reduction in calories. Starvation diets don’t provide long-term, sustainable weight loss.
2.) While restricting calories, try to maintain muscle mass. Go to the gym and perform squats, or perform big-gear intervals on the bike.
3.) Morning pre-breakfast rides can work very well. Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins (and many others) are reported to practice this.
4.) Increase the protein and healthier fats in your diet while limiting the carbohydrates. For example, cut pasta and bread while adding vegetables, nuts and meat. Keep in mind that if your carbohydrate intake is decreased too much, your muscle glycogen stores could be compromised and cycling performance would be hindered.
5.) Remove processed foods from your cupboards. Try to use as many organic and unprocessed foods as possible.
6.) If the ride is two hours or less, there is no need to drink a high-calorie shake for recovery.
7.) Controlling calories is still incredibly important. It does not matter what type of diet you choose to adopt, because when calories are controlled, progress is made. Be sure to remember that there are 3500 calories in 1 pound of fat.