For many recreational or competitive female athletes, food seems to be the “fattening enemy.” Women often express their frustration that they “do all this exercise and are not losing weight” and wonder “what is the best diet?” The problem is that diets don’t work (or everyone who diets would be thin). They are certainly appealing, giving an illusion of control. But sadly, the dieting cycle actually contributes to more distress. The good news is that making peace with food, exercise and weight is possible! Rediscover the joy and nourishment of eating by focusing on strategies that will help you optimize body composition and improve athletic performance.
Create a Small Calorie Deficit. Weight loss happens when there is a caloric deficit. Unfortunately, the body responds to a caloric deficit with a number of metabolic adaptations. In the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Trexler, et al. summarize results from a number of studies indicating that the body’s response to hypocaloric diets is to increase hunger, conserve energy, and promote loss of lean body mass (LBM). Consequently, repeated cycles of weight loss and regain ultimately result in long-term weight gain. To minimize these effects, it is recommended to utilize the smallest possible deficit, such as 10-15% of calories, to yield an average weight loss of 0.5 pound per week. For example, if you need 2000 calories to maintain your weight, create a 200-300 calorie deficit per day. This may decrease the rate of weight loss, but will also reduce unfavorable adaptations.
Manage Your Hunger. There are many factors that affect hunger and appetite. Hunger is simply your body’s physical request for fuel, while appetite is a psychological urge for “what sounds good.” The biggest mistake made by weight conscious athletes is getting overly hungry and relying entirely on willpower to avoid eating too much. Unfortunately, many dieters skip breakfast, skimp on lunch, and blow it by “giving in” and overeating later in the day. Giving yourself permission to eat enough at breakfast and lunch will help you control the amount of food your body needs. Plan ahead by dividing your energy needs into about 3-5 meals/snacks and mindfully fuel up during the most active part of your day.
Increase Protein Intake. Loss of LBM while trying to reduce body weight is obviously undesired. Research has indicated that resistance training along with sufficient protein intake will help preserve LBM during energy restriction. Increasing your intake of protein-containing foods (such as meat, poultry, fish, beans, legumes, and dairy products) will also promote satiety which delays the onset of hunger for the next meal. Protein needs vary individually, but in general, aim for about 20 grams of protein per meal or snack (20 grams of protein is the equivalent of a palm-sized serving of meat, pork or poultry; one cup of tofu; or 6 oz Greek yogurt with a couple tablespoons of almonds).
Improve Diet Quality. While I don’t recommend defining foods as “good” vs “bad”, changing your personal food environment will increase the likelihood that you will eat more nutrient dense foods regularly. Stocking up on fruits, vegetables, lean meats, wholesome carbohydrates, dairy, nuts, and seeds at home or at work will help fuel your workouts, decrease cravings and manage emotional eating. Each meal, try to balance your plate with a serving of lean protein, wholesome carbohydrates, and colorful veggies that will help you feel full and satisfied while providing important nutrients to help you exercise, train and perform at your best.