By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
For athletes seeking weight loss, the basic formula is pretty straightforward: reduce caloric intake, but not so much that you compromise training performance or recovery. That doesn’t mean it’s easy.
After 30 years of looking at how athletes eat, I’m willing to bet your overall eating habits are already pretty good. Compared to sedentary and overweight populations, you most likely consume a lot more fruit and vegetables, more whole foods and fewer ultraprocessed ones, less fast food, and fewer sugary drinks. Ironically, that can make weight loss more difficult.
In training, the fitter you are the harder it is to achieve additional improvements. The same can be true with nutrition and weight loss. You don’t need massive changes to your food choices or eating habits, and you also don’t have that much weight to lose. In my experience, weight fluctuations for most athletes who train year-round are less than 10 pounds.
Weight loss for athletes is more about nuance than wholesale change. Forgive me for the clickbait title, but as words go, ‘trick’ grabs attention better than ‘nuance’. You have already made the big and easy changes that would help your sedentary neighbors drop 30 pounds. Or perhaps more accurately, you might not have had to make those changes because you never ate that much junk in the first place.
So, what are some of the nuances or small changes that can make a real difference when you’re looking for ways to reduce caloric intake in an already-good diet?
Immediately box part of restaurant meals
This was one of the strategies that worked very well for an athlete named Charlie. He was and is already very fit, and many of his business colleagues would have said he was already lean. Nevertheless, his goal was to lose about 5 pounds and maintain that weight for the summer. As an executive with a heavy travel schedule, restaurant meals make up a significant portion of Charlie’s diet.
Behavioral studies show that people tend to finish whatever is in front of them. First, we tend to eat faster than we register feelings of being full. Ant there are economic and social rationales that affect this behavior, namely that you paid for the food and you know wasting food is bad. Restaurant meals often feature large portions, so Charlie’s solution was to request a to-go box immediately upon getting the food and then put 1/3-1/2 of it in the box. Off the plate, out of mind.
Stop chip and bread refills
Bottomless tortilla chip and bread baskets in restaurants are there to keep you busy while waiting for your food, or perhaps to encourage you to order a few more drinks. You’re not there for the chips and bread, so you’re just eating them because they’re there. It’s the same mindless eating that occurs while people watch television, movies, and sporting events. If the bread or chips (or the salsa) are particularly good, dig in, but stop at the end of the first basket.
Reduce or eliminate alcohol
From a performance and training perspective, there is no benefit to consuming alcohol. On the other hand, alcohol can be a significant source of calories – particularly when you consume wine, beer, or spirits nightly or even a handful of times per week. A lot of athletes proudly talk about how they’ve eliminated sugary soft drinks (soda and juice) from their diets, but fail to see that a beer, glass of wine, or cocktail can contain the same number of calories. On top of that, a sugary soda is not likely to disturb your sleep, diminish post-exercise glycogen replenishment, or mess with muscle protein synthesis. For more on those last three items, read this.
Wait before having seconds
As I mentioned briefly above, people are perfectly capable of understanding when they feel full, but that sensation often lags behind the actual consumption of food. Part of the reason we, as coaches, try to get athletes to eat more slowly and deliberately is so they reach the feeling of being satiated before they have massively overconsumed calories. This can obviously be difficult when you’re famished after a long or difficult ride or run, and that’s often when athletes overestimate how much food they need to eat.
Before you reach to refill your plate, just wait. Enjoy the conversation you’re having or read a few more pages of your book. Let your brain register what you’ve already eaten, and then decide if you’re actually still hungry.
Pre-plan for travel
This is most important for people who travel frequently, because you’re less likely to be cooking for yourself and you don’t have your own fridge and cupboards to reach into. For your time in airports, nuts and dried fruit are easy to fit in your bag, filling, and healthier than most things you’ll find in the terminal. The fewer the additives – like sugar, honey, etc. – the better. If you have control over where you’re having lunch and or dinner, take a look at menus beforehand.
When I travel I sometimes take instant oats I can prepare by using the coffee maker to heat water. Just remember to bring a bowl and spoon, because hotel rooms rarely have them – especially now with changes due to COVID. If you go down to the complimentary breakfast (if it’s still available), try to eat what you would normally have at home. Just because there’s a waffle maker and huge tray of bacon doesn’t mean you have to eat them.
Buy sweets in single serve packages
I both love and hate this strategy. On the one hand, when you have to open or unwrap a treat you are less likely to keep unwrapping them in order to eat more. Sure, you could avoid sweets altogether, but sometimes eating a small treat is enough to satisfy your desire and get it out of your mind. A handful of M&Ms might hit the spot, but when you open the big bag you’re not going to stop at a handful. On the other hand, the reason I hate this strategy is that it creates more waste than necessary. So, maybe use it sparingly.
Indulge when it’s worth it
Enjoying really good food is one of life’s great pleasures, and it’s often really high in calories and not great from a nutrition standpoint. But bad food can just as easily be really high in calories and not great for you, too. When you have the opportunity to have a great meal, take it and enjoy it. Just try to be equally aware when you’re sitting down to a meal that’s going to be just OK. If it’s just going to get the job done and satisfy your hunger, you won’t be missing out on something great by ordering something small or uninteresting.
None of these recommendations is a massive change to your diet, but it’s small tweaks like these that provide opportunities for weight loss. Leave the wholesale dietary changes to people who really need to reform their relationship with food. If your day to day nutrition is already based primarily on whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and plenty of variety, all you’re looking for are small ways to avoid eating more than you need.