weight loss

Sneaky Weight Loss Tricks That Work


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.

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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.

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Comments 19

  1. The only thing that works for me is to closely monitor what I eat and limit calories to 1500-1700 per day. I ride 10+ hours per week, but find that if I eat more than 1800 calories per day I gain weight. I always gain weight during intense training/riding blocks because I end up eating more calories than I need. As long as I eat 250 calories or so per hour during long rides, I have enough energy to finish my workouts. The problem for me is overeating off the bike.

    1. Also, I forgot to add that my Whoop strap is a great reminder for me on how alcohol use hurts recovery. Lack of sleep and alcohol consumption are the two biggest drags on my Whoop recovery. The easiest way for me to goose my recovery score is simply to not drink alcohol.

  2. Good stuff, Chris, thank you again. I believe have to attack on all fronts: try every single day to make good eating and drinking, workout and sleeping habits a truly ingrained lifestyle. Intermittent fasting was a good jump start for me, but in the end it is daily choices, which can be hard to be consistent with, but way worth it if you can stay close to that target behavior. If you fall off the horse, skip the self-criticism, just get back on the horse. I also have to thank you for continuing to pound the “less alcohol message”, which I initially rejected but now embrace, and to my CTS coach for teaching me to simply put the fork down between each bite. Amazingly effective. It took about 18 months, but now at 65 I am at lowest weight in 35 years and am determined to keep it that way for the rest of my life. Thank you for all you folks do at CTS. You all impact so many lives and I am incredibly grateful.

  3. I think there are differences for men and women and this is particularly true peri- and post-menopause. I have eaten a diet with a 7000 calorie deficit per week for over a year and lost 2 pounds while putting on abdominal fat. (All tracked scrupulously on MyFitnessPal) All this with riding 8 to 10 hours per week. Enter stress and lack of endogenous anabolic steroids. Calories in and calories out certainly has not worked for me and doesn’t work for a huge portion of the women out there. I saw an article recently that indicated that at least 40% of older women operate at a permanent caloric deficit.
    From what I am beginning to understand, I probably need to find a way to eat more in order to reduce the body’s perception of stress and starvation in order to lose weight. The weight loss game becomes a completely different landscape as women age. Please don’t forget that there is no one formula for all people.

  4. I have found that the best diet to date for me is the duct tape diet. In the morning, get up and put a piece of duct tape over your mouth. Keep it there until dinner time. Remove the duct tape, eat, and put the duct tape back on until bedtime. Works every time.

  5. Rule #1 to Not Gain Weight. Never, ever snack after dinner. I always wait for 9:15 to have my bedtime snack which is always a small portion of yogurt or occasionally ice cream with nuts, fruit, granola, peanut butter etc. If I overate at dinner I make sure it is a small portion. Except for the summer when my bedtime snack is often watermelon(cut up of course). Between dinner and snack I always have a drink going, if there is sugar in the drink, I mix is 1/2 1/2 with selzer water or water and crushed ice.

    No or minimal snacks during the day. Don’t eat stupid! I almost never eat anything crunchy in a packet. There is lots of so-called “studies” about meat etc, but one thing for sure, potato chips, pretzels and all the like(or worse) is simply poison that should rarely be ingested.

    Restaurants. Never order appetizers or desert unless it is a big occasion out with others. In most cases, 1/2 will go home for lunch next day.

  6. agree w/litedoc that ‘at the end of the day’ it’s calories in/calories out.

    for me, the #1 way to lose weight is to keep the reason i want to lose at the forefront of
    my mind. e.g., i want to be 155 lbs. at the start line of ….

    1. Actually that is not true. For instance, gluconeogenesis is only 33% efficient so a calorie of protein is only equivalent to 67% of a calorie of carbs: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/90/3/519/4597025

  7. I had gained about 5 pounds in the fall due to a heavy work travel schedule, and I am in the process of shedding them by reducing meal size and snacking more. It took a couple of weeks to get better at gauging portion size and for my stomach to adjust and not feel hungry, but it doesn’t seem like a sacrifice.

    I have learned that when I have a light dinner, I need to have a snack before going to bed or else I will wake up in the early morning starving and not be able to get back to sleep. My go-to bedtime snack is cottage cheese, almond slivers, and berries.

  8. Chris, I would enjoy hearing what you think about the Ketogenic diet and how it can be incorporated into a cycling regime. Specifically, I am talking about cyclists who are not necessarily concerned about competitive cycling, but enjoy the sport for its health and enjoyment benefits.

  9. I good way to loose 5lbs. Is to cut sodium intake. I was told I had high blood pressure and sodium was one thing I had to cut out. Lost some weight and also discovered I did not loose muscle mass. So I was able to keep my speed on the bike. 5lbs also meant the hills were a tad easier. Thanks for all the advice in your article

  10. Decreasing sweets and refined foods is important. The calories in vs. calories out is an age old dietary technique that does NOT work! Been there, done that. Intermittent fasting is the only way to get to a healthy weight and stay there. It can be successful for just about everyone, especially endurance athletes. It is flexible and can be tuned on a daily basis to training load. If you want to learn more about why the information we have been taught is utter BS, please read “The Obesity Code” by Dr. Jason Fung. It was an eye opener for me and informed me that much of what I learned in med school and through 26 years of practice is outright wrong. This book is for everyone not just the overweight or obese. Few will regret reading this book.

    1. A law of physics is that matter is neither created nor destroyed, it just changes its form, so ultimately, it is calories in, calories out. Intermittent fasting and other diets may or may not make it easier for people to reduce their total intake. A good study out there comparing diet alone with diet+excercise showed that while the combination was better, the difference was not statistically significant. Diet generally is by far and away the most important aspect of weight control and loss. The old adage about not being able to outrun a calorie is pretty accurate. Training helps my weight loss attempts because so much of my intake and I suspect others is boredom, stress etc. and aerobic exercise has been shown to help treat stress, anxiety and depression as well as the low dose medications.

      1. There are other inputs that affect the simple caloric in/out calculation, one of which is hormone levels. Cortisol has a significant effect on fat storage, for example. I lost body fat (and as a consequence overall body mass) by sleeping more and reducing my overall work stress.

    2. Noom is actually smart and the science is excellent. Just lost 25 lbs and it is calories in calories out. Also there are no “bad” foods. Everyone is different but worked for me and I would recommend it

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