Many athletes possess a desire to alter their weight. Football linebackers may want to gain muscle for the upcoming season, while wrestlers may look to drop weight for next week’s meet. Meanwhile, gymnasts and soccer players may be struggling with weight issues at different points of their seasons. There are countless situations that may warrant an athlete to adjust their weight. Unfortunately, research also shows many athletes express a desire to lose weight whether they actually need to or not.
There are a right and a wrong way to alter weight. Improperly doing so can lead to a loss of muscle mass and dangerous increases or decreases in body fat. Over time, a damaged metabolism and a variety of other health problems can develop.
This post will review the basics of weight loss and weight gain as well as some ways to avoid common mistakes that athletes make when trying to adjust their weight.
Calories and Weight
One pound of body fat is equal to approximately 3500 calories. By making modifications to calories in (diet) and calories out (activity), adjustments can be made to yield pounds lost or gained. Of course, this is not exact, meaning cutting 3500 calories won’t necessarily correspond to a 1 lb weight loss, just like an additional 3500 calories won’t correspond to an exact 1 lb weight gain. These are estimates.
When caloric intake exceeds expenditure, weight is gained. This is referred to as “positive energy balance.” On the flip side, when calorie expenditure is higher than intake “negative energy balance” occurs and weight loss. If weight maintenance is the goal, athletes want to adjust intake and expenditure accordingly to keep thing balanced.
Positive Energy Balance: When caloric intake exceeds output.
In addition to calories, athletes also need to consider their macronutrient intake. They need to make sure they are taking in the proper proportion of macronutrients to support their body’s needs and the needs of their sport.
Weight loss or gain is best achieved by adjustments in both diet and physical activity. Changes should ideally be made as gradually as possible so that the loss or gain can be maintained. Athletes also want to make sure they are putting on or taking off the right kind if weight. If weight loss is the goal, athletes want to spare lean body mass while shedding fat; for weight gain, additional pounds should come from increased muscle, not fat. Fortunately, research suggests both can be done simultaneously with the right food intake and training.
Negative Energy Balance: When caloric output exceeds intake.
Athletes’ calories needs can range from 1,800 to more than 6,000 calories per day. In many cases, athletes struggle to eat enough calories to support their activity level.
To effectively lose weight, athletes want to consume fewer calories, while increasing expenditure. These adjustments may be easier at certain points during the athlete’s season and calorie reductions should be gradual to avoid a decrease in energy levels and performance.
Cutting calories by 500 calories per day will yield a pound of weight loss per week. This, combined with increased physical activity may cause a greater weight loss initially but 1 to 2 pound a week is considered a safe pace. See Table 9.1 for tips for effective weight loss.
If calorie deficits are too drastic or the intake of macronutrients is not properly maintained, the body will resort to breaking down muscle for energy, which will decrease strength and negatively affect performance.
Athlete’s who participate in weight-focused sports like wrestling, gymnastics, diving, crew, boxing and figure skating often find themselves in situations where they need to drop or “cut” weight quickly. Many of these athletes resort to drastic and dangerous measures including diet pills, laxatives, saunas, and severe calorie restriction. These methods are incredibly dangerous and should be avoided completely.
Cutting weight quickly results in fluid losses with can lead to a decrease in performance due to inadequate fuel (a lack of calories for energy) as well as dehydration (a leading cause of fatigue during exercise). It is not unusual for wrestlers to drastically drop weight immediately before a competition and gain weight immediately after. This had lead to injury and even death in some athletes. National programs have been put in place to try and prevent it, but it continues to be a common practice. Weight-focused athletes such as wrestlers should work closely with a registered sports dietitian to help reach their weight loss goals in a safe and effective manner and work to prepare themselves early in the season or off-season to drop desired weight so that last minute “crash” diets are no longer necessary.
Losing weight is not just as simple as calories in and calories out. Athletes must think about what they need to do to make effective dietary changes. Minding portion sizes, reading food labels and understanding how to modify typical routines and behaviors towards foods are all important components of successful and safe weight loss.
Tips for Safe and Effective Weight Loss
- Decrease calorie intake realistically
- Don’t skip meals
- Read food labels
- Eat the proper proportion of macronutrients
- Stay hydrated
- Pay attention to portion sizes
- Eat nutrient dense foods to avoid nutrient deficiencies
- Set realistic goals
- Eat high-fiber foods to stay satisfied
Gaining weight can be just as difficult as losing, especially for an active athlete that is continually burning calories. To gain weight in the form of muscle, calories and protein intake need to be increased in the proper proportions to support both muscle growth and energy for increased activity. One pound of muscle is equivalent to approximately 100 grams. Increasing daily intake of calories by 500 and daily protein intake by 14 grams will yield an additional 3500 calories and 98 grams of protein over the course of the week. Increased exercise and post-workout nutrition are also necessary to promote weight gain.
Tips for Safe and Effective Weight Gain
- Increase calories gradually
- Increase calories with nutrient dense foods
- Eat the proper proportion of macronutrients
- Set realistic goals
Athletes need to do more than just “eat more” to gain weight. Calories should come from high-quality calories and protein-rich foods. Just like in weight loss, athletes need to maintain an adequate intake of all the macronutrients to help support performance.
Ways to Add Calories
- Add low or full-fat milk to meals
- Snack regularly on nutrient-dense snacks
- Add nuts and nut butter to meals
- Add a salad with vinaigrette dressing to meals
- Add hummus and avocado to salads and sandwiches
- Make shakes and smoothies with fruit, protein powder, and milk or yogurt
Learn more about nutrition and nutrition for athletes in the Fitness Nutrition Coach program, the Sports Nutrition Specialist program, or the Certified Personal Fitness Chef program.