Amanda Cossey on getting down to your fighting weight without compromising performance
A wise nutritionist once said, ‘As you can only make money from selling a product, not common sense, it is no wonder that people are confused.’
The weight loss and diet industry is booming. From celebrity bloggers, mumma gurus and athlete experts to best-selling diet books, there is an absolute minefield of information to navigate on the path to weight loss. While it can be difficult to determine food fact from fiction, understanding the basic science behind weight loss is a good start.
Most people know that our bodies derive energy from the things we eat and drink. This energy is measured in kilojoules (kJ) or calories (1 calorie = 4.2 kilojoules). The energy itself comes from four fundamental fuel sources: carbohydrate, protein, fat and alcohol. One gram of carbohydrate and protein gives you 16-17kJ, one gram of fat provides 37kJ and one gram of alcohol 27kJ. Our bodies use this energy for metabolism, heat production and movement. When the amount of energy we consume is equal to the amount of energy we use, we achieve energy balance and a stable weight. When you consume less energy than you use, you are in negative energy balance and you will generally lose weight. Equally, when you consume more energy than you use, you are in positive energy balance and will gain weight (usually body fat).
This all sounds simple, but it is important to understand that your body is affected by your energy balance in more ways than just a change in body weight. Your hormonal balance, metabolism, mood and therefore your health are all affected by positive or negative energy balance. An extreme negative energy balance can reduce physical performance and concentration, and decrease metabolism, bone density and some key hormones. Your body doesn’t know the difference between an extreme juice fast and starvation in a Third World country. Your body just knows there is not enough energy coming in and it will begin to slow and shut down any functions that are unnecessary for survival.
On the flip side, consistent overeating and under-exercise can also have a massive impact on your body. If the impact were as obvious as sunburn, lifestyle diseases would be on the decline. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to feel or see plaque building up in your arteries, cholesterol or blood pressure increasing, your body becoming more resistant to insulin or your risk for certain cancers increasing. We all like to think we are bulletproof – until we aren’t. Preventable, life-changing illness is not fun.
So does it matter where the kilojoules come from? When it comes to total weight loss, the answer is no. Nearly a century of research continues to find that negative energy balance, no matter what you decide to eat, is the most important thing for weight loss. A very large study (published in 2009), compared the weight-loss diets of 811 overweight people. Each person was randomly allocated to one of four diet groups:
- High fat, high protein, low carb
- High fat, average protein, moderate carb
- Low fat, high protein, moderate-high carb
- Low fat, moderate protein, high carb.
The weight loss for each group was compared at six months and two years. They found there was no difference in the amount of weight lost between the groups.
So how do you apply this to the food you eat? Despite the hype, there is no one-size fits-all solution. Different weight loss approaches work better for different people. Your exercise goals will also change your approach, while it’s often the psychological side that is the trickiest to master. That’s where an expert may come in handy.
If you want to forge ahead yourself, take out 2000kJ/day. Usually a reduction of 2000kJ/day results in 1kg weight loss per a month. Take more energy out each day and you lose more weight, but you may compromise your training and performance if you go too hard. There are a couple of good apps out there (www.calorieking.com.au) to help you learn about food and energy, but use them as food guides and learning tools only. Apps often overestimate the energy used when you exercise and people regularly make mistakes recording their food intake.
Finally, here are a few general practical tips for weight conscious climbers:
- Change the way you think about food. Ignore the social media food frenzy currently hailing or vilifying foods. Instead, imagine if there was no longer ‘good’ food and ‘bad’ food, there was just food. If you see all food as ‘good’ then you no longer give food the power to make you feel guilty or ashamed. ‘Bad’ foods are usually extremely yummy and avoiding them for the rest of your life will probably be hard and not fun! Take the power away from food. Instead, focus on foods that improve your health, then you can start to be objective about what you actually eat and drink each day, and have some space for the extra yummy stuff too.
- Reduce your fat and alcohol intake. Most adults gain weight drinking too much alcohol, eating too much fat (e.g. meat pies, sausage rolls, Wagu beef, pastries, biscuits, cakes) and not eating enough vegetables, fruit and whole-grain foods. Fat has a poor feedback mechanism on appetite, so most of us will eat too much fatty food before we feel satisfied. It’s really easy to accidentally and spontaneously eat a lot of extra energy from fat. Fat and alcohol also provide up to twice as much energy per gram than carbohydrate and protein. Fat is easily converted to and stored as fat in the body, so it makes sense to limit them. Carbohydrate and protein, on the other hand, are not as easy to over consume because they are more efficient at telling the body when we are full and our bodies want to use carbohydrate for energy.
- Eat foods with a higher water content. Research tells us that we get used to eating a certain volume of food each day. As you know, fat contains twice as many kilojoules per gram and usually high-fat foods have a lower water content. Foods with a high water content and lower fat content are more satisfying and will make you feel fuller with less energy. As an example most fruits and vegetables are around 90% water compared with a slice of cheesecake, which is 39% water.
- Know what you’re eating. Most people don’t realise how much energy some ‘healthy’ foods contain. For example, an avocado contains the same amount of energy as two Mars Bars, and half a cup of raw almonds has more energy than six Weet Bix and milk! Of course avocados and almonds are a terrific source of good fats, but it helps to understand just how many kilojoules a portion that size is giving you.
- Beware of the sports foods and supplements. They usually pack heaps of energy into a small very convenient package without giving you the satisfaction of eating an actual meal. They serve a great purpose when you are multipitching, but are probably not the best option when you are training at the gym.
- Be honest with yourself about how active and inactive you are. Sixty minutes of activity every day is needed for successful weight loss. Why? Because moderate activity ‘dampens’ your appetite. Increased muscle mass in your body increases your metabolism, and the fitter you are the more efficient your body is at burning fat. It is also great for managing stress.
The bottom line is – to lose weight you need consistent negative energy balance. To create this negative energy balance you have three options:
- burn more energy through exercise,
- consume less kilojoules by eating less, or
- a combination of one and two.
Option 3 is a winner. It results in lower body fat levels and improves your health. Maintaining the weight loss is about making these changes sustainable and permanent. Eat a bit less, move a bit more and Bob’s your uncle – six packs all round.
Amanda Cossey, from Blue Mountains Sport Nutrition, is a climber and Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) with a Masters degree in Nutrition & Dietetics from the University of Wollongong.