The only way to lose weight is to operate at a caloric deficit. The challenge with active individuals is cutting body fat while maintaining (or even growing!) lean tissue, like muscle and bone. Losing weight is often an excellent goal in promoting better health, but what we really want to do is reduce body fat to a healthy range.
There are 3 ways to do this: reducing calories (diet), increasing activity (exercise) or a combination of the two. While all can be used to achieve a caloric deficit, diet + exercise has been found to have the best chance of sticking.
For the majority of your food, you are going to want to stick to foods that have a low caloric density. This means you can eat a larger amount to fill you up while minimizing calories; foods in this category include leafy greens and air-popped popcorn. However, you want to be sure you have enough energy and nutrients to keep working out. It is suggested that you bump up your protein intake to 25-35% of what you eat. Studies have shown that an intake of 1.0 g/lb of protein throughout the day gained more lean mass and lost more fat. This might be why ketogenic diets have been so popular; they’re higher in protein that many of the other popular prescribed diets. However, the problem with keto is that carbohydrates do play an important role in the energy required for exercises. This is why not only the composition of your diet matters but also timing.
Carbohydrates help provide your body with short term energy that it can use relatively quickly. You’ll want to have some complex carbs shortly before your workout to give you energy for sustained activity. If you’re jumping up and going immediately to the gym, you’ll want to have some simple sugars in whatever you choose to eat. Protein and fat are associated with long term energy. Protein also plays a role in your body’s recovery. One way to boost recovery while still getting the energy you need for a workout might be to incorporate a protein shake or bar. Dairy-based proteins have a lot of nutrients and can provide a lot of necessary nutrients while still helping you reach your goals. You can have some before to get the sugars you need, and you need to have about 20 grams after to minimize lean tissue loss.
Takeaway: A high protein percentage and a caloric deficit are the keys to losing weight while maintaining mass. Gatorade has a great resource that gives examples of what to eat and when: https://performancepartner.gatorade.com/docs/default-source/default-document-library/sports-nutrition-101_-fueling-hydrating-the-athlete-(gatorade).pdf?Status=Master&sfvrsn=aa924fa6_0
Caution: The speed of weight loss can affect lean tissue retention, so if you want to stay strong, stick to only losing 1-2 lbs a week.
Anna J Applegate, LAT, ATC
Anna is a licensed Athletic Trainer in MA. She’s worked with adolescents, veterans, and D1 & high-level athletes in both Sports Medicine and Sports Performance. She’s focused on a holistic approach to injury prevention and performance enhancement. In addition to writing for Bear Grips, Anna is working to create resources that make technology and analytics accessible for coaches and clinicians.