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Nutrition Nerd: Successful Weight Loss or Gain

Posted Sep 01 2011 9:31am

We have now reached the end of a three part mini-series so to speak. A few weeks ago I wrote a post about Determining Individual Caloric Needs to maintain weight. That post was then followed up by my latest one, which provided guidelines for a Healthy Body Weight . This post will be continue to build upon the information from the previous two and be dedicated to providing some suggestions for successfully losing or gaining weight. Please do perform the calculations in the previous two posts to first determine if either weight gain or loss is appropriate for you*.

WEIGHT LOSS: Weight loss –or more specifically, body fat loss – can sometimes be advantageous, particularly for runners, since it decreases the energy required to carry ourselves. However, it can also be detrimental to performance if we attempt to lose too much weight or attempt to lose weight too quickly.

          STEP 1: Set Weight Loss Goals – These goals need to include 1) total weight to be lost (or goal % body fat) and 2) time period in which weight is to be lost in. Although individual differences do exist, it is generally recommended that men not go below a body fat percentage of 5% and women not go below 12% since fat is required for important processes in our body. If you do not know your body fat percentage, use the calculations here  to determine your ideal body weight and do not aim to be much lighter than that. Furthermore, general recommendations also suggest that weight loss not be greater than 1 pound each week (or 1 kilogram every two weeks) since more rapid weight loss can negatively influence training and competition.

STEP 2: Reduce Energy Intake – Technically speaking, weight loss can be achieved by decreasing caloric intake, increasing caloric expenditure, or a combination of both. For the general public, and for overweight and obese individuals, I would absolutely recommend the combined approach. However, for runners (and other athletes), the focus for weight loss typically needs to be on the reduction of caloric intake. This is because time constraints and a needed recovery period between workouts typically makes it difficult, if not impossible, to increase energy expenditure enough to elicit changes in weight.

There is research that suggests the type of calories consumed (i.e. – fat, protein, and carbohydrates) can play an important role in weight loss – and this will be discussed in a later post. However, for our purposes today we will focus on the fact that in order to lose weight, a caloric deficit must be achieved. That is, we must use up more calories than we take in.

STEP 3: How Much to Decrease Calories By - Most weight loss information found on-line and in diet/exercise books promote decreasing caloric intake by 500 calories each day in order to elicit a 1 lb. weight loss each week. However, I prefer to use a slightly different approach, which I first read about in Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook years ago. (For those of you unfamiliar with Nancy , she is one of the country’s most well-respected and experienced sports nutritionists – and I highly recommend her guidebooks). Nancy suggests decreasing caloric intake by 20% of the calories required to maintain weight (which you can calculate here if you have not already done so). The rationale for this is simple. A 500 calorie reduction is not very significant for someone who requires 5,000 calories per day to maintain their weight, yet a 500 calorie reduction is very significant for someone who requires only 1,800 calories per day to maintain their current weight. This approach also insures that weight loss is gradual in order to help preserve lean body mass (muscle).

Example: If you require 2,800 calories to maintain your current weight: 1) 2,800 x .20 = 560 calories. 2) 2,800 – 560 = 2,240. 2,240 calories is your new target caloric intake level.

          STEP 4: PRACTICAL TIPS:

  • Divide your caloric intake level in to 3 meals and 1-3 snacks depending upon your preference. (For great snacking ideas check out last week’s Runner’s Plate post).
  • Learn to read food labels and measure out your food so that you begin to learn what 200 calories of cereal looks like, or 100 calories of almonds, etc.
  • Keep a food log and track not only the food you eat, but the time of day, the location, and why you ate (i.e. – were you bored, stressed, hungry, etc.)
  • Eat your favorite foods. Example – If you love peanut butter (guilty!) don’t deny yourself. Consume it often so that you are less likely to go over indulge in it.
  • Evaluate barriers to your success (i.e. – family members complain when you cook healthier meals, time required to measure out food) and determine how you can overcome them.
  • Create a list of 10 activities you enjoy that do not involve food. Post it in a visible location in your office and at home. Then when you feel the need to eat when you are not actually hungry, instead choose an activity from your list to occupy yourself.
  • Increase consumption of low calorie, nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables.
  • Limit high-fat and high-calorie additions to meals such as sauces, sour cream, salad dressings, etc. or select lower calorie alternatives.
  • Consider taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement in order to ensure you are meeting nutrient recommendations during an energy restriction period.

WEIGHT GAIN: Weight gain can also sometimes be advantageous or necessary for runners if their low body weight or body fat percentage is negatively affecting their health and/or performance. Other times, runners may be more than just “a runner” and would like to increase lean body mass and strength for other performance or ascetic reasons.

STEP 1: Set Weight Gain Goals – These goals need to include 1) total weight to be gained (or goal % body fat) and 2) time period in which weight is to be gained in. If you do not know your body fat percentage, use the calculations here to determine your ideal body weight and do not aim to be much heavier than that, because it may not be feasible given your genetic information and body frame. Furthermore, general recommendations also suggest that weight gain not be greater than 1 pound each week (or 1 kilogram every two weeks) since more rapid weight gain can result in the accumulation of too much body fat which can negatively affect health and athletic performance.

STEP 2: Increase Energy Intake – Technically speaking, weight gain can be achieved by increasing caloric intake, decreasing caloric expenditure, or a combination of both. However, for runners (and other athletes), the focus for weight gain typically needs to be on the increase of caloric intake, since decreased physical activity is generally not an option nor would it be a healthy alternative. *However, depending upon your individual situation, it may be necessary to decrease your weekly mileage or refrain from exercising until you reach a healthy body weight/% body fat. This is something you should consult with your physician and dietitian about.

For those of you interested in increasing muscle mass and strength, resistance exercise training (i.e. – lifting weights) is the most important factor. Yet, nutrition does play an important role since total caloric intake must be sufficient to support the needs of daily activities and muscle mass accretion. There is research specifically addressing the important of varying amounts of macronutrients (fats, carbs, and protein) as well as timing of nutrient ingestion on building muscle, but that will be addressed in a later post. For our purposes today we will focus on the fact that in order to gain weight, a caloric surplus must be reached. That is, we must take in more calories than we expend.

STEP 3: How Much to Increase Calories By - Similar to the information above regarding how much to decrease caloric intake by for weight loss, I prefer a slightly different approach to the generic recommendation of “increase caloric intake by 500 calories each day to gain 1 lb. per week”.  Once again, I refer to the information presented in Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook , in which she suggests increasing caloric intake by 20% of the calories required to maintain one’s current weight (which you can calculate here if you have not already done so). The rationale for this is simple. A 500 calorie increase is not very significant for someone who requires 4,000 calories per day to maintain their weight, yet a 500 calorie increase is very significant for someone who requires only 1,200 calories per day to maintain their current weight. This approach also insures that weight gain is gradual in order ensure it is sustainable and to help prevent accumulation of too much body fat.

Example: If you require 1,500 calories to maintain your current weight: 1) 1,500 x .20 = 300 calories. 2) 1,500 + 300 = 1,800. 1,800 calories is your new target caloric intake level.

          STEP 4: PRACTICAL TIPS:

  • Divide your caloric intake level in to 3 meals and 1-3 snacks depending upon your preference.
  • Learn to read food labels and measure out your food so that you begin to learn what 200 calories of cereal looks like, or 100 calories of almonds, etc.
  • Keep a food log and track not only the food you eat, but the time of day and the location so you can more easily determine where you can realistically add calories to your meal plan.
  • Have easily transportable snacks available so that you can more easily meet your new caloric intake goals (see last week’s Runner’s Plate post for snack ideas).
  • Consume more calorically dense foods (i.e. – think granola cereal over puffed or flaked cereals; sandwiches made with thicker bread slices; “hearty” soups filled with beans and legumes instead of broth based ones; etc.) so that you are not becoming too full before meeting caloric goals.
  • Add toppings or calorie-containing mix-ins to meals you already consume. (I.e. – make your oatmeal with milk instead of water; thicken mashed potatoes with powdered milk; top salads with nuts, croutons, beans, and cheese; etc.)
  • Avoid incorporating “bad” fats (Trans and saturated). It may be tempting to just load up on whatever type of calories you can, but when making additions, focus on the “healthy” fats found in oily fish (such as salmon), natural peanut butter, etc.

*Note: The information provided in this post is generalized and is not meant to replace your physician or dietitian’s advice. Please consult with your personal medical team prior to initiating any diet or exercise regimen to alter body weight/composition.

Have you ever tried to gain or lose weight or favorably alter your body composition before? Were you successful at meeting goals and more importantly, maintaining them? If so, what methods did you employ to help yourself? What positive changes did you see in your life as a runner from reaching your body weight goals? If you were unsuccessful, what barriers made it so that you could not reach your goal? What do you think you can do differently in the future to make reaching your body weight goals a reality?

- Tanya

(Tanya is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and is pursuing her PhD in Nutrition and Exercise Science at Virginia Tech. After graduating with her Bachelor’s in Dietetics, Tanya completed an American Dietetic Association (ADA) approved Dietetic Internship through the University of Houston. She has completed many road races from 5k to 25k. Follow her on Twitter  @nutritionnerd  and at her personal blog  Dine, Dash & Deadlift .)

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