As athletes, we are usually concerned with getting enough calories to fuel our performance; however, there are times when it may be appropriate to cut back on what you’re eating. For example, you may be in an extended period of reduced training or trying to lose weight.
How you go about cutting those calories can make all the difference in preserving health, fitness and lean tissue levels.
- The off-season is the best time to start so you’re not compromising race-day performance.
- Always cut calories slowly, aim to eliminate about 300–500 per day, at most.
- Pay attention to energy levels and mood.
- Eat nutrient dense, not calorically dense foods.
- Reduce intake of sugar outside of training sessions.
- Increase fiber intake to promote satiety.
- Spread protein intake throughout the day to stay full.
- Do not neglect calories necessary for training well (before, during, after).
- Reduce snacking.
- Reduce alcohol.
- Stay hydrated throughout the day.
- Track your intake.
- Simply leave a few bites behind at each meal.
- Eat slowly and chew thoroughly.
SAMPLE EATING PLAN
Here is an example of how to appropriately cut calories while trying to maintain lean muscle mass and fitness capacity.
To clean up your intake, cut back around 500 calories and make a few improvements without major changes. This is the ideal way to clean up your intake — small steps can have a big impact.
- Breakfast: An easy way to cut calories is to swap sugar-added yogurt for a plain version and leave a few bites of oatmeal behind.
- Lunch: Cutting calories means some of the extras have to go. Exchange a cookie for extra hummus and a drizzle of dressing for more nutrient-dense fats. Keep your portions in check, for example, the amount of chicken can be cut back to a standard 4-ounce serving size.
- Dinner: Trimming servings is an easy way to cut calories without changing your entire intake. Try a 4-ounce serving of steak and stick to one drink when it comes to alcohol.
- Snacks: This category is a prime target for cleaning up intake. Try cottage cheese to provide more protein and reduce added sugar. This goes to show that food doesn’t necessarily need to be limited to provide fewer calories.
- Workout Fuel: What an athlete consumes before, during and after a workout is the last thing to mess with. If anything, it would be advised to decrease in other parts of the diet (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks) and add fuel into the training session where the body is primed to use those calories more efficiently.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Whatever the reason you are cutting back, check in with health markers along the way. If you’re feeling weak during normal training sessions, generally fatigued, are losing weight rapidly or begin to suffer frequent illnesses, you’ve likely been too aggressive with reducing your intake.
When taking on a reduced intake, it is important to focus on nutrient-rich foods to maintain proper vitamin and mineral levels. Having metrics taken such as body fat, bone density, blood pressure and hormone levels is a good way to ensure you’re staying healthy while eating less.
Along with cutting calories, it is important to maintain other healthy habits that assist with weight loss/maintenance such as getting quality sleep, reducing stress and weightlifting to improve lean mass. Consulting with a sports dietitian is a great way to figure out a plan that works in the best interest of your health and fitness.