Eat Like a Champion, Part 2: How to Lose Fat Safely

STACK Expert Tony Bonvechio tells athletes how to lose fat safely and without undermining their performance on the field.

Welcome to the STACK Eat Like a Champion article series, where we talk to nutrition experts about how to eat to beat the competition. You'll learn how and what to eat to reach your goals and how to build quality dietary habits to turn yourself into a lean, mean eating machine. Our second installment will teach you how to lose fat without sacrificing your on-field performance. Check out our first installment to learn how to build muscle in the kitchen.

With the New Year upon us, gyms are flooded with well-intentioned exercisers trying to shed pounds or build muscle. Unfortunately, many of these inexperienced gym goers will fall off the wagon because, despite their best efforts, they don't know the first thing about how to lose fat safely or effectively.

But believe it or not, even athletes, thought to be at the pinnacle of physical fitness, struggle with fat loss and weight management. Whether you're a wrestler trying to make weight, a soccer player working to pass a timed run test or a baseball pitcher hoping to speed up your fastball, weight loss can seriously affect your performance.

First and foremost, consult with a doctor before embarking on any weight loss program. A doctor can refer you to a qualified dietitian or nutritionist who can guide you through safe eating and exercise habits.

If your fat loss approach is too drastic, your sports performance will suffer. Leslie Bonci, Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, explains how a moderate and intelligent approach to fat loss will enhance your athletic performance without leaving you worn out and run down.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

A common first instinct when trying to lose fat is to exercise more. And although working out will burn more calories, which theoretically leads to weight loss, Bonci cautions that adding more exercise on top of games and practice may be counterproductive. She says, "First of all, exercise does not burn a lot of calories, so just adding in more exercise may not result in enough of a caloric deficit. Second, an athlete is already exercising, so adding more exercise may increase the risk of injury or decrease energy for the athlete's sport."

A caloric deficit means the number of calories taken in is less than the number of calories burned, which is the simplest formula for weight loss. The total amount of calories burned is called energy output, which is a combination of calories burned from exercise (like running or lifting weights), basic activities (like walking around during the day) and metabolic rate (calories burned for basic bodily functions like digestion and temperature regulation.)

A more effective approach is to address nutrition first before adding more exercise. Once an athlete knows how many calories are coming in, he or she can adjust how many calories are going out.

The Calorie Cutting Conundrum

What's the simplest way to cut calories? Eat less. But hold on—before you go skipping breakfast or trying the latest trendy juice cleanse, it's important to know how low to go with your caloric intake.

Bonci says the number one mistake she sees athletes make when trying to lose fat is cutting calories too low. When you don't eat enough, you can lose precious muscle mass, or in extreme cases, lower your metabolism, making it even harder to lose fat.

"If calorie intake is too low, one does not have the energy to exercise, and too few calories may decrease your metabolism, increase cravings and result in overconsumption of food," Bonci says.

RELATED: Liz Applegate on Calorie Cutting Concerns

Estimating how many calories you need per day is not an exact science. Most nutrition data on food labels is based on a diet of 2,000 calories per day, which could be too few or too many to induce fat loss, depending on the athlete. Studies have shown that certain prediction equations can accurately calculate your basal metabolic rate (how many calories you need to stay alive) based on your weight, height and age. For example, the Mifflin-St Jeor formula predicts caloric needs with the following equation:

  • Men: 10 x weight (in kilograms) + 6.25 x height (in centimeters) - 5 x age (in years) + 5
  • Women: 10 x weight (in kilograms) + 6.25 x height (in centimeters) - 5 x age (in years) - 161

For example, a 20-year-old, 6-foot, 200-pound male athlete would need 1,955 calories per day just for basic bodily functions. We know he'll need more calories for sporting activities, so to lose fat safely, he'll need more than 1,955 calories per day.

The Mifflin-St Jeor formula is a good starting point for figuring out your caloric needs, but stepping on the scale and monitoring your bodyweight tells the true tale of what's working and what's not. Keep track of your weight each week, and if you're not meeting your weight loss goals, adjust your calories accordingly.

Managing Macronutrients

Caloric balance ultimately decides weight loss or weight gain, but managing your macronutrients—protein, carbohydrates and fat—plays a crucial role as well.

Protein, hailed for its muscle-building powers, is equally important for fat loss. Protein can increase fullness and keep hunger at bay by decreasing a hormone called ghrelin, which tells your body when it's hungry. It also takes more energy to digest protein than carbs or fat, so you burn extra calories digesting a high-protein meal.

Despite its name, eating fat does not lead directly to fat gain. In fact, dietary fat plays a huge role in weight loss. Bonci says cutting fat out of your diet can be a critical mistake. Fat, like protein, increases fullness after a meal and helps maintain normal hormone production. However, fat is calorically dense, meaning there are more calories in a gram of fat compared to a gram of protein or carbohydrate. So be careful not to overdo it with portion sizes of fatty foods.

Finally, carbohydrates are crucial for energy production but are often blamed for weight gain. A high-carb diet can lead to quick weight gain because for every gram of carbs your body stores, it also stores about three grams of water, which adds up quickly. On the other hand, a low-carb diet can result in fast weight loss, but mostly through fluid loss rather than true fat loss. And although there's evidence that eating too many refined carbs (especially sweets and snack foods) is not good for you, an athlete should avoid cutting carbs too low if he or she wants to have energy for practices and games.

Despite the effects of each individual macronutrient on fat loss efforts, research suggest that as long as calories are low enough, you'll lose fat regardless of your protein, carb and fat breakdown. In a 2012 study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers put subjects on one of four different fat loss diets over a two-year period. Each diet had a different percentage of protein, carbs and fat. The researchers found that as long as the subjects ate fewer calories than they were burning, there were no significant differences in fat loss among the diets. This suggests that, in the end, calories influence fat loss more than macronutrients. Check out the video player above to learn from Bonci how to build a better plate with a good balance of fat, protein, and carbs.

What Gets Measured Gets Managed

Tracking calories and macronutrients may seem like a daunting task, but just like writing down your sets and reps in a workout journal, keeping track of your daily nutrition will help you reach your goals faster.

Many apps or online calorie counters make is easy to tally your daily totals. Apps like MyFitnessPal are preloaded with nutritional databases, so you can look up thousands of food items and easily track your calories and macronutrients.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology found that participants who used an online calorie tracking system for just eight weeks lost significantly more weight over a two-year period than those who didn't track calories at all. The study suggests that, along with keeping your calories on pace for weight loss, using a tracking system for a while helps you become more aware of what you're putting in your body, even when you're not keeping track.

The Skinny on Fat Loss

Fat loss for athletes comes down to managing caloric intake while eating the right foods to fuel exercise. Learning to track calories and macronutrients can greatly enhance your fat loss efforts, but avoid eliminating all carbs or fats from your diets so your performance doesn't suffer. And of course, enlisting the help of a dietician or nutritionist can ensure safe and healthy fat loss.

RELATED: Diet for Wrestlers: 5 Tips to Lose Weight Safely

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