Weight Management and Fat Loss

For any athlete it is important to maintain the right balance between training and nutrition with attention to balancing carbohydrates, proteins and macronutrients to achieve your aims. Nutrition plays an important role in performance, where the focus is mainly on increasing carbohydrates. However, for those who want to lose weight, a diet with higher protein, and lower carbohydrate could be the solution - and here's why...

Essential Ingredients

When it comes to athletes and weight management, the timing of nutrition intake and calorie consumption during training and competition is crucial. An endurance athlete’s body requires sufficient energy reserves to perform to the optimum level. Calories produce energy and the lack of it can result in the breakdown of muscle tissue. Therefore, it is important to consume the right food to fuel your muscles and improve recovery. For multi-day competitions such as Adventure Racing, eating at the right time is essential.

Calorie Counting

The amount of calories you require depends on several factors including your training intensity and frequency. Your age, gender and body composition also affects your need for calories. Many athletes may require 5,000 - 8,000 calories during intense training and multi-day races! But remember, if you wish to lose weight, you need to create a situation of calorie deficit. When you are training daily, or even twice daily, calorie counting is unnecessary - you'll probably find it hard to consume enough calories, however on your rest days, or if you suddenly reduce your training, you mustn't forget to modify your calorific intake. If you have been used to high volume training for some time and suddenly reduce your training it is often hard to remember to change your daily eating habits. In fact, it is typical for triathletes after finishing the season to have a break, an "off season" and then suddenly find they have packed on some kilos!


There are many excellent calorie counter programs on the internet you can use to check your daily consumptions. You can also download Apps that will allow you to scan barcodes, or enter nutrition data for foods so that you can track your daily consumptions accurately, along with your daily exercise. Try My Fitness Pal.


Your body’s primary source of energy for aerobic activities is fat. Although fat is slow to burn, it provides more energy with every gram burned, than the quick release limited glycogen stores that your body will predominantly use for higher intensity activities. For endurance athletes, or those wishing to lose weight through training, extended (1-2 hour) aerobic zone workouts are recommended to best utilise this endurance fuel source.

Fat is often misunderstood by people. When you eat fat, this doesn't mean your body will store that food as fat. If you've been mislead by this notion - get over it right now! The human body can manufacture most of the fats its needs, including cholesterol and some fatty acids but there are two essential fats (or fatty acids) which cannot be manufactured in the body and which must be obtained from food. They are linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic and you might know of them as the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.

Most of us know that fats come in two types - saturated and un-saturated.

Good Fats - Unsaturated

The good fats are the un-saturated type. These un-saturated fats are predominantly found in plant foods. There are two categories of un-saturated fats; mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated.

Monounsaturated Fats

Some examples of foods with monounsaturated fat content are: olive oil, avocado, hazelnuts, cashews and almonds, and some seeds. These should remain in your diet. One important reason for this is that unsaturated fats tend to lower blood cholesterol when they replace saturated fats in the diet.

Polyunsaturated Fats

Some examples of foods with polyunsaturated fats are fish (tuna, mackerel, hearing, trout, salmon), soyabean, most vegetable oils and margarine, and some nuts (walnuts, brazil nuts) and sunflower seeds.

Polyunsaturated fats are also grouped as either Omega-3 fats or Omega-6 fats. Omega-3 fats are found in both plant and marine foods. Omega-3 deficiences have been identified as a common link with people suffering depression, decreased memory and a long list of undesirable, but common symptoms. The primary source of omega-6 fatty acid in the diet is linoleic acid from the oils of seeds and grains. However, it is the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 that has been reported to be the main cause of breakdown of human health resulting from our modern diet.

In today's western diet, it is estimated that the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is approximately 7:1, however the diet of our ancestors (hunters & gatherers) would have consisted of approximately equal parts Omega-3 to Omega-6. The increase of Omega-6 in our diets (through high intakes of margarine, safflower & sunflower oils) at the expense of Omega-3 has occurred since the beginning of agriculture and has accelerated with cattle & sheep being fed increasingly on grains rather than grass. The research clearly shows that it is this imbalance between the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids that has contributed to diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and allergies.

Bad Fats - Saturated

The bad fats are saturated fats and are found mostly in many takeaway "fast" foods, and commercial products such as biscuits, cakes and pastries (also contain trans-fats). Whilst naturally occuring trans fats are found in small amounts in milk, cheese, beef and lamb, it is the synthetic version of trans fats resulting from hydrogenation that should be avoided. All saturated fats increase blood cholesterol levels which contributes to the risk of heart disease, hence whilst meat remains a recommended food for a healthy diet, you'll note you'll always be advised to eat only "lean" cuts of meat to minimise your uptake of saturated fat.

How much fat is good?

A healthy fat diet that includes mono and polyunsaturated fats is essential during training and competition. It is recommended that an acceptable range for total fat intake is 20 - 35% of your daily calorie intake, with saturated fats providing no more than 10% of the total energy consumption.

Get to understand the foods you consume for better health but don't tackle weight loss by simply cutting out all fats!


Proteins play one of the most important roles in your body, which is often misunderstood by athletes. Many are of the opinion that proteins are only meant to build muscle but protein consumption alone cannot increase muscle. Muscles can only be developed with weight training. The fuel stored in your muscles is depleted after 90 minutes of exercise after which the body looks for other fuel, which is one of the main reasons why protein must be added. Without adequate fuel, the body will start burning muscle tissue, which can lead to injuries and of course fatigue.

During an endurance race it is important to increase protein intake every 2 hours to prevent the body from producing ammonia, which causes fatigue. The major sources of protein are soy, mushrooms, legumes, cornmeal, eggs, vegetables and lean meat (including fish). Your body does not produce all the types of proteins, which we need to get from these foods.

In endurance sports, protein aids in muscle and tissue repair and boosts the immune system. Proteins also help maintain fluid balance, one of the vital ingredients for athletes. For weight management, many endurance athletes require more protein to produce the calories required. Muscle is broken down to release proteins when it is used for energy; therefore, it is essential to consume sufficient amounts of protein to replenish muscle breakdown and to maximise muscle recovery post-workout.

Proteins are required during training and races so that the body does not burn muscle for fuel. Therefore, advanced endurance athletes require more protein to remain at a peak performance level at all times. Lower intake of protein can prolong the recovery period and suppress the immune system.

Whilst meats provide the quickest and most efficient source of protein, egg whites and vegetable sources of protein like beans, nuts and whole grains are the best sources for the weight conscious as they offer healthy fibre, vitamins and minerals but are low fat proteins.

Meat sources are indeed valuable but you must choose only lean meats - avoid all fatty cuts and choose poultry and fish first. Dairy options should be restricted to only the very lowest fat options – yoghurt, skim milk, skim mozzarella.

Protein supplements are also useful to the weight conscious as these have been scientifically designed to minimise unnecessary fats whilst providing a convenienet protein in a packet - handy for people on the go, as most other sources of protein usually require refrigeration and therefore sometimes a little less convenient when eating away from home.


Carbohydrate intake is essential in order to deliver energy quickly to your muscles. It is the primary energy source to fuel the brain and enables quick powerful movements during activities like hill sprints. However, for triathletes who need to lose weight, effort should be made to reduce refined carbohydrates (bread, potatoes, rice, noodles etc) and opt to increase foods that are low fat, high proteins. There are many theories about carbohydrate and weight loss which is typically geared towards people with sedentary lifestyles. If you are endurance athlete be aware that low-carb diets may not suit your needs and could hinder your performance. If weight loss is your goal, it could be best to do that in your "off season" so that you don't make conflicting demands upon your body.

Food for performance

Food is what fuels your body by breaking down calories into energy. As with many sports, there is no fixed diet that will work for every triathlete. Among the important factors that influence your food intake is the climate, duration of the race and your weight. Sprint races and other adventure sports that last no longer than a day are high intensity and require plenty of energy bars, gels and sports drinks to replenish electrolytes. Regardless of your weight management requiements, carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for high intensity race and training.

Multi-day adventure races will require a greater supply of fat, protein and carbohydrates. These foods are important to counter the effects of sleep deprivation, muscle depletion and fatigue. Energy bars, dry fruits, nuts and sports drinks are essential for multi-day races. One of the advantages of protein-rich foods is that they last longer.

A low carbohydrate, high protein diet is recommended for people who want to lose fat but if you're an athlete, this could affect your performance. The downside of this is that if you can't achieve your optimium performance output during training then you can't reach the same intensity goals and will not burn as much energy. True endurance athletes, even those aiming to lose weight, should not cut back on carbohydrates rather, avoid refined carbs and select high quality carbs. These days it is easy to find high quality wholegrains to replace such staples are breads, pasta, rice with quinoa, brown & wild rices, millet, barley, spelt etc.

Eliminating refined carbohydrates is actually much easier to achieve than you might expect - as soon as you remove all the packaged food from your pantry and stick to fresh living foods. We're not saying you need to suddenly switch to becoming vegan, but certainly the principles of clean, raw food will help you go a long way towards reaching your healthy weight goal.

Before you begin any changes to your eating habits, you should consider seeking professional advice and guidance from a sports nutritionist. From about $80 for a consultation they can quickly assess your personal situation and get you started on the right path. Please try to avoid any "fad diets" as anything that seems extreme cannot be sustained as part of a lifelong change for good health. Losing weight should not be seen as a quick fix, but a whole change of habits that you'll change and keep for a lifetime.


Read our Good & Bad Foods Explained article for more on this subject.

Balancing Carbs & Protein

Whilst non-athletes, diabetics and the elderly all have much to gain from a observing a lower intake of refined carbohydrates, athletes have become increasingly aware of the benefits of a low carbohydrate, high protein diet in order to achieve a loss of excess body fat, which will boost their performance.

The objective is to maintain the correct balance between insulin and glucagon, two hormones produced by the body. Limiting the intake of carbohydrates prevents the body from producing excess insulin. On the other intake, high protein consumption boosts the production of the hormone, glucagon, which neutralises the effect of insulin. A balance of insulin and glucagon levels maintains better blood sugar levels. It also reduces body fat by utilising fat stored in the body. One of the main advantages is that it increases the use of fatty acids, thereby improving endurance.

High carbohydrate levels can raise insulin levels, which in turn induces the body to store extra carbohydrates as fat, instead of burning it. Athletes are in danger of fatigue and feeling lethargic due to a drop in blood sugar level, with the potential to gain weight. Insulin prevents the body from accessing stored fat, while the glucagon released by proteins has the opposite effect. In addition, the release of fatty acids from fat cells due to lower levels of insulin promotes weight loss. The fat cells become the major source of energy.

Many athletes perform better on a high protein, low carbohydrate diet as they train for hours every day. A protein rich diet reduces the body’s craving for food, as long as you have a balanced diet with a reasonable intake of carbohydrates and fat.

With that said however, protein needs are easily taken care of when a varied diet that focuses on nutrient-rich foods is consumed. Athletes at risk of inadequate protein intake are those with restricted energy intakes and unusual dietary practices (poorly chosen vegetarian diets, extremely high carbohydrate or low-fat diets).

A simple formula for weight loss

A decrease of carbohydrates by 30% and an increase in proteins at 2.5 grams for every kilogram of your body weight is recommended to reduce body fat, without any impact on your muscle mass. For example, if your body weight is 70 kilograms you will need to consume 175 grams of protein daily. A high fibre vegetable diet along with lean meat is ideal for weight loss during training. You can also cut down on saturated fats.

Modify training to lose weight

Interval training is one of the best ways to burn fat. Streamline your workout to help you burn fat with low and high impact aerobic exercise combined. Opt for longer periods of exercise at a steady pace such as jogging or cycling at a medium speed with short sprints to raise the heart rate.

The objective is to maintain a balance and not seek to burn only body fat. If you remove all your body fat, your body will produce its own fat and lower your metabolic rate. The best time to lose weight as an athlete is during off-season, and then concentrate on training to maximise performance.
Don't forget however that on days that your energy expenditure is reduce, so too is your body's demand for carbohydrate so don't eat the same everyday - the trick is to adjust to use for fuel not habit.

There is also a huge impact upon your metabolism and energy partioning by timing your food intake around your training. A pre-workout snack for an endurance athlete will fuel your body for a high rate of performance. The higher your performance the more calories you'll burn. If your effort exceeds an hour, you'll need to take on additonal carbs (and perhaps electrolyte and protein) along with water to hydrate to maintain your performance but don't forget you also need to recharge your recovery with a post-workout snack immediately after ceasing exercise. Adopt these simple habits and you'll improve your likihood of becoming lean and faster within the season.

Try to time your eating so that at each meal you are belly hungry, so this means snack if you need to (on healthy choices like fruit, nuts, seeds) but not so much that you are not hungry at meal times. You should eat heartily at meal times with quality carbs, lean proteins and healthy fats that are high in omega 3 but only just enough so that you are belly hungry again by meal times. Top top sports nutritionists are still suggesting that reducing carbohydrate intake in the afternoon and evening is still best to ensure the best release of the performance enhancing HGH (Human Growth Hormone), which will occur when we're sleeping provided its not inhibited by too much insulin in your system (caused by carbohydrate load).

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Created: August 2011
Revised: November 2013
Latest Feedback: November 2013


Weight Loss, How To Lose Weight, How To Lose Body Fat, Low Carb Diet, Dietry Fat, Diet For Triathletes, Training To Lose Weight