Humans need a certain amount of body fat to maintain basic functions.
However, a higher body fat percentage can negatively affect performance in athletes.
That said, athletes need to approach weight loss with care. Failing to do so can negatively affect training and lead to muscle loss.
Here are 9 science-based weight loss tips for athletes.
It's very difficult to decrease body fat and reach peak fitness at the same time.
To lose fat, you need to eat fewer calories. This can make training feel more difficult and prevent you from performing at your best.
For this reason, it's best to lose fat in the off-season, when you’re not competing. If that's not possible, aim for less intense training periods.
Attempting fat loss in the off-season will also give you more time to reach your goal. Losing weight at a slower rate decreases the likelihood of muscle loss and seems to support better sports performance ().
Most research agrees that weight loss of 1 pound (0.5 kg) or less per week is ideal (, 2, ).
SUMMARY Try to lose weight during the off-season at a rate of 1 pound (0.5 kg) per week or less. This will minimize muscle loss while supporting sports performance.
If you cut calories too drastically, your nutrient intake may not support proper training and recovery.
This can increase your risk of injury, illness, and overtraining syndrome (2).
The latest sports nutrition guidelines also warn against eating too few calories and reaching a dangerously low body fat percentage, both of which can disrupt reproductive function and diminish bone health (2).
The lowest safe recommended body fat percentage is 5% in men and 12% in women. However, these levels are not necessarily best for all athletes, so discuss what's best for you with your coach and sports dietitian ().
Cutting calories too quickly can also negatively affect hormones and metabolism ().
To decrease body fat, athletes should eat about 300–500 fewer calories per day but avoid eating fewer than 13.5 calories per pound (30 kilocalories per kg) of fat-free mass per day (2, ).
If you don't know how much fat-free mass you have, get your body composition estimated with either a skinfold test or bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA).
You can also get your body composition measured by dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) or underwater weighing. These are more accurate but also tend to be expensive and harder to come by.
SUMMARY Crash diets can increase your risk of illness and injury, as well as negatively affect your training and recovery. Therefore, avoid cutting your calorie intake by more than 300–500 calories per day.
Low-carb diets providing less than 35–40% of calories from carbs seem very effective at promoting fat loss (, , ).
Aim for a carb intake that's 40% of your daily calories to maximize fat loss. Still, consume no less than 1.4–1.8 grams of carbs per pound (3–4 grams per kg) each day (2, ).
Cutting out added sugars is the healthiest way to reduce your total carb intake.
To do so, check labels and minimize foods that contain added sugars like glucose, sucrose, and fructose. Also, avoid cane juice, dextrin, maltodextrin, barley malt, caramel, fruit juice concentrate, fruit juice crystals, or other syrups.
SUMMARY Eating less sugar and more fiber can help you reach your body fat goals. Athletes should aim to eat no less than 1.4–1.8 grams of carbs per pound (3–4 grams per kg) each day.
Protein aids fat loss in several ways.
To begin with, high-protein diets increase feelings of fullness and the number of calories burned during digestion. They also help prevent muscle loss during periods of weight loss, including in well-trained athletes (, ).
In fact, several studies show that eating 2–3 times more protein per day can help athletes retain more muscle while losing fat (, , ).
Therefore, athletes restricting their calories to lose weight should eat 0.8–1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight (1.8–2.7 grams per kg) per day (2, , ).
That said, there's no advantage to exceeding these recommendations.
Consuming more than these amounts can displace other important nutrients, such as carbs, from your diet. This can limit your ability to train and maintain good sports performance (2, , , ).
SUMMARY Higher protein intakes help limit muscle loss while your weight is dropping. Athletes should aim to consume 0.8–1.2 grams per pound of body weight (1.8–2.7 grams per kg) of protein each day.
In addition to eating more protein, athletes can benefit from spreading their intake throughout the day ().
In fact, 20–30 grams of protein per meal seems sufficient to stimulate muscles to produce protein for the following 2–3 hours.
This is why many scientists believe that it’s ideal to consume a protein-rich meal or snack every 3 hours (, ).
Interestingly, studies in athletes show that spreading 80 grams of protein over 4 meals stimulates muscle protein production more than splitting it over 2 larger meals or 8 smaller ones (, ).
A 2-week weight loss study in boxers also found that those who spread their daily calorie allowance over 6 meals instead of 2 lost 46% less muscle mass ().
Eating a snack with 40 grams of protein immediately before bedtime can also improve recovery from training and increase muscle protein synthesis during the night ().
However, more research in athletes is needed to draw strong conclusions.
SUMMARY Eating 20–30 grams of protein every 3 hours, including right before bed, may help maintain muscle mass during weight loss.
Eating the right foods after training or competing is vital, especially when trying to lose body fat.
Proper refueling is especially important for days with two training sessions or when you have fewer than eight hours of recovery time between workouts and events (2).
Athletes following carb-restricted diets should aim to consume between 0.5–0.7 grams of carbs per pound of body weight (1–1.5 grams per kg) as soon as possible after a training session (2, , ).
Adding 20–25 grams of protein can further speed up recovery and promote protein production in your muscles (2).
SUMMARY Consuming a good amount of carbs and protein immediately after training can help maintain your sports performance during weight loss.
Individuals attempting to lose weight are often at risk of losing some muscle in addition to fat. Athletes are no exception.
Some muscle loss can be prevented by eating a sufficient amount of protein, avoiding crash diets, and lifting weights ().
Research shows that both protein intake and strength-training exercises stimulate muscle protein synthesis. What's more, combining the two seems to produce the greatest effect ().
Nevertheless, make sure to speak to your coach before adding any extra workouts to your schedule. This will reduce your risk of overtraining or injuries.
SUMMARY Strength-training exercises can help prevent the muscle loss often experienced during a period of weight loss.
Once you've reached your body fat percentage goal, it's tempting to quickly start eating more.
However, this may not be the most effective way to maintain your results.
That's because your body can adapt to a restricted calorie intake by adjusting your metabolism and hormone levels.
Researchers believe these adaptations can persist for some time after you bump up your calorie intake and cause you to quickly regain the lost fat ().
A good alternative may be to increase your calories gradually.
This may help restore your hormone levels and metabolism better, minimizing the weight regain ().
SUMMARY Increasing your calorie intake gradually after a period of weight loss may help minimize weight regain.
Although weight loss is a widely researched topic, the number of studies performed on athletes is limited.
Nevertheless, many of the strategies scientifically proven to help non-athletes lose body fat may also benefit athletes. Thus, you can try some of the following:
- Record your portions. Measuring your portions and keeping track of what you eat is scientifically proven to help you get better results ().
- Drink enough fluids. Drinking liquids before a meal, whether it's soup or water, can help you consume up to 22% fewer calories at the meal (, ).
- Eat slowly. Slow eaters tend to eat less and feel fuller than fast eaters. Eating slowly can help you decrease your calorie intake without feeling hungry. Aim to take at least 20 minutes for each meal (, ).
- Avoid alcohol. Alcohol is a source of empty calories. What's more, it can prevent athletes from properly refueling after exercise, which can negatively affect future performance (, , ).
- Get enough sleep. Research suggests that too little sleep can increase hunger and appetite by up to 24%. As sleep is also important for athletic performance, make sure you get enough (, ).
- Reduce your stress. Having high levels of stress increases cortisol levels, which promotes food cravings. Mental and physical stress can also prevent proper recovery (, ).
SUMMARY Stress, sleep, hydration, and alcohol all affect weight loss. Eating slowly, controlling portion sizes, and sleeping well can all help you lose weight.
Fat loss can be beneficial, but athletes must do it in a way that doesn't negatively affect their sports performance or health.
Those who want to reduce their body fat levels should aim to do so during the off-season.
Keep in mind that lower body fat is not always better. Athletes should discuss any weight loss goals or strategies with their coach or sports dietitian.