In bodybuilding they have a name for people who struggle to put on muscle mass – “hard gainers.” While some people can just follow a bodybuilding program and eat more to pack on muscle mass, hard gainers have to fight for every gram of muscle. When it comes to losing fat, I’m a “hard loser”— I’ve never had success dropping weight just by working out more and slightly tweaking my diet. Without constant attention to what I put into my body, I’ll unconsciously eat just enough to make sure I’m maintaining my weight, even if I think I’m eating “pretty well.” Between slightly too big portion sizes, having seconds, eating out, snacking at night, and the occasional binge (can you say Aussie cheese fries?) I’ll get lots of extra calories even when I’m eating healthy foods at most of my meals.
But despite my difficulties I have managed to lose fat rapidly at times in my life (while maintaining high athletic performance). Is this where I tell you the secret diet!? No. Although I already described the weight loss plan that I used to lose 8 pounds of fat for Kona and that I’m currently using to get to race weight for IMCdA (5 pounds lost this month) if you are looking for a diet plan. The truth is that losing fat is much more about your mindset than about which particular plan you choose (although as an athlete you need a plan that is based on sound principles and which provides adequate fuel & nutrients). Why is it that I can get on a roll to where I actually want eat a salad at a restaurant for weeks at a time, and at other times that would seem like a big waste of money when I could get something “filling” like pizza or even fried food! The answer has much to do with having a winning mindset.
Note: some athletes have serious issues with eating and body image– this article is NOT for that type of athlete. This is for the type of person (like me) who hears the siren song every time they drive by the In N Out burger.
1. Remember It’s Only Temporary. You only need to maintain strict discipline as long as you are losing fat. Once you reach your goal weight / race weight, you can go back to much more normal eating (eating to maintain the same weight is much easier). (Just don’t go crazy once you get off your strict plan.)
2. You Need Clear Rules About What / When/ How Much You Eat (or What You Don’t Eat). The rules need not be elaborate or even very strict, but they need to be clear enough that you know without a doubt when you are doing something “wrong.” For example, I have a rule “no refined sugars or flour except during or immediately after exercise”.
3. It’s Easier to Be Perfect. This one is more personal to me, perhaps. But I find that if I allow myself to make exceptions it causes alot of stress, because I need to decide from situation to situation about whether I’m going to make an exception (and it sends mixed messages to my subconscious mind and to the people I’m hoping will support me). The word decision comes from the latin word meaning “to cut off.” When you decide you are going to lose fat and that you will eat a certain way until you achieve your goal, you cut of all other possibilities. Then you don’t need to stress out about whether you can trust yourself to follow your rules.
4. You Need To Be Excited! One reason to be strict is to start getting some quick results. Once you start getting results you’ll want to get on the scale every morning (maybe twice, just in case) to see if you lost any fat. One reason for the seeming success of many new diets when they come out (South Beach Diet, e.g.) is that they are new and exciting for people– they have some mystery and cutting edge newness that appeals to people and makes them follow the plan (and somehow they don’t seem to work as once the diet has been out for a couple of years). Keep the romance alive with your diet plan– consider it your exciting little secret!
5. Start Off With Determination! By far the hardest part of a diet is getting a true start. If you are a hard loser, chances are that you are have chronically high insulin levels which make you hungry and crave carbs. When you take the excessive amounts of carbs away you’ll have at least a couple of days of serious carb withdrawal hell (plus the stress of changing established snacking / junk food habits). This is the time that good old fashioned determination and will power are important. Tell yourself that in 3 days you’ll be feeling amazing and that it’s worth a couple of difficult days. You simply need to make following your diet rules a MUST for 3-4 days. After that, it will become much easier.
6. Be Aware of the Lag Effect. Good eating eating sometimes takes a week or more to result in weight loss (partly because it takes a few days to bring down our chronically high insulin levels which trigger out body to store fat). Keep pushing through. On the flip side, you can eat poorly for awhile without weight gain / loss of energy. This can lead to a slippery slope where you keep gradually loosening your diet (apparently without negative consequences). Don’t fool yourself — it will catch up to you!
7. Embrace (Mild) Hunger. As hard losers, our bodies & minds get uncomfortable when we lose fat! Accept that you will need to feel a little bit of hunger. Not a ravenous hunger, but a mild barely noticable background feeling of hunger (especially at night). Learn to enjoy this feeling as a reminder that your body is losing fat.
8. Take Every “Free” Opportunity To Fuel. Remember that we’re athletes and if we don’t fuel enough we are going to suffer! The key is to take advantage of every opportunity to fuel that won’t cause fat gain. Key times include breakfast and during and immediately after workouts. Some low carb types noticed something interesting– they could eat carbs first thing in the AM without the same detrimental effects (hunger, weight gain) that occur when they eat carbs later in the day. See if you notice the same effect (I try to eat a bowl of oatmeal every morning). Also, when you work out your body is primed to stock away all carbs as fuel (rather than fat)– you will NOT get fat by fueling during workouts! The more you eat during workouts, the less carbs you’ll need to eat at other times (especially night) when your body will be much more likely to store the carbs as fat. You’ll also be heading off the inevitable binges that will occur if you allow yourself to become depleted.