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Back to Basics: Athletes and Weight Loss 

By Bob Seebohar 

I firmly believe that trying to eat according to a certain amount of calories per day sets athletes up for failure and doesn’t give them permission to listen to their bodies. If you are the calorie counter that I am referring to, I hope to take you from the “dark side” to a state of enlightenment, so to speak.

Physiology of Calorie Counting

grill The energy balance equation states that calories in equals calories out. It highlights the calories consumed through carbohydrate, protein, fat and alcohol while the calories expended fall into the categories of resting metabolic rate (RMR), exercise, the thermic effect of food and lifestyle/occupational activity. This equation is beneficial for teaching athletes about the various components of calorie intake and expenditure but it does very little to help devise a daily eating program that is both sustainable and enjoyable. Think about it — if you knew your RMR, calories that you burn through exercise and lifestyle/occupation and estimated your thermic effect of food that you eat, what does that really give you? You end up with a total number that is still an estimate in addition to trying to figure what to do with that number.

More importantly, can you take that total daily calorie number and turn it into food? Keep in mind that each macronutrient has a different metabolic effect on the body so increasing carbohydrates one day and lowering them the next could have a significant impact on how you feel, especially since your power zones differ throughout your weekly workouts. What about rest days? Your energy expenditure obviously changes so wouldn’t it make sense to alter your daily calorie intake for rest days? Of course it would but that begs the question “why even bother?” How many daily calorie budgets do you really need? Is it worth it? Absolutely not.

Psychology of Calorie Counting 

The next thing I want to discuss is the most important (and first) step in this process: instinctual eating.

The model that I have used with endurance athletes for years has centered on using instinctual eating rather than focusing on numbers. The use of daily calorie counting in most athletes is abused in the sense that they forget the most important thing when it comes to fueling: the body knows best and it will guide you. I know, I know, you lack the willpower or are not motivated or do not trust yourself. I have heard all of these excuses before and these are truly nothing more than excuses that you are making because you have forgotten how to use your innate ability to make wise food decisions. 

We are born instinctual eaters. We lose this skill as we age due to many things including media, social and family structure and peer pressure, to name a few. I am not going to go into detail about the reasons why we lose our ability to listen to our bodies. Here are some steps that you can use to acquire your instinctual eating knowledge once again:

Step 1: Give yourself permission and abolish the guilt.

“I can’t” or “I shouldn’t” are the key terms that are associated with guilty eating. By reinforcing these messages, you block your ability to trust your body. By all means, give yourself permission to eat a food. It certainly doesn’t have to be on a daily basis but by simply telling yourself that it is okay to eat a favorite food that produces a guilt response, you will begin to develop your instinctual eating knowledge once again. I witness too many athletes eating to fulfill another emotional need because they guilt takes precedence in making food choices.

Step 2: Connect with your hunger cues.

This may seem relatively easy but the psychological cues to eating often take over and blunt our ability to truly assess if we are physically hungry or not. Often times, we eat out of emotions. That is, stress, boredom, social interactions or fatigue trigger the eating response. During these times you are not biologically hungry, you are eating to fulfill a void. The easiest method for relearning this skill is to experience physical hunger again. This is the sensation that you get when your stomach is grumbling, feels like it is tying itself into a knot and you begin to get a bit grouchy. Blood sugar is decreasing and the brain is not getting enough glucose. This response will trigger you to eat something.

I am certainly not saying that you should always wait until you have this sensation as that will typically lead to overeating. What I do recommend is connecting with your body at first to know what physical hunger feels like again. Then, structure your eating regimen to maintain your blood sugar so that you do not have significant decreases in energy or mood status. Educate yourself on what physical versus emotional hunger feels like.

Step 3: Allow yourself to enjoy food.

Last but certainly not least is the part of eating athletes most often forget: the enjoyment factor. When I ask athletes why they eat what they eat the most common response is that they are eating to fuel their bodies. This is fantastic and follows suite with my nutrition periodization mantra of eat to train, don’t train to eat; however, focusing on food as fuel 100 percent of the time will take you away from the instinctual nature of eating. You must enjoy some of the food you eat in order to remain connected with the emotional side of eating. Enjoy the various aromas of your food. Make time to sit down so you can fully appreciate your meal and most importantly remember that your taste buds are in your mouth not your stomach. 

Instinctual eating and becoming more knowledgeable about your body is a journey and one that will never end. Developing these skills and straying away from counting every calorie that you consume will truly help you become more aware of what your body is telling you which will lead to a greater sense of empowerment in whatever nutrition goals you have. If I have not encouraged you to move away from counting calories, please do me one favor and begin to record why you eat what you eat. This in itself will help you begin your journey of leaving daily calorie counting behind.

Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS is a Sport Dietitian, USAT Level III Elite Coach, USAT Youth and Junior Coach and an exercise physiologist. He was on the coaching team of Susan Williams, 2004 Olympic Triathlon bronze medalist, and was the head coach of Sarah Haskins, 2008 Olympic triathlete, and Jasmine Oeinck, 2009 Elite National Champion. Bob was previously a sport dietitian for the U.S. Olympic Committee and the 2008 Olympic triathlon team. Bob has worked with hundreds of age-group triathletes and professionals to help them lose weight and body fat while optimizing performance through nutrition periodization and metabolic efficiency. Bob recently published a Metabolic Efficiency Recipe book with over 100 recipes that provides athletes even more options to follow metabolic efficiency training. Visit www.fuel4mance.com for more information.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.

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