Kelley and I work closely with some highly athletic clients. There are many different kinds of athletes out there, each with different demands. There are sports that demand a specific aesthetic, such as dance or gymnastics. Sports that have weight classes, such as wrestling. There are body-weight driven sports, such as running and cycling that put more emphasis on achieving a lighter, leaner body. In some cases weight loss can be beneficial to athletic performance. But, this is where it can become difficult and as registered dietitians, we need to pay careful attention to the nutrition and health needs of our athletes when they are embarking on a mission for a lower body weight.
Athletes are very knowledgeable about how food can impact their athletic performance. It is not uncommon for athletes who have a weight loss goal to sometimes go too far as they see the benefits of their weight loss. An athlete can spiral from healthful choices to harmful restrictions; disordered eating patterns can quickly form. The athlete will have some weight loss, see some short term performance changes and become preoccupied with eating too little that they will not think about the long-term issues with their health.
There are many issues that can result from this unhealthy calorie restriction.
One: Stalled weight loss is probably the most common effect of a calorie restriction; which does not make sense to most people. An athlete will have weight loss and continue to restrict and restrict and then STALL. Why does this happen? The body is conserving enough fuel to cover all of the body demands (extended training sessions, basic metabolic needs). USUALLY, once the athlete starts to fuel adequately, with the help of a dietitian, they can get back on track with healthier weight loss.
Two: Cardiac abnormalities can happen when calories are too restricted. The body will try to limit the amount of energy being used and the athlete’s heart rate will slow down. This can cause sudden cardiac arrest.
Three: A hormone imbalance is another risk when not consuming enough calories. Female athletes especially. When a female athlete chronically avoids consuming enough carbohydrates, the hormones are impacted. A hormone imbalance can case poor bone health, irregular or absent menstruation, mood swings, poor sleep, fatigue, increased injury risk, and fertility issues.
Four: An athlete will experience reduced power. Building muscle mass requires energy…AKA food. Depriving the body of energy makes you run the risk of a decrease in muscle mass. Therefore, the athlete will be unable to put out the same amount of power.
Five: Increased fatigue is a common risk when underfueling. Sleep suffers when the body is not getting enough food. The body starts to ‘hibernate’ to save any additional energy. When you are an athlete, you need to have ample energy to expend for performance.
Six: Endurance athletes are at risk for upper respiratory infections during periods of heavy training and competition. When an athlete is restricting intake that can complicate this further because it can lead to a lack of intake in antioxidants, vitamin C, zine, copper, and carbohydrates. All of which play an important role in maintaining immune health.
Seven: That being said, restricting calories obviously leads to nutrition deficiencies. As registered dietitians, we HATE when this happens. Many athletes will use supplements to replace vitamins and minerals while restricting calories. BUT, at the end of the day, nothing replaces the nutrition of whole food sources.
Eight: Recovery is impacted when a calorie restriction. When the body is properly fueled, athletes can bounce right back and be stronger after every session. In order to ‘bounce back’ the athlete needs to be consuming large amounts of energy to repair muscle tissues and restore the body. When the body is restricted from proper calories, it cannot use the energy it needs to help the body repair.
Nine: Athletes in a calorie restriction suffer from poor performance. This may not be seen initially because once the body is a few pounds lighter, performance is increased. As time goes on, the body starts to deteriorate because of lack of sufficient calories. Once an athlete sees stalled or decreased performance, this is a big indicator that your diet is insufficient in calorie needs.
In conclusion, losing weight is encouraged and does improve health for athletes in some cases. Working with a registered dietitian can help you find the right balance between intake and exercise to help with performance- especially at a competitive level. Weight loss should be done in a strategic and slow way so that it does not negatively impact performance for athletes.
Hope this helps,