I have a question that stems from being part of a sport where I have to ‘make weight’ to compete in a certain weight class. The accepted way to achieve this is for the competitor to sit just above the top end of the weight class until right before the competition, then cut weight as fast as possible. This up and down (even by just a couple kilograms) seems like it could have negative metabolic repercussions. Plus the stress and intense focus on food seems like it could lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. What would you suggest to an athlete in this type of situation? -Lia
“Making weight” is a reality for many sports like weightlifting, boxing, wrestling. As many of us delve deeper in this rabbit hole of living the Whole9 Life it is natural to question whether this is indeed a healthful practice. Jamie and I wrote about our experience using the real food approach in preparing an MMA fighter. We all took some valuable lessons working with the team and I hope to share some of those insights with you.
The Physical Consequences
While weight cycling (sometimes simplistically referred to as “yo-yo dieting”) has long since been linked with a whole host of metabolic disorders, does the same apply to athletes? Your average wrestler will probably resent being compared to your Auntie Madge who alternates eating nothing but lettuce with frequent face-in-apple-pie binges. But unfortunately winning gold medals doesn’t necessarily let you off the hook. Among teenage adolescent wrestlers, for example, those who were classified as “cyclers” had a 14% lower resting metabolic rate as “non-cyclers” (1). In elite female judo athletes weight loss resulted in increased markers of bone loss, as well as increased levels of cortisol, although when they regained the weight these changes were reversed (2). The “weight cyclers” were also found to be heavier than other athletes in middle age, and actually on par with their couch potato contemporaries (3).
These are pretty damning statistics. Add to that the dangers of extreme methods used to drop the last few water pounds before the weigh-in: complete abstinence from food and drink, spending hours in a sauna, vigorous exercise wearing water-impermeable suits, and even diuretics. Tragically, in 1997 three young American wrestlers died as a result of severe dehydration while trying to make weight (4).
However, we also wonder how much of the damage is done not by the actual weight cycling but the way it is done. Many athletes allow themselves to fluctuate wildly between their baseline and competition weight. If you have to lose 20 lbs for the fight and then regain all that (and then some) directly after, you are in for a tough ride.
Tip: If your weight naturally sits higher consider going up a class. You will save yourself a whole lotta pain. Building more muscle and adapting your strength to suit your new weight class is hard but not nearly as hard as competing half-starved.
Then we have the athletes who only start worrying about their diet six weeks out of the comp when they suddenly realise that they have to ditch the breakfast pancakes, lunchtime bagels, afternoon muffins and after-dinner chocolate treats. They jump right into whatever hardcore cutting diet their coach (armed with the latest in bro-science) has to offer. And you gotta give it to them: serious athletes have the will of iron and the discipline of a Buddhist monk. As a result, the brutal combination of low energy diet and cardio-based twice daily training does not just erode their precious muscle mass, it also has significant psychological effects: constant low level anxiety,poor sleep, dwindling self-confidence and cravings.
Is there any wonder that after the all-important weigh-in most dive head first into a box of donuts followed by litres of Coke? The cycle begins once again, only this time they begin in a position of less muscle mass and a slower metabolism.
The Psychological Consequences
You make another good point. Does this practice cause an athlete to develop unhealthy relationship with food? Studies on eating disorders among female athletes do point to weight cycling as a risk factor. But once again, we hit a snag: does it depend on the quality of your nutrition? It’s hard to tell, but in our experience making sure that you are well-sated with nourishing food (yes, even when dropping weight!) really helps to keep your sanity.
Obviously, nobody can give you the answer here. You are the only person who knows whether “making weight” is messing with your head.
A little test: how many of these statements do you agree with?
• I feel like I will be a happier person once I reach my goal weight, regardless of the comp result
• When I slip up with my diet, I feel like a total failure
• I feel fat and dissatisfied with my progress, despite my coaches and training partners telling me that I look good
• I feel totally preoccupied with food, my weight, timing of my meals, and macronutrient ratios–I can’t seem to think of anything else.
While this is not a standardised test for eating disorders, if you agree with most of these statements, the relationship between you and food has hit a rocky patch. Time for some serious counselling!
Making Weight the Healthy Way
If your sport requires you to be in a certain weight class, here our top ten recommendations to get there healthfully:
- Limit “the blow out” above your target weight to a maximum of 5-7% of your body weight.
- It’s easier to go up a class and build the lean mass than stay below and constantly struggle.
- Be patient with weight loss and don’t resort to severe energy restriction.
- Use targeted carb cycling closer to your competition to maximise fat loss while keeping as much of your lean mass as possible and maintaining that fighting edge. Engage the help of a professional nutritionist instead of “guestimating” your requirements.
- Avoid dangerous dehydration tricks. No medal is worth hyperthermia and kidney failure.
- Don’t waste your time on nutritionally empty junk post your weigh-in. Maximise high-carb, nutritious, real food sources.
- Have a practice re-feed day a few weeks out of the competition: you want to know what your stomach can tolerate, especially if you only get 24 hours to refuel. Coconut milk smoothies might sound like a good idea, but if you have never tried them before your gut is not going to like you very much.
- Remember, your target weight is just a means to an end. That number should never affect your sense of self worth.
- Sometimes you have to separate aesthetics and performance goals. You may be stronger and perform better at a slightly higher weight than the latest fitness magazine says you should be.
- If, in spite of optimising all of the above, you still feel that the possible metabolic and psychological consequences may not be worth it, it may the time to do some serious soul searching about your sport.
Hope this was helpful, Lia. All the best in your endeavours!
1. Steen S, Oppliger R, Brownell K. Metabolic effects of repeated weight loss and regain in adolescent wrestlers. JAMA 1988; 260(1) 47-50
2. Prouteau S, Pelle A, Collomp K, Benhamou L, Courteix D. Bone density in elite judoists and effects of weight cycling on bone metabolic balance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2006
3. Saarni S, Rissanen A, Sarna S, Koskenvuo M, Kaprio J. Weight cycling of athletes and subsequent weight gain in middleage. International Journal of Obesity (2006) 30, 1639–1644
4. Coles D. ‘Making weight’ – the effects of dehydration on physiological functioning. Grapplearts. http://www.grapplearts.com/Blog/2012/04/making-weight-the-effects-of-dehydration-on-physiological-functioning/
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Anastasia Boulais is a Russian-born Australian-trained medical doctor who now calls New Zealand home. Having developed a keen interest in preventative health she began writing a personal blog under the name of Primalmeded while still at medical school. Since then Anastasia has become a vocal supporter of a holistic approach to healthcare using evolutionary principles as a baseline. Together with her partner Jamie Scott they became Whole9 South Pacific, spreading the Good Food word in Australia and New Zealand. Early in 2014 the couple embarked on a new adventure forming the Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand. Anastasia combines working at an acute care clinic in Christchurch, New Zealand, with postgraduate studies in sports medicine. She loves lifting heavy things, exploring natural environments, and cruising around town on her bike.
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