Common Weight Loss Strategies Used by Masters Athletes

Mug-shot-223x300Many popular diets marketed for weight loss are too good to be true. Science has consistently shown that weight control comes down to one key concept – a negative energy balance. That is, less food or fluids in and / or more energy burnt up.

Some drug treatments might be recommended for the obese masters athlete.

Most of us have dieted at some stage of our competitive lives. We do it to enhance performance, to improve our power-to-weight ratio, look better for the judges, make a weight category, or to simply look and feel better.

Below is a summary of what science says about the more popular weight loss diets promoted in magazines, on the web or on TV.

Low-Fat versus Low-Energy Diets

Research has shown neither type of diet is any better than the other.  This is because a low-fat diet is generally related to a low-energy (total kilojoules, Calories) diet. Research has consistently shown that weight and fat loss are related to low-fat diets that are low-energy diets.  For all athletes, carbohydrate (CHO) is essential for energy provision so it makes sense when losing weight or fat mass via a low-energy diet, to increase CHO intake at the expense of fat.

Low-CHO Diets

These include the Doctor Atkins, Scarsdale, Sugarbusters, Zone (more on this one later) diets that have come and gone over the last 20-30 years.  Body fat in a normal person comes from eating too much fat, NOT too much CHO. A little known fact is that 1 gm of glycogen (stored CHO) takes about 3 gm of water to be stored in muscles and the liver.  So, if we eat low CHO-diets we don’t give our body’s enough dietary CHO for training or our brain and nervous system to operate (they only use CHO as their energy source), the body has to break down the stored glycogen to use as an energy source.  Breaking down of 1 gm glycogen loses 3 gm of the stored water.  Thus, these low-CHO diets lead to a very quick loss of weight, most of it water.  Once we go off the diet and back onto some CHO, water is stored and on goes the weight!

High-Protein Diets

These diets are a variation of the low CHO diets that are marketed as being low-fat, and therefore healthier, or promoted as good for holding onto muscle mass. These facts are true BUT AGAIN; weight loss is primarily via the loss of stored CHO and thus water.

The Zone (Dr Barry Sears) Diet

This diet targets athletes by suggesting that it promotes endurance, fat loss and muscle mass maintenance.  Sears suggests limiting CHO intake to about 40% of your energy intake (athletes are recommended by sport scientists and dieticians to have 60%, fat 20%, protein 20%).  The low CHO intake lowers insulin and another blood sugar-promoting hormone levels that in turn promotes the breakdown of fat as an energy source. However, research has shown that insulin levels are only reduced with diets that consist of less than 25% CHO, not the 40% he advocates.  Like many of these fad diets, they are difficult and impractical to implement in a busy schedule of work, family and training.

Food-Combining Diets

The Fit for Life diet was around about 10 years ago and promoted such eating practices as combining certain foods, eating fruit before midday and avoiding any food after 8pm. Its major premise was avoiding combining protein and CHO suggesting that this combination was hard to digest and resulted in the build up of “toxins” that negatively impacted on health and increased body weight.  Sure protein takes longer to break down in the digestive system but like all foods, the gut does it easily.  All food is broken down to its basic constituents so I’d ask what these “toxins” might be?  Like most of these fad diets, testimonials from people including high profile athletes, scientific rigour in their formulation is missing.  This diet is low energy and low fat, thus leading to weight loss.  It also restricts the amount of CHO that an athlete badly needs for training and competition energy.

Liquid Diets

Use of fluid diets such as Modifast or Optifast provide about 400-600 Calories/day (1680-2,500 kJ/day) of energy and will obviously lead to rapid weight loss (1.5-2 kg/week) due to the low energy intake. However, long term, there are too many negatives.  While the majority of these supplements contain enough protein to maintain muscle mass, they don’t contain enough CHO (about 100 g/day) for training athletes, are expensive, and require vitamin and mineral supplementation, another expense. Again, the weight loss is primarily water from the increased use of stored CHO being used as an energy source for exercise and the nervous system.  Apart from fatigue, other potential negative side effects for athletes include bad breath, nausea, hunger, headaches, and precipitation of gout in those susceptible.

Dietary Supplements

The gym and health food industries are riddled with myths about supplements.  Some supplements are marketed suggesting to “burn fat”.  Two that have been shown to be effective are chromium (400mg/day) and pyruvate, but ONLY in obese people, not young or masters athletes.


A number of legal and illegal (banned by the IOC) are commonly used for weight loss. These include:

  1. Diuretics
    The IOC has banned these drugs in that they ‘mask’ other drugs such as anabolic steroids.  They lead to rapid weight loss by causing rapid fluid loss for up to a period of 24 hours after which drinking will replace the fluid lost.  Commonly used with weight category sports such as wrestling, boxing or rowing, the negative side effects include loss of calcium and sodium leading to weakness, low blood pressure and dehydration.
  2. Appetite Suppressors
    This range of drugs is commonly used in obese people, not athletes. One type of appetite suppressor “bulks up” the gut causing a feeling of fullness. Other drugs have been shown to be effective appetite suppressors when combined with diet and exercise. Because these drugs stimulate the nervous and cardiovascular systems, the IOC has banned their use by athletes.
  3. Orlistat
    has recently come onto the market and aims to prevent the breakdown of fat in the gut. 120 mg is taken at every meal and causes about 30% of fat not to be absorbed and thus passed through to the bowel. Its use must be used with a low-fat diet or diarrhoea and anal loss of fat and oil may result – not for me thanks!  Apart from this problem, negative side effects include abdominal pain and the loss of vitamins (A, D, E, K) that are commonly found in fat. Thus, if using it, take vitamin supplements to ensure you are getting your nutrients.  It is not an IOC-banned drug but is only medically-recommended in people that are overweight or obese.


Science has consistently shown that weight control comes down to one key concept – a negative energy balance. That is, less food or fluids in and / or more energy burnt up. Some drug treatments might be recommended for the obese masters athlete. ©