Editor’s Note: This article originally ran as “Diagnosis: Below the Plateau” in the January/February print issue of VeloNews. It is a collaboration between the editors of VeloNews and the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center. The anecdotes found in “Diagnosis” come from actual patients.
Jan is a recreational cyclist who rides on the road and mountain bike, and also performs regular strength workouts. This year he visited the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center hoping to lose weight and enhance recovery. Jan’s weight consistently hovered around 200-205 pounds, and despite his attempts at dieting, he was unable to drop below 190 pounds.
Working with Ryan Kohler, sports nutritionist and performance manager at the Center, Jan hoped to finally get below that threshold.
Despite conventional thinking, limiting calories may be counterproductive to weight loss in athletes and active people. A greater focus on food quality and proper recovery could help Jan (and athletes like him) shed pounds the healthy way.
On his first visit, Jan, 51, weighed 200 pounds and had 18 percent body fat. His muscle glycogen stores were low — 16 out of 100. (An ideal score is 60, which allows for day-to-day training and recovery.) Jan’s food log revealed he was in a hypo-caloric state (i.e. he was consuming too few calories) most days, with inadequate carbohydrate intake to support his exercise habits.
At this time, Jan followed a familiar daily routine: he performed an early-morning Crossfit-type workout at the gym or endurance sessions on a trainer, where some kind of intensity was normal. He then drove one or more hours to work and ate breakfast at the same restaurant each day. He ate lunch at a different restaurant, and had healthy options tailor-made to his preferences.
Conventional wisdom states that weight loss occurs when an individual is in caloric deficit. While on the surface that can be correct, there are caveats. When an athlete feeds his body less than it needs, his resting metabolic rate declines. Sometimes this is due to losses in skeletal muscle mass (e.g., the metabolically active tissue that would serve to maintain/ increase resting metabolic rate), and sometimes it is due to other reasons. When the body is already under stress (e.g., due to high activity, inadequate recovery, etc.), then we become catabolic (a metabolic state in which we start breaking down). Decreasing calories when the body is already “stressed” increases this destructive process. An athlete experiencing this phenomenon must first optimize his fueling and energy status before attempting a weight-loss regimen.
“This does go counter to conventional thinking, but that’s also exactly why so many people hit a weight-loss plateau and then bang their heads against the wall for years trying different diets and all sorts of stuff, with none of it being very successful in most cases,” Kohler says.
In Jan’s case, he was asking his body to continue producing energy for his activities while in a hypo-caloric state. His muscles were damaged, and his body was unable to repair them without proper nutrition or rest. Jan’s low glycogen stores put him into a downward spiral where he was unable to lose weight.
“Until we — and I hate to use this catch word in nutrition — ‘reset’ his metabolism, his body was never going to change what it was doing, which was simply holding onto calories as a survival mechanism,” Kohler says.
Kohler crafted a two-phase plan for Jan. During Phase 1, Kohler changed macronutrient distribution (the percentage of carbohydrate, protein, and fat) to achieve an optimal carbohydrate intake (~250 grams/day). He also reduced Jan’s fat intake through adjustments to the foods he ate and the ways he had foods prepared when eating out. The majority of Jan’s meals, two out of three per day on workdays, were at restaurants. The plan was relatively simple: eat low-fat, higher fiber/carbohydrate choices.
Simultaneously, Kohler reduced the intensity of Jan’s training for six weeks to allow his body to fully recover from the previous exercise load.
Phase 2 began when a re-scan of glycogen stores revealed Jan had reached optimal levels. At that point, caloric intake was maintained and more intense exercise re-introduced two days per week. Jan then maintained eating habits to allow for a slight caloric deficit to accumulate slowly over time.
Jan saw immediate improvement in his glycogen stores, which rose from 30 to 75 (out of 100) over approximately six weeks. He also noted having more energy by the end of this period. The catabolic state within his body was eliminated. Most importantly, Jan’s weight dropped quickly to 190 pounds, and then continued to drop to 184 pounds. He hit his goal weight for the first time in years.
“By becoming more mindful of the foods coming in, allowing the body appropriate recovery, and providing the correct amounts of nutrients, we were able to get past a large plateau that has plagued [Jan] in the past,” Kohler says.
Jan’s energy levels increased and he felt recovered after workouts. This ultimately allowed for improved quality of exercise and greater energy expenditure, which in turn allowed him to push his weight management goals in the right direction.
Finally, Jan’s LDL and total cholesterol levels declined by 10 percent and 20 percent respectively, from 2016 to 2017. This mirrored the improvement in body weight, energy status, and overall health.