Triathletes are lean mean training machines. They have to be to go fast and be efficient, but contrary to common belief they didn’t get lean from all that exercise. The fact remains that exercise alone as a way to lose fat and get lean simply doesn’t work that well. You’d have to do a ton of exercise week in and week out to make that happen.
Here’s where it’s vitally important to understand what makes most of us fat and also what keeps weight on. Surprisingly it has little to do with calories in and calories out. I’ve worked with hundreds of over-fat runners and triathletes who train many hours each week who struggle with their weight. As soon as we design a diet with a different macronutrient composition, they lose weight and go faster - many of them go considerably faster because they are leaner and lighter! Let me share a case in point:
Matt, a middle-age triathlete routinely trained upwards of 15 hours a week. He was diligent, completing many marathons each year and completed Ironman the year before I started working with him. After attending my nutrition lecture for triathletes he finally understood what makes us fat. He’s a doctor and could easily understand the relationship that sugars have on your hormones, especially when you eat too many of them. Insulin and glucagon regulate your blood sugar levels and are responsible for fat storage and usage. So Matt changed his diet by eliminating all refined sugars, wheat, glutens, and reducing the quantities of high-glycemic carbohydrates. These foods stimulate the production of insulin and put you into a fat storing mode when you eat too many of them too often. These food choice changes reduced the overall level of blood sugar in his body and greatly reduced his insulin production, which was creating his weight gain. In the year he reduced his sugars, Matt lost over 30 pounds and decreased his marathon personal best (PB) time by 15 minutes. He also shaved almost 3 hours off his PB time at Ironman. He noted that his bloating went away, his energy went up, and all of his race times came down. What’s even more important is that his blood pressure decreased and other important health markers all improved. Basically sugar was killing him, and now he’s a healthy, happy, lean triathlete.
So what makes us fat? In a nutshell it’s sugar that makes us fat - or carbohydrates as they are known in the nutritional world. Fat gain has very little to do with the total amount of food you eat, because fat storage and removal is highly regulated by the hormones insulin and glucagon. You can’t stop this regulation, but you can affect it by treating food as if you we’re ingesting a drug, lowering insulin levels by reducing the amount of sugar you eat.
When you eat or drink anything, what you eat is made up of a combination of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. If you regularly eat a diet that’s contains too many carbohydrates and not enough proteins and healthy fats, your blood sugar levels ride high causing an overproduction of insulin. Now, by elevating insulin levels, your body mobilizes these sugars into the muscles to be burned for energy or moves them into the fat cells for storage. With chronically elevated insulin levels, over time you become a fat storing machine.
What’s worse, when you’re in this fat storing mode, which many people are in all day, most of the energy from the foods you’re eating goes into storage with the remaining energy left over for your daily activities. That’s why you constantly feel tired and consequently don’t exercise as much. This becomes a vicious cycle. Lean people tend to exercise more because they are lean; they are not lean because they exercise more. Unfortunately most people have this metabolic cause and effect backwards.
Let’s say you spend the whole day indiscriminately eating more carbohydrates than you should - even the healthy ones - and your blood sugar constantly rises over the upper limit. All day your body engages in blood sugar damage control by secreting insulin until nighttime. Consequently your average blood sugar and insulin levels have been high all day. You feel tired and experience low energy levels as a result of your body’s hormonal balancing act, where insulin busily stores much of the food energy away as fat. Next you beat yourself up for not exercising, but with low energy you wonder how you can exercise more - even though this will do little for fat loss.
Now after a few hours of sleep your blood sugars return to normal and then start to lower themselves throughout the rest of the night. By the middle of the night your body needs some sugar for the optimal functioning of your brain, but you’re sleeping. So what does your body do? It shuts down the production of insulin and mobilizes insulin’s sister hormone glucagon, which knocks on the fats cells of your body, takes the fat out of storage, and converts it into sugar so your brain can burn it for energy. Happily you can now dream about personal best race times! So for a few hours in the middle of the night with glucagon activated, and insulin levels suppressed, you have lower than normal blood sugars, and are burning body fat because you need it to keep your blood sugar levels normal.
However, when you wake up and start consuming sugars by having some tasty dry cereal with milk, you go right back into fat storage mode. If you over eat sugars all day you end up losing the battle of the bulge by day and not winning enough back at night. Your body is always in this seesaw action constantly trying to balance blood sugars. Understanding this hormonal principal goes a long way to realizing how to control your insulin levels and thereby put yourself into a fat burning mode. A few years of chronically elevated insulin levels, even by just a few percentage points, and you’ll put on 20-30 pounds. Granted this is not a lot on a daily basis, but enough to become overweight in a few short years regardless of the amount of exercise you do.
The secret to permanent fat loss is to eat a diet rich in healthy fats, moderate your protein, and only eat carbohydrates (aka sugar) in the amount that keeps you lean. Basically keep your insulin levels as low as possible by not ingesting too many sweet or dense carbohydrates. Some people need to cut their carbohydrates drastically to achieve a more pronounced weight loss; others may need a slight adjustment to take off that final 5 pounds.
Use your sugar level (overall carbohydrate consumption) as the control dial for fat storage and you’ll find you can achieve your ideal weight easily. Consider designing a healthy diet around the foods you like to eat that also reduces your sugar load. Notice I didn’t say cut back on the amount of food you eat - that’s a diet - that’s does not work, it’s restrictive. Also, and this is very important, don’t restrict any foods. You can eat all the foods you normally do; you simply need to eat the high-glycemic and high-density carbohydrates in moderation or as treats while focusing on getting moderate protein at every meal. We’re merely changing the composition of your food plan so that the foods you eat have a positive effect on the hormones in your body. The good news remains don’t restrict the amount of food you eat: enjoy your food and don’t go hungry.