Fat Loss for Athletes: How It May Harm Performance & Health

Leaner bodies are often equated with higher performance - but is that really the truth? In this post, we break down the impacts of fat loss for athletes.
fat loss for athletes

Athletics is a world where everyone shares a similar goal – improving performance. It’s not surprising, then, that the body is a common discussion point among athletes, their coaches, and even popular culture. We live in a time where leaner bodies are often equated with higher performance – but is that really the truth? Read on for an overview of the impacts of fat loss for athletes on physical, mental, and social health as well as performance.

Performance Impacts of Fat Loss for Athletes

Intuitively, it seems to make sense. A lower body weight means there is less mass to move, likely making the body quicker and more agile. But in actuality, this isn’t always the case. A body that is adequately fueled and at its natural body weight will perform better than one that is more lean, but under-fueled. Striving for fat loss is not supportive of a well-fueled body because it requires you to eat less or exercise more. This means the body has less energy available, so it takes what energy is already there and puts it toward processes that keep you alive, such as body temperature regulation and your heart beat. This doesn’t leave a lot of energy for you to train, so performance eventually declines. Research studies that look at the effect of dieting on athleticism find that both strength and endurance decrease with weight loss.

tired athlete on track

Mental & Social Health Impacts of Pursuing Fat Loss

Striving for fat loss doesn’t just affect your physical and mental health; it can also negatively impact your social and academic life. Dieting could cause you to miss meals with friends to save calories or to squeeze an extra workout in to burn more calories. You might find yourself feeling that you shouldn’t eat the same foods as your friends, causing you to miss out on the social connections that often occur over meals. You might also notice yourself daydreaming more in class and not being able to focus on tests and homework. Over time, this adds physical and mental stress on top of what you already experience as a busy student athlete, which can harm your overall health and wellness.

Embracing Body Diversity

Even with all of this in mind, it’s perfectly normal to still want to lose body fat. We live in a culture that glorifies leaner bodies over others, but this doesn’t tell the whole story about body diversity. Just as everyone has different likes and dislikes, we all have different body shapes. Genetics is one of the largest reasons for this. It plays a major role in determining our natural body weight. This is why people on your team likely look different than you in many ways – eye color, height, and body size. We all weren’t meant to be the same weight. The body lets us know this, too. Individuals on diets often complain about brain fog, inability to focus, sleepiness, and an unhealthy relationship with food.

Shifting Your Focus for Performance 

fat loss for athletes

There are other ways you can increase performance without striving for fat loss. Mainly, you can focus on continuing to build your performance foundation by eating a well-rounded, healthful diet and increasing cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength. From a nutrition perspective, eating enough calories and nutrients, as well as incorporating appropriate nutrient timing, will help you perform better and recover more efficiently. Building cardiovascular and muscular strength will allow you to perform at higher intensities for longer periods of time and prevent future injuries. Having this foundation gives you the ability to show up to every training session as your best self, giving you the edge to further excel in your athletic career. Our webinar on Performance Nutrition Basics provides practical sports nutrition tips and can help you determine your next steps for fueling as a student athlete.

Addressing Athletes with Weight Requirements

This can get complicated if you compete in a sport with weight requirements, such as crew or wrestling. The pressure to make a certain weight class can cause athletes to make drastic changes to their nutrition in order to get to a weight that may not be natural for them or best for their performance. These athletes may have the most to gain by working with a sports dietitian who can help them develop healthy, safe and effective fueling strategies to meet their weight requirements while maximizing performance.

Changing the Culture Around Fat Loss for Athletes

There’s no doubt this is a complex topic that can be difficult to navigate, and one of our registered dietitians can provide more individualized advice. It’s hard to trust your body’s natural cues, especially when talking to teammates and coaches that might not understand the risks unnecessary fat loss for athletes can have. However, you’re an athlete, and that means you’re a changemaker. Changing the culture of sports starts with one person and you can be the one.

Written by David Gaviria.

David is a former high school soccer and cross country athlete and an avid runner, hiker, and weight lifter. He holds bachelor’s degrees in both Health Sciences and Psychology from the University of South Florida and will complete his MPH in nutrition at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May 2021. In the Fall of 2021, David will be eligible for his registered dietitian exam and begin his Ph.D. in Nutrition. His expertise and passions lie in weight-inclusive nutrition, eating disorders, and sports nutrition, focusing on students and military service members. He is also currently training to join the Army Reserves.

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