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Body Size and Shape

Q. How can I avoid gaining weight in the off season?
A. When training loads decrease, the body needs less energy (kilojoules/calories) to maintain weight.  However, athletes who develop a large appetite when in heavy training can find it difficult to cut back their food intake once training levels drop.  During the off-season, it is important to continue to have a varied diet which is based on nutritious sources of carbohydrate (bread, cereal, pasta, rice, fruit, vegetables etc.), includes moderate amounts of lean sources of protein (lean meat, fish, skinless chicken, legumes, low fat dairy products), and smaller amounts of fat and non-nutritious sources of carbohydrate (lollies, cakes, biscuits, cordial, soft drink etc).  However, you will need to reduce the quantity of food consumed.  Different approaches work for different people.  You may opt to have slightly smaller meals than usual or reduce the number of snacks you eat.  Going without foods which you normally have during training sessions (e.g. sports drinks, sports bars) will also help.

A break from training means more free time.  Sometimes athletes eat because they are bored.  Other athletes become so focused on trying not to overeat that they end up thinking about food all day and eating excessively.  A sports dietitian can help plan strategies specific to your needs and eating style.  However, the following tips may help:

  • Avoid viewing foods as 'good' and 'bad'.  All foods can be included in your diet provided you are sensible about the quantity and frequency.  Give yourself permission to enjoy higher fat foods in reasonable quantities rather than 'binge eating'.
  • Keep a food diary to develop an understanding of when, what and why you eat.
  • Plan meals and snacks in advance.  Avoid letting yourself get so hungry that you eat the first thing you see when you open the fridge or cupboard.
  • Continue to do some sort of activity during the off-season.  It is not necessary to continue to train but avoid spending your days in bed or on the couch.
  • Find an activity to occupy the time you usually spend in training sessions. This will help to avoid boredom.

Q. How do you lose weight when you are in heavy training without getting tired from having an energy deficit?
A. Some level of tiredness is expected when in energy deficit however the effect can be minimised by adopting a balanced, long-term approach to weight loss.  It helps to choose an appropriate time to focus on weight loss.  For example, in the off-season or well before a major competition.  It is also important to adopt a realistic, long-term approach which involves moderate, gradual changes rather than a large, sudden reduction in kilojoule intake.  Tiredness can be reduced by consuming a balanced food intake.  You need to consume enough nutrient-dense carbohydrate (fruit, vegetables, cereals, sweetened dairy products) to fuel your training sessions.  It is also important to consume sufficient protein to minimise loss of muscle.  Make reductions to your kilojoule intake by targeting excess kilojoules from sources such as fat, alcohol and non-nutritious carbohydrate (lollies, soft drink, biscuits, ice cream etc).  Clever timing of your food intake will also help to minimise tiredness.  For example, a snack immediately after a training session is more effective than a snack late at night.  It helps to to plan your weight loss strategy with a sports dietitian.  The Sports Dietitians Australia website provides details of qualified sports dietitians in Australia.

Q. Does eating before exercise affect my ability to lose weight?
A. The key to losing body fat is to consume less kilojoules than you utilise over a period of time.  It is more important what you do over a number of days than what you eat (or don't eat) at a particular meal.  If you exercise without eating you may use a greater proportion of fat during the exercise session. However, if you eat before exercise, you will be able to exercise at a higher intensity for a longer period of time. This will allow you to use more kilojoules in total. It really depends on what type of exercise you are doing and how long you intend to exercise for. If you are doing moderate intensity exercise such as running, swimming or cycling for around 60 minutes or longer, it makes sense to eat before exercise.

Q. What is the right way to lose weight?
A. Weight management is about energy balance. You need to make sure your energy intake (i.e. kilojoules/calories you consume through food and drinks) is less than your total energy expenditure (i.e. physical activity) on a consistent basis.  This means you either need to reduce your kilojoule intake, increase your activity level or a combination of the two. There are many ways to go about reducing your kilojoule intake, hence the number of books, magazine articles, diets etc. The following tips will help:

  • Target excess high fat foods such as butter, margarine, oil, cream, high fat cheese, meat fat, full cream dairy foods, ice cream, cakes, pastries etc.  Fat is the most concentrated source of kilojoules in the diet, making it is easy to consume a large number of kilojoules in one hit when eating high fat foods.  Don't avoid fat completely as it is an essential nutrient - just limit your intake.
  • Target alcohol. Alcoholic drinks provide a lot of kilojoules and very few other nutrients.  Enjoy alcohol in small quantities.
  • Target kilojoule-dense foods with low nutritional value e.g. soft drink, cordial, lollies, and some 'diet' foods.  Many people believe sugary foods are OK to eat because they are low in fat and high in carbohydrate.  Just because a food is low in fat doesn't mean you can eat endless quantities of it.
  • Cut back on snacks and focus on nutrient-dense foods which provide a mix of carbohydrate, protein, vitamins, minerals and fibre.  Examples include fruit, yoghurt, sandwiches, low fat cereal bars and milk drinks.
  • Reduce the amount of food consumed at each meal but continue to enjoy a variety of food types.

Different strategies work for different people. The key is to continue to consume a wide variety of foods. Do not avoid any food group completely, and remember to include your favourite foods. A dietitian will be able to help you work out a strategy which best suits your individual habits and preferences. Contact Sports Dietitians Australia or the Dietitians Association of Australia for details of a qualified dietitian near you. 

Q. Is there a certain amount of fat you can consume in one day without putting on weight?
A. Everyone has individual nutritional requirements. There is no set amount of fat to aim for each day.  Weight gain occurs when more energy (kilojoules/calories) is consumed than used each day. Kilojoules (calories) are provided by the fat, carbohydrate, protein and alcohol in food and drinks.  It is necessary to consider all sources of kilojoules in the diet.  Kilojoule requirements are affected by factors such as age, gender, body size, body composition, metabolic rate and activity. If you are gaining unwanted weight you need to reduce your kilojoule intake and/or increase your activity level.  The best way to reduce your kilojoule intake depends on your current food intake.  Some people target sources of fat, others reduce the quantity of meals, others cut back on snacks.  A dietitian or sports dietitian can help you determine your own individual needs and help you plan a balanced approach to weight loss.

Q. I am 15 and am desperately trying to increase my muscle mass. What do I need to eat?
A. At 15, it can be difficult to increase muscle mass. Your nutritional needs are currently very high due to your growth and development status. The good news is that over the next few years you can expect to gradually "fill out" and increasing muscle bulk should become easier. In the mean time you need to optimise your training and nutrition and be patient.

Strength training is the most important requirement for the development of muscle mass. Muscles only grow when given the right stimulation. If you haven't already done so, seek expert advice from a qualified strength coach. Discuss realistic goals, an appropriate training regime and appropriate measures of success.

The next requirement is a high-energy diet. In order to increase muscle mass you need more of everything but particularly more carbohydrate. Many athletes make the mistake of focusing on protein when trying to increase muscle mass. It's true that protein requirements increase when undertaking strength training however it is more important to optimise carbohydrate intake. Carbohydrate is the most important energy source as muscles need to be fuelled to do the training that will stimulate muscle growth. Also carbohydrate is required during recovery to prevent protein being utilised as an energy source instead of being channelled into muscle development.

It sounds easy to adopt a high-energy intake but for many athletes it is actually very difficult. Factors which make consuming a high-energy diet difficult include:

  • lack of time and/or poor organisation
  • the bulk of the food - a high energy diet is filling and requires a lot of chewing
  • fatigue and loss of appetite after training
  • lack of access to suitable food during the day.

The following tips will help you achieve a high-energy intake:

  • Increase the number of times you eat rather than the size of meals. Plan to eat at least 5-6 meals and snacks each day.
  • Choose meals and snacks that are based on carbohydrate-providing foods such as cereals, bread, fruit, sweetened dairy products and also include moderate amounts of high protein foods such as meat, fish, chicken, eggs, seeds, nuts and legumes.
  • Organise yourself to have high carbohydrate snacks with you throughout the day. Portable snacks include cereal bars, sandwiches, fruit, yoghurt, juice, dried fruit, flavoured milk, etc.
  • Eat before and immediately after workouts. Suitable options include milkshakes, smoothies, yoghurt, sandwiches, cereal, cereal bars, fruit, juice and sports bars.
  • Drink high-energy fluids such as low fat milkshakes, smoothies or liquid meal supplements such as PowerBar Protein Plus drink.

See Changing Body Size and Shape and for additional information. You will also find it useful to consult directly with a sports dietitian and have your diet thoroughly assessed. Contact Sports Dietitians Australia to find a sports dietitian near you.

Q. My daughter is very thin despite eating well balanced meals. What sort of foods are most suitable to keep up with her high energy needs?
A. When energy needs are high and the appetite is small it is necessary to focus on energy-dense foods. This allows your daughter to consume a relatively large amount of kilojoules in a small volume of food. Milkshakes, yoghurt, nuts, dried fruit, cheese, juice and spreads such as peanut butter, jam and honey are examples of nutrient-dense and energy-dense foods. Encourage your daughter to snack regularly and to consume fluids such as juice, milk and cordial which provide energy as well as fluid. Avoid filling up on high fibre foods such as wholegrain cereal products, raw vegetables and fruit. These foods should be included in the diet but if your daughter eats too many high fibre foods, she will find it difficult to consume all the kilojoules she needs. Replace some wholegrain products with white, replace some high fibre breakfast cereal with lower fibre options and replace some fresh fruit with tinned.

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