Want to get lean and mean but struggling to shift those last few pounds? Tri coach, Adam Kelly, shares his secrets to success.

As an athlete, coach and personal trainer Outsider’s triathlon editor Adam Kelly thinks that the main challenge Irish athletes and sports people face is carrying too much body fat. Too many people spend thousands of euro on lighter equipment when they should really invest some, time, money and effort in themselves. Here he looks at helping active people who struggle to maintain a healthy body weight for their chosen activity to burn off excess fat.

Carrying too much body fat can cause the following problems:

  • Bad posture: A potbelly can cause excessive lumbar lordosis (inward curving), causing lower back problems.
  • Soft tissue injury: If the body is constantly carrying more weight than it was built for, it can cause re-occurring, joint, muscle, tendon and ligament injury.
  • Too much body insulation: This can make it harder to regulate body temperature when exercising. You can’t simply peel off a fat layer when you’re overheating, sweating too much or becoming dehydrated.
  • Poor athletic performance: This arises by giving yourself a self-created weight handicap. You are working against gravity constantly.

Other well-known side effects related to being overweight are higher blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancers and osteoarthritis.

OK, enough said, about the negatives. Let’s talk positively now about what can be done about it.

If you are already exercising and eating moderately well, but cannot lose weight, what can you do to shift it? It’s time to focus on understanding food and nutrition, as well as exercise duration and intensity.

 1. Carbohydrates

Triathlon: How Active People Can Shift Fat

The availability of cheap, sweet, high carbohydrate foods are hugely responsible for the nation’s obesity problem. To further the problem, there are massive profits to be made by selling sugar-based products and they are therefore pushed by the large food companies as being a ‘health’ due to the low fat value of the foods. Another huge marketing avenue is selling the same sugary foods as so called ‘sports nutrition!’ No wonder many active Irish people have a weight issue.

Sugar is highly addictive and does not satisfy the hunger of Irish people because our bodies have not evolved to be able to deal with it in such large doses. Carbohydrates, eg rice and pasta too, are stored dry and have a long shelf life, therefore making it highly storable and available for the unprepared snacker!

Carbohydrates come in many forms but all are eventually broken down into glycogen, which is the form in which the body stores them. They range hugely from simple sweet-tasting sugars to complex/fibrous. The three main forms are called monosaccharides, disaccharides and polysaccharides. The monosaccharides are the most potent and quickly broken down, while the polysaccharides are broken down more slowly. The more slowly the carbs digest, the better they are for you. A decent energy drink for sport will ideally have a mix of all three types of carbohydrate.

All forms of carbohydrate are more quickly absorbed than fat or protein. The sun does not shine too much in Ireland, so vegetables and fruit do not sun ripen as much as in sunnier climates. Therefore, produce from naturally and traditionally grown Irish foods is lower in simple/sweet sugars. Hence, we have evolved not being able to deal with the potent and refined sugars in produce today, such as fizzy drinks.

When somebody takes in a fizzy sugared drink, the blood sugar levels shoot up. The body cannot deal with this sugar rush and so rushes the excess sugars of which there are plenty, into the fat stores. So theoretically, an obese child may never have taken in dietary fat and still be obese – all from excess sugars.

Good carbohydrates: Leafy vegetables, pulses, root vegetables, fruits.

Medium carbohydrates: Potatoes, spelt and other flour substitutes, high-fibre breads and cereals, whole-meal rice/pasta, dark chocolate, homemade pizza – whole meal.

Bad carbohydrates: Processed biscuits, pizzas, crisps, sweets, dairy chocolate, fizzy drinks, pastries

As sports people, however, should we not all carbohydrate load? Absolutely not. We know now that too much carbohydrate, taken in any form, will be stored, easily as fat. So like most Irish sports people, who are still heavier than they would like to be, they often need to reduce their carb intake, but increase their protein and fat intake.

2. Protein

Triathlon: How Active People Can Shift Fat

Protein, on the other hand, is much more expensive and goes off quicker. However, it satisfies hunger by making us feel fuller than longer. Protein-rich foods in their natural form also contain fat, eg eggs consist of the white (protein) and the yolk (fat). Other examples of protein are meat, fish, poultry, and dairy. There are also protein sources in certain vegetables, but these are not as easily absorbed as the former.

Protein is used by our bodies for growth and repair. It is primarily used to regenerate our body cells – the simplest examples being skin cells and hair growth – and to maintain the body’s vital organs and functions. The body will use dietary protein initially to repair vital organs. Only if there is some left over can it be used to repair and build muscle.

I have just watched the Irish rugby team get narrowly beaten by England after a tremendously physical match. Those guys will need to take in larger amounts of protein than the average person as there are more repairs to do. However, uniquely, if too much protein is taken in, in one sitting, the body can only use approx 25g of protein, before excreting what it does not use. So the rugby guys should take in protein little and often in the form of at least five meals per day.

Protein, by its molecular nature, is pretty complex and therefore is digested very slowly. This gives a full and satisfied feeling. It is used commonly to aid weight loss by making people feel fuller for longer. Excess protein which is not used is excreted rather than stored as fat, unlike carbohydrate, which if taken in excess of the body’s needs, is stored as fat.

Some say that the excretion process of protein is tough on the digestive system. However, as many Outsider readers will be very active people needing muscle repair, the need for protein will be greater, thereby reducing the chances of overeating it, and therefore not being so hard on the digestive system. Because the role of protein is for growth and repair, it is rarely used as a fuel source.

So in summary, protein should be eaten little and often, especially if you are active. If you increase your protein intake per meal or snack, you naturally reduce your carbohydrate intake in terms of ratio. It also makes you feel fuller for longer, which reduces sugar and snack food cravings.

3. Fat

Triathlon: How Active People Can Shift Fat

Fat is found mainly accompanying protein sources, eg the yolk of an egg, the fat in a steak or the oil in oily fish. Fat has got some bad press in the past 20 years, not helped by food giants berating it in order to sell more breakfast cereals etc. Government policies negatively portraying fats also did little to help its cause. The truth is that there are good fats and bad fats. Many fats are good fats to begin with but are transformed into bad fats by food processing and refinement. They are also very sensitive to high heat.

The bad fats are called trans fats, which is easy to remember if you think that they have been transformed into bad ones. Some examples of bad fats are cooking oils when the oil smokes in the pan (when it gets reheated many times such as in fast food establishments). Another example is when you see the words ‘vegetable fat’ on a food label without any breakdown or description of its source – as in most biscuits. Further examples of bad fats include animal fats from animals that been bred in an unnatural environment and fed the incorrect food. If you were kept in a dark cage and fed junk, you too would contain a lot of trans fat, which interestingly is found more in the midriff region of the human.

These are the facts that scare people away from eating fats. However, it is this very food that is proven to keep arteries clear, feed our brainpower and help us live longer. It makes our hair and nails radiant. Studies show that nations such as those around the Mediterranean have a lower incidence of heart disease and tend to live longer thanks to the consumption of raw oils such as olive oil.

To summarise, fat should not be avoided in our diets but instead welcomed. A good guideline is to make sure the fats come in their natural and raw form via good quality meat and fish, oils, Irish butters and oily vegetables such as avocados and raw nuts. Once you start mucking around with fats, like overcooking them, they are very sensitive, can be easily damaged and turn into a trans fat.

Fat, like protein, has a complex molecular nature making it slow to digest in the body. Therefore it again makes you feel fuller for longer. Too much will be stored as excess in your fat stores, but because it is so filling and satisfying, in reality you are very unlikely to over-consume it. Fat is used as a fuel source for the body when carbohydrate stores have become depleted and also in very low- intensity, long-endurance-type activity.

So what’s the magic fat-loss formula?

To burn body fat, the original and still the best motto is, one must burn more calories daily than you consume.

That gives you two options
1) Eat less – by eating the right foods that make you feel fuller for longer.
2) Exercise more and for longer, and try and exercise, every day.

How do you burn a fat cell?
The most common way somebody can burn a fat cell is to let their body run out of carbohydrate stores.
This takes about 60 minutes of moderate exercise. So if you are loading up on carbs, you need to exercise for well over 60 minutes to burn your fat. Or you can take in less carbohydrates in your food, so that when you start your exercise session, there is less fuel in the tank.

Many people do not have the time to exercise for more than 60 minutes every day. Therefore their option is reduced to simply taking in fewer carbohydrates but more protein, in order to not get hungry. Because protein is more filling, this should also reduce portion size.

In summary, keep food as simple, unprocessed, raw and colorful as possible. Avoid white, sweet and starchy foods. Exercise every day. That should do the trick.

Check out our Hard as Nails podcast:

By Orla O'Muiri

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