I’ve been sort of dreading writing this blog post, even though I know it needs to be done. It’s funny because I used to write about how to lose weight on paleoplan.com all the time. I was the nutritionist/blogger over there, and every single day I answered people’s questions about how to lose fat. In fact, if you search that site for “lose weight”, exactly 13 pages of results come up – all articles I’ve written on the topic. Weight loss is a topic I know well from my education and my clients’, readers’, and my own experiences with it.
So enough about me – what about you? You’re a climber. You’re probably here because you’re an obsessed athlete who wants chiseled(er) muscles and visible(r) veins, and as little weight to carry up rock walls as possible. Because let’s face it: not having a bunch of extra weight on your body is helpful in rock climbing.
But that’s where this topic gets a little, uh, controversial.
Because you may not have a “bunch” of extra weight on your body. You may already be at a totally healthy weight – even slightly under a healthy weight – and I may therefore be aiding and abetting your departure into eating disorder land.
I’m going to trust that you can take care of yourself, and that if you stop getting your period, you’ll start eating more. Or that if you find that walking to the climbing gym from your car is a monumental effort, you’ll start eating more. And so on.
Having said that…
Do you need to lose weight?
Please go look up your BMI for me and then come back here. There’s a handy little calculator tool online here. No, the BMI isn’t a perfect analysis of weight, but it does generally tell you if someone is underweight.
Ok, what’s your BMI? Is it a normal or overweight BMI? Good. And what’s your goal weight? Now go see what that goal weight is on the BMI chart. Does it fall under “normal”? If it does, great. If it’s underweight, I’d reassess your goal weight unless you’re ready to do possibly permanent damage to your bones, hormones, and metabolism. I’m lookin’ at you, ladies.
If you could stand to lose a few pounds, here’s my advice to you.
#1. Stop eating so much.
Most of us eat too much food. So the simple equation is this: Just don’t put as much food in your food hole. And get used to being a little bit uncomfortable. As a very good friend once said, “Nothing tastes as good as sending feels.” Seriously, though, if you actually want to lose weight, you need to consume fewer calories.
So how much food should YOU eat?
Here’s where it gets tricky. Everyone needs a different amount of calories, depending on their height, weight, gender, age, and activity level. And some other things, but we’ll keep it simple. You need to figure out how many calories that is for you. I usually suggest that people use an online diet journal tool called myfitnesspal.com. I know – it’s a stupid name, but I’ve tried a lot of online calorie counting/nutrient analysis tools, and this one is the most user friendly.
If you sign up for a free account over there, the program will tell you how many calories you should be eating, depending on your goal weight and other stats. If you say you want to lose 5 pounds, losing 1 pound per week, it’ll spit out the number of calories you need to eat every day to get there. But don’t get too excited – it’s not an exact science.
Also, it usually sandbags you on the calorie count. So whatever it tells you to do, add a couple hundred calories and start there. See how you feel. Count your calories for a few days to a few weeks, learn how many calories and other nutrients are in the foods you’re eating, and get a feel for how much food you should be putting on your plate.
And then STOP counting calories.
Calorie counting can be a dangerous game to play, and it’s easy to get stuck in the weigh-yourself-every-morning-count-every-calorie cycle until you find yourself in the hospital being treated for anorexia. Or climbing like shit and crying on the way to the crag because hiking is just that hard for your malnourished body.
But temporarily keeping track of your intake and learning about what’s actually going into your body is a good exercise for everyone to go through. I’ve learned quite a bit from it. For instance, a cup of cashews contains approximately 1,000 calories, and therefore you should not eat 2 cups of cashews a day if you want to lose weight and you are child-sized. Learned that one the hard way…
#2. Eat Whole, Real Foods
Most of us adore food, and fortunately (unfortunately?) we have access to some really delicious stuff in the Western world. I mean, fast food and most processed food in general is designed to make us want to eat more of it so that food companies make more money off of us. It’s as simple as that. So you have to be smarter than them, and eat foods that don’t taste quite so much like… crack.
If the bulk of your diet consists of home-prepared, whole, real foods like these…
- pasture raised meats and eggs
- wild fish and seafood
- good fats like the stuff off those healthy meats, olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, butter and ghee (if you can tolerate dairy)
- veggies (all kinds)
- fruits (all kinds)
- grains if your body tolerates them (we’ll talk about these a little later)
- raw dairy from grass-fed cows (again, if your body tolerates it)
- nuts and seeds
- some beans (more on that later)
- lots of filtered water
… then you’re going to have a much easier time controlling your appetite. You’ll feel more satisfied, less toxic, and you’ll have fewer cravings. Junk food, like I said, is designed to leave you wanting more. Plus, it comes in giant super-sized portions if you’re not careful. So make your own food, and don’t eat too much of it.
#3. Carbs (and Protein and Fat)
You knew it was coming, didn’t you!? Look, unused carbs get stored as fat – it’s as simple as that. They also naturally make you retain water, so most of the time when people stop eating so many carbs, they lose a bunch of water weight right off the bat. Our bodies are actually really good at using dietary fat as fuel, as opposed to just carbs.
So if you want to lose fat, you’ll have greater success if you eat less bread, pasta, sugary drinks, and sugary snacks (granola, sweetened yogurt, candy, pastries, cookies, cake, etc.). If you order a burger, take off the bun and eat it with a big fatty salad with lots of olive oil, instead. Eat fruit instead of candy. Eat spaghetti squash instead of spaghetti. Eat eggs and veggies and fruit instead of a bagel. If you need recipes for lower-carb meals, go to www.paleoplan.com/recipes.
I’m not saying go super low carb. Going super low carb is one way to lose weight really quickly, but it can make you really tired and make recovery pretty much impossible, especially in the beginning. So just cut down a bit on those foods I mentioned above, and eat more veggies, tubers, and fruits instead.
Also, know that protein is way more satiating than carbs, meaning that you will feel fuller if you eat 200 calories worth of protein as opposed to 200 calories worth of carbs. It’s science. So if you eat complete protein throughout the day (eggs, meat, fish, dairy), you will probably not have as many cravings as you would if you just ate carbs all day. I’ll talk more about protein in upcoming posts.
Fat’s the same way. If you eat enough fat, you won’t be so hungry all the time. “Low fat” is the devil’s work. You need (good) fats for your most important bodily functions, so don’t be afraid of it!
#4. Weed Out Food Sensitivities
I talked a little bit about this in my “2 Tips for Finding Your Own Optimal Climbing Diet” post, but basically, if you’re having any sort of immune response to a food (or many foods), your body may be holding onto water weight or having detrimental hormonal imbalances that can keep you from losing weight.
The day I gave up gluten in 2005, I weighed 120 pounds. Two months later, I weighed 105 pounds, and all I did was give up gluten because it was hurting my stomach and my skin. I am not the only person this has happened to. In fact, I hear about this craziness all the time at PaleoPlan.com, since one of the main tenets of Paleo is eating gluten-free.
It’s not just gluten, though. Dairy, soy, corn, and all other grains (rice, oats, wheat, quinoa, spelt, millet, etc) are common offenders for a lot of people. They can cause weight gain, intestinal problems (diarrhea, constipation, bloating), eczema, acne, brain fog, joint pain, fatigue, autoimmune symptoms, and menstrual issues, among other things. If you suspect you have a food sensitivity, try removing one or more of those foods from your diet and see how things go. You might be surprised, and you might get the added bonus of losing those last extra pounds.
#5. Don’t Exercise Too Much
I know that sounds counterintuitive. The “Biggest Loser” (and all government sanctioned weight loss programs) tell you the more you move, the smaller you will be – it’s science. Well, how’s that going for you? Because I can tell you that when I exercise too much, my body gets inflamed and puffy – I start retaining water and gaining weight. Those are signs of overtraining, and a lot of climbers do this.
When I have weight loss clients who work out all the time and rarely give themselves rest days, I tell them to stop exercising so much. When they can control themselves and actually listen to this advice, they lose weight almost every time. Part of it is that when you’re running or cycling a ton, your body wants to eat, eat, eat. So you end up eating all your calorie deficit away anyway, and then you’re exhausted on top of it.
If you’re feeling tired all the time or like your workouts are sucking, if you’re feeling depressed and lacking motivation, or if your joints are super achy, these are all signs of overtraining. If you want to climb well, then climb. There’s no need for all that running if you’re trying to be a good climber. If you want to grow muscles, maintain your lean body mass, and improve as a climber, you need adequate rest. You don’t need big quads.
Everyone’s needs for rest are different. I mean, Jonathan Siegrist can climb 6 days on and still just about onsight 5.14a. Whereas I give full effort on a project a few times and need 2 days off to really recover. Listen to your body. And try not to be so scared of gaining weight because you didn’t exhaust yourself for one whole day. Chill out a bit. Try truly resting more often and see what happens – you may be pleasantly surprised.
#6. Get Enough Sleep
Not sleeping enough is a major, major detriment to weight loss. First of all, have you ever noticed that when you don’t get enough sleep, you feel really binge-y? Like all you want is chocolate fudge all day? I just pulled an all-nighter a couple weeks ago for work and I literally ate fudge all day the next day. Well, it’s because lack of sleep affects your body’s ability to know when enough is enough food. Here’s a study on that (link no longer available).
Also, though, when you don’t sleep enough, it increases the amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) your body produces (study). And too much cortisol can keep fat on your body, especially in your belly (here’s a study on that).
So sleep is no joke. No amount of caffeine can make up for sleep deprivation. And a good amount of sleep is not 5 or 6 hours. It’s 8+ hours. And by the way, your caffeine also increases cortisol levels, but we’ll talk about caffeine another time…
#7. Drink Lots of Water
I just went through a fat-loss cycle when I was trying this really hard project (for me) in Vegas. I needed every ounce of body fat off of me that I could muster, so I stopped eating so much food, and started drinking a lot of water. Bubbly water, to be precise, with a little splash of organic lemonade or cherry juice. If I didn’t have that stuff all day, I would never have succeeded. And I did succeed – I lost 4 pounds in a couple of weeks. No, I didn’t send my project, but I got as close to sending as was possible and then we had to leave Vegas. In any case, I could feel the loss of those 4 pounds in my ability to make hard clips and recover on the route.
Often when we’re “hungry”, we’re actually just thirsty. Or, we’re just wanting something in our stomachs because we’re not used to the sensation of it being empty. So keep water or carbonated water (we ended up buying a Soda Stream) around you all the time and drink it liberally all day long. You could also drink hot water with lemon or herbal tea, or ice water with lemon or lime juice. You want to stay away from the super sugary beverages (Gatorade or other sports drinks, sodas, or juices – anything that isn’t mostly just water) because they’re full of calories.
So those are the basics! Don’t eat too much, don’t exercise too much (but exercise enough), eat whole foods that you prepare, don’t eat too many carbs, figure out if you have food sensitivities, don’t be a freak about how much you exercise, drink a lot of water, and get enough sleep. Simple, right? Ha! I know this is kind of a lot, but even if you work on one thing (not eating so much), I think you’ll have some success.
Also, Steve Bechtel of www.climbstrong.com wrote a really great article on this topic (link no longer available). Check it out if your eyes aren’t too tired from reading all of this.
So how do YOU lose weight for climbing? And how has it affected your climbing? Less than you thought it would, or did you send something hard? I want to know about it so please use the comment section!
About The Author
Neely Quinn is the owner and founder of TrainingBeta.com. She is a nutrition therapist, and helps climbers figure out the right diet for optimal body weight, recovery, and energy levels. She’s been a nutritionist since 2007 and a climber since 1997, and has redpointed up to 5.13c. She climbs almost exclusively on slightly overhanging limestone and sandstone sport climbs, since pretty much all other forms of climbing elude her. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband, Seth Lytton (co-founder of TrainingBeta), and their dog, Zala.