Every martial artist wants to have the best physique in order to excel as a fighter. Those who struggle with weight issues naturally will want to reduce their weight. Having optimal weight, being the best in the weight category and winning is every fighter’s dream.
Unfortunately, some people believe that to lose weight, they have to starve themselves. Since weight gain comes from eating too much, it makes sense that eating very little should lead to weight loss. Over the centuries, the human body has evolved to survive famines by switching on to this fat storage mode. Whatever little food is eaten gets stored as fat and the body starts sacrificing muscle tissue for fuel as its primary aim is now to stay alive. Starvation mode does not switch on just because a person skipped a meal or fasted for a day, this happens only when dieting is taken to extreme levels and for extended periods.
When a person has been on a low calorie diet for quite a few days, the brain starts suspecting there might be a food shortage. It responds by slowing down metabolism and holding on to its fat reserves, making it quite difficult to lose weight. Starving to lose weight causes multiple health problems as it leads to nutritional deficiencies. When the person finally manages to lose some weight and resumes his previous eating patterns, the body will continue to store the additional calories rather than burn it for energy, as its still in the famine mode. The person ends up up gaining all the weight they lost and probably some more, thus defeating the goal of weight loss altogether.
Fighters may often have to resort to weight cutting to get into their desired weight category of the tournament. There are several effective ways to lose weight quickly without resorting to starving, but they should be followed only for a short while. The healthy way to lose weight and keep it off is to make lifestyle changes that can be sustained over the long term.
The Low Glycemic Index Diet
The glycemic index ranges from 0-100 and shows how quickly carbohydrates are broken down by the body and converted to glucose from the time they are consumed. Food items are usually grouped into three groups. These include High GI foods (over 70), Medium GI foods (55-70) and Low GI foods (under 55).
Eating junk food or food that is high on sugar causes high amounts of insulin to be released in the body. Having such food more often adds to the pressure on the pancreas and increases the danger of diabetes. It also causes the person to feel hungry faster. The Low Glycemic Index Diet is recommended to people of all age groups as it has more advantages than any other diet. The advantages of such a diet are:
- It causes the least fluctuations in glucose and insulin levels.
- It includes natural, unrefined and unprocessed food which provides essential nutrition to the body
- It keeps energy levels stable for a much longer time. It also builds up overall health in the body without putting additional strain on the pancreas.
- It is known to reduce the risk of Type 2 Diabetes and incidence of heart disease.
- It lowers lipid levels in the blood and minimises the risk of cancer.
- It helps improve physical endurance too.
While aiming to reduce weight it is essential that the body’s energy requirements are met adequately. Martial artists specially need to remember that they need sufficient energy to meet their regular needs and also the extra energy for their training.
Calories usually come from carbohydrates, protein and fat. One gram of carbohydrates or protein gives 4 calories while one gram of fat gives 9 calories. Male martial artists who train for more than 90 minutes in a day need at least 50 kilocalories per kilogram of weight per day. Female martial artists who train for the same amount of time need around 45 to 50 kilocalories per kilogram of weight per day. Those who train in high aerobic and anaerobic conditions have greater calorie requirements and may need around 6,000 calories or more for males and 4,000 calories per day for female martial artists.
There are three diet plans that are usually followed separately or as a combination in order to help lose body weight. A restricted diet is a combination of low-calorie, low-carb and low-fat diets ensures all bases are covered and creates a state of ketosis which helps quell hunger. Keeping a check on calories ensures that the amount of calories taken is lesser than the amount that you burn. They are only recommended for the short term.
Low Fat Diets
In low-fat diets the focus is on eating meals that contain high-quality, lean protein sources such as egg whites, chicken, turkey, fish or Greek yogurt. Only the low fat versions of these foods can be chosen. Egg yolks are usually avoided due to its fat content. However, it is important that a small amount of fat is consumed. Fat has an important role in the production of steroid hormones and androgen receptor density. Besides this it is needed for mitochondrial health, cell membrane function and provision of fat-soluble nutrients.
This diet plan, if followed religiously, leads to significant weight loss in a short period of time. But owing to the lack of variety, this diet can easily lead to boredom and cause the weight-watcher to lose interest. They are less satiating than diets that have more fat. Though blood sugar levels are stable, one still feels hungry. On returning to a normal diet, it is easy to start gaining weight once again. Such diets are not sustainable in the long term. However, it helps break through dieting plateaus and is quite simple to plan and follow for the short term. The low-fat component keeps the heart healthy and maintains lipid levels in the blood too.
Low Carb Diets
A calorie-reduced low-carb diet is an effective way to lose weight. The body readily burns stored fat when carbs are absent and insulin levels are low. A study recorded that: “As soon as carbohydrate is insufficiently available for the needs of metabolism, depot fat flows to the liver and is there catabolized to ketone bodies which recent proof has shown to be burned peripherally in the muscles independent of carbohydrate metabolism.”
The downside of this diet is that it may lead to fatigue and moodiness which can seriously affect martial arts performance. Carbs have an important role in serotonin production. Serotonin regulates mood and anxiety. Low serotonin levels contribute to increased anxiety and depression.
Rany Saadeh, an MMA fighter out of Berlin, Germany and the #7th ranked Pro-Mens Flyweight in United Kingdom & Ireland shares his experience of preparing to defend his BAMMA title in 2015: “I was struggling with energy levels and my body switched into energy-saving mode during the weeks of preparation. If I wasn’t training, I was sleeping to just have enough energy for a training session. I felt fatigued after one hour of training and I hated that feeling. That was always 8 weeks of my life not being enjoyable at all, let alone the mental challenges that came from resisting most of the food.”
Saadeh decided to modify his diet plan to a diet that was moderate in all macronutrients and rich in micronutrients. He lowered his fat intake and increased healthy well-timed carbs while restricting portion sizes and applying diet hacks to control his appetite. He advises fighters to prepare a weight loss plan keeping their body type and ratio in mind.
Saadeh says, “During intense anaerobic loads, your muscles need glucose. During these process, your body produces lactic acid, which is a by-product of your muscles using glucose for energy output. Your body even needs glucose for aerobic processes lasting up to 90 minutes. The harder you train, the more carbs you need. Also, training with depleted glycogen stores makes you prone to illness. Enough reason to have these glycogen storages moderately filled and not empty by eating simple and complex carbs that are rich in fibre, such as oats, legumes, fruit and vegetables.”
Low Calorie Diets
Low-calorie diets are based on the simple principle that if you eat less than you burn, you will lose weight. For example, if a person’s maintenance level is 2800 kcal then their body weight will naturally reduce if they lower their caloric intake to 2000 kcal per day. If there is a drastic cut in the number of calories, it can cause more health problems for the fighter. Less food means less nutrients and can affect both performance and recovery and cause the fighter hit a plateau sooner. But weight gain or loss is also dependant on a person’s hormonal response.
George Lockhart is the nutrition coach of Irish professional mixed martial artist and boxer Conor McGregor. He explains, “Some people can go and eat a ton of food without gaining a pound, but someone like me gains weight from eating really easily. That’s because of our different hormonal responses to the foods. When I eat them I have a more abundant hormonal response and my body stores a lot more, which allows me to gain weight more efficiently. If I can affect the hormones of an individual, that gives me the ability to dictate the size, muscle mass and fat mass an individual has.”
Short Term Crash Diets
A crash diet is an extreme method used to lose weight within a short period of time. The number of calories is reduced to as low as 700 calories a day. It helps lose from 5 to 20 pounds within a few days. This is useful for those who want to lose weight for special occasions such as a wedding, party or date. The downside of this is that it is not easy to implement, can be monotonous and restricts calorie intake. The loss of valuable nutrition can lead to a lot of stress on the body.
There are various kinds of crash diets which include the Juice Fast Crash Diet, Cabbage Diet or Cabbage Soup Diet, 3-day diet, Master Cleanse, Xtreme Fat Loss Diet, Grapefruit Diet, the Clean Program and Hollywood Diet among others. Crash diets are not without risks. Some of the risks include slowing down of the metabolism, loss of muscle, weight gain after the crash diet, weakening of the bones, deprivation of essential nutrients, weakening of the immune system, cardiac stress and heart palpitations.
Fighters who are interested in going on a crash diet need to ensure that they are healthy, take a multivitamin every day, have enough nutrient-rich foods and drink plenty of water. To keep the benefits of the crash diet, you will have to resist binge eating afterwards. Doing weight bearing exercises is good to keep the bones strong. After the crash diet it is advisable to begin a sustainable long-term diet.
Fasting for Weight Loss
Fasting is the practice of eating little or no food. It has been in practice for centuries. Fasting is usually done for religious reasons and is popular as a weight loss method too. There are various types of fasts that ‘flush out poisons’ and even purge several pounds of fat in a fixed time frame. Though it is helpful in reducing weight, there are also risks involved that can sometimes outweigh the benefits and cause more harm than good.
Some fasts have a very strict regimen and allow only water, juice and some kind of laxative concoction. Other plans allow a few solid foods and provide a few calories. Fasting for a day or two are safe for healthy adults. Fasting for longer periods than 3 to 5 days can be get dangerous if not done under supervision. Intermittent fasting is another type of fasting which can be further classified into whole-day fasting, alternate-day fasting and time-restricted feeding.
Detox Diets for Weight Loss
A detox diet is an excellent way to help the body get rid of toxins. Detox helps the body’s vital organs rest and recover. The different ways to detox include various kinds of fasting which is followed by a period of clean eating. Some detox diets also include smoothies, supplements, herbs, teas and enemas too. They mainly cut out processed and inflammatory foods, refined sugar, alcohol and certain foods and beverages. Buying organic fruits and vegetables, meat and wild fish helps decrease the intake of toxins from the diet.
Having enough fluids is also important to avoid dehydration which can otherwise cause headaches, anxiety, mood disorders and decreased cognitive performance. A detox diet has several health benefits including increased energy and lowered stress levels. Detoxing is a good way to ensure long term change and sustainable weight loss that also leads to a resetting of eating patterns. Detox programmes are a good way to control cravings and curing food addiction that cannot be managed by just will-power.
Weight Cutting for a Competition
‘Cutting weight’ shouldn’t be confused with weight loss. Cutting weight stands for losing weight at a quick pace before an upcoming fighting competition. There are two methods to do so. One method is losing weight in the form of fat and muscle in the weeks prior to an event. The other is losing weight in the form of water in the days before competition.
There are cases when an athlete artificially lowers his weight for pre-fight weigh-ins, and then go for the actual fight about 10 to 30 pounds heavier than his opponent. Anderson Silva, considered one of the best MMA fighters usually fights in the 185-pound class. He actually weighs about 215 pounds. For the pre-fight weigh -in, Anderson “cuts” 30 pounds to meet the target weight. He then gains most of it back in time for his fight – within just 24 hours. Georges St Pierre who is about 195 pounds cuts 25 pounds to make his 170 pound weight class. He then gains 20 to 25 pounds back before his fight.
If not executed under careful supervision, weight cutting can cause serious health problems such as heart attack, kidney failure and organ failure. MMA has witnessed two deaths that of Brazilian fighter Leandro Souza in 2013 and Chinese fighter Yang Jian Bing in 2015 owing to such cutting weight practices.
Using passive water-loss strategies like diuretics or Epsom salt baths are dangerous as they deplete water from places like joints, leading to poor performance and higher chances of injury. It is important to beware of dehydration which is the most limiting factor in athletic performance. While planning to cut weight it is essential to have the support of a nutritionist to ensure the fighter’s body is not being deprived of essential nutrients.
Martial artists who get to weigh in the day before their fight have a tremendous advantage over those who must compete on the same day. Depending on how much weight they cut, it can take up to 12 hours or more to replenished the lost fluids and nutrients. Fatty and fibrous foods are best avoided immediately afterwards since they are slow to digest. It is important to choose foods that get absorbed quickly. Carbs and proteins in liquid form, specifically those that fast-digesting and low in fiber should be taken first to replenish the lost nutrients and water.
While protein is helps preserve muscle mass during the weight cut, carbs are prefered in the replenishment process. Avoid sugary treats like cookies and cakes which provide a fast spike of energy followed by a crash, leading to lethargy. Starchy carbs like sweet potatoes and rice help fill up the muscles with glycogen for sustained energy release during the fight. Bananas and prunes are rich in potassium and its natural sugar content provides quick energy. While cutting weight helps fighters enter their desired competition, the lack of a proper replenishment strategy will leave them weak, tired and unable to perform at their best.
Long Term Weight Loss Strategies
When martial artists aim to lose weight, and keep their weight low, it is good to have some strategies in place. If they stop being careful about watching their weight soon after they reach their desired goals, it will only cause them to lose everything that they had worked so hard for. Make a realistic plan so that it will be actually executed and sustained over a long period.
- Ensure that foods that trigger overeating are kept away.
- Another way to keep the weight under check is to ‘feel full’ Taking 15 to 20 minutes to eat gives the brain the impression that they have eaten enough.
- Take smaller portions or eat on smaller plates to avoid overeating. A small plate laden with food gives an illusion of having eaten a lot.
- Rewards are a great motivation in any plan. But when planning to celebrate milestones in losing weight, it is important to plan rewards that don’t involve food. A good reward would be something like going for a movie, a massage or healthy ‘me-time.’
- It is necessary to keep track of how well the person is doing at keeping their weight under check. Keep a journal or use an app that measures how much activity is done and how much food is eaten. Being aware of the progress or the lack of it will help stay on track and meet weight loss goals.
Whether it is for short or long term weight loss, the most important thing to bear in mind is that there isn’t a single formula that is applicable to everyone. A creative approach can be used to modify and plan a weight loss program according to the individual fighter’s physique and requirement. The basic tenets to follow include lowering overall carb intake, having starchy carbs rather than simple carbs, eating plenty of vegetables, lean proteins and small quantities of healthy fats. It is also essential to keep the body hydrated throughout the diet.
Weight cutting practices, if done right, can significantly increase a fighter’s chances of winning. Lower the weight for pre-fight weigh-ins, then showing up 10 to 30 pounds heavier to the actual fight can be quite the game changer. But if done wrong, it can make even the toughest fighters lose their edge. They not only end up losing the fight, there’s serious risk of organ failure if weight cutting is done haphazardly. No matter what the reason for wanting to lose weight, it is important to choose weight loss practices that are healthy and safe. With commitment and dedication, anyone can lose weight.