For many of us cyclists, New Year’s resolutions take the form of more ambitious training plans and fresh riding goals. But January can also mean a renewed effort to improve your life in other ways, including losing weight for some and getting faster on the bike. It sounds enticingly simple.
But before you go buy a new bathroom scale and start cutting calories willy-nilly, it’s worth remembering that most people quit their diets almost as soon as they start them. Multiple studies suggest that for most people, it’s difficult—sometimes almost impossible—to lose a significant amount of weight and keep it off. Biologically, your body wants to stay in balance and avoid drastic changes in its weight and composition.
“We can’t always be eating this crazy restrictive diet,” says Heather Caplan, a registered dietician. “It’s not biologically what we’re designed for.”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a hard look at your nutrition as you chase your New Year’s resolutions. While it can be difficult to shift the needle on the scale, better food choices will almost certainly improve your health over the long term—and there’s a good chance it’ll make you a better cyclist, too. Here are seven tips that will help you approach your weight loss goals in a way that is realistic, doable, and sustainable.
While you may be looking to eat fewer calories overall, you’ll still want to eat a variety of foods. “If you’re really active, your energy needs are typically higher, and you also need more of certain micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals,” Caplan says. Eating a variety of foods including grains, lean proteins, vegetables, and fruit will ensure that your body gets the full array of nutrients it needs.
Although you can rely on supplements to fill in any gaps, they are not always as easy for your body to absorb. “We digest vitamins and minerals from food more efficiently,” says Caplan.
Nixing a certain food entirely—unless you have a medically-necessary reason to do so—is often a sure-fire way to ensure that you cheat on your fresh new diet. “Eliminating food groups is a form of restriction, and we often respond to restriction with craving,” says Caplan. Sometimes, pent-up desire for a food means you’ll eat even more of it than you otherwise would. “Each food group has something that it’s bringing to the table.”
Even if you’re eating a variety of foods, you may still experience cravings. After all, the siren song of your favorite dessert never sounds louder than it does than when you are trying to lose weight.
But it’s worth paying attention to these cravings and when they occur. “If you’re significantly under-fueling for your sport or activity level, it’s possible you might have cravings for things that are high in sugar and fat, just as a physiological response,” says Caplan. If you’re feeling a desperate craving for an entire box of cookies on the same day as you finished a long ride, for example, you may need to add healthy calories, such as whole grains or lean protein, to your diet for those bigger volume days.
There’s an argument to be made that weighing yourself regularly provides accountability and helps reinforce your efforts to follow those New Year’s resolutions. But Caplan suggests that it can become a negative drag on your efforts to build a healthy and sustainable relationship with your food. “My first piece of advice is just get rid of it!” she says. “I know that’s easier said than done, but sometimes you just have to rip the Band-Aid off.”
Instead of focusing on the number on your scale, tune into how your body feels. Do your clothes fit comfortably? Do you have enough energy to do your workout? It’s an important skill for cyclists to be able to listen to their bodies and know what they need—whether it’s a workout or a healthy snack.
If you decide to continue to weigh yourself, remember that fluctuations in your weight are natural and normal. “We’re not going to weigh the same thing every day,” says Caplan. “It’s just not physically possible.” And that change in your body composition is more important than a change on the scale. For example, muscle weighs more than the same volume of fat so if you are able to lose fat and gain muscle, you will weigh more, but have a better, healthier body composition than before.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing your meals to those of your ride buddies, friends, or family members. “Your activity, your athletic goals, your lifestyle—they’re all unique to you,” says Caplan. “Remember at the end of the day, what matters is what’s best for you.” Stay focused on your own nutrition needs and skip the comparisons.
For many people, dieting doesn’t lead to long-term weight loss. “We have a lot of diet and weight loss research that says that our bodies are really not manipulatable,” says Caplan. “Very few people can maintain weight loss long term.” We evolved to survive famines, not to lose weight.
But creating a nutrition plan that focuses on healthy food choices can offer plenty of benefits for cyclists, even if the number on the scale refuses to budge. For example, you may find you have more energy on the bike, thanks to your healthier choices, and you’re enjoying your rides more. You may see a decrease in headaches, upset stomach, or heart burn. You might just snag that KOM you’ve been eyeing, too.
Think about good food choices as a form of self-care. “Focus on the ways that you respect your body and take care of it, instead of focusing on what you want to change about it,” says Caplan. Or worse, that you “deserve” that extra scoop of ice cream or the fast food burger.
When chasing goals such as faster times on the bike or a lighter weight on the scale, we sometimes get caught up in all the ways we’re not good enough. Try to keep your inner narrative positive by reminding yourself of the many amazing things your body can do and the ways that your new, healthier diet is a commitment to caring for this magic machine.
We can all benefit from friends on the road, and seeking advice from a registered dietitian or sports nutritionist is a great way to dial in your diet. There’s an overabundance of conflicting information out there and checking in with an expert can help you sort it out and get a personalized plan. “I don’t think it’s on the athlete to know everything,” says Caplan. A dietician or nutritionist can help you learn more about your body’s needs and how to meet them in a way that’s sustainable and satisfying.