Nutrition: How to trim your weight

Dropping weight for a lighter, faster you…

No, not a lesson from BA passengers at Terminal 5, Chris Fenn advises on how to shift a few pounds from your bike’s engine: you.

Let’s face it, if you’re carrying too much extra weight, cycling – especially uphill – is a lot harder than if you’re a lean machine. It’s easier, but more expensive, to lose weight from your bike, but it is possible to lose a few pounds of fat from your body – especially if you know why those pounds crept on in the first place.

The equation is a simple one – too many calories in and not enough calories burned means the excess is stored in your body as fat.

But simply jumping on the bathroom scales doesn’t tell the whole story. Because of its high water content, muscle is heavier than fat, and if you exercise regularly your total body weight can fluctuate throughout the day, simply due to the varying amount of glycogen stored within your muscles.

Mirror image

There are plenty of high tech, sophisticated ways to measure body fat, but the simplest approach is to stand in front of a mirror and take a look at your body. Men tend to deposit excess fat around the abdomen while nature’s favourite fat storage areas for women are the buttocks and thighs.

It is tempting, in an effort to shift these fat stores, to exercise these areas only, but a thousand sit-ups or lunges each morning is an ineffective way to approach the task of losing weight. Rather, you should aim to increase your energy output and/or decrease your calorie intake by simply being more active each day, as well as enjoying your riding or training routine.

Calorie creep 

One reason it can be easy to put on weight without realising why is down to ‘calorie creep’. Food manufacturers know our love/hate relationships with fat and sugar – the source of ‘empty calories’ – and have been steadily changing the recipes of our favourite foods. Some breakfast cereals contain around 10% more calories than in 1983. Häagen-Dazs Belgian chocolate ice-cream contains 16% more calories than in 1994 and 26% more fat. Even cereal bars such as Jordans Original Crunchy bars are not immune, with 16% more calories than in 1986 and more fat.

Another change has been in portion sizes. If you take your bike across to America and stop for a snack, you’re likely to be served a plateful of food, which will provide enough calories to last for the whole day. But it’s not just a phenomenon across the pond – portion sizes are increasing in the UK too. If you buy a cookie at a snack bar, it’s likely to be 5in across – and who eats just half and saves the rest for later? It’s the same with crisps. An individual packet used to weigh 33g, now they’re 55g. A portion of cereal from a variety pack used to be around 30g, it’s now up to 50g. If you rely on these foods, and eat the whole packet, it’s easy to see how excess calories can mount up.

To counteract this, choose foods as close as possible to their natural state. They tend to be bulkier and will fill you up before you’ve eaten too many calories – you eat more food but for the same calories as the highly processed calorie-dense snacks.

Most men need 1500-1700 calories each day, just to keep alive and ticking over. Women need 1200-1500 calories. Cycling at 10mph burns 5-10 calories per minute. The exact amount will depend on body weight and composition, as well as factors such as your age, fitness, any headwind and the gradient of the road. 

To lose weight, it's important to eat well and fuel your muscles with enough carbohydrate, but not to over eat. A few calculations can help you choose the best mid-ride snack and tip the balance towards fat loss. If you ride three times a week and eat a slab of fruit cake each time, you will need to ride for 57 minutes to burn this off, plus an extra two hours to shift 1lb of excess fat each week. Swap the fruit cake for malt loaf and you only need to ride for 28 minutes, and you start your fat burning regime much sooner. 

If you eat a full English breakfast (fried eggs, bacon, sausages and fried bread) you'll need to ride for just over two hours to burn this off. Enjoy a modified cooked breakfast of scrambled eggs, baked beans, grilled bacon and tomatoes and you'll ride into energy balance after 54 minutes. 

Beware of energy drinks and gels. These are concentrated sources of carbohydrate, but you can easily take in more calories than you need. Try diluting your favourite energy drink 50:50 with water. You'll still get a carbohydrate boost, but avoid an excess. Think about your drinking habits after your ride. Alcohol is not only a source of empty calories, it quickly metabolised into fat. If you don't want to ditch the pub stop, quench your thirst with a pint of water before your beer.

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