How to lose weight and cycle
Weight loss, is that thorny subject that everyone thinks they know something about (and probably do!), and is an especially important/talked about subject in cycling and triathlon circles. You only have to chat to a group of cyclists to know how important weight is, and how it affects you going uphill.
So, how do you lose weight? As most people know (although potentially there is a little more to it than this), it's mainly about expending more energy, than you consume, and is neatly summed up with this equation: Energy out > energy in. This of course means, that energy out < energy in is equal to weight gain, and energy out = energy in is equal to maintaining weight.
When cycling uphill, or indeed running uphill, your speed is determined by your power to mass ratio (mass being the more correct term for weight, and essentially, this article is really talking about mass loss). Of course, other factors also come into your speed -- mainly air drag (how aerodynamic you are -- but we'll ignore this for this topic, else the article will be huge, and i'll probably get confused!). If you have a power meter, and say ride at 300 W uphill, and your mass is 95 kg, your power to mass ratio will be 3.16 W/kg. If on the other hand you weigh 65 kg and can ride at 250 W uphill, your power to mass ratio will be 3.85 W/kg and you'll go much faster uphill (the higher your power to mass ratio the faster you'll go up a given gradient). Therefore, if you can reduce your mass (that 95 kg) down to ~78 kg you'd be going as fast uphill as the 65 kg rider. (Note, I'm not for one second suggesting that anyone who is 95 kg should get down to 78 kg, I'm just giving some background on how to go faster -- which is what losing weight is about).
Most of us know that there are certain foods that are 'bad' for us, and should be eaten in moderation. These may include biscuits, chocolate, sweets, crisps, alcohol, chips (fries), this is because these foods are very high in energy (calories), and are also not nutrient dense (i.e., they don't have any redeeming qualities other than perhaps tasting nice). Then there are also many foods that some people think are good, and others think are bad. These could include potatoes, pasta, bread, etc. This is because some people think that eating carbohydrates are bad for you, and cause you to gain weight because somehow carbohydrates either set off a multitude of hormones that cause you to store weight (as fat) via 'insulin response' or because humans weren't designed to eat carbohydrates and Paelolithic Man didn't eat them (don't worry he did). Nonetheless, research constantly shows us that this is simply not true. There is a multitude of research showing that energy out needs to be more than energy in to lose weight (and what you eat is of little importance for weight loss).
Research shows us that multiple different styles of diet work. Recent research published last month using a very large cohort showed weight loss was about equal whether you went the low-carbohydrate route, or the low-fat route. Over a 12-month period there was no significant different in weight loss (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2673150). There are multiple other pieces of research showing similar results.
What do I recommend?
In general I'm ambivalent about what you want to eat. As a coach, all I want for you is to lose weight, be healthy (this is different, however, to the weight loss issue), and be happy. There are certain foods that I feel make things harder for weight loss (calorie dense foods, with little real nutrition, such as biscuits, sweets/candy) -- these often contain large amounts of sugar and/or salt, which both lead to the pleasure centres of the brain being activated, which in turn make you eat them uncontrollably (or at least more than you should). From a personal perspective, because of this, and how I react, I just completely avoid these foods (other than maybe on Christmas Day!). However, if someone I'm working with can control these foods in moderate amounts (without going crazy like a hyperactive child) then they could be eaten (in limited amounts).
More importantly, when working with people I like to suggest that they try and eat a diet that favours nutritionally dense, low-calorie food such as vegetables, fruits, and little processed food. This type of diet works well with many, many people, and in fact is the basis of the Mediterranean Diet. Evidence has shown that this is one of the healthiest diets available (and contains moderate amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats). I eat a modified version of this (simply because I'm a vegetarian -- which is also an excellent dietary style to follow. Note, I couldn't care less whether you're a veggie or not, I've never stood on a soapbox for this). Obviously, I feel the Med diet is tasty and something that can be adhered to for life. However, if you're not into a diet of plentiful veg, pasta, grains, and lean proteins, it's fine (I don't force my choices on anyone).
Energys gels versus real food?
Allied to this discussion on weight loss, I'm also asked about foods such as energy gels, and recovery drinks, and do we need them. Yes, in some cases we do. However, for training, general rides, etc, I don't feel we do. The rub, though, is that if you intend to use them in races/strategic events, you will need to practice eating them (i don't know, do you eat a gel or drink it?) in training so that your gut is used to it. But, we just don't need to consume them in the quantities that we do consume them (I always shake my head when I see them in the supermarket, and know we've gone barmy). Yes, I use gels in races, and in some sportives. Yes, I've used recovery drinks after a race, but no, I rarely use them in training. (In truth, anyone who knows me or trains with me, will know i have several gels - ALWAYS - in my jersey pockets -- just in case I either blow a gasket or someone I'm riding with runs out of energy. They're an insurance food).
But surely low-carbohydrate is the way forward?
Lots of athletes are starting to talk about training in a low-carbohydrate state, and/or a fasted state. Some people mention that this is because it's better for weight loss (see the JAMA article above to knock that notion on the head) and some people state it's about increased performance. I've contributed to several articles on these thoughts here, here, and here. While it does appear that moving to a low-carbohydrate diet improves fat useage, it doesn't lead to increased weight loss (what 'fuels' you burn doesn't make any difference to weight loss) or more importantly does not lead to increased performance (even when moving back to a high-carbohydrate diet).
Any other way to lose weight?
What other recommendations can I make? Other than nutrition then it comes down to exercise. Here you should exercise as hard as you can in the time that you have available. However, this can have ramifications for your training. Why should you exercise as hard as you can? Simply, the harder (more intense) you exercise the more energy you expend, which is what you want. However, 1) this doesn't mean that you should do as many sprints as possible - because even though sprinting per unit time will have the highest energy 'burn', you simply won't be able to do much else, and 2) it's also worth bearing in mind that if you ride at say functional threshold power (FTP) (approximately, the highest effort you can manage over about an hour) then this will likely have a negative effect on subsequent days training (especially if you train daily). This is because riding maximally will drain your glycogen stores (your body's supply of carbohydrates) and subsequently, especially while on reduced rations you will struggle to replenish and the training that you do after the FTP work will be of a lower effort than if you'd paced yourself a little better (I'd suggest sticking to zone 3 if you have say an hour to train). This way you'll be able to train harder over more days. If you're training for longer than an hour or your fitness is lower then you'll have to reduce the intensity further still.
Losing weight, is possible for nearly everyone. It requires mental strength and tenacity (when you feel hungry and just want to eat everything, especially rubbishy foods) and control over certain foods. There are many styles of diet that will help you, and if you employ a coach you should choose one that doesn't suggest one type of diet only.
You should go on a diet using the style of food that fits within your cultural and ethical beliefs, and one that you can adhere to for the rest of your life.
Some more food for thought here
In writing this article, I'd like to thank Lee Allum who gave me the idea for the article.