Get Lean


For a sportsperson, carrying unnecessary weight will just hamper performance. 5 kilos of fat has the same effect as strapping a 5 kilo weight on your back. In some sports, even an extra 5 kilos of muscle is undesirable, if those muscles are not utilised for performance. So let’s look at some ways we can get lean without losing strength. Once again, there are lots of experts with lots of different opinions. But are they any good….

Professional Road Cyclists

You may have scanned Velo News eagerly for tips on how the pros get skinny. And you won’t have found much, because the professional cycling fraternity is pretty close-lipped about their performance secrets. We’ve pulled together any nuggets of info we could find, plus a little inside knowledge, and this is how we think they do it.

Firstly food – in the off season they eat pretty much what they want to, and get a bit out of shape, but hopefully not too much. Then when they start pre-season training they drastically cut back on calories, and most of what they do eat is carbohydrate – and carbs that are pretty low in food value at that : pasta, bread, etc. As you now know, carbohydrate is fuel, but doesn’t help build a strong body.

When this limited amount of food is combined with the second ingredient, long hours of exercise, energy has to come from somewhere. So bodyfat levels start to decrease, but so does muscle. That’s why most pro cyclists have very little upper body muscle – it’s not needed for cycling, so it wastes away. Pro cyclists don’t mind this too much, they don’t need the strength, so upper body muscle is just extra weight to carry round.

But the downside of this (apart from making them look like concentration camp inmates) is that this level of emaciation comes from malnutrition. It’s not just their muscles that are wasted – all of their body processes will be suffering. They can get away with it now, but in the future, their health will decline. How many pro cyclists continue to have good health after their racing years are over? I suspect not many.

The third ingredient is, of course, drugs. Drugs enable you to go like stink when your body hasn’t got any energy left. It is well known that many pro cyclists take drugs. Using drugs for performance is like buying results on hire purchase – you get instant action, but pay big time later.  Despite what the UCI may say, there are probably not many pro cyclists who are drug free.

So, take performance enhancing drugs, ride for several hours a day and eat some rice, pasta and a few donuts, but not enough to stop feeling hungry. You’ll get skinny, sure as anything, but you’ll lose muscle and compromise your health. Is it worth it?

Body Builders

Body builders have a two phase lead in to competition. First, there’s the building stage. In this phase they want to build and shape as much muscle as possible. So they eat lots of protein, and a certain amount of carbs. Many of them don’t do a lot of aerobic exercise, so depending on how disciplined (or well-advised) they are, they will build lots of muscle, but will also put on a certain amount of fat. At this stage, they will almost certainly be using creatine, and a lot of them will be using steroids as well.

Then comes the paring down phase. Now they will want to get their body fat down as low as it will go, while sacrificing the minimum of muscle. So they cut their carbs down to next to nothing, and eat a high protein, low carb, low fat diet (eg. protein & non-starchy veges for every meal, supplemented with protein drinks). And they get on the treadmill and run. Drugs they are likely to take at this stage are stimulants and appetite depressants.

This has quite a different effect to the cycling regime. When you eat lots of protein & not much else, your body goes into a state called ketosis and has to burn fat. As long as you keep stressing your muscles and eating protein, you won’t lose too much muscle mass. It is important to drink huge amounts of water to wash away the toxic by-products of this kind of diet.

In the final day or so before competition, they will also deprive themselves of water, and probably take diuretics. By the time they get on stage, they are starving & dehydrated and as lean as it’s humanly possible to be.

Other experts

These are two extreme ways to lose weight. Do you suppose there is a way we can get lean without sacrificing our health? I think there is, and I think it’s different for everybody.

Elsewhere in the website, we look at different dietary regimes which are aimed at improving your health and vitality, but which claim weight loss as a spin-off. Let’s now compare them, and see what common features they have.


Metabolic diets :
  • High protein, moderate fat, low carb for Hunter-Gatherers. Low to moderate protein, high carb, low fat for Agriculturists.
Michael Colgan :
  • Moderate protein, moderate-high carbs, low fat. Low intensity, high rep weight training plus low intensity, high duration aerobic exercise.
Stop the Insanity :
  • High carb, low-moderate protein, low fat (similar to Agriculturist). Moderate, but regular exercise.
Eat Right For Your Type :
  • O – High protein, moderate carb, moderate fat (similar to Hunter-Gatherer). Strenuous exercise.
  • A – High carb, moderate protein, low fat (similar to Agriculturist). Vegetarian. Calming exercise.
  • B – Omnivore – Moderate-high protein, moderate carbs, low fat
  • AB – Moderate protein, moderate carbs, low fat. Moderate exercise combined with calming exercise.
The Zone :
  • Moderate protein, moderate carb, moderate fat. Being in the Zone will burn fat regardless – but high intensity burns most.
Liver Cleansing :
  • High carb, very low protein, low-moderate fat (similar to Agriculturist). Exercise not specified.
Chinese Nutrition :
  • This is a balancing diet, so recognises that people have different needs. Some of the yin/yang properties of foods line up quite similarly to the metabolic diets. No weight loss benefits are specifically claimed.
Food Combining :
  • This diet splits protein and carbohydrate without specifying how much of each you can eat. But you will eat a lot of veges with each meal, and may have all fruit meals, which are also carbs. So if you had carbs with some meals and protein with others, it would end up being high carb (similar to Agriculturist). If all your meals were protein meals, it would be high protein (similar to Hunter-Gatherer).
Raw and Natural Foods :
  • This way of eating merely suggests that the food should be organic, fresh and as close as possible to it’s natural state. Leslie Kenton says herself that some people suit a diet high in animal protein, and some suit a diet high in grains and pulses (similar to the two metabolic diets).


At first glance these all look quite different, but they all have a high success rate for weight loss. When you look closer, you can see that most of the diets line up with one or other of the metabolic diets. Michael Colgan slots somewhere in the middle with quite high carbs, moderate protein, low fat – but note that it is dependent on your exercise program. The main exception is The Zone which advocates a specific balance of nutrients. My feeling is that we do each need a balance of the nutrients, but it differs from person to person.

In summary

So there is a pattern here. Part of that pattern is the diversity of human beings. There is no one thing that will work for everybody. But there are some general principles that will work for most people :


  • Get regular exercise – it will help burn up the calories and besides, it makes you feel better. But don’t overdo it. Early in the day is better, as it gets your metabolism up for more of the day. Make sure you get a balance of aerobic, strenth and stretching exercises.
  • Make sure you get enough rest and recovery. If you burn out and can’t train, the weight could pile back on.
  • Drink lots of water. 8 glasses a day is a minimum. You need more if you’re exercising lots, especially in the summer. You need more if you’re burning up fat calories. You need more if you’re eating a lot of protein. And you need extra if you’re taking herbs – to rehydrate them.
  • Eat regularly. Keep your body fueled and your metabolism going. Don’t be tempted to miss meals – breakfast is especially important.
  • Don’t starve yourself, but don’t overeat either. If you feel full or tired after a meal you probably ate too much, or the wrong things. If you feel dizzy or tired in between meals, either you’re not eating enough, or you might have blood sugar imbalances. (If you feel tired all the time, make sure you’re not overtraining and check that you don’t have a health problem like anaemia, glandular fever or a thyroid imbalance. Then consider trying a  supplement of some kind)
  • Choose good quality food – organic, fresh, local, in season, untampered with as much as possible. These will have more nutrients and fibre and will be more satisfying.
  • Choose low GI carbohydrates over high GI ones as much as possible. Or balance them out with a bit of protein. Choose carbs that are high in nutrients over empty calories like sugar or white wheat products. The 5 serves a day of fruit and veges that the “healthy food” pyramid recommends is probably woefully inadequate. If you are really committed, eliminate refined carbs totally, and try the whole foods plan.
  • Choose good quality proteins that work for you. Make sure you get enough for your needs, but remember that a lot of proteins are high in saturated fat.
  • Keep your fat intake moderate. Make sure as much as possible comes from beneficial fats and try to eliminate trans completely.
  • Then, if you want to, look at incorporating one of the special dietary plans we’ve talked about. I’d suggest trying your metabolic type plan first, as they take different body types into consideration. If you wanted to try one of the others, remember that they don’t take metabolic differences into account, and if it doesn’t work for you – ditch it.
  • You may need to consider the possibility that food intolerances are contributing to weight problems.
  • Be patient. Losing fat takes time, and shouldn’t happen faster than 1/2 kg per week. The slower it comes off, the longer it stays off. (Or so they say)


Also read my article on obesity and weight loss, for more aspects.