The top 5 nutrition mistakes you’re probably making

by guest author Kyle Byron

Female athletes come in all shapes and styles, such as runners, powerlifters, fighters, dancers, or women just out there having fun.

Yet they all seem to make the same nutrition mistakes.

Don’t feel bad.

I blame Weight Watchers, fashion magazines, and well-meaning but wrongheaded advice that you can find all over the media.

The good news is that if you fix these things, you’re way ahead of the game!

One thing at a time

If you’d like to improve your nutrition, don’t tackle these all at once.

Yes, it’s tempting. (Blame the “New Year’s Resolution” phenomenon.)

But you’re much more likely to say “forget it!” and give up. It becomes overwhelming and hard to implement.

If you decide to make nutrition changes, pick one of these concepts until you master it.

And give yourself plenty of time to practice and get it right. I recommend 2-3 weeks.

Only add another improvement once you get the first change down. That’s how successful people improve.

Mistake #1 – Inappropriate body composition goals (light instead of lean)

If you have ever said, “But I don’t want to get bulky,” this section is for you.

The pressure to conform to a certain body type is ubiquitous, so I don’t blame any woman for feeling this pressure. But I am going to try to convince you that lighter is not always better.

Your weight is irrelevant because it doesn’t tell us anything about your muscle or fat.

For example:

Athlete A is 130 lbs with 15% body fat (19.5 lbs fat).
Athlete B is 115 lbs with 24% body fat (27.6 lbs of fat).

Comparing their weight gives the wrong message.

Instead, we need to compare the ratio of muscle and fat. 

Athlete A has a better strength-to-weight ratio. She’s heavier but fitter, both in terms of her athletic performance and her metabolism.

If you lift weights and optimize your nutrition, you won’t get “bulky”. You’ll get stronger and lose fat and lose inches.

To get bulky, you have to have the right hormones (i.e. plenty of testosterone), lift tons of weight, cut your cardio, and eat lots of extra food. (And by the way, lots of extra calories from sugar will usually add fat, not muscle.) Oh, and some performance-enhancing drugs won’t hurt either.

Muscle will help you stay lean because it’s like making your body into a little furnace!


A thought for fighters and other weight classed athletes:

A healthy and lighter fighter will defeat a heavier fighter who is dehydrated, tired and diet-crazy. If you really want to cut weight for your fights, call me and we can see if it’s a good strategy.

A thought for runners:

Muscles store energy and water that your body can use. Runners need to do a bit of resistance training to improve gait and prevent repetitive stress injury. Proper nutrition will do the rest.

A note on your health:

The healthy range for body fat for a female athlete is 11-21%. This is a huge range. 11% is like Madonna when she gets ripped, and at 21% there is enough fat on you to grab a handful. Measure with underwater weighing, a BodPod or a fitness pro that is experienced with calipers.

You should also monitor your body signals closely to judge your healthy body fat level.

For example, monitor your cycle. If it is less a day, lighter, or skips a month entirely, your body is telling you it’s hurting/starving! This leads to lower estrogen levels which can lead to bone loss. Some of you out there will experience this at 20% body fat! Beware!

Other body signals:

  • Lack of interest in training
  • Emotional ups and downs; moodiness; irritability
  • Chronic infections and viruses — you seem to catch every cold and flu bug that goes around
  • Chronic injuries, aches and pains — you can’t seem to shake that tendonitis or plantar fasciitis
  • Difficulty sleeping (trouble falling asleep, poor sleep quality, or early wakeups around 4 am)

Sadly it is only in hindsight that some athletes see how beat-up their body was.

Talk to Krista or me about your body composition, and what might be right for you.

Mistake #2 – Inappropriate restriction of calories

This is usually part of mistakenly trying to get lighter.

Remember your body is like a furnace now. Snacks like rice cakes and plain celery are not helping you.

To lose body fat, eat healthy snacks and meals 4-6 times a day (see below for examples).

Avoid huge meals. Instead, eat enough to be satisfied (not full) and you won’t make new fat.

Exercise (especially weight training) tells your body to divert nutrients to muscle and other lean tissue (such as bones) instead of body fat. Rinse, repeat.

Mistake #3 – Low carb meals at the wrong time

If you’ve been sitting at your desk all day, feel free to fill up on protein, vegetables and some healthy fats. Precision Nutrition has awesome cookbooks for these meals.

BUT if you’ve just beaten the crap out of your body in the gym, do NOT restrict carbs!

Get some good quality carbs like fruit, yams, lentils/beans/legumes, whole grains like brown/wild rice, quinoa, etc.

Meals after training should be the biggest ones you eat!

Why we need carbs after we train:

  • Carbs after training reduce carb cravings later (when you can’t deal with them metabolically).
  • Carbs get stored as glycogen so you can train hard tomorrow.
  • The insulin spike from carbs brings growth hormone that repairs our tissues.
  • You’ll have more energy later.
  • Carbs feel and taste good.
  • It’s a perfect time to have a little treat if you absolutely must have one.

Mistake # 4 – Low protein meals and snacks

Eat protein with each meal. Protein keeps you full, raises your metabolism, and helps you recover from exercise.

Snacks (that actually suck) that beauty magazines think are great:

  • A piece of fruit: Yay! You got 1 gram of protein! (I’m being sarcastic. You need about 20 grams every time you eat.)
  • A handful of almonds: Nuts brag about protein but only give you a few grams. Nuts have healthy fats, but keep the portions very small, as they’re calorie dense and it’s easy to put down 1000 calories of nuts without really noticing.
  • Yogurt and fruit: The big faker snack. Yogurt has 2-4 times as much sugar as protein. (Trust me. Read the label.) Yes, even the organic plain stuff has sugar. Greek yogurt, however is very high in protein.

Better — protein-powered — snacks:

  • Any meal like a salad or stir fry with protein, veg, and healthy fats
  • Some tuna with mayo and baby carrots, peppers, celery
  • Fruit and 2 hard-boiled eggs
  • 1/3 cup beans, 1/4 cup quinoa, 1 cup veggies, 2 tsp oil, vinegar/lemon

If you are saying “Wow that’s a lot of food!” remember we are making our meals smaller and our snacks bigger.

Mistake #5 – Fat phobia

Eating fat doesn’t make us fat.

Not moving around enough and eating more than our bodies need will make us fat.

Fat is good for you. It helps our hormones and cells function (two big players in your system). It makes your skin nice. It keeps you feeling full.

Each meal and snack should have 1-2 thumbs of fat from oil, nuts, seeds, avocado, etc.

About 30-40% of your calories should come from fat.

What to do

Don’t follow diet advice from celebrity actresses or models. Please. You are not them.

You are a well-oiled performance machine, not a clothes hanger.

And Gwyneth Paltrow’s doctor is probably pleading with her to eat more before her bones turn into jelly.

Unfortunately, the fashion world’s diet advice bled into female sports advice.

Female athletes have to eat more calories than their sedentary friends, and maybe even more than their sedentary brothers or fathers.

Here’s a short list of “to-do”s. Again, implement these one at a time. Slowly.

  • Ignore what the number on the scale. Measure your performance (times, skill, etc) and how your clothes fit, and body fat percentage.
  • Eat when you are truly physically hungry (every 2-4 hours), not psychologically hungry or “craving” something.
  • If you want to lose fat, stop eating when you’re just satisfied — not full and certainly not stuffed!
  • Each time you eat, ask yourself, “Where’s my protein?” You want to have a palm-sized portion on that plate.
  • Eat more than usual after training, and have extra carbs. The post-workout period is a special time when all the nutrients do their jobs better than normal.
  • Experiment with low carb meals at times when you are sedentary. Make sure to bump the fat up — as carbs go down, fat goes up.

That’s a lot of homework! For more info, check out the rest of this website, and:

Precision Nutrition

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