The truth behind cycling and the science of weight loss
Losing weight is something a lot of us would like to do but we might just be approaching it all wrong, Ollie Bridgewood takes a look at the science behind weight loss
Junior Tech Writer
Cycling is well known for its health benefits. It can boost mental health and increase the performance of the cardiovascular system. It is also seen as a great method for losing weight but how true is that and what’s the right way to go about it? In this video, Ollie helps us understand it.
The relationship between cyclists and weight has forever been complicated. It is simple physics that if you lose some excess weight and retain your power, you will ride faster especially as the road points upwards. It is also no secret that the overwhelming majority of riders could drop a kilo or two without experiencing any issues, however, how this is done is where the problems really come into play.
Disordered eating is an affliction that is not reserved for professional riders looking to squeeze out every performance gain they can on the hunt for the lightest possible physique. Any performance-based rider who keeps an eye on the scales can find themselves at risk of developing an unhealthy relationship with food.
Exercise doesn’t help with weight loss?!
This statement sounds like complete rubbish on the face of it. We have long been told that exercise is one of the key components of weight loss and that without a fair amount of physical activity, it would be a hard ask to shed some pounds.
A recent study looked at something called the constrained energy model that was devised by a scientist called Ponser. The research looked at the behaviour around exercise and found that people who participated in physical activities, such as long bike rides, would conserve energy elsewhere in the day. This is something we can all relate to after getting in from a long tough ride. The sofa is all too inviting and more often than not, where we find ourselves for the rest of the day.
The saying goes, “You can’t out-exercise a bad diet” and that is exactly what Ollie focuses on here. The solution for losing weight is not to ride your bike for more hours per week, instead, it is to be aware of how you are fueling your body.
Avoid fad diets
The number one thing to avoid if you are looking to lose weight and keep it off is any fad diet. It is possible to find some level of success with these diets however it is typically short-lived, difficult to maintain and will ultimately end in a blowout. More often than not that results in weight gain rather than weight loss.
Wherever you turn online you’ll likely be bombarded with influencers promoting their diet surrounded by bold claims that make it sound like exactly what you have been looking for. If you dig a little deeper most of these diets are based on zero scientific research.
Fad diets tend to draw you in by offering fast results or making it sound incredibly easy by allowing you to eat your favourite foods. The harsh reality is that there are no shortcuts to sustainable and manageable weight loss. To go about things properly the process should be slow with small changes made over a larger period.
Eat more of the green stuff
Consuming fruits and vegetables is a great way of eating plenty of food to feel full, without cramming the calories in. When compared to processed foods, fruits and vegetables contain far fewer calories per gram consumed as well as providing vital micronutrients for good gut health along with a generous helping of fibre.
Eating more natural produce such as fruits, veg, nuts, seeds and spices can help your micro biome
It comes as quite a shock to find out that around 75% of the world's food comes from just 12 plants and five animals. This lack of diversity in our diets is far from beneficial for our health as it can leave massive gaps in the vitamins, minerals and nutrients that we need. As a rough guideline aim to consume 30 different plants a week. This can come from fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and spices.
Avoid ultra-processed foods
At the other end of the spectrum, we have ultra-processed foods. These are often nutritionally lacking but calorically dense. These foods are also far more easily absorbed into the body meaning that they can cause far greater spikes in blood sugar levels, contribute to weight gain and reduce the diversity of your microbiome. As the name suggests these foods have a combination of hard-to-pronounce chemicals in the absence of fibre, further reducing the benefit of consuming these foods.
Ultra processed foods have been linked to negative health issues and can cause spikes in blood sugar levels
It might not come as a great surprise to find out that the more research that is carried out on the chemicals used in ultra-processed foods the more it appears that these could harm health.
But how exactly can you spot an ultra-processed food? There are plenty of foods out there that have some level of processing so how can we identify the ones that are ultra processed? The easiest way is to use a method devised by Brazilian scientist Carlos Montero which is to ask yourself the following questions. Does it come in plastic packaging? Does it contain one or more ingredients that you wouldn’t typically expect to find in the kitchen?
With this in mind, it becomes a rather shocking statistic that for Brits and Americans more than half of our calories come in the form of ultra-processed foods. When you realise that things such as breakfast cereals, premade sandwiches, bread and yoghurts all fall under the umbrella of ultra-processed it becomes clear just how much of an issue it really is.
Some ultra-processed foods can be good for cyclists
On long endurance rides having a source of fuel that is calorie-dense and quickly absorbed by the body can be a benefit. Fuelling purely on natural foods such as fruits and nuts is great however these can take a long time to get absorbed into the body and can offer a slow and steady release of energy.
Cycling specific nutritional products can be great for getting energy in to your system quickly
Sometimes this is not what is needed and being able to get valuable glycogen to your muscles as fast as possible is required. This is where specific ultra-processed nutritional products come in and serve a valid purpose.
- Read more: How many calories do you burn when cycling?
Stop counting calories
This is another counterintuitive step. We are often told the best way to lose weight is to count your calories so you can form a slight calorie deficit to allow body fat to be used to fill in the gap. We have to eat a bit of humble pie here and admit that some of our advice in the past has been to count calories; however, fresh research has shown that this is simply not an effective way to go about sustainable weight loss.
Although this is a method we are all familiar with, it might surprise you to find out that there have been zero long-term studies that have shown that calorie restriction has led to weight loss beyond the initial few weeks. From a simple thermodynamics approach, the logic behind calorie restriction checks out, the issue is the human body is not a machine. When the amount of calories coming in is reduced the body simply adapts to this by altering your metabolic rate. This means that if you restrict calories, your body will adjust the rate at which it burns the food to match.
The issue with calorie counting is that it massively simplifies what is actually a very complex process. Calorie counting is incredibly hard to do with any level of accuracy as foods can differ in their caloric content with the regulations only stipulating that labels have to be correct +/- 20%.
Calorie information is largely useless
Firstly the unit of a calorie is as far removed from how we use them in our bodies as it is possible to be. One calorie is a measure of the amount of energy it takes to warm 1cm^3 of water by one degree Celsius. Then there is how food caloric values are calculated which has remained largely unchanged since the 1800’s which involves incinerating the food to see how much energy is released.
Calorie counting is largely a futile exercise with this many carrots equivalent in calories to the muffin
The issue with this is humans are not incinerators and although we refer to the energy of food being burnt off we don’t actually have a furnace inside us. This means that the calorie data we see is heavily caveated all the way from the unit through to what the caloric value of food actually means for us.
Don’t become too strict
One of the easiest ways for weight loss to become unsustainable is to make it too rigid and difficult to follow. Trying to stick to whole foods religiously or exclude food groups can make it incredibly difficult to follow and can have you fighting an eternal battle for cravings and tastes that you enjoy.
Instead, everything should be in moderation and being aware of what you eat and having some broad guidelines to follow on what you are looking to consume is the best way to take a holistic and sustainable approach.
It is important to not become too strict around eating and nutrition and instead view it as part of a bigger picture
Consistency is the biggest component of weight loss so having a treat once in a while will not throw everything out of the window. Equally, stress has been associated with weight gain so adding stress in the form of a restrictive diet could have counterproductive results.
Try and avoid blood sugar spikes
Blood sugar spikes are when easily absorbed foods are consumed rapidly causing the level of sugar in the blood to increase very quickly. They are attributed to numerous negative health outcomes when spikes are commonly repeated day after day.
Something that a lot of us can all benefit from is spending a little bit longer chewing our food. Not only does it allow us to enjoy the taste and texture of the food more but it also slows down the rate at which the components of the food are absorbed, including sugars.
As cyclists, we typically consume more carbohydrates than the general population which can lead to blood sugar spikes. The best time to consume a lot of these carbohydrates is whilst we are exercising as our body is in a different metabolic state that is more adept at processing and using carbohydrates than when sedentary.
It's not all about food
Sleep is one of the other vital components attributed to weight loss, with poor sleep linked to health issues such as type two diabetes and heart disease. It goes one step further than this with studies showing that people who consistently get insufficient sleep are at greater risk of obesity and weight gain.
Getting a good nights sleep is just as important as what you put in your body when it comes to weight loss
The hormones present in your body after a poor night's sleep can leave you feeling hungrier and have you reaching for sweet foods more so than if you had a restorative sleep. So putting in the effort to establish an evening and morning routine that facilitates adequate sleep can seriously help your weight loss ambitions.
Do you have any experience with weight loss, we would love to hear your thoughts and stories in the comments section below. For even more fitness features like this one head over to the fitness section of the website.
Junior Tech Writer
Alex writes for the GCN editorial tech with a passion for all things bike tech.