CHARLOTTE DEBEUGNY on weight cutting
I am delighted to be back writing another article for the fabulous Women Who Fight! This article tackles the practice of Weight Cutting exploring the pros and cons of this practise as well as some thoughts and tips about rapid weight loss.
I am going to caveat this up to my eye balls, as while I am a Registered Nutritionist with an interest in Sports Nutrition, I am not specialised in Sports Nutrition, and weight cutting is a new subject for me!
I’ve based this article on the latest research as well as including my opinion from a nutrition perspective, so I would also love to hear your thoughts and comments, particularly if weight cutting is something you do on a regular basis!
What is weight cutting?
Weight cutting is the practice of fast weight loss prior to a competition. In combat sports, this can give you a competitive advantage, as this then allows you to qualify for a lower weight category while potentially being bigger and stronger than your opponent.
So, weight cutting involves losing weight aggressively and quickly prior to your official weigh in and then regaining weight between the weigh-in and the fight to gain a maximum size/strength advantage over your opponent.
What techniques are used for weight cutting?
One technique is dehydration. Fighters can lose between 5-10% of their body weight (and sometimes more) by doing the following.
Water loading – drinking a set quantity of water for a few days and then dramatically reducing your water intake for a day or so before the weigh-in by:
Not drinking water
*Not eating carbs
Reducing sodium intake
Doing activities which encourage a lot of sweating (diuretics, saunas and laxatives)
It is the combination of water intake followed by water restriction which encourages the ‘flushing out’ of water from the body as urine is still produced even when fluid intake drops for a short period of time.
*The reason for reducing the carbohydrate intake is because carbohydrate is stored in the muscles as glycogen and glycogen storage in a ratio of roughly 1 g glycogen to 3-4 g of water. A low carb diet, a diet which is low in sugar and starchy cereals, ‘forces’ the body to ‘burn’ its glycogen stores and flushes away the water bound to the glycogen, resulting in rapid weight loss.
The difference between women’s and men’s bodies
A bit of basic biology! Men tend to be bigger with more muscle and less fat than women. Their bodies, therefore, have a higher water content (remember that energy stored in muscles containing water). Men tend to have a water content, around 60% while women tend to have a water content of around 50%.
This means that it is easier for men to lose weight through dehydration techniques than women. Our wonderful duo of hormones, oestrogen and progesterone fluctuate throughout our monthly cycles. In the luteal part of our cycle (after ovulation) these changes in hormone levels can cause water retention. This makes weight cutting for women unpredictable and frustrating.
What are the health risks?
Where do I start? There have been several deaths attributed to extreme weight cutting (more than 10-15% of the original body weight.
A Thai boxer, Jessica Lindsay, died in 2017 while following weight cutting procedure to get her weight below the 64 kg limit needed for her weigh in.
The dramatic reduction in your water intake combined with the greater loss of water interferes with your electrolyte levels – sodium, potassium, chloride and bicarbonate which are essential for the normal function of our cells and organs and which are needed to keep your heart and muscles functioning normally.
There’s also a risk to your kidney and brain function in the longer term. The fluid volume around your brain plays a role in protecting the brain from strikes to head. If you are dehydrated, with lower volumes of fluid around the brain, there is a greater risk of sustaining a brain trauma.
What is the impact on performance and recovery?
So, can the health risks of weight cutting be justified from a performance perspective? Does putting your body through the extreme discomfort of weight cutting at least give you an edge on the day of the fight? The research is conflicting. Success in fighting is linked to being able to fight in your (normal) weight class and a fighter will need to adapt to different fighting styles and different opponents if they change classes.
So, managing to stay if your weight class, even if it involves weight cutting might help to give you a competitive advantage.
But, and this is a big but, the general conclusion of sports nutrition studies which have looked at this, highlights that rapid weight loss affects aerobic and anaerobic capacity, impacting stamina and performance, though strength does not seem to be impacted. This decrease in performance is seen even after a period of hydration. It’s likely therefore that at some point there is a trade-off, linked to how aggressively you lose weight and how often you do it. You might start with an advantage of being in a lower weight class, but extreme weight loss will impact on your fight performance.
Are there healthier ways of losing weight rapidly before a fight?
Why should we have to?! I don’t have experience of fighting or training competitively, but I am shocked that rapid weight loss is tolerated and even encouraged by the relevant sporting bodies. Food should nourish us while sport is important for keeping us strong, fit and healthy. Weight cutting seems to achieve completely the opposite effect.
Possibly we need to start fighting for the system to change, having more varied categories so weight cutting is no longer necessary.
But, on this area I will defer to you my fellow ‘femme vikings’ as you have a much better knowledge of the system then I do!
In terms of general tips, a low carb diet and higher fat diet can be effective for rapid weight loss without a negative impact on performance and this is something I can discuss in a future blog. I would underline the importance of working with your training team and aiming to keep your weight within the correct range on a permanent basis, so you do not have to put your body through the stress of an extreme diet just before competitions.