Any jiujiteira who’s had a difficult weight cut knows that it can wreak havoc on your physical, mental, and emotional state, which can have a huge impact at competition time. As a person who struggled with eating disorders, I shouldn’t have cut weight for competition to begin with. However, I felt pressure to do so.
For me, cutting weight led to a relapse into eating disorders. I was eating so little that my muscles started to deteriorate leading to multiple injuries. My body was falling apart and so was my mental health. For me, weight cutting was incredibly dangerous. Unlike me, lots of jiujiteira seem to cut weight without many, if any, issues with their physical and mental health. However, research on weight loss and chronic dieting indicates that there may be more health impacts to weight cutting than we think.
To understand the issues better, I spoke to two nutritionists whose clinical research has focused on the effects of long term dieting — Lindo Bacon, who wrote Health at Every Size, Body Respect and Radical Belonging, and Elyse Resch who co-authored Intuitive Eating.
Both Bacon and Resch compared weight cutting to the process of weight cycling, which used to be called “yo-yo dieting.” When people go on diets, they lose weight initially because they are burning more calories than they consume. However, our bodies have myriad mechanisms in place to keep our bodies functioning within their normal parameters. So, when calories are cut, our bodies activate these protective mechanisms to bring the body back to optimal functioning. According to Bacon and Resch, these protective mechanisms include slowing the metabolism, increasing hunger signals, and decreasing the production of leptin, the protein that’s released to let us know we’re full.
When we cut calories and increase exercise to lose weight, our bodies respond by slowing down calorie burn, making us hungrier and removing our fullness signals. Bacon says, biologically, this is why people on diets, or who are cutting weight “feel this incredible need to binge.”
“Oftentimes, there’s no amount of calories that’s going to satisfy the drive to eat because your body is just feeling so desperate and wanting to replenish those calories,” Bacon told me.
Resch agreed saying, “The survival part of the brain recognizes that the organism is in danger, and it sends out chemicals such as neuropeptide- that literally sends you to get as many calories and carbs as you can get in.”
Resch also emphasized that cutting calories is not the only kind of restriction that jump starts the body’s protective mechanisms.
“Psychologically, any time we tell ourselves we can’t have something there’s going to be a rebound from the deprivation. Ultimately, we can’t take the deprivation, and we either binge or severely overeat. And typically, it’s of the foods we’ve restricted.”
If you’re cutting weight by cutting out specific foods, especially favorite foods, your body and your mind will set you up to binge on those foods.
Both Bacon and Resch explained that this biological imperative to renourish often sets people up to gain all the weight back. According to Resch, nearly two thirds of chronic dieters gain more weight than they lose and end up heavier than they were before they started dieting. Bacon said their research has shown the same results. The majority of people who diet, and especially people who diet repeatedly, will end up at a higher weight than they started at.
Why does this happen? Bacon and Resch explained that repeatedly losing and gaining weight changes our bodies on a fundamental level. The changes to metabolism and protein production that happen to force us to renourish eventually become permanent changes. Our metabolisms permanently slow. The production of the proteins responsible for signaling fullness and the proteins responsible for instructing fat storage permanently changes. Basically, repeated weight loss efforts make our bodies experts at retaining weight instead of losing it. This is why people often find it harder to lose weight each time they start a new diet, or weight cut.
When asked about cutting weight, specifically for intense sports like BJJ, both Resch and Bacon cautioned that it is counterproductive to the goal of preparing for competitive sports. The body begins to break down when it’s deprived of calories.
“The more extreme the diet and the quicker the weight loss, what’s likely is the more damage that you’re actually doing to your body,” Bacon said. “So I’d be very concerned about heart health [and] bone health. When you diet you’re much more likely to have bone problems later in life such as osteoporosis and osteopenia.”
Resch pointed out that cutting calories actually has more impact on muscles than fat. In a study of athletes training for an upcoming event, those who dieted lost muscle and their metabolism slowed by 7%.
“It’s not like fat goes first,” Resch said. “Glycogen stores are the first to go and they’re used up very quickly. After that you have to start breaking down muscle tissue.”
Therefore, athletes who are aiming for peak performance in competition are actually working against their goal while cutting weight because they’re likely losing muscle.
Resch also warned that people who repeatedly lose weight are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, blood pressure increases, cholesterol increases, systemic inflammation, insulin resistance, and heart damage. They also put themselves at risk for more injuries in the form of muscle and ligament tears. Additionally, Resch emphasized that athletes who repeatedly cut weight are much more likely to develop eating disorders (as I did).
So, is weight cutting dangerous to your health? Bacon and Resch both agreed that weight cutting, or weight cycling, is detrimental to both physical and mental health. They also agreed that long term the cumulative damage created by weight cutting puts athletes at a significant risk.
Of course, there will be research that disagrees with their findings. That’s how science works. Different researchers approach the topic with different questions and different perspectives, which leads to different findings. However, Bacon and Resch’s research is extensive and provides compelling evidence that weight cutting is not only dangerous for athletes, but counterintuitive to their goals of peak performance.
Robin Zabiegalksi i is a writer and editor from Vermont. Her work has been published in several digital media publications and literary magazines. She’s been training BJJ for several years and she is a 2 stripe blue belt, currently training at Combat Fitness MMA in Winooski Vermont. When she’s not writing or training, she can be found playing with her toddler, hiking or snowboarding depending on the season, or bingeing her latest TV obsession.