28 February 2017
A USC research project is set to help elite combat sport athletes attain ‘fighting weight’ without resorting to extreme dieting and dehydration.
PhD student and Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt Reid Reale spent three years studying hundreds of top-level athletes in Olympic combat sports – boxing, judo, taekwondo and wrestling – to determine how to maximise performance and minimise the health impacts of rapid weight loss before a weigh-in.
His study found that eating light, calorie-dense foods like protein bars or confectionary provided athletes with enough calories for peak performance while enabling them to get into lower weight categories.
Mr Reale, now based in Melbourne, said body mass manipulation through crash dieting and dehydration was widespread across combat sports, and current health guidelines of ‘just say no’ were unrealistic.
“If fighters have a certain amount of weight to strip off, they’re still going to do it in some fashion,” he said. “We wanted to work out the safest way for them to do that and maximise their performance in the ring.
“Severe dehydration can be very unsafe, and obviously if you have a major energy deficit for a long period of time, particularly before a competition, you’re not going to perform well.
“Someone without any education in this area might try to achieve their entire weight loss target through restricting water and sweating. My research was about introducing other strategies.”
Mr Reale’s study, conducted in partnership with the Australian Institute of Sport, involved conducting full-body scans of almost 100 elite athletes, including national teams from Japan, Thailand, Brazil and the Philippines.
The USC study found that in the two to three days prior to a weigh-in, athletes aiming for rapid or acute weight loss should manage water intake and avoid eating fruit, vegetables and grains – instead opting for low weight, high-energy foods.
“Someone trying to chronically reduce body mass and body fat over time will be looking at low-calorie, bulky foods like salads,” Mr Reale said. “But this does not work for rapid weight loss, as these foods leave undigested fibre in their gastrointestinal tract.
“So instead of having one to two kilograms of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains or meat over a day, a fighter might have a few protein bars, a handful of lollies or some chocolate. They will still get the energy they need, but it’s not going to sit heavily in the stomach. And mere grams can make the difference.”
Mr Reale has been excelling as both a high-level Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter and as a researcher while doing his PhD.
Last year, he won the black belt heavyweight title at the 2016 UAEJJF World Championship Sydney Trials and gained first place in the Mini-Oral Presentations section of the 2016 Congress of the European College of Sport Science in Vienna.
USC Associate Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics Gary Slater congratulated Mr Reale on his achievements and said his research findings had already made an impact internationally.
“It’s been extremely well received, both within peer-reviewed journals and international scientific congresses,” he said. “Reid has received several invitations to work with major combat centres, including in Japan and Brazil.
“The amount of work he’s had published in a period where he wasn’t just a PhD student, but also a competitor, is very impressive.”
— Gen Kennedy