By Kevin Kolodziejski
What do I remember about the 1992 Summer Olympic Games? The Dream Team. It was, without a doubt, the greatest assemblage of basketball talent ever. And who can forget how they utterly annihilated their competition?
Four minutes into the opening game against Angola, they scored 31 consecutive points and then coasted to a 68-point victory. They won six other games en route to the gold-medal game by an average of 44 points, and then won that against Croatia by 32.
Why Bronze Medalists Are Happier
But I bet that Victoria Husted Medvec, Scott F. Madey, and Thomas Gilovich remember something else about the Olympics. These three psychologists recruited 20 “uninterested and uninformed” Cornell University undergrads and had them watch NBC’s selected coverage of the “immediate reactions” of the second-place and third-place finishers as well as the corresponding medal ceremonies. This led to their landmark study published in 1995 by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found bronze-medal winners to be happier than silver-medal winners. That occurred because “the most compelling counterfactual alternative for the silver medalist is winning the gold, whereas for the bronze medalist it is finishing without a medal.”
This makes sense to me when I think about the Dream Team. Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, and the nine other teammates would’ve left Barcelona feeling far worse than any silver medalist from Croatia if the margin of their gold-medal victory would’ve been anything less than two dozen. And by extension, I knew back then — and well before that, really — what I’m about to write today. Nothing saps our desire to exercise, including riding our beloved bikes, or derails a diet like unrealistic expectations.
And an anecdote that proves just that has stayed with me just as vividly as the Dream Team’s success.
The Roommate With a Handle, Spout, and Unrealistic Expectations
About the time of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, I was running 50 to 70 miles per week, racing a 10k twice a month, and doing a half or full marathon once or twice a year. My roommate, who once joked he was built like that nursery rhyme tea pot — you know, short and stout — would run a mile or two on his own most days of the week simply to burn some calories.
Then he started running a bit farther and made a real attempt at going faster. I asked him what was up. He said he was building himself up so that he could accompany and keep pace with me on my shorter runs.
“That’s not happening,” I said. I didn’t say it harshly, I said it matter-of-factly, but regretted saying it immediately — even though what the Little Tea Pot had just spouted out showed a poor handle on his situation. After two or three weeks of the increased mileage, he developed a nasty case of shin splints.
His shins recovered with time. His desire to run didn’t. Soon after that, I got a full-time teaching job and moved away. We didn’t stay in touch, but I saw him by chance a few years after that.
That is to say, he saw me. I had walked straight past him. I wasn’t being rude. I hadn’t recognized him. There was no longer anything little about this Tea Pot.
After some awkward small talk, he admitted to having just started one of those fad diets that guarantees a loss of 14 pounds in 14 days. He wanted to be 30 pounds lighter for his class reunion in three months, he explained. I wanted to explain that this expectation was as unrealistic as wanting to run five miles in 35 minutes way back when, but didn’t. I offered support, in part because dropping that amount of weight in that amount of time actually is possible.
The unrealistic expectation hidden behind the possibility, however, is that the weight will stay off for the long term when you lose it that quickly. And after seeing a photo of him recently, it’s obvious that all the weight returned — and then some.
Realistic Study, Realistic Weight Loss
Now I remembered this friend and felt the need to write this article after reading a study published in the May 2022 issue of Obesity. It found higher protein intake during dieting improved overall diet quality and reduced the loss of muscle mass.
What’s noteworthy is the so-called higher amount didn’t strike me as being high at all, but a rather negligible addition of 21 grams of protein a day. That’s 2 fewer grams than what’s found in 3 ounces of chicken. One fewer gram than 3 ounces of canned tuna. About the same as 1 serving of a high-quality whey-based protein powder. Asking someone to make such a dietary change strikes me as — I bet you guessed it — the opposite of unrealistic.
Some Study Details
The study used data on 207 overweight or obese adults from prior trials at Rutgers University. In all instances, the participants had been evaluated beforehand, attended counseling sessions during the first two months, and occasionally conferred with a registered dietitian nutritionist after that. All were encouraged to lose weight by eating 500 fewer calories per day and healthier foods in general. To insure the latter, participants were told to consult the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics/American Diabetes Association’s Food Lists for Weight Management.
In six months, most of the 207 participants lost close to the group average, 5 percent of their total body weight. Such a loss is significant because it’s generally held that a 5 to 10 percent decrease in bodyweight reduces the risk of the chronic diseases that have been linked to carrying excess weight, most notably, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, and certain cancers. Moreover, any loss of weight in a cyclist whose weight is less than optimal is going to see an increase in power-to-weight ratio and a decrease in the amount of time it takes to ascend hills.
When the researchers separated the results of those who ate a bit more protein while dieting, an average of 79 grams per day, from those who lost weight while eating less, an average of 58 grams per day, two other important patterns emerged. The overall quality of the diets of those who ingested a higher amount of protein was better. They also ate more vegetables and fewer foods that contained refined grains and added sugars. The extra protein ingestion also reduced the loss of lean muscle mass from the overall weight loss, meaning the higher-protein group lost more body fat.
And the Takeaway to all This?
Reducing daily caloric intake by about 15 percent. Increasing daily protein intake by about 25 percent.
These changes are not unrealistic, only effective if you’re looking for weight loss — and want the loss to remain for the long term.
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.