Intuitive Eating for Athletes
While intuitive eating is a brilliant concept, it may not be one that works for athletes.
Before we get into that, let’s review what intuitive eating is. Like I just said, it is brilliant. It is a concept that basically says STOP DIETING ALREADY! Seriously, to eat intuitively is to give up the dieting, the counting, the guilt, the accountability, the pressure, the restrictions, and all of behaviors and feelings associated with being over consumed with consuming (or not consuming) food. Intuitive eating is the practice of listening to your body and learning to understand its needs, wants, and how to translate those dietary desires into a healthy relationship with feeding your body. If you’re an intuitive eater, you’re not pledging to a labeled diet (keto, paleo, vegan, whatever), instead you are committing to satisfying and nourishing through mindfulness, balance, appreciation and understanding your body and it’s needs.
I understand that sounds a bit vague. To put it in more practical terms, here are some basic principles of intuitive eating:
· Stop Dieting. No more calorie counting, feeling deprived, having to ‘earn’ calories, or classifying foods as good vs bad. Basically, stop treating food as the enemy. There are no villainous foods and no magic secretes, it’s a lifestyle.
· Balance. This process is all about being open to all foods. That doesn’t mean gorging on whatever is around, but rather enjoying foods that make you happy and nourish your body. If you want a donut one morning and avocado toast with poached eggs the next, or a steak and fries for dinner one night and tofu over buckwheat the next, then so be it.
· Listen to your Body. If you crave a burger and fries, have it! But if that burger and fries leaves you feeling gross, next time you crave It, have a smaller portion or the burger with an apple or side salad. In short, use indulging in your cravings to understand what makes your body feel good and what doesn’t.
· Be Mindful. Learn to slow down and truly enjoy the food choices you make. Be present in your eating moments so that you can take in the taste, satisfaction and sensations of satiety. Use these cues to guide your future food choices.
· Acknowledge your hunger. Simply eat when you feel hungry and stop when you are full. To do this properly, you need to start getting to know your hunger scale ratings (I am ___ on a scale of 1-10, for example).
Intuitive eating is a lifestyle approach and it’s actually very sad that its only now having its moment. So yes, I’m a big fan of intuitive eating and coaching to that style. However… for serious athletes, this practice can be troublesome.
How intuitive eating doesn’t work for athletes:
Elite athletes of all sports have unique nutritional demands concerning total energy intake along with the breakdown and timing of that intake. Fine tuning nutrition specifics like daily carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight, sodium during training, and tolerance of different foods can make or break performances. Being that dialed in works against intuitive eating since most athletes cannot match specifics simply by eating to feel. Intuitive eating also tells us to eat what we want, but this doesn’t always work for performance. If you stop at a coffee shot on your ride and order a cinnamon roll because that’s what you really want, it won’t help your performance. You should order what you need for that training session which might be a banana and a latte. Also, many athletes do not WANT to eat 4 gels or drink bottle after bottle of sport drink. Eating what you intuitively WANT to eat at that moment ( a nice salad? or a burger!) is not likely to help you perform. Another key component of intuitive eating to meet hunger and appetite, yet eating to satisfy appetite is advised against for athletes, especially endurance ones. This is because prolonged, intense training is known to suppress appetite and therefore eating to feel would be insufficient. Most well trained athletes need to eat beyond hunger. In short, eating intuitively can have you missing nutrition targets needed for optimal performance. Athletes needing a large intake often suffer from food fatigue and need to almost force feed to get enough fuel, which is completely not an intuitive practice!
How it can be applied:
Athletes are more at risk for disordered eating due to carefully planning intake, being overwhelmed with ‘what to eat’ thoughts, and trying to meet certain body image standards of their sport. Non-diet intuitive practices can help athletes begin to understand how to nourish their bodies and include balance of sport fueling and satisfaction eating. For example, you may need to focus in on carbohydrate needs before during and after training, but still allow for that serving of ice cream or order pizza when your body is craving it. Athletes who feel hunger, or have constant cravings for certain foods and simply ignore those feelings and tell their bodies ‘no’ are at risk for under-fueling, disordered eating, associated health problems and long term performance issues. Elite athletes also suffer from a large amount of mental stress and learning to eat foods that make you feel happy (even if they don’t necessarily promote performance) can be very beneficial to their well-being. Applying some components of intuitive eating can help athletes maintain balance in food intake and promote a healthy relationship with food.
So what should athletes do?
In the end, athletes can greatly benefit by being more in-tune with their bodies and developing a more positive relationship with food and learning to choose foods that promote happiness, nourish, and provide performance enhancement. It is completely fine for athletes (regardless of performance goals) to give in to food choices simply because you want them, not because they will promote the best performance. Of course, if performance is your goal, you’ll need to keep a tighter focus on what and when you eat than a non-athlete. As an elite athlete and sports dietitian, I do not believe that athletes can truly give in to intuitive eating.