This is post 1 of 10 that will detail each of the 10 intuitive eating principles as they relate to athletes. Principle 1 is How to Reject the Diet Mentality.
If you haven’t heard, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch (the authors of intuitive eating) are just about to release the 4th edition of Intuitive Eating. Apparently, the book has (again) been refined to eliminate any diet talk, and apparently some of the principles have been modified slightly.
I thought it would be helpful to do a little review and summary of each principle, and also talk about how they can relate to athletes.
I work with many athletes (including those in our Nail Your Nutrition Fueling Course) who really want to understand intuitive eating because it’s an exciting topic. Who doesn’t want to be able to choose foods intuitively?
While how to eat intuitively may be a goal, it’s important to understand the nuances of what that means and understand how diet culture affect that.
Many people consider sports nutrition and intuitive eating as two completely different branches but I don’t see it that way. That’s why I have a section for athletes in my Hunger Ebook, too. Because I really want to drive the point home that these can coexist!
What Is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive Eating is a set of principles (that can really be approached in any order), not rules that focus on listening to your body and favoring internal body cues, not external rules. It fosters body trust and rejects traditional dieting.
Principle 1: Reject the Diet Mentality
The first principle of the intuitive eating principles sets the stage nicely for intuitive eating, which is to reject the diet mentality.
Many people (maybe even you) are so used to following “rules” that the idea of eating freely without black and white rules can be scary.
I’m not here to say it’s an easy switch because learning to trust your body definitely takes time. But it is possible. Part of letting go of the diet mentality is letting go of control.
Think back to diets you’ve been on. How have they made you feel? How did they result? Did one lead to the next because maintaining the weight loss was near impossible?
It wasn’t you who failed. The diet failed you. Each subsequent diet (and I’m using the word diet to entail all of “restrictive eating”) makes it harder for your body to adjust to.
Metabolisms go down, food rules appear, your body becomes starved of nutrients, your mood is impacted, your relationships may even be impacted, and MORE.
Be Aware of How the Diet Mentality Disguises Itself
Dieting is sneaky and it shows up in subtle forms. It calls itself “wellness,” a “lifestyle change,” or makes you think you may be doing something for your health.
Rejecting the diet mentality doesn’t mean you’re not making choices based on health. It means you’re using autonomy and making choices based on YOUR body and your needs, not a one-size-fits-all that diet culture expects you to mold to.
Discipline and willpower are not things when it comes to food, so throw those words out of your vocabulary. Willpower assumes you are following someone else’s rules and not living up to them.
Applying the Diet Mentality to Athletes
There are many ways that runners and athletes alike may fall prey to the diet mentality. Usually, it’s in “hidden” ways we’re not even aware of!
Here are some examples:
- I can only eat carbohydrates before or after exercise
- Too many carbohydrates are “bad” for me
- I have to eat “clean” the week of a race
- If I keep running ___ miles a week, I’ll get to ___ weight
- I can only eat xyz if I do xyz for exercise
- I’m afraid of overeating for my sport
- Second guessing your hunger (“I shouldn’t eat xyz on a rest day”)
- I just ate so I can’t be hungry again
- Becoming a vegetarian or removing foods from your diet that you actually like and enjoy (with no adverse symptoms)
Let’s summarize most of these. I go through many of these in more depth in my ebook.
I Can Only Eat Carbs Before or After Exercise
Only eating carbohydrates at certain times (or any food groups) is a hidden form of dieting and utilizing “food rules.” All foods can be eaten at all times and all meals.
For athletes, yes, of course you may want to decrease high-fiber or high-fat foods before exercise. Or, there may be certain “simple” foods you should stick to in order to reduce GI distress. That’s fine – that’s a personal preference and that is you being intuitive for your athletic needs.
However, that doesn’t mean that all foods are “bad” before exercise – it just means that you have certain foods that work for you.
Here’s a piece I wrote with evidence about whether or not to use the low carb diet for athletes.
I Have to Eat “Clean” The Week of a Race
This can actually bring more harm than benefit. You need to fuel adequately the week before a race. You may actually want to limit fiber, fruits and vegetables, the so-called “clean foods” (more on how certain foods impact performance).
But you need to start fueling your glycogen stores (muscle) for performance and competition.
Again, you may have certain food preferences that work to settle your stomach before exercise, but the week before a race is not a time to diet or impose too many limitations.
If I Keep Running “–” Miles a Week, I’ll Get Down to “–” Weight
Statements and thoughts like this tell me that you aren’t running or exercising for the right reasons. Weight is not a behavior.
Are you running out of enjoyment or out of compulsion? Here’s how you can discover more signs and symptoms of compulsive exercise and exercise addiction.
Running with goals of weight loss will lead to burn out, injuries and will tarnish your relationship with the sport. Also, as your running increases, your nutrition needs also increase, meaning you need to eat MORE food and more calories to sustain your higher mileage.
Attempting purposeful weight loss while increasing your running (or, for example, training for a marathon) is not safe nor recommended.
I Shouldn’t Eat So Much on a Rest Day
Contrary to popular belief, rest days may actually require more calories! This is when your body is actually doing the majority of repair and priming for future activity.
You may also find that your appetite is more ravenous on rest days, when it actually has a chance to “catch up” and communicate hunger signals.
Oftentimes, after hard workouts or long runs, hunger is subdued (although that does not mean we shouldn’t eat!).
Usually, when our bodies are more still (like on rest days), we hear and feel these hunger signals more. That can be scary for some of us, causing us to doubt our hunger. But signals of hunger have a job – it means your body needs energy so it can engage in all of the necessary repair and rebuilding that is necessary.
Your bones, muscles and organs need energy.
Don’t skimp on those rest days.
How Diet Culture Damages Us
First and foremost, diet culture tarnishes our relationship with food. It creates a fear of food (a neutral thing) and food rules.
It causes side effects, like fatigue, dry skin, hair loss and menstrual irregularities.
And in athletes, the risk is even greater for injuries, bone fractures and weakness, disrupted cardiac rhythm, menstrual irregularities and more.
In short, the primary principle of intuitive eating and how to get started is to first recognize the harm that diet culture is causing you. Get upset! Recognize how it has affected your performances, your relationships with your coach and other athletes.
Has it caused additional stress fractures or other injuries? Have you mistakenly been told that you have to be smaller to be more successful? Is there so much pressure on your sport that all of the enjoyment has been taken away?
These are important questions to consider.
Next week, we’ll dig down into the second principle of intuitive eating: How to Honor Your Hunger Cues.
- National Eating Disorders Collaboration
- Beals KA, Hill AK. The prevalence of disordered eating, menstrual dysfunction, and low bone mineral density among US collegiate athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2006;16(1):1–23.DOI: 10.1007/s00256-018-3029-y
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