Intuitive Eating for Athletes

Student Athlete? Learn about the nuances of applying intuitive eating for athletes to benefit health and performance!
intuitive eating for athletes

At Student Athlete Nutrition, our dietitians utilize an intuitive eating philosophy as we believe true health can only be achieved if you also have a healthy relationship with food. Intuitive eating has gained a lot of popularity on social media lately, but there is still a lot of confusion and misinformation surrounding how it can be applied to the athletic community. In this post we’ll break down the basics of intuitive eating and how to use intuitive eating for athletes. 

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating is a self-care framework outlined in the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach that encompasses 10 standard evidence-based principles. This book was created by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995. So while intuitive eating has gained more popularity recently, it is not new. This framework provides tools to help you get away from rigid health behaviors like obsessive weighing, calorie counting, and restrictive diets and work towards creating a healthier relationship with food. Intuitive eating honors physical, emotional and overall wellbeing while rejecting the idea that intentional weight loss is needed for health. The principles are commonly used to help those recovering from disordered eating and chronic dieting, but can also be beneficial in athletic populations.

According to the intuitive eating website, the principles work in two key ways:

  1. By helping you cultivate attunement to the physical sensations that arise from within your body to get both your biological and psychological needs met, and
  2. Removing the obstacles and disruptors to attunement, which usually come from the mind in the form of rules, beliefs, and thoughts.

Now, you may think this can’t go hand in hand with sports nutrition because most of the time the nutrition recommendations for athletes can seem rigid and strict rather than intuitive. 

However, research shows that athletes are actually at a much higher risk for disordered eating – and potentially eating disorders – than the general population due to the fact that they are hyper-aware of their food intake and fall into the pressure to look a certain way with the idea that will help them and enhance performance.

Given that we know this population is more prone to disordered eating, it actually makes sense that there would be benefits to implementing intuitive eating for athletes. This can help them cultivate a healthier relationship with food and approach dietary adjustments in a new way that improves not only physical and mental health, but also athletic performance. Below, we outlined the 10 principles of intuitive eating with nuances that may apply to athletes.

The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating

1. Reject the Diet Mentality.

This means letting go of the desire to hop onto the latest diet trend and also releasing the idea that you need to be in the thinnest body possible to be your healthiest self. A big part of this step is reflecting on the harm dieting may cause. For athletes, dieting can lead to negative physical and mental side effects such as increased risk for underfueling/RED-S, disordered eating, binge eating, decreased immune function, dehydration and more.

how dieting harms student athletes

2. Honor Your Hunger.

This entails listening to your internal cues (what your body is asking for) rather than external cues (a meal plan, calorie app, etc.) telling you when to eat. During this process you explore what hunger feels like to you and practice honoring it when it comes up (even if you just ate). Honoring hunger also includes practical hunger, which means eating to fuel your body in absence of physical hunger. This is an important nuance when applying intuitive eating for athletes who need to fuel around training windows, especially with a busy schedule and sometimes post-exercise appetite suppression.

3. Make Peace with Food.

This means no more cutting out foods or labeling them as “bad” or “unhealthy”. Of course, this is the principle that gives people room to critique intuitive eating because they assume that if they don’t restrict or limit themselves then they’ll just eat “bad food”’ 24/7 and perform poorly. However, this is not what happens. When you allow yourself unconditional permission to enjoy all foods, food loses its luster and isn’t so forbidden anymore. This is called habituation – the more you expose yourself to different foods, the less likely you are to “go all out” when it’s finally time to eat it. Making peace with food can help to lessen binge eating, increase enjoyment and satisfaction at mealtimes, and improve mental health for athletes. However, it is important to navigate timing of certain indulgences to ensure GI distress isn’t an issue during training.

4. Challenge the Food Police.

This is all about identifying and shutting down negative thoughts about food (either from yourself or others) in order to stop falling victim to diet culture and instead truly give your body what it needs. This can look like not taking advice from unqualified fitspo influencers on instagram or challenging the idea that you are “bad” for eating something high in calories.

5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor.

Satisfaction is important when eating, and being full does not always mean you’re satisfied. For example, athletes immersed in diet culture may fill up on salads, but then find themselves tearing through the cabinets at night. That’s because they aren’t satisfied. Satisfaction is all about making sure your meals have multiple components and you are eating food you enjoy. Thankfully for athletes, the concept of creating satisfying meals actually helps with recovery and refueling too. The more variety and balance of macronutrients you have, the better!

6. Respect your Fullness.

This is about pausing during and after the meal to check in with your body and identify what level of fullness feels best for you. Identifying fullness cues can help athletes get more insight into their eating patterns. For example, if an athlete often gets to the point of overeating by having only 1-2 excessively large meals, it means they likely aren’t eating enough earlier in the day. Navigating fullness cues can help athletes create an ideal eating structure throughout the day.

7. Cope with Your Emotions With Kindness.

This is about identifying emotional eating, giving yourself grace if it happens, and having multiple coping tools to deal with your emotions. For student athletes, stress and anxiety may be high due to the pressure to look a certain way, busy training schedules, lack of sleep, and trying to balance school, work and sport. In this step you work towards creating multiple coping tools to help you feel your best.

8. Respect Your Body.

Respecting your body is about accepting your genetic blueprint. This does not mean that you have to love everything about yourself, but rather that you accept the genetics you were given and avoid things like crash dieting and excessive restriction in order to fit into a body type that you aren’t meant to be. When implementing intuitive eating for athletes, it’s important to work towards body acceptance and to recognize and celebrate body diversity in sport.

9. Exercise – Feel the Difference.

This challenges the idea that exercise and movement should only be a means to burn calories. It’s about exploring what internal motivators you have for exercise like improvements in energy, mood, stress relief, etc. For athletes, exercise is a huge part of life, but it’s important to make sure that training goals aren’t damaging to mental health. This principle is also commonly referred to as intuitive movement, which you can learn more about in the graphic below!

intuitive movement for athletes

10. Honor Your Health With Gentle Nutrition.

This is where nutrition education is utilized to ensure nutrient needs are met. For athletes, this principle is used all throughout the intuitive eating journey and may look like including pre and post-workout nutrition, meeting hydration needs, adding in certain nutrients for recovery, and more. Combining gentle nutrition with other principles of intuitive eating helps athletes to fuel their body while also maintaining a healthy relationship with food.

It’s important to mention that these principles are not linear and they are not rules. Some athletes may need more attention in one area than another. For example, someone may need help tuning into their body if they’ve been calorie counting for years or they may need help navigating emotional eating during busy exam times. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to approach it, which is what makes intuitive eating so different from dieting

intuitive eating for student athletes

Benefits of Intuitive Eating for Athletes

As mentioned above, intuitive eating is an evidence based practice and has been shown to have the following health benefits:

  • Lower rates of disordered eating
  • Improved self esteem and body image
  • Better coping skills
  • More satisfaction with life
  • Improved triglycerides and HDL levels 
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Increased physical activity (after sport)

Now you may be thinking, is intuitive eating right for me? When counseling athletes, we believe everyone can benefit from an intuitive eating approach as it teaches you to become the master of your body. However, some individuals may need more customized support on their journey. To see if you may benefit from an intuitive eating approach to nutrition ask yourself these questions:

Do you often feel anxious or stressed around food?

Do you intentionally skip meals? Do you ignore hunger?

Do you feel guilt, shame, or stress around eating?

Do you avoid certain foods high in calories or fat?

Do you have a long list of foods you fear?

Do you add in extra exercise solely to burn calories?

Do you struggle taking a rest day?

Are you missing your period? 

Are you frequently injured or sick?

If you answered yes to those questions, you may benefit from an intuitive eating approach to nutrition. A great resource to get started is the 4th Edition of the Intuitive Eating Book. However, there are many nuances surrounding intuitive eating for athletes that can feel difficult to navigate alone which is why working with a sports RD is recommended. If you are interested in learning how to adequately fuel your body for sport while also improving your relationship with food, fill out an application for 1-1 coaching here.

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