Written by David Gaviria, MPH
For me, the comparisons started in high school. I noticed how I looked compared to other people, especially my teammates. I started to wonder, “If I looked like the MVP or even professional athletes, would I perform like them?” Many student athletes find themselves in a similar situation, and maybe you have yourself. It makes sense – athletes are praised for what their bodies can do. However, when the body becomes the center of attention, it can harm an athlete’s performance.
We learned in my last post that weight isn’t the only factor that influences athletic performance, and paying too much attention to weight can actually harm performance. It turns out there are a lot of other factors that can influence your athletic abilities, such as genetics, sleep, stress, recovery, training intensity, and nutrition. Read on to learn about the benefits of a weight inclusive approach for performance plus how to improve your nutrition through a weight inclusive lens.
The Weight Centric vs. Weight Inclusive Approach
Weight inclusive nutrition is different from the type of nutrition most people are familiar with, which is often called weight centric nutrition. In weight centric nutrition, weight is considered a central component of health, and in an athlete’s case, performance. A weight centric approach suggests that you can’t reach your full potential as an athlete if your weight isn’t to a certain standard. This type of nutrition is still commonly practiced in the medical field and athletics, despite research showing similar or even better health and performance outcomes in individuals who practice weight inclusive nutrition.
In contrast to weight centric nutrition, weight inclusive nutrition in athletics places the focus on how you feel and perform rather than how much you weigh or what you look like. Sure, weight is still a factor, but the weight inclusive approach says that you become the best athlete you can be when your training, recovery, and nutrition are optimized, regardless of your weight.
Letting Go of Diet Culture
I know this might sound counterintuitive and maybe even scary. We grew up with weight being a huge part of our lives – between pop culture, social media, and athletics, it’s everywhere, but that’s diet culture at work. Diet culture is that voice that says you need to lose fat, gain muscle, body check, and diet rather than listen to your body. It’s the reason the number on a scale can be so difficult to let go of, and as weight-inclusive health professionals, we acknowledge that.
As the former Director of Olympic Sports Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and fellow weight-inclusive athletics advocate Rachel Manor, MS, RD, CSSD shares, “It’s confusing. Diet culture can pull you away from your own knowledge and thought processes about food.” If you think about it, most of us grew up not worrying about what we ate or how much we weighed. We listened to our body’s natural hunger cues, but at some point, we lost those natural instincts and started to tell our body what it needed rather than the other way around.
Truthfully, we can’t change the body we were given. Genetics largely determines that, and the time we spend trying to change our bodies can be better spent improving performance in other ways. In other words, removing body weight from the list of things you have to worry about frees up mental space to focus on what matters most as an athlete: enjoying the sport, building performance, polishing skills, and optimizing recovery.
Applying a Weight Inclusive Approach for Performance
A weight inclusive approach allows you to listen to your body and focus on nourishing yourself regardless of your body size. This means consuming adequate pre and post-workout nutrition without worrying about calories. It means eating when you’re hungry, and even in anticipation of hunger. It can also mean eating more and working out less.
It’s not uncommon for the team here at Student Athlete Nutrition to work with athletes that are, either intentionally or unintentionally, not eating enough food to replenish the calories they burn training. When we help them feel safe in their bodies and tune in to what their bodies actually need, they often see performance increase and energy levels return.
In our experience, signs you might be under fueling include:
· Recent declines in performance
· Stagnation in performance
· Inability to focus during class
· Thoughts of food throughout the day, even after eating
· Not feeling satisfied after meals
· Being sore or tired for multiple days after a workout
· New, recurring, or worsening injuries
· Feeling tired all the time
· Not sleeping through the night
Oftentimes, adding some more fuel and rest to your training program can help resolve these symptoms. You’ll be surprised at what we’ve seen adequate fuel and weight inclusive nutrition do for athletes and their performance! If you want to see similar results, here are 5 tips on building performance through a weight inclusive lens:
1. Listen to your hunger cues – Replenishing energy stores is important for recovery and performance. Hunger cues can show up as the physical sensation in our stomach, but also as constant thoughts about food, fatigue, irritability, and inability to focus.
2. Consume adequate carbohydrates before a workout – Make sure you’re getting a snack-sized amount of carbohydrates 30-60 minutes before practice or a game or having a meal 2-3 hours before. If eating when you’re not hungry is hard, remind yourself of the performance difference you see when you fuel before practice. Try training yourself with easily digestible foods like toast, a performance gel, dried fruit, or even a honey packet. This article on Training Your Gut For Performance over at Kelly Jones Nutrition provides more detailed tips! For those who get anxious before practice and can’t eat, Rachel Manor points out that this might be a good time to build emotional resilience or learn your body and plan to eat before the nerves set in. Just because you aren’t hungry doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat before workouts!
3. Make post-workout fuel a priority – Carbs and protein post-workout help your muscles repair and get them ready for your next training session. This might seem counter-intuitive since some people aren’t hungry after workouts, but that’s because exercise can suppress hunger cues. A good rule of thumb is to get a 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein, or about 40 grams of carbohydrates and 20 grams of protein, after a workout. In food form, this could look like a protein shake and a large banana, 1 cup of Greek yogurt with fruit or granola, or even a post-workout meal like breakfast or dinner.
4. Remind yourself of your ultimate goal – When you think you should eat but are worried about weight, consider your performance. Rachel Manor often asks her athletes to use rational thought by asking questions such as, “Why is it important to eat?”, “Will having this banana really affect my weight?”, or “Is my weight truly that important that I’d sacrifice my performance?”. This practice helps put your athletic goals into context and approach nutrition from a practical performance-based focus.
5. Remove the importance of weight from your life – As we’ve discussed, weight is a small factor in the world of athletics and an even smaller factor outside of it. If you struggle with diet culture or negative self-talk regarding your weight, consider reducing the amount of body checking or self-weighing you do. You can also try to avoid conversations about weight with teammates and friends by changing the subject. If you’re comfortable, let them know you don’t want them to talk about weight around you.
Starting the weight inclusive nutrition journey as an athlete can be difficult, and changing your mindset can take time. For support shifting to a weight inclusive, performance focused approach to nutrition, check out our dietitian services. If you need some time to think through this nutrition philosophy, we’ll leave you with this quote by Rachel Manor, “How would you take care of your body if your body size wasn’t an issue? What would you eat for dinner, and how would you exercise or recover?”
Special thanks to Rachel Manor, MS, RD, CSSD and Linda Steinhardt for their contributions to this post.
David is a former high school soccer and cross country athlete and an avid runner, hiker, and weight lifter. He holds bachelor’s degrees in both Health Sciences and Psychology from the University of South Florida and a Master of Public Health in Nutrition from UNC Chapel Hill. David is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Nutrition at UNC Chapel Hill and is studying to beome a registered dietitian. His expertise and passions lie in weight-inclusive nutrition, eating disorders, and sports nutrition, focusing on students and military service members. He is also training to join the Army Reserves.