How can sports athletes benefit from intuitive eating

Intuitive eating is taking the nutrition world by storm. While many people are singing its praises, you may be left wondering what it is and how it works. Even though anyone can participate, athletes need additional support from dietitians to maintain energy intake and boost sports performance. Keep reading to learn more about how dietitians can support athletes’ nutritional needs with intuitive eating principles.

In today’s day and age, it’s almost impossible to escape fad diets, unhealthy body image standards, and poor eating habits, all of which can negatively affect nutrition quality and self-esteem. While it’s easy for anyone to be influenced by these trends, athletes are at a greater risk for falling into this diet mentality. Since athletes are often encouraged to be rigid in both their eating and training habits, this mindset can put them at a higher risk for eating disorders and disordered eating, thus leading to decreased performance and increased rates of anxiety and depression.

To stop this downward spiral, many dietitians are ditching the “one size fits all” diet mentality and turning to intuitive eating. This method can be more beneficial, as it teaches athletes how to listen to their bodies, respect their set weight, allow flexibility in their eating habits, stop obsessing over macros, and improve their relationship with food. But how does this work, and what can you, as a nutrition professional, do to help athletes implement intuitive eating principles?

Before exploring intuitive eating in more detail, let’s start by discussing what this concept is and how it can impact sports performance.

What is intuitive eating?

Intuitive eating is a flexible style of eating that emphasizes listening to your body and mind and choosing foods accordingly [1,2]. This allows you to develop a healthy food relationship by tuning into what your body wants and needs, and translating those dietary desires into proper fuel [3].

One of the biggest misconceptions with intuitive eating is that you can eat whatever you want, whenever you want. Even though improving your relationship with food is an important aspect, it’s more complex than that. The purpose of intuitive eating is not centered around weight loss or uncontrolled eating; rather, it’s meant to provide you with the tools you need to eat in a way that both satisfies and nourishes your body.

How does intuitive eating work?

The intuitive eating framework follows 10 guiding principles:

  1. Reject the diet mentality;
  2. Honor your hunger;
  3. Make peace with food;
  4. Challenge the food police;
  5. Discover the satisfaction factor;
  6. Feel your fullness;
  7. Cope with your emotions with kindness;
  8. Respect your body;
  9. Movement;
  10. Gentle nutrition.

By using these principles with your clients, you help them learn to reject food rules influenced by diet culture and instead choose when and what to eat based on how their body feels. Additionally, this framework is meant to act as a guide for your clients to pick and choose which principles apply best to them and their needs. Your clients don’t need to strictly follow these rules to be intuitive eaters, and they can begin with any principle.

Learn more about how you can repair your client’s relationship with food through intuitive eating here.

Does dieting negatively affect athletes?

Due to the nature of their respective sports, athletes can be more prone to body dysmorphia and disordered eating due to strict dietary guidelines and certain body image standards. This can lead to obsessive, unhealthy thoughts around food, as well as an inadequate energy intake.

Moreover, restrictive diets are dangerous due to overpromised results. From improved performance to physical appearance, athletes can fall into the trap of manipulating their diet and exercise routine in a negative way to meet the strict guidelines of their respective sports. This type of dieting has also been shown to increase anxiety and depression, and decrease performance and recovery.

How intuitive eating influences sports performance

Between meal composition, nutrient timing, and macronutrient intake, there is a lot for athletes to consider when it comes to fueling their workouts. However, if they don’t have good nutritional support from a dietitian, athletes may struggle to eat enough to support their energy expenditure levels. This becomes detrimental to sports performance, as they may not have enough energy to power through a practice, training session, or game. This is where intuitive eating comes into play! As a dietitian, you can utilize intuitive eating principles to help athletes prevent low energy availability and ultimately boost performance.

Studies have shown that intuitive eating leads to benefits such as improved HDL cholesterol, higher body appreciation, increased pleasure from eating, reduced instances of binge and emotional eating, and decreased prevalence of eating disorders, all of which can boost sports performance [4,5,6]. Additionally, research indicates that those who practice intuitive eating tend to have lower BMIs than those who controlled food intake through restrictive diets [7].

9 ways to implement intuitive eating principles with athletes

You can help athletes intuitively eat by rejecting food rules and figuring out what works best for them. Here are 9 ways that you can implement intuitive eating principles with athletes.

  1. Each workout is different. While a regimented diet plan can work for some athletes, it can actually be restrictive and harm their performance over time since some meal plans may not account for different levels of exercise intensity. Since macronutrient needs will differ with each workout, you can help athletes determine what foods will help fuel specific exercises, and how they can listen to their body to identify what to eat after a certain workout.
  2. All foods fit. An occasional scoop of ice cream or slice of pizza won’t derail an athlete’s performance goals. By applying some intuitive eating principles, you can help your client maintain balance in food intake and promote a healthy relationship with food.
  3. Treat eating as self-care. Instead of mindlessly eating, you can help athletes learn to treat food as a form of self-care so they can view food as nourishment, not a punishment. For example, encourage your clients to drink water throughout the day even if they don’t want to; you can explain that this is essential for recovery and that a lack of it will negatively affect their performance.
  4. Be flexible. Athletes each have specific nutritional needs, but they can eat intuitively around those needs to find foods that work best for them. For instance, if you suggest that they consume protein with each meal, they can choose the specific type of protein that they enjoy when it comes time to eat it. This will show athletes that they don’t need to follow a strict diet regimen and can instead eat what makes them feel their best.
  5. Fuel for performance, not for appearance. Unfortunately, we live in an appearance-focused world, which can negatively affect us all (including athletes). To “fit in”, athletes may find themselves abusing food and exercise as a way to manipulate their bodies to fit a certain standard. By using intuitive eating principles, you can help athletes realize that diets don’t work and that if they listen to their bodies, they will feel (and perform) better than ever.
  6. Redirect mental energy. Thinking about the number of macronutrients consumed during the day or calories burned in a workout can take up extra brain space. Instead of worrying about a diet plan, athletes can use intuitive eating principles to focus on non-sports-related things (such as building relationships, excelling in school, or finding other hobbies). This will ultimately contribute to a well-rounded lifestyle that will positively affect the athlete’s performance and mindset.
  7. Utilize the off-season. Certain sports can put pressure on athletes to manipulate their physique during the off-season. While you can implement intuitive eating principles all year long, you can take advantage of this time to help athletes re-establish hunger cues, tune in with their bodies, and reject food rules.
  8. Honor your hunger. Athletes who ignore feelings of hunger or cravings are at risk for under-fueling, disordered eating, and long-term performance issues. As a nutrition professional, you should encourage athletes to eat when they feel hungry and to have them identify those feelings on a hunger-fullness scale.
  9. Embrace change. Since intuitive eating focuses on a relationship with food rather than weight or appearance, it is possible for your client to gain weight, lose weight, or even stay the same. It can be intimidating for athletes to embrace this method, but you can encourage your clients that if they are honoring their hunger and fullness cues, they will see results that aren’t related to weight. When done correctly, intuitive eating can provide a supportive framework that promotes body respect and improves their relationship with food.

Summary

Intuitive eating is a flexible style of eating that emphasizes listening to your body and choosing foods accordingly. Athletes can greatly benefit from this method, as it allows them to become more in-tune with their bodies, respect their set weight, allow flexibility in their eating habits, stop obsessing over macros, and improve their relationship with food. As a dietitian, you can help your clients implement intuitive eating principles by helping them understand how to nourish their bodies and fuel for performance.


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References:

  1. Van Dyke, N., & Drinkwater, E. J. (2014). Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: literature review. Public health nutrition, 17(8), 1757–1766. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1368980013002139
  2. Cadena-Schlam, L., & López-Guimerà, G. (2014). Intuitive eating: an emerging approach to eating behavior. Nutricion hospitalaria, 31(3), 995–1002. https://doi.org/10.3305/nh.2015.31.3.7980
  3. Warren, J. M., Smith, N., & Ashwell, M. (2017). A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms. Nutrition research reviews, 30(2), 272–283. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954422417000154
  4. Bacon, L., Aphramor, L. (2011). Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift. Nutr J 10 (9) . https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-10-9
  5. J.Schaefer, A. Magnuson. (2014). A Review of Interventions that Promote Eating by Internal Cues. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 114 (5), 734-760. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2013.12.024
  6. Hazzard, V. M., Telke, S. E., Simone, M., Anderson, L. M., Larson, N. I., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2021). Intuitive eating longitudinally predicts better psychological health and lower use of disordered eating behaviors: findings from EAT 2010-2018. Eating and weight disorders : EWD, 26(1), 287–294. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-020-00852-4
  7. Van Dyke, N., & Drinkwater, E. J. (2014). Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: literature review. Public health nutrition, 17(8), 1757–1766. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1368980013002139