Benefits of Intuitive Eating for Athletes

While I felt I had adopted a non-diet philosophy during my dietetic internship and graduate school, my journey to this concept of “intuitive eating” came several years later. I had seen eating disorders and disordered eating as an athlete and dietitian. But, until I worked with a client who had previously been in a treatment facility for an eating disorder, the term “intuitive eating” wasn’t in my vocabulary. After she mentioned it, I ordered the book and read it in a few days. And wished I’d known how to pull these philosophies together sooner. Now, I’m proud to focus on the negative effects of dieting on athletes while promoting intuitive eating for fitness.

intuitive eating for athletes

How I Began Practicing Intuitive Eating

As I re-evaluated my own habits, I started my journey to intuitive eating, and it came somewhat easily. Restriction for me was long in the past and I was well aware of how to build an eating pattern that made me feel good (types of food, timing of intake etc). Still, the hardest part was honoring my fullness. I had accepted an all-foods-fit mentality. I loved dining out whenever possible without a worry of calorie counting etc.

But, I grew up spending a lot of time with my grandmother who firmly believed we should be members of the “clean the plate club”. At holidays our Italian culture is one that may “make” you feel bad for not eating whatever someone spent so much time making. So, as an adult, eating slowly enough and honoring fullness when it hit was still a bit of a challenge. Does that resonate with any of you? Feeling a bit overfull after birthday cake, special event, or vacation meal is fine. But when it’s frequent, or often leads to digestive discomfort, that is another story.

Diet Culture Impacts Everyone

Often it is habits we aren’t even aware of that are built in early childhood and stay with us forever. Diet culture messaging makes us feel like we have a lack of “willpower” to restrict or eat less food. It’s really that lack of recognition of these habits is our barrier to being in tune with what our body really wants and needs.

We are so far removed from our hunger and fullness signals that we just eat based on a viral article, fad diet, or suggestion of a friend. Without identifying where our habits come from and taking action to change them, we won’t make progress in health, or respect our body’s true needs.

As I felt I mastered intuitive eating myself, it’s transformed my counseling philosophies and other areas of my lifestyle, too. Intuitive eating isn’t just about respecting your body with food wants and needs, but also respecting it from a fitness and relationship perspective. I’ve touched on intuitive eating and fitness plenty, as so many people are using fitness and food as a way to manipulate their body. Even some athletes don’t truly love their sport, they’re just participating because they’re anxious to not be burning so many calories and attempting to control their weight.

Something I mentioned deep in my last post (a plea to everyone not to diet), was the real reasons people try to manipulate their diets and exercise routines. I received emails and messages in response to this post and for many people, insecurities in relationships hit home the most. Therefore, I want to share these ideas again, because awareness can only help you find more respect for yourself.

What does weight loss promise to most people?

  • Happiness
  • Acceptance
  • Confidence
  • Being loved/well-liked
  • Achieving perfection
  • Feeling superior to others (why do people crave this?)

These are not things that reaching a lower number on the scale or a lower body fat percentage will ever provide to you. And if you think you’re happier/more confident/more accepted at a lower body weight than you used to have, why is that? Is it really your size or is it that exercise empowers you? Do you love feeling that you have the ability to control things? Perhaps it is just that society has unfortunately put weight on a pedestal rather than true health or what you really have to offer the world.

What does dietary restriction promise to active individuals?

  • Faster race time
  • Better physical health to support recovery
  • Better asthetics for judgement based sports
  • Improved digestion so GI troubles don’t impact your performance

In reality, these are false promises and there are a variety of negative effects of dieting that athletes should be aware of.

negative effects of dieting for fitness

So, how does this relate to intuitive eating being a respectful lifestyle? Well, I realize I’ve never really defined intuitive eating here and haven’t outlined the 10 principles, either.

What IS Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating is not easily defined. If you google it, Wikipedia says Intuitive eating is a nutrition philosophy based on the premise that becoming more attuned to the body’s natural hunger signals is a more effective way to attain a healthy weight, rather than keeping track of the amounts of energy and fats in foods.

Unfortunately, this totally misses the mark. I think we have to really look at the 10 principles to see what it means. Of note: you don’t need to cover these principles in order, as everyone is at a different place in their health journey and has different needs. Maybe there are principles you don’t need to dive into at all personally, because your lived experiences allowed you to have a good relationship with them already.

When emphasizing the intuitive eating philosophy, which merges instinct and rational thought, we do become more in tune with hunger, fullness, and how food makes us feel, but the definition most people see above emphasizes weight too much. You can’t be fully immersed in intuitive eating if you’re still focusing on weight. It’s a huge barrier to your success and fails to fully separate you from the negative effects of dieting. Just trust that your body will find the weight it needs to be at, and that it will change at different stages of your life, too.

The 10 Principles are…

1. Reject the Diet Mentality

2. Honor Your Hunger

3. Make Peace with Food

4. Challenge the Food Police

5. Respect Your Fullness

6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor – yes, different than fullness!

7. Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food

8. Respect Your Body

9. Exercise–Feel the Difference

10 Honor Your Health with gentle nutrition

While to some people I recommend getting the book to dive more into these principles, sometimes reading the whole it at once can be overwhelming. At one point I considered including the book in my nutrition packages, but everyone does start at different places. It’s also important to note that lifelong dieters can easily turn IE into a diet itself, trying to follow all 10 principles to a T, or feeling like they’ve failed if they don’t “do it” perfectly. There’s no perfect with IE. There’s nuances for each of your individual needs and lifestyles.

Where to Get More Help

I encourage anyone who is in severe diet mode to meet with a dietitian one-on-one. Find one that speaks to your individual needs. For example, if you aren’t looking for a sports or fitness dietitian, what are you looking for? One who specializes in diabetes? Maybe you need someone who specializes in digestive disorders. Do your homework and be sure they aren’t selling you weight loss or maintenance and that they truly support IE. I also have a free download on my website that goes into more detail on each of the 10 principles and how to adapt them for fitness.

intuitive eating course

On top of that, many of you know that myself and Heather Caplan have invested a lot of time and energy into our intuitive eating for fitness course. As a board certified sports dietitian and former D-I athlete, I see more disordered eating than the majority of RD’s. Heather, a dietitian, marathoner and running coach, is in the same boat. We had lots of success in two years of running our Fit Fueling course and are so excited for the relaunch. We doubled the content and made lots of adjustments, including ability to take it self-paced beginning whenever you want (versus waiting for us to start a new group).

Key Takeaways

It’s always the right time for us to encourage you active females (sorry dudes see above) to put up blinders to the diet ads and invest in yourself to find self-respect, self-confidence and improved fitness. We’d love to have you join our online course that comes with lifetime access to a support community with myself, RD and running coach Heather Caplan, and all former and current course participants.

You need to be mentally ready for change and to step out of your comfort zone, so if you need us to help you determine if you’re there yet before signing up, send us an email!

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