Ditch the Diet Mentality for Performance

I’m going to start this post with a bold statement (maybe more bold for fellow-dietitian readers than my other readers). I am writing an intuitive eating series for fitness and discussing how to ditch the diet mentality for performance. But, I don’t love the term “anti-diet dietitian”.

My blog and media messaging is not advocating for eating patterns related to weight loss goals, but the reality is dietitians are trained to discuss medically, culturally, and ethically appropriate eating patterns. A diet is literally a pattern of eating. I have found this extremely confusing to the general public, which is why while I support the anti-diet mentality, I don’t call myself an anti-diet dietitian when educating my audience or the public. So, what does the first principle of intuitive eating mean when it says to “ditch the diet mentality”, if intuitive eating is for everyone?

What Does It Mean to Ditch the Diet Mentality?

While recording an episode for our Imperfect Health Podcast recently, Kim said something to help me articulate this principle of intuitive eating a little better. Ditching the diet mentality does not mean ignoring medically or performance specific eating patterns (diets), but ditching the mentality of restriction, deprivation, and weight loss as the ultimate measure of success in improving health.

While in addition to the intro post for this series, I’ve already written a few blog posts on the topic (see: 15+ reasons not to diet, how dieting harms athletes, and nuances of IE, here we’re going to explore a little more of why the diet industry’s mentality is harmful… or at least not helpful.

One important fact to lead with is that all bodies should not.. and will not… look the same even with similar eating patterns, exercise routines, stress levels and socioeconomic status. This goes past the ectomorph, endomorph, mesomorph body types that are acknowledged well in the exercise science field. With the information on the gut microbiome being heavily investigated now, researchers are finding that the health of your gut bacteria may play a large role in body weight, too. This isn’t something just corrected with probiotic supplements though, as our individual microbiomes are formed in the first few years of life.

Why Dieting Doesn’t Work

The aforementioned posts go into more detail, but here’s a recap on why restrictive eating patterns do not work. Restriction can look different person to person and symptoms and side effects can vary as well. It’s also true that when someone is following a fad diet that they may be so immersed in it, that they truly feel it is working for them and support the claims they have heard – this is often a placebo effect or them feeling “in control”. Very few people are able to continue on these restrictive diets in the long term, with most “having” to go back on the diet or trying other fad diets in pursuit of achieving the weight loss they had in the past.

  • Problems With Dieting
    • Restrictive eating to your body can look like starvation
      • The body’s main goal is to protect you from death. Starvation is not sustainable, so the body reacts to attempt to maintain energy levels.
      • After some time (could be sooner or later for different people), the body goes into a “survival mode” type of metabolism.
    • Biological responses to restriction
      • Increased cravings due to hunger hormone increases.
      • Overeating/binging to try to catch up with lower blood sugar levels and low energy stores.
      • Inability to concentrate / decreased brain function since the brain prefers carbohydrates for fuel.
      • Decreased metabolism and increased fat retention, which can take up to 12 weeks to restore after adequate energy intake resumes.
      • Increased cortisol, the stress hormone also associated with abdominal fat retention.
    • Up to 85-95% of people who lose weight on restrictive diets gain it back

How to Ditch the Diet Mentality for Performance

If you’ve never dieted and are looking to make some dietary tweaks for athletic performance or improved fitness, getting through this principle of intuitive eating will be pretty easy. So long as you’re willing to look past the intense diet industry ads and “wellness” influencer messages and turn to sound science anyway.

For those of you who have dieted in the past, chronically, or who are surrounded by people who are regularly promoting or discussing diets, it can take a long time to ditch the diet once and for all. It’s helpful to know that you may feel like you’ve officially ditched that mentality, and then a life event occurs or new season approaches and you feel like you’ve taken a couple of steps back. No success is linear, so remember there will be ups and downs as you retrain your brain and unlearn old beliefs and habits.

How to get started:

  • Get rid of books and magazines that make you feel uncomfortable about your body or feel tempted to restrict yourself from necessary nutrients.
  • If you’re on social media, unfollow accounts that make you feel bad about yourself or promote weight loss as the key to success for health and performance.
  • Follow educated nutrition professionals on social media – registered dietitians and PhDs in nutrition – for credible advice. They should be promoting habit changes for health and/or performance and educating on practical ways to incorporate nourishing and energizing meals vs. providing strict plans.
  • Delete diet tracking apps from your phone.
  • Stop weighing yourself everyday. This can be hard in the beginning, so maybe start by going from daily to weekly. Then to monthly. Or, just get rid of it!

The Diet Mentality and Physical Performance

For athletes, restriction is often just a part of the culture of the sport, and you may never have realized the habits you have built or are trying to emulate can be problematic. Unhealthy diets due are more commonly (but wrongly) accepted in endurance, weight management and judgement-based sports. Runners and cyclists are of special concern in the endurance space with wrestling and crew being examples in the weight management space. For judgement-based sports, we’re talking competitive dance, diving, gymnastics, and figure skating.

This is not only true for competitive athletes, but those who were competitive in a sport in the past or are part of a social fitness club or boutique fitness environment regularly. While there are examples of what this restriction can look like below as well as some drawbacks to the body and mind, there is support of how “intuitive eating practices are inversely associated with a number of harmful outcomes.”

  • Science behind IE (which may translate to other benefits for physical performance)
    • Higher self esteem & improved body satisfaction
    • Lower rates of emotional eating and disordered eating
    • Improved metabolic fitness
    • Decreased psychological distress
      • Typically associated with improved cortisol levels; cortisol itself can impair muscle recovery & metabolic health (see referenced visual from Marie Spano)
    • Increased interoceptive awareness & decreased chances of utilizing unhealthy weight control behaviors
    • Improved heart health (BP, Blood Cholesterol)
      • Improved BP may indicate decreased stress
      • Improved cholesterol may improve cardiovascular capacity in the active population
  • What restriction can look like in these settings:
    • Low carb in an attempt to reduce body size
    • Extra workouts/overtraining to edge out teammates
      • This can occur at times where you should be eating and then result in extra energy burn and inadequate time for an appropriate meal later.
    • “Cut” to make weight; cleansing, keto, protein only
    • Heavy reliance on supplements
    • Following food rules
      • We cover food rules extensively in Fit Fueling by providing examples of them and having you identify your personal food rules before slowly working through them.
    • Fearing sports drinks and sports nutrition products
  • How this can negatively affect performance 
    • Dehydration
    • Low blood sugar
    • Increased injury risk
    • Slower recovery
    • Reduced attention span
  • What Intuitive Eating Feels Like
    • Being able to choose food you actually like and eat it.
    • Leaving food on your plate because you’re full, not because you read you should never clean your plate.
    • Giving some thought to choosing nutritious foods but not being so restrictive or nervous that you miss out on enjoyable food.
    • Trusting your body to tell you what you need.
    • Enjoying social experiences without fear of the food invovled.
  • What IE is NOT
    • Obsessively counting calories, macros, or points.
    • Measuring all of your food for restriction purposes vs. preparing recipes.
    • Cutting out food groups for reasons not related to ethics or food allergies.
    • Time restricted eating or keto.
dieting for fitness

The Diet Mentality Hurts Others, Too

One message at the forefront of many intuitive eating professionals who also focus their work in HAES promotion, is that the ability to work on health requires certain privileges, especially those related to location and finances. By subscribing to our society’s messages that smaller body’s are better, we wind up stigmatizing those in larger bodies. Some people may be larger simply due to genetics and the health of the microbiome. Many others may be in larger bodies due to lifestyle… but for many of those people, they don’t have control of their lifestyle based on socioeconomic factors.

I hold that privilege to be able to focus on my wellness and health daily since I have always had enough financial stability, time and resources to. I can spend plenty of time at the grocery store, not worrying too much about price tags. Fitness may take some extra effort to fit in now as a mom, but I have access to great options to stay active. I have childcare for Cooper, a supportive husband and very involved father for Coop, and my family can help when we need them. If I was a single mom who didn’t have all of that help, it would be near impossible for me to prioritize my health and wellness.

All that to say, the diet mentality is harmful to more individuals than just you personally. What we see in the media and on social media builds the belief in most of us that a small body is “better” than a larger body, that a smaller body is healthier or more fit, and that people are morally obligated to want to work on their health, especially by trying to reduce it in size.

When it comes to athletes and athletic individuals, making the assumption that a smaller body is more likely to be successful in a sport or more likely to achieve a high level of physical fitness is also harmful. Due to the cultural stigmas of sports such as distance running and figure skating, for example, coaches may encourage disordered eating in not only athletes in a slightly larger body than what they deem as “ideal” but also in those that meet their ideal in order to attempt to “help” maintain their weight. Well, who’s to say that athlete wouldn’t perform better if they had a few more (or many more) pounds on them?

This notion extends to athletes themselves, regardless of their coaches perceptions as they attempt to achieve a body type of an athlete who is successful in their sport, with the assumption that weight is “best” for their sport or position. This is even harmful when attempting to have athletes gain weight as they may do so with unhealthy eating patterns, vs. healthier ones that a registered dietitian may work with them on.

And let’s not forget the group ex instructors and personal trainers who assume that everyone must be exercising only to burn calories or for weight loss. This culture has become harmful or even just off-putting to those who just want to enjoy an exercise class or group training session for the many other benefits past improved performance and fitness. If this industry could ditch the diet mentality for performance, it would help anyone who loves fitness find a healthier relationship with it, too.

Questions?

Questions on how to ditch the diet mentality for performance? Drop them below or send me a private message. If you’re ready for a deep dive, head over to FitFueling.com, where you can enroll in my self-paced course, curated along with my business partner, Heather Caplan, who is a dietitian, running coach, and marathoner.

Stay tuned for the remainder of this series as we work through the other 9 principles of intuitive eating as they relate to fitness, with a special focus on joyful movement and honoring your health (and performance) with nutrition.

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