Gentle Nutrition for Performance

gentle nutrition for performance

If you’re reading this you’ve finally made it to the last post in our intuitive eating for performance series. We covered a lot here, ranging from how to ditch diet culture in sport, how to honor your hunger and feel your fullness, how to handle emotional eating, and how to create a healthy relationship with exercise, too. After taking time to reflect on and implement these principles into your life you may be asking yourself…”so where does nutrition fit into all of this?”. The final principle of intuitive eating is all about honoring your health with gentle nutrition. 

Intuitive Eating Principle #10: Honor Your Health With Gentle Nutrition

In traditional intuitive eating counseling, this principle usually comes last, but with active individuals, it is something we introduce earlier and combine with other principles. The reason it usually comes last is so that nutrition recommendations aren’t mistaken as “rules” which would then make the whole intuitive eating process just feel like another diet. Before implementing this principle, it’s best to recognize all foods as neutral rather than “good” or “bad”.

When working with active individuals and athletes, it’s crucial to emphasize adequate nutrition early on to avoid the detrimental signs of under-fueling such as decreased performance, injury, loss of menstrual cycle, loss of muscle and bone density, and so much more. This is especially important for athletes as it may impact their ability to train and compete – maybe even resulting in loss of scholarships if playing at the collegiate level.

What Is Gentle Nutrition?

The reason this principle is called gentle nutrition is because there is an element of flexibility with the recommendations given. This means that just because research suggests one way to fuel the body, that shouldn’t be the end all be all for every person or deemed the “best” way for all to fuel. This is especially true for females, since the vast majority of performance nutrition research has been conducted on males. Additionally, what’s shown in the media isn’t always what the research is actually suggesting. Media outlets often take one point from a study and turn it into a clickbait headline.

Before making any nutrition recommendations, health care professionals need to take into consideration lifestyle factors, food preferences, practicality, and the impacts on mental health as well. It’s also important for professionals to screen for signs of disordered eating and eating disorders. 

8 Ways to Apply Gentle Nutrition for Performance

1. Macronutrient awareness, not obsession 

Macronutrients (aka carbohydrates, protein and fats) all play an essential role in energy production and recovery for performance. Each of these macronutrients has a place in the diet and finding the best balance of each is critical for an active individual’s success. For a deep dive into the science of each macronutrient check out this post. While it’s important to know the basics of each macronutrient, there are many other important elements of nutrition to focus on too, such as your intake of micronutrients and antioxidants which further benefit performance and health outcomes. 

2. Body attunement instead of strict tracking 

You may think that in order to achieve fitness goals strict macro tracking is necessary. However, obsessive tracking creates a disconnect between you and your body which can result in underfueling and increased injury risk. Some research also suggests that tracking may increase risk for disordered eating and eating disorder behaviours. 

What’s so bad about tracking?

Calorie counting apps often give you generic numerical goals based on your height, weight, gender and age, but they don’t account for other things that influence your intake such as your unique microbiome, genetics, , environment, lifestyle, and body composition. Your needs also change day to day, so following the same calorie goal every day can set you up to underfuel on some days. 

Another thing is that the FDA actually allows a 20% margin of error on food labels so people find themselves worrying (and even obsessing) over numbers that aren’t even 100% accurate. Lastly, calorie counting can be stressful to maintain when life gets busy, which can lead to feelings of failure if you’re not able to “stick to it”. 

So if calorie or macro counting isn’t the answer, then what is? 

To practice gentle nutrition, you can try using a hunger log where you note what you eat throughout the day and how your body responds in terms of hunger and fullness while also monitoring symptoms like energy levels, mood, digestion and more. This is a process we use with our 1-1 clients, but you can get your own copy of the hunger log here.

3. Planned meal and snack timing that fits your own schedule 

It can be confusing to find a way of eating that works for you. Some people say 2 big meals a day is best while others advocate for 6 small meals. The beauty of intuitive eating for performance is that you get to use trial and error and figure out what works best for you and your lifestyle without the influence of other people’s opinions or lived experiences. 

As mentioned above, a great tool to help you figure out your best eating pattern is the hunger/fullness log. For added assistance, especially with a busy and active schedule, working with a dietitian is recommended.

4. Adequate pre and post workout nutrition 

There’s no denying that adequate pre and post workout nutrition plays a role in maintaining optimal energy levels and promoting muscle recovery. However, your fueling plan should be unique to you and should include foods that make you feel your best, and that you also enjoy. 

Pre-workout fueling: Ideally your pre-workout fuel consists of easy to digest carbohydrates as this is the main fuel source used during intense workouts. However, if you are eating over an hour before the workout other nutrients may be included as well. 

For more information on pre-workout fuel check out these Instagram posts below:

pre-workout nutrition

Priorities For Pre-Workout Fuel 

Endurance Training Fueling Options

Training Your Gut For Endurance Exercise

Post-workout fueling: This usually means a meal or snack emphasizing both protein and carbs. You’ll want to focus on eating enough to replenish your body after workout, but not so much that you feel sick. 

For more information on post-workout fuel check out these Instagram posts below:

Priorities For Post-Workout Fuel

How Diet Culture Tells You to Refuel vs. Science 

Post-Workout Fueling Ideas

5. Stay hydrated 

Hydration is such an important part of gentle nutrition for performance because if we aren’t hydrated then this can mess with our ability to tune into our hunger cues. The best way to monitor hydration is through the color of your urine. You want to aim to be pale/straw yellow, if it’s darker you need more fluids! Another thing to consider is replenishing electrolytes if your workout is longer than 60 minutes or if you’re a heavy sweater. 

You can learn more about hydration for performance through the following resources:

Hydrating Foods for Fitness

Free Student Athlete Hydration Guide

Hydrating During the Cold Months

Hydrating in the Heat

6. Emphasize nutrients for performance & muscle recovery 

Adding in specific nutrients to your diet doesn’t have to be done in the name of diet culture. It’s important for active people to add in certain nutrients that maximize recovery  and prioritize nutrient dense foods because they improve energy and performance, not because they are the “superior” choice. 

This means using labels as a guide to make choices not based in restriction, but based on what you know will make you feel better and satisfied. 

7. Supplement when needs can’t be met through the diet 

Diet culture loves to sell you on the idea that you need supplements to be healthy. But, this couldn’t be further from the truth! Of course, supplements have their place, but they should only be implemented after you evaluate your dietary intake first and get proper lab testing done. 

When purchasing supplements it’s important to be critical about who is selling it to you and if it’s proven to be safe and effective. If you are an athlete, 3rd party testing is crucial to ensure that you don’t test positive for banned substances. Here are some resources to check out the safety of your supplements:

Why you should care about 3rd party testing 

Supplements are not regulated by the FDA. This means a company might  say the product is “all natural” and “clean”, but no testing has been done to ensure that what’son the label is really in the product. For example, you could think you’re getting 20 g of high quality protein per scoop of your protein powder, but in reality it might only contain 10 grams + a bunch of fillers. 

Since supplements aren’t regulated they can actually be harmful. There has been evidence of popular supplements causing severe and even fatal liver damage. A recent study showed 9 banned substances found in sports and weight loss supplements – and only 17 supplements were tested! The article also provided examples of how the FDA often fails at its regulatory role.

8. Don’t limit/restrict yourself just because it’s a rest day

Eating enough (especially carbohydrates) on rest day helps your body to store carbs (as glycogen), which will be used to fuel future workouts. Rest day fueling with adequate fat and protein as well also reduces the chance of injury and helps promote recovery. If you are constantly hungrier on rest day (a common concern we see with clients) that may be an indication that something is off with your fueling in general.

Final thoughts on Intuitive Eating for Performance:

In order to ensure that mental health isn’t sacrificed and the experience of eating is still enjoyable, we combine these fitness nutrition guidelines with intuitive eating based practices such as focusing on how food makes you feel, how it tastes, and whether it provides overall satisfaction as well considering what is its impact on performance outcomes. 

Combining the principles of intuitive eating with sports nutrition sets active individuals and athletes up for a lifetime of not only adequately nourishing their bodies but also cultivating a positive relationship with all foods that will benefit them and their future children as well.

If you need more help working through the principles of intuitive eating while achieving fitness goals, we’d love to help you! To learn more about 1-1 nutrition coaching click here

Intuitive Eating for Performance Series

Check out the other posts in this series!

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