Nuances of Intuitive Eating for Fitness

intuitive eating for fitness

It may have gained popularity to treat eating disorders and give a mentally healthy alternative to those who had struggled with a lifetime of dieting and disordered eating, but that doesn’t mean Intuitive Eating (IE) is only applicable to people dealing with those problems. With the strong-willed perfectionist type personalities that are common in athletes and those who are highly active, intuitive eating can seem crazy. But, these individuals may have a higher risk of disordered eating and eating disorders. Plus, many {if not most} athletes have a tough transition from their sport to “real life” when it comes to how they feel about their body, food, and fitness. So, understanding the nuances of intuitive eating for fitness can be a nutrition solution for performance enhancements and lifelong fitness and health, as well as mental well-being.

intuitive eating for fitness and sport

Is Intuitive Eating Easier Than Dieting?

Intuitive eating is quite possibly the most polar opposite of an all-or-nothing mentality with food that you can have, while also bringing in concepts of body respect as you work toward better physical and mental health. Yes, it takes work. I think that is a big misconception with intuitive eating, too. That no work is required. You just listen to your body and BAM you’ve mastered it! Ha, not really, mostly because people are SO far out of tune with what their body is really trying to tell them after years of nutrition messages in our culture or at least the busy lifestyles we lead taking priority over our hunger and fullness cues. So, while it isn’t easy and takes time to adapt to, intuitive eating is something that should last forever (unlike whole 30 or the fad diet of the year that leave you confused about how to eat after). 

So, initially, for someone who is used to attempting to follow regimented plans or who likes being told what to do (think athlete with a strict training schedule who is coached everyday), it can be a challenge. For this reason, the off-season is the best time to start the process, while working with a registered dietitian. It requires mental energy that you may not have to work through ditching the diet mentally and slowing down to understand your hunger, appetite, fullness and satiety. 

Eventually though, once you are in tune with your body, that’s sort of it. Sure there will be new periods of your life where you need to readjust to a new schedule, fitness routine, or significant body changes (think pregnancy for women). But, since you and your body’s cues are BFFs, you’ll understand what it needs and adapt more quickly without stressing over what the media headlines are touting as the top diet of the year. Think of all of the time you’ll have when you just naturally eat as you need to, without time, energy and stress over restriction, counting, or what diet you’ll try next!

How do Intuitive Eating and Sports Nutrition Work?

Intuitive Eating is a self-care framework integrating instinct, emotion and rational thought.

Intuitive Eating Official Website

I often find people think IE isn’t a place where health and performance goals go hand in hand, but there is no reason it can’t be. Versus how IE may be used in a wellness or eating disorder setting, with sport, you may hit the “gentle nutrition” principle a bit sooner. It’s okay to focus a bit more on fine tuning nutrition or honing in on exercise recovery foods right away, than someone who may be exploring IE to get away from restricting. IE is nuanced for each individual. 

My favorite definition from intuitive eating website is that it is “a self-care framework integrating instinct, emotion and rational thought.” 

Instinct is utilizing what your body’s first reactions are – what is it telling you that you want right now? Why do you ignore it? A good analogy here is how when you have to pee you aren’t going to say “oh no, it must be something else”. Whereas when you’re “stomach hungry”, low on energy, you may tell your body it isn’t hungry and needs to wait til later. Or when it says it wants bread, you tell it that it doesn’t need carbs.

Emotion – we’ll get into this more with future posts, but this isn’t only “emotional eating” or choosing a food because you know it can provide some emotional comfort (which is not only okay, but normal). This also brings in the positive (or negative) social aspects of food as well as how food decisions may relate to how you feel emotionally later. 

Rational thought – this is where science and experience come in. Understanding sports nutrition science helps you with things I’ll discuss like practical hunger. Or including protein most times that you eat even if you’re not craving it. Or letting go of your fear of carbs to fuel your workouts and recovery. When you reflect on your experiences with foods (or lack of adequate food) you’ll build new instincts. I, for example, am more likely to eat a frosting heavy cupcake with a protein rich meal than have it on it’s own since experience has shown me my blood sugar reacts a bit more quickly than yours might, and then my anxiety kicks in. 

Don’t Make Intuitive Eating Another Diet

Based on your upbringing, habits, and health history, you may need to focus more, less, (or even not at all) on certain principles. 

Whether I work with clients 1-1 or I speak to groups, I rarely if ever list or define the titles of the principles of intuitive eating. Even in the Fit Fueling course, we only cover some of the principles and we focus on how each relates to sports nutrition, which we cover first (nutrition is actually the 10th principle). 

There are 10 principles, and they’re all important for the practitioner to understand and for the average person to understand if they’re working through intuitive eating on their own. But, I don’t want IE to feel like another diet. So, my philosophy is just that the principles are ingrained in what I teach and how I educate. Having said that, not everyone has the means to work with a registered dietitian 1-1 or even in a group setting, which is where my intuitive eating for fitness e-guide and series come in handy. 

I’ll be covering each of the 10 principles as a separate blog post, in a little more detail than my e-guide does and with links to some other resources along the way. I also had help from my associate sports RD when outlining these posts so you’re really getting both of our perspectives. It is crucial that you explore each of these principles with curiosity and self-evaluate what you need to work on with each principle. You also want to note if it might be better to wait and work on a different principle rather than go in the order in which you’re learning about them. Based on your upbringing, habits, and health history, you may need to focus more, less, (or even not at all) on certain principles. 

Why This Matters for Athletes and Active Individuals

In addition to this series, in the next couple of months you’ll also be getting a detailed video and post on relative energy deficiency – a serious problem for athletes (males included) as well as general active teens and adults. While it is called “relative energy deficiency in sport” (RED-S), it impacts many recreationally active individuals, too.

RED-S is not an eating disorder, but can occur due to one or may occur inadvertently.

As a result of energy intake not being adequate to support baseline metabolism plus daily activities (exercise and non), RED-S is a wide range of health and performance consequences. RED-S is not an eating disorder, but can indicate an eating disorder in some active people. For most, it is inadvertent, and often hard to identify – people expect that if someone isn’t eating enough, they’ll be extremely underweight, but that is not always the case. Especially with high expectations to “look fit” for sports or even just the fitness club setting, many people may walk around every day at a body weight society perceives as fit, but that is actually too low for them. 

No matter why someone has RED-S, be that an actual eating disorder, poor nutrition knowledge and a busy schedule, or constant dieting and attempts to reduce or maintain a smaller body size, RED-S is a disordered eating continuum. 

According to the International Olympic Committee Consensus statement on RED-S, “The disordered eating (DE) continuum starts with appropriate eating and exercise behaviors, including healthy dieting and the occasional use of more extreme weight loss methods such as short-term restrictive diets.” Due to the varied reasons one may experience RED-S, you can see why a gentle self-care approach is needed for prevention and treatment and why their are nuances in intuitive eating for fitness.

Consequences of Dieting for Athletes and Active Individuals

dieting for fitness

I’ve seen both female and male athletes – from high school, to college, to pro – experience the consequences of under-fueling, even before it was called RED-S. In females, many lose their menstrual function without knowing it’s a problem and wind up being referred to me because it was deteriorating their bones and they incurred a hip fracture or are dealing with infertility as adults. For males, it’s harder to identify, but “bro science” (aka not actually science pushing protein, no carbs and supplements on end) or body preoccupation are typically what lead to under-eating and therefore frequent illness and an injury. 

As I mentioned, for many people, the root of this is just poor nutrition knowledge and lack of access to credible nutrition information (aka a sports dietitian) paired with an extremely busy and demanding training (and often school) schedule. It’s hard to keep up with high energy needs! Those are sometimes the people who’s problems are never identified and I hope to help with the general nutrition advice I provide.

When it comes to the people myself or my associate RD see for 1-1 counseling, it’s more often that they’re trying to escape years of dieting to change their body, whether it be due to amenorrhea or just the stress of the restrict binge cycles. In the end, the performance and health consequences are the same.

I wrote a post that sums up some of these drawbacks and touches on intuitive eating. It speaks a bit more to females than males, but if you’re a male, wherever you see notes on menstrual dysfunction, you can just insert low testosterone as the consequence.

Supporting Your Fitness and Health

Through this series and through all of my past and future resources, my hope is that you can adequately and confidently support your sport or fitness routine. No matter what definition you refer to, physical fitness is an ability level. According to the American College of Sports Medicine it is “a set of attributes that people have or achieve that relates to the ability to perform physical activity”.

Injury, illness, anxiety, food obsession, dehydration and all of drawbacks previously mentioned get in the way of fitness.

To perform at a high level, you need plenty of energy – when you have a hard workout, it shouldn’t be hard because you feel depleted, but hard because you felt energized enough to push yourself to a higher intensity. At a high level of fitness you should also have plenty of energy left to support all of your daily activities without fatigue. Injury, illness, anxiety, food obsession, dehydration and all of drawbacks previously mentioned get in the way of that.

Ready to start your journey to understanding the nuances of intuitive eating for fitness? Check out other posts in this series:

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