Is Intuitive eating good for athletes?

Intuitive eating blog post

Do you rely on natural cues to decide when and what you’ll eat?

Our relationship with food is one of the most globally underrated factors influencing physical wellbeing.

As more diet trends surface, it’s no surprise that one may find it difficult to stay on top of which nutrition routine works and much less, which is the right fit. 

From the Covid-combating immune-support diet, and the high-fat, low-carb Keto diet, to intermittent fasting, and cutting out processed food for Mediterranean-style dishes, intuitive eating is making a fast comeback since first being popularised by Dietitians, Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, in 1995. 

What is intuitive eating?

The simplest way to make sense of intuitive eating is that the program is a non-diet diet, allowing you to eat whatever you want when you want to. 

In their book, Intuitive Eating, A Revolutionary Program that Works, Resch and Tribole argue for an instinctive diet where you only eat once your body signals hunger and stop eating once your body signals fullness. The goal of this approach is to develop a healthy body image and to be in full control of your own body. 

Research by the National Library of Medicine suggests that intuitive eaters tend to have lower BMIs and more positive markers than individuals following restrictive diets.  

Can athletes apply intuitive eating? 

Following a non-diet diet can be especially tricky for athletes since they are expected to meet strict performance standards to participate in sports. It may be harder to meet or maintain these performance standards by practising intuitive eating.

The pros: 

Athletes who indulge cravings in moderation experience less disordered eating and are less at risk of under-fueling because they are more aware of what their bodies need. 

Occasionally indulging in snacks also helps to maintain a healthy relationship with food and alleviates sports-related stress without derailing performance goals. 

The cons: 

Nutrition requirements for athletes are often precisely calculated according to energy and sport demands, and an unplanned diet can negatively impact performance. 

Waiting for hunger signals may not be advisable for endurance athletes as a study shows that endurance exercise such as running suppresses the appetite, which could lead to a delay in the refuelling process. 

Opting to pursue intuitive eating without making educated nutrition choices can also lead to overeating or developing an unbalanced diet of eating too much or too little good fat, protein and carbohydrates. 

Since exercise burns calories, certain workouts such as endurance training may lead to an increase in appetite after on rest days and after workouts, which is absolutely normal but can also lead to overeating. 

As with every lifestyle choice, intuitive eating is not for everyone and should only be an option if you have some knowledge of what works for your body and what doesn’t. If you’d like to go this route, it may be helpful to speak to a nutritional expert to help you eliminate foods that your body doesn’t agree with, and help you ease into the process of trusting what works for you.

If you are not an endurance athlete or want to try intuitive eating anyway, here is how dieticians recommend that you get started: 

The principles of intuitive eating

There are 10 key principles introduced by Resch and Tribole, each of which are intended to create a lifelong anti-diet program: 

1. Reject the diet mentality 

Stop eating according to how others say you should for aesthetic reasons. 

2. Honour hunger 

Honour the first biological signals of when and what to eat in order to build trust in yourself and avoid overeating. 

3. Make peace with food 

Don’t deprive yourself of food that you think you shouldn’t be eating but consume them in small quantities to avoid more intense cravings that lead to ‘giving in’ and guilt. 

4. Challenge the Food Police 

Change your perception of being good or bad for eating certain foods. This doesn’t mean that healthy and unhealthy food lose their labels, just that you avoid attaching feelings of being a good or bad person to your eating habits. 

5. Discover the satisfaction factor 

Take pleasure in the experience of eating what you really want and savour the moment. This is said to have a powerful impact on satiety and feeling content. 

6. Feel your fullness 

Listen to your body when it indicates that you are no longer hungry. 

7. Cope with your emotions 

Find ways to comfort yourself without food when you are experiencing negative emotions such as boredom, anger, loneliness, and anxiety. 

8. Respect your body 

Avoid being critical of your body shape and size. Use intuitive eating as an opportunity to respect your body. 

9. Movement – feel the difference 

Shift your focus from exercise being a chore to including energizing movements that have a positive effect on you. 

10. Honour your health – gentle nutrition 

Make food choices that honours your body and health. 

Thinking about starting intuitive eating or filling your friends in on this non-diet diet? Share the pros and cons of this lifestyle with those who will find this post useful.

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