Hi everyone! I’m excited to introduce you to my intern, Maura, who’s been helping me BTS here at TFD since June! Maura is passionate about sports nutrition, which makes her the perfect author for today’s post all about intuitive eating and athletes! I hope you find it helpful. Take it away, Maura!

Intuitive eating seems to be sweeping the media these days but, what exactly is intuitive eating, and is it appropriate for all athletes? Athletes are a special population that typically require a high caloric intake and need to be mindful of what they are eating and when.

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating was created by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA, CEDRD, and can be basically defined as one eating based on physiological hunger and satiety cues rather than situational and emotional cues. It encompasses “a self-care framework integrating instinct, emotion and rational thought”. Intuitive eating is a scientifically studied paradigm with over 100 research articles to date that show benefits such as lower triglycerides, higher HDL cholesterol, higher self-esteem, higher body appreciation, and acceptance, increased pleasure from eating, decreased prevalence of eating disorders, and less emotional eating.

By following a series of ten principles, you learn to reject arbitrary food rules influenced by diet culture, and instead choose when, how, and what to eat based on your own attunement to your body. One of the biggest misconceptions with intuitive eating is that this means you can eat whatever you want, whenever you want! While making peace with food and giving yourself unconditional permission to eat is one important aspect of this paradigm, there is much more nuance and complexity with the other principles, such as honoring your health with gentle nutrition.

The ten principles of intuitive eating 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
  7. Cope with your emotions with kindness
  8. Respect your body
  9. Movement – feel the difference
  10. Honor your health with gentle nutrition

These principles are not meant to be a list of rules; they are meant to act as a guide for the person to pick and choose which principles apply best to them. A person does not need to strictly follow these rules in order to classify themselves as an intuitive eater, and they can begin with any principle.

Commonly, intuitive eating can be used as a tool to help individuals who have suffered from an eating disorder or disordered eating in the past recover and learn how to trust their bodies again. This often begs the question, is intuitive eating just for those healing their disordered eating or is it something that everyone can practice, including athletes?

Intuitive Eating and Athletes

Athletes have high activity levels, high energy expenditures, and typically little free time on their hands. Athletes have many things to consider when it comes to their diet including: the composition of their meals in proportion to their training times, the timing of meals around training, consuming enough calories, consuming enough protein and carbohydrates, and knowing how to eat when they are not hungry. However, athletes can do all of this and still be in tune with what their body wants and needs at any given time.

One of the biggest issues for athletes, especially with diet culture running rampant, is low energy availability. This is when an athlete is not eating enough to support what they are expending on a daily basis.

As you can imagine, not having enough energy throughout the day can be a pretty miserable feeling, especially if you know that you have a one or two-hour practice, training session, or game in that same day. However, low energy availability can be prevented by an athlete increasing the amount of food they are eating. This is where intuitive eating can come into play.

According to Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, a sports nutritionist and former Division 1 athlete, athletes can still intuitively eat, while being smart about their fueling plan. This is where you would lean on your body knowledge and your brain knowledge. This could look like always including a source of protein in a meal such as meat, tofu, beans, or yogurt even when the athlete is not craving it. It could also look like honoring their body by using carbohydrates to fuel workouts and recovery, instead of fearing foods that are dense in carbohydrates.

Even as simple as drinking water or a sports drink when they aren’t thirsty – by giving their body the hydration and calories that it needs the athlete is aiding in their own recovery process and making sure they are prepared for their next practice or game. Athletes can learn to eat as an act of self-care, rather than waiting for their hunger cues to come, or waiting for the perfect time of day to eat.

In our appearance-focused culture we live in today, many people, including athletes, are unfortunately using food and exercise as a way to manipulate their bodies. Intuitive eating is a framework that an athlete can use to step back from this mentality and realize that by honoring their bodies and their mind, they can end up fueling and performing better than they ever had.

Athletes can also free up brain space that was used worrying about calories burned during a workout or grams of carbohydrates consumed throughout the day and put that energy towards other things in life that are meaningful to them such as building good relationships, excelling in school, and much more.

One of the best time for an athlete to begin practicing intuitive eating is during the off season. This is typically a time when athletes are utilizing their time to build strength and skill, rather than focusing on performance. This is a great time to reestablish hunger cues, tune in with your body, and improve your relationship with food.

Nevertheless, for certain sports, the offseason can sometimes put pressure on an athlete to try and manipulate their weight. However, IE can provide a supportive framework that promotes body respect, accepting your natural genetic blueprint, and taking good care of you’re here-and-now body versus trying to change it.

When it comes to intuitive eating it is both possible and appropriate for your body to gain weight, lose weight, or stay the same. A lot of athletes may be scared by this but it is important to realize that if you are honoring your hunger and fullness cues, and what your body needs, eventually your body will reach a set point where it is happiest. This point is also when food and eating become second nature and don’t have to be thought through as much as they once were.

In summary, the answer is yes. Intuitive eating can be appropriate for athletes but, that is because intuitive eating can look different for everyone. Intuitive eating is not meant to be a rigid diet but rather a lifestyle that one is able to maintain for the entirety of their life. It takes time, patience, and compassion to learn how to listen to your body, but it will always be worth it in the end.

Maura Donovan is a dietetic intern at Boston University and Lowell General Hospital. She has a strong passion for nutrition and exercise and enjoys practicing both in her everyday life! In her future career, Maura hopes to work with athletes to help them use food for fuel!

Learn more about intuitive eating with these resources:

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  1. Love this! Thank you for sharing!