Intuitive Eating Sports Nutrition

Intuitive Eating for Athletes and Active Clients

More dietitians are integrating the research-based concepts of intuitive eating into their counseling practices, but many are unaware of the principles and how to apply them. In the past, both dietitians and therapists used intuitive eating mostly in eating disorder treatment facilities. However, using intuitive eating in private practice has become more popular with hopes of ending chronic dieting and helping clients build a more positive relationship with food and their bodies.

Many private practice dietitians, with or without a strong sports nutrition background, have clients who are athletes or who engage in high levels of physical activity. Often these individuals have followed overly prescriptive diets to improve performance or aesthetics. Unfortunately, this usually means inadequate nutrition for their physically demanding lifestyles, since dietary patterns rarely are tailored to that individual’s training plan, lifestyle, food preferences, age, or metabolism, among other factors.

Since the most valid research in sports nutrition usually leads to strict dietary recommendations, it can seem as though intuitive eating and nutrition for athletic performance wouldn’t go hand in hand. However, active individuals are at a much higher risk of eating disorders and disordered eating, which are what the principles of intuitive eating are meant to combat. So it can be helpful for practitioners to use interventions that improve not only performance and physical health but also mental health and eliminate disordered eating behaviors. The integration of intuitive eating with sports nutrition has the potential to do just that.

The following 10 principles of intuitive eating can be applied to athletes and active clients.

1. Reject the Diet Mentality
Whether an athlete follows a juice cleanse to “make weight,” goes on a low-carbohydrate diet to look thinner in sport’s apparel or gym clothes, restrictive diets are riskier for this population. Helping active individuals understand the negative effects of these diets, such as dehydration, low blood sugar, and higher risk of injury, can help them understand the nutritional needs for the demands they put on their bodies.

2. Honor Your Hunger
As a sports dietitian, I often hear people say they wish they weren’t hungry after exercise. This is an indication the individual is active with the primary goal of weight loss, rather than athletic performance or the other benefits of exercise. On the other hand, many athletes deal with postexercise appetite suppression after long or intense bouts of physical activity. So it’s essential for dietitians to educate them on the importance of replacing nutrients immediately after exercise and the symptoms of hunger other than an empty stomach.

3. Make Peace With Food
Both food rules and food rituals are common with athletes and active people. Media, the culture of their sport, and recommendations from teammates, friends, and even coaches can produce these stigmas. Dietitians must be able to balance the “all foods fit” mentality with an understanding that certain nutrients must be consumed in higher or lower amounts before and during exercise to avoid gastrointestinal discomfort and subsequent low energy levels.

4. Challenge the Food Police
Athletes and active clients usually look to coaches and trainers for nutrition advice more often than RDs, but they frequently get their nutrition information from supplement companies and the media. This can cause active individuals to fear certain nutrients and eating patterns and even adequate energy intake. It’s our role as dietitians to respectfully explain scope of practice and that a healthful and adequate diet for an athlete is altogether different from that for the general population.

5. Respect Your Fullness 
Athletes usually get to the point of overeating by having excessively large meals due to inadequate energy intake throughout the day or strenuous endurance exercise. With adequate energy intake before and during a long workout, athletes can avoid feeling the need to eat quickly and impulsively, enabling them to pay better attention to fullness cues. Working with clients to counsel them on the importance of consuming adequate, balanced, and frequent snacks as well as fueling during workouts can help them eat more mindfully later.

6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Along with getting enough fuel throughout the day, enjoying foods mindfully that were previously “off limits” on a regular basis can leave clients feeling more mentally content and satisfied. With athletes, there may be a need for additional education about timing of treats around workouts and competitions, depending on their fat content, or pairing a small portion of a treat with an adequate protein source postworkout.

7. Honor Feelings Without Using Food
Athletes also are prone to high stress and anxiety. For some, this leads to undereating and loss of appetite, but for others it can lead to overeating as a coping mechanism. So help athletes find healthful outlets to manage stress such as yoga and meditation.

8. Respect Your Body
Females especially are prone to feeling insecure in a lean body that’s more muscular than the average woman, and discussions on respecting one’s body may be different with each client in this population. Some clients will need to understand that their muscles provide them with strength to achieve their goals, while others may need help in avoiding comparing their body with that of a leaner athlete.

9. Exercise—Know the Difference
Are your clients athletes simply because not exercising intensely makes them anxious? Do they force a second exercise class simply to burn more calories and not because it’s enjoyable? Many active individuals need to reflect and remind themselves why they exercise, and what it is they enjoy about physical activity and competition so they can understand the concepts of mindful and joyful movement.

10. Honor Your Health
Food and exercise should make clients feel good. However, if a client is constantly getting sick or injured, it’s an indication their diet is inadequate and, therefore, not supporting their activity. In female athletes, inadequate nutrition can lead to irregular periods or cause them to stop altogether, so RDs may need to discuss the short- and long-term consequences of menstrual dysfunction.

— Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, is a board-certified sports dietitian in the greater Philadelphia area. As a media spokesperson, speaker, consultant, and nutrition coach, her expertise lies in performance nutrition, fitness club programming, and intuitive eating. Kelly is the cocreator of the virtual course Fit Fueling: Intuitive Eating for Active Females.

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