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Can Athletes Be Intuitive Eaters?

Intuitive eating is a mind-body nutrition practice developed by two registered dietitians (RD) based on the 10 principles which details the process of listening and responding to the direct messages of your body in order to meet your physical and psychological needs with eating. It is not a food or diet plan dictating when or how much to eat, but rather being mindful of your hunger cues and eating when it feels right. The question is can athletes also be intuitive eaters? 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

By following the ten principles, you learn to avoid traditional food rules influenced by diet culture, and instead choose when, how, and what to eat based on your own body cues. However, as an athlete, your energy demands are higher requiring you to eat more often to fuel your training which may not always follow the intuitive eating principles.

For example, you may find yourself not hungry first thing the morning and skip breakfast before training. If you are just listening to your hunger cues and avoid eating before training you may risk poor sports performance or lack of energy, especially on hard work out or long endurance training sessions. In this case, it's not recommended to skip breakfast and to fuel appropriately with a small amount of food to fuel your workout. In addition, when training longer than 60-90 minutes it's recommended to eat 30 to 60 grams of easily digesting carbs per hour to prevent early fatigue. Most often during endurance training you may not feel hungry an hour into your workout, but prevent from "bonking" during your exercise, you need to practice proper fueling strategies to maintain energy. Finally, recovery nutrition is key to help your body restore energy and repair your muscles. Many athletes are not hungry right after training and may not eat a meal or snack hours later. This can result in poor recovery after a hard training session or long workout. Once again, listening to your hunger cues may not be advantageous in this situation. Instead eating or drinking a small recovery snack, like a glass of chocolate milk, might be an easy way to rehydrate and recover from training right after training when you're not ready to eat a meal, then you can listen to your body and eat a recovery meal when you're hungry. You 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. Intuitive eating is a framework that you can use to step back from the diet culture and realize that by honoring your body, you can end up fueling and performing better than you ever had.

The best time to practice intuitive eating is during the off season. This is typically a time when you are focusing more on building strength, 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. Overall, intuitive eating can be appropriate for athletes but it's important to realize your body demands additional energy depending on your training load. You need honor your body and listen to your hunger cues, but realize you may need to fuel at times you normally wouldn't eat around training to maximize your training and perform your best!

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