Is Intuitive Eating Right for Athletes?

Have you ever heard of Intuitive Eating and wondered if it’s right for you as an athlete?

The concept of Intuitive Eating is one that comes up in conversations with clients fairly often, and tends to be a little confusing for people.

I think some of that confusion comes with not being super clear on what intuitive eating actually is, or trying to implement something you see on social media.

So, we’re going to dive into Intuitive Eating – what it is and if it may be beneficial to active people as a part of the fueling picture.

 Interested in learning about when healthy eating can become a problem? Read our recent blog: When Does Healthy Eating Become a Problem

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive Eating is a framework with 10 principles. It was created by a dietitian named Evelyn Tribole, and was designed to link self-care and the mind-body connection to eating.

Perhaps this sounds a little bit like something you may already be familiar with, especially if you have a bit of a nutrition background or have worked with a dietitian before.

Intuitive Eating principles can be helpful if you are looking to cultivate a healthy relationship with food, mind and body.

The 10 principles of Intuitive Eating are intended to work by either “cultivating or removing obstacles to body awareness, a process known as interoceptive awareness.  Essentially, Intuitive Eating is a personal process of honoring health by listening and responding to the direct messages of the body in order to meet your physical and psychological needs.” 

The principles are clear. But before I get into them, I want to be clear about what Intuitive Eating is NOT. 

Intuitive Eating is NOT A DIET. It shouldn’t be used as a diet, and the principles aren’t rules to adhere to, intended to create restriction, or increase your diet mentality.

This can often be a challenge for clients, especially if you have a background of dieting, or are in a situation where you’re being surrounded with diet mentality- whether that’s your team environment, family or friend groups.

I appreciate that many of these principles can be a little tricky. So, as you read on, keep in mind that reframing a diet mentality may present a mental hurdle.

Keeping in mind that Intuitive Eating is not a diet, but rather a framework for knowing yourself better and applying that to fueling, let’s talk about principles. 

The 10 principles of Intuitive Eating:

1. Reject the Diet Mentality
2. Honor Your Hunger
3. Make Peace with Food
4. Challenge the Food Police
5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
6. Feel Your Fullness
7. Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
8. Respect Your Body
9. Movement- Feel the Difference
10. Honor Your Health- Gentle Nutrition

If you’d like to know more about these Principles as they are envisioned by the creators of Intuitive Eating, you can check out their website here

Now, I’m not a trained Intuitive Eating counselor. But, I have a lot of thoughts or takeaways on these principles as they apply through the lens of my specialty, which is that of a Sports Dietitian.

You can hear all my thoughts about each of these principles as they relate to active people on the Nuanced Nutrition Pod. On the podcast, I dive even deeper into each of these principles, so you should definitely check that out here

Do Intuitive Eating principles apply to athletes?

Essentially, what I see is when people have a hard time using Intuitive Eating, and many aspects of nutrition in general, it’s because the concepts exist in an area of gray.

It’s not hard and fast, black and white rules of what to do and not do. All or nothing thinking isn’t going to help you as an athlete to move the performance needle in the right direction.

So for athletes, I think there are a couple places where Intuitive Eating can get extra tricky.

1. The first is that ‘honoring your hunger’ piece, principle number 2. Put simply, if you as an athlete are only eating when you are hungry, you are likely underfueling.

You’re likely also missing opportunities to meet those higher calorie (energy) needs that you have as a result of your level of activity. So rather than saying “I’m noticing I’m not hungry, so I will honor that by not eating”, as an athlete you have to find ways to reframe that to support your body.

You can use gentle nutrition by saying, “I know I need to support my body with recovery after my training even though I’m not hungry. So, I will have a smoothie or something a little easier for my system to tolerate to get some nutrients in,” and then balance that out with our tried and true performance plates.

You can read about performance plates here and here, as well as a printable you can grab here!

This reframe actually captures some of the other principles, too! – honoring your health and respecting your body.

2. In addition, point 9 discusses movement, which can take on some nuance for athletes. Maybe you’re an athlete who is in the off season, or you’re injured.

Or, perhaps you are moving into a new season of life with your organized sport career coming to a close. In these cases, it can be easy to underfuel and not honor your health because you feel like you’re not as active. 

I definitely touch on this, not only in the podcast episode on Intuitive Eating, but also in the first couple of episodes.

This idea really that cuts to the heart of what this is all about- you’re a human first and an athlete second. So, you have to support your human body with nutrition for all the vital functions that require fuel to maintain our baseline, hopefully optimal, health. 

Back to the Original Question: Is Intuitive Eating Right For Athletes and Active People?

I think absolutely, yes, as long as you understand that as an athlete, you have different needs than a person who is not active.

So, some principles of Intuitive Eating need to be tweaked a little bit.

Intuitive Eating can have a place in the active person’s plan, but at the same time, you can’t adopt it as a rigid set of rules, and throw out all of the sports nutrition recommendations and strategies, such as eating before and after training (regardless of hunger or lack thereof) that we know are necessary to maintain our performance and human function.

As long as Intuitive Eating principles are applied with an asterisk ** for active folks, they’re helpful principles that can be applied.

But, they shouldn’t necessarily be the rule of thumb since there’s some room to end up in a nutritional deficit that won’t support your body.

Intuitive Eating may provide a useful set of tools to help banish diet mentality and improve your relationship with food, mind and body, which all athletes can benefit from. 

Key Takeaways: Is Intuitive Eating Right For Athletes?

As an athlete, intuitive eating can absolutely work for you. However, you may not be able to follow each principle exactly.

One of the most important differences an athlete will have with intuitive eating is making adjustments to avoid underfueling.

Even if you’re not hungry, eating before and after workouts is important for proper fueling. Also, if you’re in the off-season or injured, you may be tempted to undereat since you’re not being as active.

If you’re an athlete and you want to give intuitive eating a try, it might be a good idea to work with a dietitian to support you along the way.

If you find yourself looking for deeper support in your nutritional goals, we would love to spend some time chatting with you about 1:1 Coaching! Sign up for a discovery call here

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