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The Practice of Intuitive Eating for the Athlete

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

Erin Kloster, Creator and Intern

Reviewed by Dana Eshelman, MS, RDN

Intuitive eating (IE) has gained a lot of traction recently and for good reason! You’ve probably seen or heard people talk about it, but what exactly does IE mean and how might it look different for athletes? Let’s get into it!

Intuitive eating is not a diet, but rather an eating framework based around self-care, intuition, and emotion. It has nothing to do with weight loss or dieting and everything to do with honoring our physical and mental health by listening to our bodies. It was originally created by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, and is rooted in 10 main principles:

  1. Rejecting diet mentality

  2. Honoring your hunger cues

  3. Making peace with food

  4. Challenging the food police

  5. Discovering the satisfaction factor

  6. Feeling your fullness

  7. Coping with your emotions with kindness

  8. Respecting your body

  9. Movement

  10. Honoring your health

These 10 principles serve as a guide to what intuitive eating looks like, but it doesn’t mean you have to implement all 10 principles at once. Starting slow, giving yourself grace, and approaching each principle with curiosity can prevent feeling overwhelmed, especially for those recovering from an eating disorder or disordered eating habits. For example, you might start by implementing just one of the 10 principles of IE and go from there.

The overall goal of intuitive eating is to practice listening to your body and honoring its needs without judgment or criticism.

Now that we have a better understanding of what intuitive eating looks like, let’s get a little more specific and dive into what intuitive eating looks like for athletes. Athletes have very different nutritional needs than the average person, especially high-intensity athletes, and as important as it is for athletes to listen to their bodies, it’s also just as important for them to meet their specific nutritional needs.

Athletes expend a ton of energy and have a lot to consider when it comes to their diet. For example, when to eat certain foods, whether they are getting enough carbohydrates, enough protein, or even just enough food altogether to support energy needs and recovery. Then, when diet culture is added into the mix, it becomes all the more difficult for athletes to practice intuitive eating while meeting their energy and nutritional needs throughout the day.

It’s important for athletes to find a find balance between listening to their bodies and eating intuitively while still fueling their bodies properly to maximize their performance and feel their best.

Here are a few ways athletes can practice intuitive eating while supporting their nutritional needs:

  • Reject the mentality that carbs are bad and incorporate more carbohydrates into the diet to support energy and recovery needs

  • Tune into hunger and fullness cues. Eating anytime you’re hungry is so important, especially to avoid under-fueling

  • Provide space for all types of foods, i.e., carbs, fat, protein, and fun foods, too, like ice cream, pizza, etc.

  • Shifting your views to see food as fuel for your workouts and body, and as a source of enjoyment and happiness

  • Be lenient with the foods you choose. When you need to eat carbs and/or protein to fuel pre and post workout, choose foods your body is craving most in that moment

  • Avoid counting calories and macros. Instead try allowing yourself to feel how food feels in your body, i.e. pleasant, unpleasant, neutral.

Ultimately, athletes can absolutely practice intuitive eating. In fact, intuitive eating is often a very beneficial practice for athletes, especially for those who might be struggling with their relationship with food and their body image.

In the end it’s important to remember to be patient with yourself. Listening to your body and practicing intuitive eating is often much easier said than done. Intuitive eating is meant to be a lifelong practice. It takes time to learn how to listen to your body. Start with one principle at a time. There is no “perfect” practice here and your progress in intuitive eating is very much your own. Be compassionate. Give yourself grace. Show yourself gratitude.

Being an athlete is already a lot of work, and adding in the effort of practicing intuitive eating, determining specific nutritional needs, and diet culture is A LOT. This is when working with a dietitian is so helpful as they can help guide and support athletes in all of these areas so they don’t have to do it all alone.

If this is something you need help with or are interested in exploring this further, A Dash of Dana is here for you!

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