Mindful eating part IV: Body image

In sports like running and triathlons, there will always be a focus on body composition and for many athletes, a desire to be leaner.
Specific to running economy, speed and aerobic capabilities, leanness in athletes, as it relates to performance improvements, is a topic that will never go away.

There's nothing wrong with athletes seeking weight loss, a decrease in body fat or an increase in lean muscle mass. This could be for aesthetics and self-esteem, to experience and improvement in performance and/or for overall health. 

Every year, I see my body composition change as I prepare for my peak races. But my race weight is unintentional as it is simply the weight on my body that I bring to race day. 
And I don't know that number because I don't weigh myself. 

I have never been against the idea of athletes changing body composition, especially if it improves overall health but there are many ways to improve performance and not always is weight loss the catalyst for performance improvements.

Health is always my number one goal when I work with athletes on nutrition or coaching. So when it comes to performance improvements, related to body composition, my strategy for changing an athlete's body composition involves no extreme strategy except to to make sure that my athletes eat a healthy diet and support their metabolic demands with proper nutrition before, during and after workouts.

Body composition changes can be a direct result of fueling your body properly before, during and after workouts, staying consistent with your training plan, getting good sleep and eating a healthy, balanced diet to support metabolic/energy demands throughout my season.  A change in body composition does not have to require extreme approaches unless you call eating before a workout, fueling during a workout, recovering after a workout and eating a healthy diet throughout the day, extreme.

In my opinion, intentional weight loss strategy like don't eat these foods, don't eat more than this many carbohydrates, fast before workouts or consume less than this many calories during long workouts are unhealthy for athletes. I believe that weight/body changes can occur naturally as a result of making sure that athletes properly fuel and nourish their body at all times.
And guess what, with this approach performance improvements happen naturally as well.
Athletes are driven. 
They are hard working, a bit stubborn at times and they love consistency.
They strive for improvements and they are willing to make sacrifices and investments in order to experience progress.

When a hard working, driven, disciplined and focused athlete is training for an event, it is normal that body composition will be on the mind of an athlete. Because you see and feel our body, often wrapped tight in spandex, with every aerobic and anaerobic effort, it is normal to assume that a change in body weight and/or body composition may make you feel better when you workout and may improve your training which may improve your race day performances. 

However, athletic performance can not be predicted by a certain weight, body composition or change in weight or body composition. Many times, athletes try to change body weight/composition and performance and/or health declines.

It is important to understand that body composition or weight changes may not be ideal for every athlete and above all, the strategies that athletes employ to change body composition may increase the risk for eating disorder thoughts and behaviors.

For age-group and professional athletes, the very same qualities that help athletes improve fitness in order to be prepared for race day may resemble the traits of athletes who are at risk for an eating disorder.

Athletes are already known to demonstrate extreme behaviors to improve performance so it wouldn't be a stretch to assume that many athletes see extreme eating behaviors as "normal".

without the ability to eat mindfully or to maintain a healthy relationship with food, an athlete who seeks body composition changes may have the tendency to restrict too much, with the intention to lose weight quickly and can ultimately carry restrictive or obsessive eating habits throughout the entire training and racing season.

Do you have a healthy relationship with food?

Eating disorders are a serious concern when it comes to athletes as a body that is malnourished or deprived in key nutrients, energy or fluids will not perform well and will certain struggle to remain in good health. You may feel that you are not at risk for an eating disorder but instead, you are following the advice of a professional who is helping you lose weight or change body composition in a "healthy" way in order to improve performance.

Let's consider the basic strategies to improve performance:
-Follow a smart, periodized training plan
-Eat a healthy diet to keep the body in good health
-Fuel for workouts appropriately
-Hydrate the body appropriately 
-Get good sleep
-Stay consistent with training
-Strength train and work on mobility
-Focus on individual development. 

With the most basic strategies, athletes can improve performance and ultimately may experience a positive change in body composition as an unintentional side effect. If body composition changes do not happen, the athlete should not stress as performance gains will likely still occur as you will be racing with a healthy and strong, well trained body. 

Although many great athletes understand and execute these basic strategies and let body changes be a side effect of smart training and fueling, some athletes desire a more extreme approach to eating and training. For the later, it is typical that these athletes have yet to master a healthy relationship with food and may have body image issues.  Using sport nutrition, eating around workouts, planning meals and snacks - many  athletes don't even consider the basics as they want to jump to a more severe, hard core and sexy approach. 

Let's now consider some current eating trends among triathletes:
-Fasting workouts
-Skipping meals/snacks to save calories
-Avoiding carbohydrates around workouts
-Avoiding certain foods termed "bad" like dairy, legumes, nuts and grains
-Low carb diets
-High fat diets
-Intentional dehydration
-Calorie deprivation during workouts

Hmmmm. Those habits sure resemble the habits of dieters who seek rapid weight loss results:
-Skipping meals and snacks
-Avoiding certain foods
-Abiding by an off-limit food list
-Intentional dehydration
-Using energy drinks, energy pills or laxatives
-Extreme calorie deprivation

Let's now explore some of the primary symptoms of eating disorders:
-Intense fear of being fat
-Resistance to maintain a healthy weight
-Inability to recognize (or feel good) in a comfortable at a healthy weight
-Loss of menstrual cycle in women, cardiovascular and hormonal issues in men and women
-Distorted body image
-Feeling out of control with eating behaviors
-Lack of control around food
-Feeling ashamed by eating behaviors
-Extreme concern with body weight/image
-Obsession with calorie counting, weight control and food intake

Now I want you to imagine what happens when you take an athlete who wants to improve performance or/and change body composition, who has yet to master a healthy relationship with food, has never learned how to eat mindfully and has poor body image thoughts and now this athlete consults a professional to help improve performance and/or change body composition and that athlete.

And the professional says "I want you to workout on an empty stomach, don't consume carbohydrates during the workout, only eat x-calories per day, cut back on carbs and avoid these foods. And by following these rules you will lose weight, performance will improve and you will be healthier than ever."
These extreme habits are not helping the athlete tackle his/her primary eating/body issues but only adding fuel to the fire to make unhealthy eating and body image issues even worse. 

Because many athletes seek body composition or weight changes at some point in their athletic career, I can't stress it enough that athletes must focus on their relationship with food before even considering to change body composition.

This entire blog series on mindful eating is dedicating to the athlete who struggles with body image and feels great anxiety, concern or struggles when it comes to food.

I promise that you can reach performance and/or body composition goals with a better relationship with food and your body. And you don't have to follow extreme eating habits.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to change your body composition and not every athlete takes extreme approaches to eating, fueling and training. 

But since we live in a diet-centric culture, you must learn how to eat in a mindful way by not seeing food as good or bad but as nourishment and for fuel.

If you are an athlete who has taken an extreme approach to changing body composition or to improve performance this past year (or for many years in the past), it is time to learn how to eat mindfully.

Consult a professional if you can not do it on your own so that you can make 2016 amazingly great by improving your body image and creating a great, healthy, feel-good relationship with food.

When you master mindful eating you may learn that your entire drive for changing body composition really came from your unhealthy relationship with food or your body image struggles were causing an unhealthy relationship with food.

It is only when you master a healthy relationship with food that you will have a healthier perspective on your body and you will perform better.

It is my hope that through mindful eating and a great relationship with food and your body, that you will experience amazing performance and health improvements and you will stop putting so much energy into changing your body but instead, enjoying what your body can do in training and on race day. 


Mindful eating part III: Indulge responsibly tips

I've spent the last two blogs talking about mindful eating. And I'm not done yet. I still have part IV to combine everything together so that you, the athlete, can fully understand where I am coming from as it relates to your health, performance and body composition goals.

First off, I invite you to read THIS ARTICLE to help you improve your relationship with food.

As promised, here are a few simple tips to help you practice mindful eating.
Whereas the above article (link) can help with improving your relationship  with food, the below tips are specific to when you indulge. Most people do not have an unhealthy relationship with food they term healthy and feel good when eating is under control.
The food mind games likely occur when you indulge, eat something you term "off limit" or feel "off track" with your eating.
(Be sure to practice these tips throughout the holiday season when you will be presented with more treats than normal.)

Before indulging, ask yourself why you are indulging? Are you stressed, bored, upset, famished? It is important to have a purpose and a reason when you eat - from carrot cake to carrots. There is always a time for everything so just make sure that you feel good about what you eat, when you eat it. An important rule of mindful eating is that you should never say "I shouldn't be eating this" when you are eating something.

Many athletes struggle with eating in the evening in that this is the time when cravings hit full force or hunger is hard to tame. Always honor your biological hunger.
Because we want to avoid the negative thoughts associated with eating/food which may affect how you exercise/train and eat the next day, tell yourself that when you wake-up in the morning, you should never regret what you ate the night before. Own-up to your food choices. If you are going to eat something at or between dinner and bedtime, feel great about it (don't hate yourself for it the next morning). This tip is so powerful. 

Ask yourself how much you need to eat of your treat before that treat is no longer appealing (or feels good inside your tummy). If you can't resist the indulgence, or you have a great reason to indulge, aim to eat up to 4 savory bites of your treat. You pick the size. Excite your taste buds with every bite and be sure to make the bites count (it's no fun to indulge in something that neutrally appeals to you). Sometimes we can satisfy a craving in just one bite whereas other times, a few more bites are needed to create happiness in the tummy.
I need at least 3-4 bites of a cinnamon roll, banana bread or carrot cake but I am good with one bite of a cookie or piece of cake (I give the rest to Karel) to feel happy inside my tummy. 

Relax. It's OK to indulge and to eat for pleasure every now and then. But first, consider what you eat most of the time and what you eat on occasion. If your office brings in store-bought cookies or pastries every day, and you eat cookies or pastries every day, guess what will happen on a special occasion when you are presented with cookies or pastries? That special occasion cookie or pastry is not as special because Friday office cookies or pastries are your norm. 
Choose your indulgences wisely. 

Trust yourself. Many times, athletes can afford to indulge every now and then without any negative side-effects. But you have to trust yourself when you indulge. If you have a dieting mentality, you may find yourself using your next workout as the first opportunity to "burn off" those calories or restricting calories the next time you eat. With an unhealthy relationship with food, you may even sabotage your next few workouts as a result of food restriction or overexercising. It's time to avoid food rules, to stop an all-or-nothing approach to what you eat (or don't eat) and to stop eating with shame, guilt or anxiety. If you feel you can't work on this by yourself, consult a professional who can help.

-Have your cake and eat it too!
The opposite of dieting is mindful eating. There is no right or wrong way to eat. It's time to renew your relationship with food. You pick the right times to indulge.

Store-bought apple pie from the freezer section or 
Grandma's homemade apple pie or?
Brownies from a box or one brownie to share with a best friend/spouse/child, from the well-known local bakery?
Bagels from a bag or a fresh bagel made with quality ingredients, made daily?

Think about what you are eating, when you are eating it and why you are eating it.
No need to be obsessed. 
It's finally time that you associate a deeper meaning to what you put inside your body.

Above all, when you eat or indulge, be sure you feel amazingly, awesome, happy and satisfied after you eat. 


Mindful eating part II: Food is Fuel

How did you do with your homework today from my last blog post?
Did you find yourself with positive or negative thoughts when you ate?
Did your thoughts turn negative when you ate foods that you term "off-limit"?
What foods made you feel the best and what foods gave you the most anxiety?

Continue to work on this so that you learn how to quiet the voices in your head so that eating is a peaceful, joyful and positive experience.
I promise - it is possible and it will make a huge impact on how you fuel for your athletic endeavors.

So why do I continue to talk and talk and talk about mindful eating as it relates to athletes?
As a Board Certified Sport Dietitian, shouldn't I be spending most of my time talking about supplements and sport nutrition products?

Well, every athlete has to eat.
And in my field of work, far too many athletes struggle with their relationship with food and their body.

Since many athletes don't consider mastering mindful eating before they start training for an athletic event, I can't stress how important it is to develop a great relationship with food and the body in order to boost athletic performance and overall health. 

If you continue to train for events (especially long distance events) with an unhealthy relationship with food, there is a great risk of developing an unhealthy relationship with body image later on.
An unhealthy body image drives unhealthy eating habits.
Eventually, performance and health decline.

If you feel uncomfortable eating before workouts, using sport nutrition during workouts or have yet to learn how to eat for health and plan your diet throughout the day, you may find it extremely difficult to experience success in athletic development without a health-related setback.

You can be extremely disciplined with training but if you do not fuel smart your body will not perform well.

Being mindful with your eating allows you to see food differently.
Mindful eating allows you to train better.

I feel that the topic of mindful eating (specific to the sport of triathlons and running) is often ignored when it comes to providing dietary advice from the masses. There are very few Board Certified Sport Dietitians like me who even discuss the topic of mindful eating.

Because there are many individuals who hav struggle with prior years of dieting, struggling with body image issues or exercising with different intentions, it is important to master mindful eating.
If your mind is yelling at you to not eat what you are about to eat/drink, it's time for a break-up as your relationship with food is unhealthy.

BUT - it can be fixed! 


Once you sign up for an event, you are an athlete.
When you are an athlete, you must have a great passion for healthy eating as well as for fueling and hydrating your body properly to support your daily training stress.

These days, our society has a great disconnect with food. Busy lifestyles and an obsession with diets, food trends and body image may increase the tendency for athletes to become disengaged when it comes to understanding biological hunger, snacking with a purpose and fueling for upcoming workouts.

In honor of the recent NBC Broadcast of the 2015 Ironman World Championship this past weekend, I had a celebration party at my house. I invited a few close friends and we watched the recorded broadcast while enjoying appetizers and pizza (I love any excuse to eat pizza). 

I remembered the cake that I put in the freezer several weeks ago, all for the "right" time to eat it.
I could not think of a better time to enjoy this KONA cake than with our close friends, while watching IM KONA.

Even though I ate pizza and appetizers, I still ate cake. Just a few bites as that was all I needed to feel satisfied and happy in my tummy.
No guilty feelings. No need to exercise more the next day. No anxiety when I went to bed about what I ate. 

Mindful eating is the art of attaching feelings of satisfaction, pleasure and hunger with food. Mindful eating is detaching feelings of guilt, anxiety, numbers and negative food words when it comes to food.
Kale, bread, grapes, milk, cookies or cake - mindful eating is freedom from food rules as you are in control of what foods make you feel the best without thoughts in your head telling you otherwise. 

I will say it over and over but an overlooked area in athletics is the topic of mindful eating. There is no doubt that there is a heightened awareness of body image in aesthetic and weight-bearing sports and for a fitness enthusiast turned athlete, it is very hard for some athletes to turn off the mindset of working out to burn calories and instead, training for performance gains. 

Whereas a fitness enthusiasts can get away with exercises as a way to burn calories, athletes must see food for fuel. 

In Part III, I will discuss some tips to help you master the art of mindful eating. .