Board Certified Sport Dietitian, Master of Science in Exercise Physiology, 25-year Vegetarian, Writer/Speaker, 11x Ironman finisher including 4x IM Kona finisher, Doggy-mommy, Wife to an amazing Czech cyclist turned Ironman Kona finisher, Triathlon Coach.
Healthy relationship with food - athlete edition
We are all aware of how diets work - follow rigid food rules and you will lose weight.
If you can follow the diet for a specific period of time, you will lose weight. It's as simple as that.
With every diet, there are certain foods that are allowed at certain times of the day, a specific amount of food that is allowed to be eaten and foods that are forbidden.
This is why people love diets - they are nothing more than a plan telling you how to eat so that you have a reason to avoid certain foods and to ignore biological hunger cues.
With a diet, you don't have to learn how to be a mindful eater or how to eat with intention. You become a robot in that you only have one program for x-weeks and that is all you have to focus on.
Ask any person who has followed a diet plan and she/he will likely say that food rules offer boundaries or perhaps a level of discipline that the person wasn't able to do on his/her own and this is why diets work so well. Whereas once a person had trouble resisting treats, sweets or specific foods, rule-based eating provides strict guidelines as to what not to eat.
But as we all know, diets don't work.
Furthermore, a diet is nothing more than a dysfunctional relationship with food.
It's very interesting how a diet can change how a person views food. With almost every diet, there is a fixation on good and bad foods relating to health, appearance and weight.
The act (or even thought) of eating a cookie, a banana, a piece of pizza, a pancake, a slice of bread, a potato, ice cream or any other food that has been termed "bad" is associated with shame and guilt.
And above all, a poor body image combined with conflicting information as to what you should and shouldn't be eating increases the risk for more and more food restriction which can increase the risk for an eating disorder.
But as an athlete, you would never diet, right?
You know better than that.
Cleanses, fasts, avoid food groups or restricting calories is not how athletes eat as we need food for fuel.
So why is it that so many athletes justify a new style of eating (often starting in the off-season, after the holidays and around the New Year) all in an effort to improve health and performance that is nothing more than a well-marketed diet for athletes?
Since when did depriving your body of crucial nutrients, intentionally not fueling or hydrating before, during and after workouts, limiting, reducing or avoiding carbohydrates, skipping meals or snacks or not eating when you are biologically hungry, become socially acceptable for athletes?
Since when did it become ok for athletes to think it was ok to deprive the body of energy, fluids and electrolytes when the body needs it the most - when training!!!??
Where are our ethical standards for coaches, dietitians, nutrition experts, physicians, personal trainers, chiropractics and other professionals who provide nutrition advice to athletes?
These fueling/hydrating practices are NOT ok!
If we know it is unhealthy and damaging for a normal person to follow a diet, why are we pretending that these extreme eating and fueling methods are "healthy" for athletes?
It's very evident how many athletes are treating their bodies around/during workouts and during the day when it comes to their eating (or lack thereof) and it is not for a healthier lifestyle, a better body composition or for performance gains ...it's not healthy, it's just plain dangerous.
I find it important that before the holiday season and right now in your off-season, prior to starting the first phase of your training, that you work on your relationship with food. The number one reason to justify food restriction is body dissatisfaction and because athletes will always associate body composition to performance, it is extremely important that you improve your relationship with food before increasing the intensity and volume in your training regime.
Food is designed to nourish your body and fuel your workout routine. Eating enhances your life. It should not be an obsession or a vehicle of guilt, shame or fear and you should not blame poor performances, injuries or slow fitness progress on your body.
Whereas you may engage in unhealthy behaviors, like extreme dieting, restricting nutrition around/during workouts, calorie restriction, using diet pills, laxatives or diuretics or engaging in excessive exercising as an easy fix when you feel dissatisfaction with body or after you eat "bad" food, by developing a healthier relationship with food and your body, you will be well on your way to also improving your relationship with your body.
When you eat better, you feel better. And when you feel better, you make better choices. And with better choices, your body will remain in better health as you train to improve fitness, endurance and strength.
So how can you improve your relationship with food and your body?
It's not a quick fix and it takes work. But it is worth it.
Here are three tips that you can start applying to your life today when it comes to improving your relationship with food.
First, focus on eating mindfully. Listen to your body. Accept biological hunger and don't get mad at your body for being hungry. Learn to create a diet that works for your lifestyle and learn to respond to cravings in a responsible way. Eat with intention and enjoy eating. Next time you say to yourself "I shouldn't eat this", ask yourself why you are questioning the food that you are about to eat? If you have a good reason for not eating something (for example, you just finished a meal, you are comfortably full and someone presents you with a brownie for dessert), don't eat it. Say no thank you and move on with your day. Life will go on and you will feel better without thoughts of guilt that you should not have eaten something that doesn't make you feel good inside.
But if you are in the mood for rice, pasta, chocolate, a glass of milk or some other type of "forbidden" food, ask yourself why you created this off-food list? Be a mindful eater as you are figuring out the best diet for you.
Eat when you are physically/biologically hungry and stop when you are satisfied.
It's time to get more in-tune with your body and hunger cues as well as understanding (and possibly adjusting) the thoughts that are associated with how you currently eat.
Next, you should always feel better after you eat than before. I find that this is so important for athletes to keep in mind in the off-season as there is a brief period of indulging after the last race of the season, especially with food that was not once not consumed as it was viewed as "non-performance enhancing". But after a week (10 days at most), it is important to indulge responsibly. Sometimes, food just tastes better than other times - like pancakes after a long ride. But certainly in the off-season, you are still allowed to yum over food.... you just don't want to overdo it. It is possible to eat the same foods year round (like "reward" food) but you must adjust how much you eat based on your workout load. If anything, you want to avoid "making-up" for how you eat as you must learn how to feel good about your eating habits without justifying how much you worked out before/after or trying to "save" calories.
You can still yum over pancakes in the off-season without having to workout for 5+ hours and just because you eat pizza for dinner, you don't have to avoid carbs for the next 24 hours.
Lastly, within our diet obsessed society, we have lost the enjoyment for eating.
Our society has such a big obsession with healthy eating yet we have such an unhealthy relationship with food. It sounds so simple but our society really misses the mark when it comes to educating on how to eat "healthy." The first step is to focus on eating real food. Nothing will make you feel better than eating food grown from the earth, with the help of a farmer. Next, those food needs to be purchased (or grown) and then prepared. This takes time, planning and effort. We live in a world we are driven by being busy and have easy routes for eating quickly.
Sadly, much of our society has become rather comfortable with eating but not making time to nourish the body.
If you really want to improve your relationship with food, an easy place to start is by appreciating a varied wholesome diet, with you as the cook. It's time to make peace with food.
If you are missing out on life or struggling with improvements in performance because you want to maintain a certain style of eating that makes you feel in control or the opposite, food overwhelms you or stresses you out and you don't feel comfortable around food, it is time to start seeing food for what it is - nourishment, fuel, satiety and enjoyment.
No diet can teach you how to have a better relationship with food.
It is time that you are honest with yourself and if you feel as if your past thoughts and actions were not healthy for your body, it's time to change.
It's time to start improving your relationship with food.
In case you missed the last blog - address your off-season relationship with food HERE.