4/27/17

Why you should break up with your food rules - forever!



For much of my educational career, I was taught guidelines based on scientific. By definition, a guideline is a statement by which to determine a course of action. A guideline is never mandatory, not binding and not enforced. Unlike a rule, which tells you what you are and are not allowed to do, a guideline is a recommendation or a suggestion. Whereas there are no consequences to breaking a guideline, rules, when broken, do not have the same consequences/penalties as laws. Rules are typically set in place as it is a way to enforce the way that things should be done.

In your everyday life, you likely adhere to both rules and guidelines and hopefully, obey all laws. For example, it's a law to wear your seat belt when you are in a car and to not drink and drive. There are rules to the road when you ride a bike outside and at every athletic event, there are rules to ensure athlete safety and fair play. Then there are guidelines to help people make healthy choices in their daily lives to help prevent chronic disease and to improve longevity and quality of life and perhaps guidelines at your place of employment, to help you effectively do your job.

As a board certified sport dietitian, my job is to help athletes apply sound guidelines and practices to maintain optimal health while improving athletic performance. To ensure athletic success, every athlete needs to be treated like an individual. Therefore, I never enforce rules as it relates to how an athlete should or shouldn't eat. As a qualified individual to prescribe, treat and counsel athletes on daily and sport nutrition, I am often disturbed by the many "experts" that dish out nutrition advice, almost always with food rules.

Although daily and sport nutrition guidelines are needed to help an athlete stay healthy while maximizing performance gains in training and on race day, food rules, whether advocated by a coach, nutrition expert, on social media (ex. blog, website, etc.) or in a book/magazine/TV, encourage restrictive behavior.

With good intentions, many athletes use food rules as a way to eat better and to improve performance. For example, a rule to always refuel after a workout is great advice. But a rule of "no starchy food in the evening" or "bread is off-limit" or "you can only eat a cookie if you workout for 2+ hours" or"must workout fasted to burn fat" or "no sport nutrition during workouts less than 75 minutes" can place an athlete at risk for disordered eating patterns, potentially sabotaging performance and health because athletes see these rules as non-negotiable and will ignore biological cues for hunger and cravings in order to adhere to these rules. Seeing that athletes often take guidelines too the extreme, there can be great consequences to adhering to food rules. 

As an example, an athlete experiences a positive change in body composition by working out fasted in January and February. His/her sugar cravings appear to be controlled and the athlete feels energized and strong. However, come March, the athlete's training increases in intensity and duration and the athlete is now gaining weight, experiencing extreme sugar cravings and is struggling to maintain energy during workouts. Whereas once the food rule of "no food before a morning workout" was seen as a success, the athlete now has great anxiety and stress about eating before a a workout and despite knowing that the current lack of fueling is sabotaging performance and health, there is great anxiety to breaking the rule of not eating before a workout. Ultimately, the athlete, who is very resistant to change, allows him/herself to eat before the workout but feels safer with this food rule if workouts are over 90 minutes. Although one rule has been broken, the athlete now regularly workouts for over 90 minutes anytime food is eaten before a workout to feel safer about breaking the food rule.

As I mentioned before, there is no punishment for breaking a guideline or a rule. Thus, nothing bad will happen if this athlete eats before a workout. However, the athlete is now a victim of his/her rules and feels like a prisoner and slave to self-imposed food rules. In other words, the athlete is feels guilty about breaking the food rule, similar to the guilt felt from breaking a law that comes with a punishment.

In my line of work, I specialize in helping athletes overcome disordered eating patterns that are sabotaging health and performance. The biggest resistor, in my experience, is that these athletes fear a change in body composition by breaking food rules. In other words, certain athletes feel great anxiety and stress without food rules, for fear of gaining weight or not meeting the expectations of a coach, training partner or beliefs of what an athlete should/shouldn't look like.

Regardless of the source of the initiating of food rules, many athletes are unable and unwilling to deviate from the strict guidelines that they have created. Some athletes have difficulty breaking food rules set forth in the New Year, whereas other athletes have been living with food rules for many decades. Food rules can be as strict as no eating after 7pm, or never eating more than 30g of carbs at a meal, to something as simple as always drinking a full glass of water or eating an apple before a meal to trick your body into thinking it's full.

Food rules create structure, order and control. This is why diets work - temporarily. Food rules in a diet keep you "on track" by taking out the guess work of eating but this "good or bad" style of eating 
do not take into account your ever-changing life and unique nutritional and sport nutrition needs.

At first, food rules make eating easy, but the consequence for many athletes is disordered eating, which may develop into an eating disorder.

Following strict and unrealistic rules can result in physical, emotional and psychological issues, including nutrient deficiencies, hormonal disturbances, anxiety, depression and obsessive thinking. For an athlete, the stress you place on your body through training is more than enough for your body to handle. Food rules are like gasoline to the fire as you already risk health issues by pushing your body for performance improvements, why place it under even greater stress with food rules?

Food rules also result in extreme preoccupation with food and body image. This can be exhausting - mentally and emotionally. You may find yourself checking out of life to adhere to your food rules to ensure that you never break a rule. Understanding that unless you isolate yourself from friends, family and social events, you will eventually need to break some of your food rules, you  may experience feelings of guilt, self hatred, body dissatisfaction, anxiety and shame when you can't meet your eating expectations.  Due to intense fears relating to breaking your food rules, you may also experience unexplained GI issues due to food phobias, rules and eating strategies based on irrational fears (ex. eating gluten, drinking milk, eating too much sugar, consuming calories during training, etc.).

Breaking food rules can be very difficult. There can be great resistance to stop engaging in food rules and rituals related to food. But it's time to put yourself back into control. As you break your food rules, you will find yourself with less anxiety and more confidence with your food choices. During your break-up period, it is very important that you do not focus on your body as your body is likely in a state of undernourishment and low energy. The first step in your break-up is giving your body the nourishment it needs to heal from the damage that has been done by disordered eating (ex. restrictive eating caused by food rules). Eventually, likely with the help of a professional, you will be able to engage in healthy, structured and enjoyable eating patterns that are not rigid, strict, controlled or obsessive. As an athlete, it's likely that you want to do amazing things with your body. It is important to see food as nourishment and fuel. As an athlete, it is a responsibility to your body to relearn what it feels like to be hungry and satisfied and what it requires from you to eat "enough."
It's time to overcome your fears of certain foods and start to incorporate them into your normal life. Stop reading the blogs, articles and websites that encourage you to avoid x-food. If you find yourself worried about eating a certain food, like bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, dairy, oil, peanut butter, fruit or chocolate, it is important to your health and well-being to get rid of the mindset that forbids you to eat certain foods. Labeling food as good or bad or setting rituals for yourself as to when you are or are not allowed to eat certain foods is not health or performance promoting. 


As an athlete and coach, I am always looking for ways to experience performance improvements with the least amount of training stress. Food rules place a lot of stress on your body and make it much more difficult to experience performance gains. If you are finding yourself uncomfortable or afraid around certain foods, for fear that it will make you gain weight or you will lose control when eating certain foods, these food rules have likely caused you to avoid certain foods. Ultimately, your off-limit food list may have foods on it that are necessary and critical for you to achieve a healthy weight, maintain good health and to maximize performance. It isn't until you break up with your food rules that you will learn to create a style of eating that is free of guilt, shame, anxiety and rules and will (finally) let you live a life of food freedom.