can intuitive eating apply to athletes?
Perhaps you’ve heard about Intuitive Eating and found yourself thinking, “Huh? So, I just, like, eat whatever I want, whenever I want? Gosh, I’d probably just crush a Big Mac every day if I did that!”
Intuitive Eating is much more than its literal interpretation of eating by instinct. It’s actually an entire movement created by two Registered Dietitian Nutritionists: Evelyln Tribole and Elyse Resch. According to Tribole and Resch’s book on the topic, Intuitive Eating (IE) is known as an anti-diet approach that rejects dieting and intentional weight loss, and focuses on building a healthy relationship with food that doesn’t emphasize weight or body. It’s important to note that body changes are not a goal of IE, but body changes might occur as a result of IE.
There are ten principles of IE and they revolve around our physiological hunger and satiety cues, and the psychological influences on our food choices, beliefs and overall relationship with food. It’s a common misconception that IE doesn’t have distinct nutrition recommendations, but you’ll learn through an intro to the ten principles that this is not the case.
1. Reject the diet mentality
There are countless non-scientific, unfounded and unethical diet claims that are touted by the media, influencers and even some healthcare providers. There are messages everywhere that suggest smaller is better. From the headlines of magazines and the branding on food items to the mannequins in stores, these ubiquitous messages can be harmful for the general public, and especially for athletes who often have much higher energy needs. Acknowledging and rejecting these messages can improve confidence in your eating and body image. Additionally, weight loss is not always performance enhancing, yet often emphasized over appropriate training and nutrition strategies.
Athlete Considerations: Some sports have weight classes. These athletes often train at higher weights and cut weight to get in a certain weight class prior to competition.
2. honor your hunger
Do you often wonder, “Why am I always hungry?” How many times have you questioned that hunger and passed on food because you doubted your body’s signals? Also consider how often you get to the hangry stage, where you need food right now.Waiting until you’re absolutely famished before eating can set you up for either making a food choice that was not truly aligned with what you wanted, and/or over-eating.
Additionally, chronic dieting and restriction can cause some people to lose insight of their hunger cues, and this skill must be re-learned. Prolonged food restriction and those suffering from eating disorders may be unable to recognize hunger cues. These skills must be re-learned. Going to bed hungry, waking up in the middle of the night hungry, feeling hungry all the time and feeling depleted during workouts are all signs of under-eating.
Athlete Considerations: Some research indicates that hard and/or prolonged exercise can suppress appetite.(2) Intra-workout fueling for endurance/high intensity exercise often requires eating in the absence of hunger to maintain performance.
3. Make Peace with food
This encourages us to take an all-foods-fit approach to eating, with the exception of medical restrictions. Other than medical reasons, restriction can cause feelings of deprivation, contribute to intense cravings and lead to bingeing. Have you ever felt like you needed to refrain from buying a “tempting” food because you lose control when you eat it? Have you ever wanted to eat something, told yourself you couldn’t have it, only to give in and binge on it later because, “starting tomorrow I’m OFF x food!” This is referred to as the “Last Supper” mentality. Learning to have unconditional permission to eat all foods can help heal these negative thought processes around food and eating.
4. Challenge the Food police
This principle encourages you to challenge the thoughts in your head promoting dieting behavior. In fact, from a sports dietitian’s perspective, one of the biggest nutrition issues I see athletes face is inaccurate nutrition perceptions and beliefs that contribute to inadequate and/or inappropriate fueling. For example, Intermittent Fasting is a popular dietary approach mostly intended for weight loss, but often adopted by athletes to improve performance, while the scientific literature suggests otherwise.
One female client shared that she felt weak for wanting to bring nutrition into the mountains because her ex-boyfriend believed avoiding food/water while ski touring, mountain biking, or trail running made a stronger athlete. These types of beliefs can lead to sub-optimal athletic performance at its most innocent, to a poor relationship with food and body, or even eating disorders.
5. discover the satisfaction factor
Dieting messaging often perpetuates the idea that food is merely fuel, and to eat healthily at all times. Food is far more than just nourishment. It’s cultural, celebratory and comforting. Have you ever had a craving for a food that you perceived as bad, ate a healthy alternative, only to seek out more food to satisfy the craving? Going back to Principle #3, here’s an example:
Craves cookie → deems cookie as bad choice → eats fruit instead → still craves cookie → seeks out other options → eats protein bar → still craves cookie → eats cookie (or many cookies, because no more cookies tomorrow).
Honoring the satisfaction factor of food could look like this: Craves cookie → acknowledges no workout is planned in the next hour to upset the tummy → eats 1-2 cookie(s) → moves on with their day.
Discovering the satisfaction factor doesn’t mean food should be enjoyable and satisfying at all times. It’s okay that sometimes just nourishing yourself is all you need to “get the job done” if satisfaction is not a priority in the moment.
Athlete Considerations: Fueling during endurance activities or fueling after high intensity efforts where the stomach is slightly upset is not always satisfying, but necessary for performance and health.
6. Feel your fullness
Do you ever eat until you’re “too full?” Or, have you been afraid to eat until you feel full because you don’t trust yourself to eat an appropriate amount? Tuning into your body’s physiological fullness cues can help build trust with knowing how much to eat. Chronic dieting and restriction can cause some people to lose insight of satiety cues, and this skill must be re-learned.
Athlete Considerations: Some research suggests female athletes who under-fuel have very high fiber diets.(3) Fiber is an appetite suppressant and may contribute to early satiety. Prolonged, high intensity exercise can cause upset stomachs, bloating, abdominal pain, nausea and early satiety.(4,5) Prolonged food restriction and malnutrition can cause gastrointestinal issues which may interfere with recognizing appropriate hunger and fullness cues. These must be re-learned.(6)
7. cope with your emotions with kindness
Food can be a coping mechanism for stressful situations, which isn’t necessarily a detrimental endeavor.. But, this can become a problem when it is the only coping mechanism. Food, or restricting it, is unlikely to heal stressful emotions. Eating, or the abstinence of, is often a temporary solution. This principle encourages building awareness of your thoughts and emotions.
8. respect your body
Many people are frequently trying to change their body shape and size. I often see athletes correlate their body shape and size to their athletic ability, but there is so much grey space with that correlation. While IE rejects the notion of intentional body/weight changes, whether you’re pro or against weight loss, both camps can agree that having body respect is beneficial for mental and physical well-being.
9. Movement: Feel the Difference
Athletes take pride in pushing through physical and mental limits, which can foster confidence in other areas of our lives. But it’s also important to ask ourselves, “How often do I exercise because I feel like I should?” “How differently would I approach exercise if I knew it had no impact on my body shape and size?” Sometimes other attitudes and fears are easily masked in the name of athletic performance. Do you have periods of high and low training phases or do you strive to hit it hard all year round? Do you have other coping mechanisms or hobbies besides exercise?
10. Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
The guiding idea behind Gentle Nutrition is embracing progress over perfection. Many diets and mentalities behind nutrition changes encourage a black/white mindset, which leads to an all-or-nothing approach. Gentle Nutrition emphasizes that there is no proverbial diet wagon to fall off of. Gentle Nutrition also emphasizes an individual approach to support athletes based on their values and goals.
Athlete Considerations: Athletes in sports that require cutting weight for comps need practical and safe dieting recommendations.(7) They should be counseled on realistic body composition as some athletes may push themselves too lean. They should be monitored for disordered eating behaviors due to the risks involved with dieting.
What Are Hunger and Fullness?
Hunger and satiety/fullness is often addressed with IE. While some of the cues or feelings may seem obvious, it’s important to understand that people can experience hunger and fullness, and the factors that influence them, in different ways. Appetite is innate at birth, and as we age there are many factors that can distract or deter us from our cues. We can think about hunger and fullness on a spectrum.
Feelings of hunger
Thoughts: Beginning to think about eating
Stomach: Feeling of emptiness, rumbling, pain (hunger pang: strong contractions when the stomach is empty)
Head: Light-headedness, foggy thinking, difficulty concentrating, headache
Energy: Lower energy, sleepy
Mood: Irritability, “hangry” (8)
Feelings of fullness
Thoughts: Less thoughts about food
Stomach: Distension, feeling heavy, bloating
Energy: Either more energized or drowsy
Mood: Relaxed, pleasant (8)
Stress/anxiety, distracted eating, habits such as always “cleaning your plate,” limited time to eat, and even food insecurity can interfere with identifying hunger and fullness. Those suffering from eating disorders can also lose insight to these cues after ignoring them long-term. Working with an eating disorder informed Registered Dietitian Nutritionist can help re-learn these cues. You can try using the chart below for multiple days to see where you often fall on the spectrum. Frequently going from one end of the spectrum to the other may indicate you’ve either ignored or lost insight to earlier hunger and fullness. It can also give you insight to what feels pleasant and unpleasant.
hunger / fullness scale (8)
Description of Sensations
Ravenous and irritable
Very hungry: looking forward to eating
Hungry and ready to eat, but without urgency
Subtly hungry, slightly empty
Beginning to feel emerging fullness
Comfortable fullness, content
A little too full
Very full and uncomfortable
Painfully full, stuffed
- Tribole E, Resch E. Intuitive Eating: a Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach. New York: St. Martin’s Essentials; 2020.
- Islam, Hashim et al. “Potential involvement of lactate and interleukin-6 in the appetite-regulatory hormonal response to an acute exercise bout.” Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985) vol. 123,3 (2017): 614-623. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00218.2017
- Melin, A., Tornberg, Å.B., Skouby, S., Møller, S.S., Faber, J., Sundgot‐Borgen, J. and Sjödin, A. (2016), Energy availability and dietary intake. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 26: 1060-1071. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.12516
- de Oliveira EP, Burini RC, Jeukendrup A. Gastrointestinal complaints during exercise: prevalence, etiology, and nutritional recommendations. Sports Med. 2014;44 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):S79-S85. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0153-2
- Stuempfle KJ, Hoffman MD, Hew-Butler T. Association of gastrointestinal distress in ultramarathoners with race diet. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2013 Apr;23(2):103-9. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.23.2.103. Epub 2012 Sep 19. PMID: 23006626.
- Santonicola A, Gagliardi M, Guarino MPL, Siniscalchi M, Ciacci C, Iovino P. Eating Disorders and Gastrointestinal Diseases. Nutrients. 2019 Dec 12;11(12):3038. doi: 10.3390/nu11123038. PMID: 31842421; PMCID: PMC6950592.
- Khodaee, Morteza MD, MPH, FACSM1; Olewinski, Lucianne MD1; Shadgan, Babak MD, MSc, PhD2; Kiningham, Robert R. MD, MA, FACSM3 Rapid Weight Loss in Sports with Weight Classes, Current Sports Medicine Reports: November/December 2015 – Volume 14 – Issue 6 – p 435-441 doi: 10.1249/JSR.0000000000000206
- Tribole, E., Resch, E., & Ph.D, T.T. The Intuitive Eating Workbook (A New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook) (1st ed.). New Harbinger Publications; 2017