by Jen Rawson, RD
The philosophy of Intuitive Eating encourages people to throw out the diet rulebook and instead use the body’s inner signals of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction to make food choices. In contrast, sports nutrition is made up of formulas and guidelines that tell us what, when, and how much to eat. So, can an an athlete or active individual eat intuitively? Absolutely! It just may take some guidance on how to combine to two concepts.
Use Sports Nutrition as a Guideline, Not a Rule
Scientists have conducted extensive research on the exact diet athletes require to fuel their bodies. And yet, one of the core tenets of Intuitive Eating is to let go of all food rules and diets.
To combine these two concepts, it’s important to remember that while an elite athlete might need to calculate down to the exact gram of carbohydrate they need to consume in a day, a recreational athlete does not. Therefore, we can use the sports nutrition research as a general guideline for fueling our bodies but we do not need to follow it as an exact rule.
For example, sports nutrition guides us to consume a ratio of 4:1 carbohydrates to protein post-exercise. We don’t have to dig out our calculators each time we exercise to determine if we are meeting that exact ratio. Instead, we can generalize the information and create a list of carbohydrate and protein containing post-workout snacks. Then, post-workout, we can choose from our list of snacks allowing our intuition to choose which food it wants on a particular day and the right amount to eat.
Match Hunger to Increased Energy Needs
A question often asked of me is, how do I need to change my diet when I am increasing mileage or starting an exercise routine? If you eat intuitively, you won’t need to put much thought into it. As we increase our energy expenditure, we increase our energy needs and our hunger levels follow suit. You might notice you need a larger portion to feel full or that you start feeling hungry between meals and need a snack.
External food rules might tell us not to eat after 7:00 p.m. or that a snack is not okay if we’ve just eaten a meal, but following those rules misses the opportunity to nourish ourselves appropriately and could slow our recovery. Instead, by listening to your internal hunger signals, you will naturally eat to your increased energy requirements.
Adjust Based on Body Signals
The best approach to sports nutrition is always an individual one. What works for one person often does not work for another. No formulas or external cues can accurately predict which fuel will not give you cramps or which best pre-run snack will keep you feeling energized. Most often, it is through a system of trial and error that we determine what works best for our own body. People who eat intuitively are more in tune with their body’s needs and have an easier time figuring out what works best for them.
Pay attention to how foods and drinks affect your performance. What foods make you feel better? What foods make you feel worse? Adjust as necessary. Part of Intuitive Eating is respecting your body and feeling your very best.
The principles of Intuitive Eating go beyond hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. Just as important as eating intuitively, is moving intuitively. Intuitive movement considers the ‘why’. Often people exercise because they want to change or alter their body shape. However, this motivation may not hold up long-term and can lead to disappointment if results aren’t seen. There are many reasons to exercise outside of changing your body size, such as stress relief, improved self-confidence, and promoting longevity and vitality. Finding motivation outside of the way your body looks will make movement more joyful and motivate you long term.
Runners are also notorious for over-exercising, running through pain, and skipping rest days. But taking rest days can be just as important for our health and performance as a training day. Our muscles need time off to recover. Intuitive eating and living teach us that when we are injured or tired we need to respect our bodies limitations.
Intuitive Eating and letting go of rules can be an intimidating concept, particularly for runners who are used to following training and meal plans. But sports nutrition and the principles of Intuitive Eating are not at odds with one another. You can follow your body’s intuition and fuel for performance at the same time.
The Ten Principles of Intuitive Eating
- Reject the Diet Mentality
- Honour Your Hunger
- Make Peace with Food
- Challenge the Food Police
- Feel Your Fullness
- Discover the Satisfaction Factor
- Cope with Your Feelings Without Using Food
- Respect Your Body
- Exercise: Feel the Difference
- Honour Your Health: Gentle Nutrition
Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch
Also recommended: Body Respect by Linda Bacon
Jen Rawson is a Registered Dietitian from Calgary who works in a private practice specializing in intuitive eating, sports nutrition and gut health. She is passionate about running and travelling, often combining the two at destination races.