Intuitive Eating and How Dieting Harms Athletes

While I felt I adopted a non-diet philosophy during my dietetic internship and graduate school, due to seeing so much disordered eating as I worked with University at Buffalo athletes, my journey to this concept of “intuitive eating” came several years later. As discussed with Heather on her podcast, intuitive eating isn’t something covered in a dietetics undergrad program or our mandated internship {or wasn’t 10+ years ago}. And it definitely isn’t covered on our certification exam! Until I was working with a client who had previously been in a treatment facility for an eating disorder, the term “intuitive eating” wasn’t in my vocabulary. After she mentioned it, I got the book and read it in a couple of days, wishing I’d known how to pull these philosophies together in my practice so much sooner.As I then re-evaluated my own habits, this is really when I started my journey to intuitive eating, and it came somewhat easily. Restriction for me was long in the past and I was well aware of how to build an eating pattern that made me feel good (types, timing of intake etc). The hardest part for me was honoring my fullness. I had accepted an all-foods-fit mentality and loved dining out whenever possible without a worry of calorie counting etc. But, I grew up spending a lot of time with my grandmother who firmly believed we should be members of the clean the plate club. Due to this and the Italian culture making you feel bad for not trying/eating whatever someone spent so much time making, as an adult, eating slowly enough and honoring fullness when it hit was still a bit of a challenge. Does that resonate with any of you? Feeling a bit overfull after birthday cake or a holiday is fine, but when it leads to digestive discomfort (I have a sensitive stomach to begin with), that is another story.

Often it is these lifestyle habits we aren’t even aware of that are built in early childhood and stay with us forever. Diet culture messaging makes us feel like we have this issue of lacking willpower to restrict or eat less food, when it’s really that lack of recognition of these habits is our barrier to being in tune with what our body really wants and needs. We are so far removed from our hunger and fullness signals as a society that we just eat whenever some article, diet, or friend that was on some diet tells us to. Without identifying where our habits come from and taking action to change them, we won’t make progress in health, or respect our body’s true needs.

As I felt I mastered intuitive eating myself, it’s transformed my counseling philosophies and other areas of my lifestyle, too. Intuitive eating isn’t just about respecting your body with it’s food wants and needs, but also respecting it from a fitness and relationship perspective. I’ve touched on intuitive eating and fitness plenty, as so many people are using fitness and food as a way to manipulate their body. Even some athletes don’t truly love their sport, they’re just participating because they’re anxious to not be burning so many calories and attempting to control their weight.

Something I mentioned deep in my last post (a plea to everyone not to diet), was the real reasons people try to manipulate their diets, exercise routines, and I’m going to also add relationships. I got so many emails and messages in response to this post and for many people, this is the part that hit home the most. Therefore, I want to share it again, because being aware of these desires can only help you find more respect for yourself.

What does weight loss promise to most people?

  • Happiness
  • Acceptance
  • Confidence
  • Being loved/well-liked
  • Achieving perfection
  • Feeling superior to others (why do people crave this?)

These are not things that reaching a lower number on the scale or a lower body fat percentage will ever provide to you. And if you think you’re happier/more confident/more accepted at a lower body weight than you used to have, why is that? Is it really your size or is it that exercise empowers you? Is it that versus feeling truly comfortable with yourself and loving yourself (without the opinions of others) you feel the ability to control things? I love this image posted on Instagram from Gretchen Zimmerman of Happy go Healthy RD today – and it goes with her latest blog post, too:

What Dietary Restriction Promises Active Individuals

  • Faster race time
  • Better physical health to support recovery
  • Better asthetics for judgement based sports
  • Improved digestion so GI troubles don’t impact your performance


So, how does this relate to intuitive eating being a respectful lifestyle? Well, I realize I’ve never really defined intuitive eating here and haven’t outlined the 10 principles, either.
Intuitive Eating is…

Not easily defined. If you google it, Wikipedia says Intuitive eating is a nutrition philosophy based on the premise that becoming more attuned to the body’s natural hunger signals is a more effective way to attain a healthy weight, rather than keeping track of the amounts of energy and fats in foods.

Unfortunately, this totally misses the mark. I think we have to really look at the 10 principles to see what it means. Of note: you don’t need to cover these principles in order, as everyone is at a different place in their health journey and has different needs. We do become more in tune with hunger, fullness, and how food makes us feel, but the definition most people see above emphasizes weight too much. You can’t be fully immersed in intuitive eating if you’re still focusing on weight. It’s a huge barrier to your success. Just trust that your body will find the weight it needs to be at, and that it will change at different stages of your life, too.

The 10 Principles are…

1. Reject the Diet Mentality
2. Honor Your Hunger
3. Make Peace with Food
4. Challenge the Food Police
5. Respect Your Fullness
6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor – yes, different than fullness!
7. Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food
8. Respect Your Body
9. Exercise–Feel the Difference
10 Honor Your Health

 with gentle nutrition

While I recommend any of my readers get the book to dive more into these principles, sometimes reading the whole book at once can be overwhelming. At one point I considered including the book in my nutrition packages, but one of my mastermind groups helped me realize that might not be the best idea since everyone does start at different places.

SO, while I encourage anyone who is in severe diet mode to meet with a dietitian one-on-one, many of you know that myself and Heather Caplan have invested a lot of time and energy into our level one intuitive eating for fitness course. For me, as a board certified sports dietitian and former D-I athlete, I see more disordered eating than the majority of RD’s. Heather, who is a dietitian, marathoner and running coach, as well as the co-founder of a non-profit to raise awareness of the female athlete triad, is in the same boat. We had lots of success, are so excited about the feedback from, and made lots of adjustments to our four week virtual group course in 2017, and we’re so excited to continue it in 2018 and build a level II once we’ve both adjusted to new mom-hood. If enough males tell us they’re interested, we’ll house a section for you, too!

While we plan to run them at least every other month, January really seems like the right time for us to encourage you active females (sorry dudes see above) to put up blinders to the diet commercials and adds, and invest in yourself to find self-respect, self-confidence and improved fitness. We’d love to have you for four weeks beginning this Monday, the 9th, but you can get more info and sign up at any time for the next session here.

You need to be mentally ready for change and to step our of your comfort zone, so if you need us to help you determine if you’re there yet before signing up, send us an email!