You may have noticed the term 'intuitive eating' cropping up on blogs, websites, magazines, and podcasts lately. Maybe your young athlete even mentioned it as a nutritional approach they would like to try. While intuitive eating can be helpful for many people, it’s important to know that it has some limitations for the athletic population, especially those athletes who may struggle with disordered eating.
Here, TrueSport Expert Stephanie Miezin, MS, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, explains some of the nuances around intuitive eating and its application for athletes.
1. Understand what intuitive eating means
The concept of intuitive eating is based on several key principles developed by its founders in the 1990s, and includes tenets like eating according to hunger, rejecting diet culture, making peace with food, and respecting your body. At a glance, it's a healthy way of looking at food and how your body is nourished. And while some dietitians and nutrition experts refer to intuitive eating exactly according to those principles, many people have started using the term 'intuitive eating' more generally as a way to describe being better able to listen to and understand signals from the body around hunger and fullness, says Miezin.
2. Intuitive eating can help an athlete learn about themself
For busy student-athletes, learning to feel 'full' and notice hunger cues can lead to a big improvement in how they eat and how they perform. Often, students are stuck in such a scheduled routine of eating at specific times based on class and training schedules that they don't pause to even ask if they are hungry. Tuning into feelings of hunger and fullness can help an athlete make sure they are eating enough before practice, and fueling adequately afterwards as well, says Miezin.
3. Intuitive eating can remove food guilt for some athletes
Often, athletes get information and misinformation from a variety of sources, and these pieces of nutrition intel can lead to skipping meals or avoiding former favorite foods. Leaning into intuitive eating can undo some of that misinformation that leads athletes to skip meals or avoid the hamburger in favor of a salad—even if what the athlete really wanted was the burger. "Intuitive eating means coming back to listening to our bodies and honoring what we feel like the body is telling us,” says Miezin. "Someone might employ intuitive eating at a restaurant, and if you feel as though you're hungry and want to eat the hamburger, you eat the hamburger without feeling any judgment attached to that."
4. Intuitive eating doesn't mean all junk food, all the time
One of the primary principles of intuitive eating is honoring your health as well as what your body is craving. This means even if a young athlete is constantly craving chips and soda, they try to prioritize their overall health over what the body 'wants' in the moment. Maybe a serving of chips is a part of a snack or lunch, but a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread is going to be more filling and satisfying—and healthy.