Athletes vs Diet Culture – Is it Possible to Eat Intuitively as an Athlete?

by | Jan 26, 2024

With such specific guidelines and pressure to perform well, is it possible for athletes to practice intuitive eating? Is it beneficial for athletes to eat intuitively? Find out below!

Sports Nutrition is a guideline for athletes to help with their athletic success by eating a nutritious diet. There is actually an entirely separate certification (certain amount of specialized practice hours, exam, and recertification every 5 years) for Registered Dietitians to become a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). This group of certified dietitians are the true sports performance experts, providing athletes with evidence based sports nutrition knowledge and recommendations to optimize performance. BUT the real question is – with such specific guidelines and pressure to perform well, can athletes really practice intuitive eating?

First, Let’s Review Some Sport Nutrition Basics

As for all people, it is important to have a balanced diet of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats – yes ALL THREE macronutrients are important! Here’s how they relate in terms of athletic performance:

  1. Carbs- Energy’s best friend! Carbohydrates like bread, potatoes, and bananas help with providing an athlete with energy. Eating carbs are helpful for both endurance and strength training. Without enough carbs to provide the body energy, protein cannot do its specific job.
  2. Protein- Helps build, replenish, and recover muscles! Proteins like eggs, chicken, and tofu help with muscle building and recovery. In order for protein to be able to do this, there must be enough carbohydrate energy in the body, or else the body will start using protein for energy instead of muscle building/recovery. And yes, vegan and vegetarian athletes CAN get enough protein without consuming animal products!
  3. Fats- First off, eating fat does not make people fat! Fats are very important to include in our everyday diets and can be found in oils, avocados, seeds, and fish like salmon. Fats help maintain energy balance, regulate hormones, and restore muscle tissue. Fats also take much longer to break down in the body, providing us with more long lasting energy – think having peanut butter with a banana before a run or workout.

Ok so…Can Athletes Practice Intuitive Eating?

Athletes typically require a high caloric intake, have little spare time to eat all of that energy, and need to be mindful about what they eat and when they eat it to prevent stomach discomfort during practice or events. So I can see why this is a popular question.

As mentioned in past blog posts – the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating are meant as a guideline! They are very general and can be interpreted and molded to fit your specific needs, schedules, and food preferences – this is where intuitive eating comes in for athletes.

Principle 2, honor your hunger and Principle 6, feel your fullness – are VERY IMPORTANT when it comes to eating intuitively with athletes. Understanding that these cues may be slightly muted or suppressed after a workout, is important to consider. Sometimes we may not “feel” hungry after a workout, but have the understanding that we need to eat. Or, we may not feel full after eating post workout, but understand, we have adequately nourished our body, and therefore, may want to stop eating to prevent feeling overly full. These principles also help athletes determine whether they are fueling well or if their fueling plans need adjusting!

With athletes, principle 10 – honor your health with gentle nutrition – may come into play a bit earlier than most intuitive eating journeys. When we are not fueling ourselves properly (athlete or not), we may get sick more frequently, feel as if we are lacking energy and are always tired, and for women, may even experience irregular periods or no menstruation at all! All of these are signs that should not be ignored! Our body is very smart and is telling us – WE ARE NOT FUELING PROPERLY!! Time to come in with some gentle nutrition to improve our athletic and overall performance.

**This work is usually done with the help of a registered dietitian (like me!!) to help guide you and discover how to work in gentle nutrition and proper fueling for optimized performance!

Just like the rest of us, athlete’s are affected by diet culture. They can feel pressured to look, perform, and to feel a certain way and may also go out of their way to achieve “perfection.” There are some athletes that suffer from eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, and compulsive exercise disorder with the hopes of bettering their performance – when in fact, they are doing just the opposite.

When these disorders happen to athletes, or to anyone, they must receive help from a professional because the side effects can be detrimental and evidently harm their performance. Following specific diets while surrounded by diet culture can lead to the following in athletes and the overall active population:

  • Dehydration
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of concentration
  • Increased risk of injury
  • Slower recovery time
  • And so many more harmful things!!!

By eating intuitively, an athlete can turn away from what diet culture says and tune into their own hunger cues and guidelines! This can help prevent an athlete from believing they have to eat, look, and feel like someone else.

In Conclusion – the Answer is Yes – Athletes Can and Should Practice Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating WILL look different for everyone – guaranteed! The most important part, especially for athletes, is that we listen to our bodies and pay attention to the patterns and cues they are giving us. It is definitely a process – but becoming an intuitive eater, will benefit performance and reduce the risk for long term consequences from improper fueling.

There is SO MUCH MORE to say about this topic (maybe I’ll have to do another post…) – but if you’re still not convinced intuitive eating can be practiced by anyone, including athletes, check out these other blog posts from fellow registered dietitians, supporting intuitive eating for athletes.

This blog post by Sports Dietitian Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD has a really awesome chart about how each intuitive eating principle relates to athlete nutrition!

Love this post from Kara Lydon, RD, LDN, RYTIs Intuitive Eating Appropriate for Athletes?

Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN has a ton of amazing intuitive eating blog posts and resources for athletes. Here are a few of my favorites:

Nuances of Intuitive Eating for Fitness

Intuitive Eating and How Dieting Harms Athletes

Discover the Satisfaction Factor & Feel Your Fullness for Performance

Challenge the Food Police for Performance

Looking for more support? Have more questions? I am here to provide a safe space to listen and help!

Send me an email, schedule a free discovery call, or connect with me on Instagram.

Hi, I’m Stephanie

I’m a Registered Dietitian and I write about all things related to Intuitive Eating, nutrition, body image, and more! Thanks for joining me in my little corner of the internet.

Sign up for my newsletter

Recent Posts

Diets are NOT what they seem! Do Not Fall for Diet Culture Traps!

Diets are NOT what they seem! Do Not Fall for Diet Culture Traps!

Considering starting a new diet for the new year? I am here to validate, hear, and normalize your want to "change your lifestyle" with a new diet, BUT read below for some important information before you buy into the diet culture traps. Diet Culture Galore! It is the...

The Process of Choosing and Eating a Meal as an Intuitive Eater

The Process of Choosing and Eating a Meal as an Intuitive Eater

There is no such thing as a perfect intuitive eater. The process of choosing, creating, and even ordering a meal can be a confusing and tough decision for some! Remember - every meal WILL NOT be perfect! There will be times when you do not have time to eat mindfully....

Wondering if you are an Intuitive Eater?

Take this quiz to find out now!

You have Successfully Subscribed!