Some people believe that intuitive eating is impossible for athletes because they require more structure. This blog post dispels this myth and demonstrates how you can adapt the principles of intuitive eating to sports nutrition.

You’re probably aware that your food can affect your athletic performance, whether you’re an avid athlete or just an active person. Our body is only fueled by food, which allows us to perform physical activities. You wouldn’t go on a road trip with only a quarter of a tank of fuel or plant a plant that loves light and moisture in a dark area of your home and then forget to water it. Your body will only perform well in sports if it is properly fueled.

Many (if not all) athletes have a distorted idea of what this looks like. In sports, the diet/wellness culture is prevalent. This leads many athletes to believe they must eat in a specific way to maximize their performance. In many sports, especially those involving women, appearance is as important as performance. Athletes are often told to lose weight to increase speed, endurance, or agility. This means that their body is asked to do more physical work while consuming less energy.

Athletes do benefit from more structure, but this doesn’t mean they have to restrict calories, count macros or eliminate foods. Athletes are more likely to develop an eating disorder than the average person, particularly in weight-class or aesthetic sports such as bodybuilding, equestrians, crew, gymnastics, and figure skating. has been shown to be associated with an eating disorder in 62% of women and 33% of men who participate in these sports (unfortunately, there is no research on trans/nonbinary people). Relative energy Deficiency (RED-S), formerly known as Female Athlete triad, is also a condition. This is a result of either inadequate energy intake or excessive energy expenditure. In RED-S cases, the insufficient energy intake can be completely unintentional and is not related to weight loss. I see this with college and high school athletes who are too busy to eat or trying to balance sports and classes. It doesn’t mean it is any less serious. RED-S has a serious impact on hormones, bone health and performance. Injury risk is also increased. One study, for example, found that athletes with disordered dietary habits and REDS were twice as likely to suffer an injury during a sporting season.

Underfueling can affect performance, even if someone does not meet the criteria of an eating disorder. It is particularly true if someone restricts carbohydrates. It is a macronutrient that is the body’s preferred fuel source and the most commonly restricted food/food groups. Undereating in sports can lead to difficulty concentrating/decreased alertness, cramping, fatigue, and decreased power/endurance/strength.

The Intuitive Eater for Athletes

You’ve clicked on the blog post “Intuitive eating for athletes,” so I assume you know what intuitive eating means. It’s okay if you don’t! This is a primer that you can read. You may want to explore the book Intuitive Eating (4th edition).

It is important to note that intuitive eating is not a diet but a way of eating focused on how you feel physically and mentally. The focus is not on a specific number on the scale but on fueling yourself to make you feel good. Intuitive Eating helps you to unlearn unhelpful, incorrect, and confusing messages about food, nutrition, and weight. Instead of eating according to external diet rules, it teaches you to eat according to your body’s internal signals – hunger and fullness, taste preferences, and how you feel after eating.

There are many ways that nutrition advice can contradict intuitive eating principles. Even nutrition guidance focused more on performance than weight loss or dieting can appear at odds with the body’s cues. The rules or guidelines on how much to eat, when, or how to refuel can conflict with your body’s signals. How can an athlete navigate this dilemma?

While I have mentioned that athletes need more structure in their eating than the average person, this does not mean intuitive eating is impossible. Intuitive eating is not only possible for athletes but can also be a beneficial tool to boost performance. Although I’m not the world’s foremost sports nutritionist, intuitive eating is a valuable tool that has helped me work with athletes in various sports and at multiple levels.

Although athletes may need more structure in their food regimen than ordinary people, intuitive eating is still possible.

In the following section, I will explore specific principles of intuitive diet and show how they can be adapted to athletes.

The Principles of Intuitive Food Eating for Athletes

Honor Your Hunger & Respect Your Fullness

It teaches you how to identify fullness and hunger cues and respond by eating more food or less. Your body’s appetite will closely match your energy requirements. You should eat more if you need more energy and less if your tank is full.

There are two significant complications for athletes. Athletes often gain from eating more on certain days and less on other days, depending on their training schedule. You can’t tell your body that you’ll do a hard workout or a long run later. Physical activity can suppress hunger by reducing ghrelin levels, a hunger-inducing hormone. The body will “make up” for it by sending stronger hunger signals later in the day. However, athletes can benefit from being more deliberate about refueling after exercise. Muscle tissue is more responsive to nutrients for growth and repair within 30-60 minutes after physical activity.

How do athletes who practice intuitive eating navigate this apparent dilemma? I tell my clients that intuitive eating combines body knowledge with brain information. Although our bodies can be a great source of information for guiding eating decisions, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are the only ones. Athletes, for example, may experience a meager appetite following training but know their bodies will benefit from carbs and proteins. Refueling with a drink high in carbs and proteins can help meet both the needs of your body and nutrition requirements. A snack is a great way to help my clients regain their appetite after exercising.