Intuitive Eating is a self-care framework with ten principles that integrate instinct, emotion, and rational thought to guide the “how” of eating. It has gained popularity in “anti-diet” spaces and continues to build momentum, with over 100 studies to date demonstrating positive impacts on physical and mental health. Taking sport nutrition strategies into consideration, the following ten principles of Intuitive Eating can be applied to support athletes and active individuals toward a better relationship with food and body AND improved performance:
PRINCIPLE 1: Reject the Diet Mentality
As the saying goes, “Athletes eat and train…They don’t diet and exercise.” The “diet mentality” centers around control: following food rules, counting calories or macronutrients, and ignoring food preferences and/or hunger and fullness cues. Dieting and restriction negatively impact health and performance. Rejecting diets means less emphasis on controlling appearance and body composition and more focus on eating patterns that provide adequate fuel to optimize performance.
PRINCIPLE 2: Honor Your Hunger
Most athletes have higher energy requirements than the general population. Athletes have demanding training schedules in addition to school, work, and family obligations, leading to missing breakfast (“I overslept!”), skipping snacks (“I forgot to pack anything!”), or using lunch breaks to work out instead of eating. Additionally, misguided messages in performance spaces around “cutting” or reducing body fat can lead to undereating. Athletes can honor hunger, avoid skipping meals and snacks, hold in mind that hunger cues may be muted post-exercise, and commit to refueling after long or intense workouts regardless of the presence of hunger cues to avoid unintentional undereating and delayed recovery time.
PRINCIPLE 3: Make Peace with Food
All foods can fit! Making peace with food means skipping cheat days and incorporating “fun” foods regularly and mindfully while also considering the question: “Which foods help me fuel well and feel well during training sessions?” Rather than feeling guilty about breaking food rules or judging eating as good or bad, unconditional permission to choose foods that align with how you want to feel and perform will lead to freedom and a healthy relationship with ALL foods.
PRINCIPLE 4: Challenge the Food Police
The Food Police is an internal food critic making judgments about your food choices. Athletes often experience these as intrusive rules around eating, extending training sessions, and compensation for meals eaten. These rules could be either internally or externally driven, i.e., food/supplement/body composition advice from online wellness spaces or recommendations from coaches or trainers who are not skilled in sports nutrition. Arming yourself with realistic, evidence-based strategies (via a sports-certified Registered Dietitian) is the first step towards a balanced relationship with food and movement for performance.
PRINCIPLE 5: Respect Your Fullness
Inadequate fueling schedules can lead to “ravenous” hunger by the end of the day and disconnection from internal cues (both hunger AND fullness). By consistently nourishing with planned meals and snacks, hunger levels will remain stable, leading to a greater connection with comfortable fullness.
PRINCIPLE 6: Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Find satisfying ways to honor your taste preferences and cultural food traditions while avoiding deprivation. Planning enjoyable snacks and balanced meals in alignment with taste preferences AND fueling needs while avoiding restrictive meal plans can enhance satisfaction and reduce cravings. Internal awareness and intentionality with appropriate macronutrient timing at meals and pre-, during-, and post-workout snacks are crucial for the athlete’s performance and satisfaction.
PRINCIPLE 7: Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
Using food to soothe, comfort, or distract from uncomfortable feelings (either via over-consumption OR restriction) is not a long-term solution. Though emotional eating can be part of normal eating, athletes must find self-compassionate and effective ways to regulate emotions. Coaches and trainers can help by checking in with athletes and connecting them with mental health professionals as needed.
PRINCIPLE 8: Respect Your Body
Weight classes, body shape ideals, and frequent talk about body composition goals can lead to higher rates of body dissatisfaction. Celebrating body diversity within sports, choosing meal consistency and body nourishment over fad diets, and recognizing that attempts to change body shape often inhibit performance are excellent places for athletes to engage in body respect.
PRINCIPLE 9: Movement – Feel the Difference
Remember the joy that movement can bring! Focusing on improvements in athletic performance, like strength, endurance, or skill, are more sustainable motivators than external measures like shape or weight. Competitive athletes may feel extra pressure to follow rigorous training regimens. Still, they can stay connected to internal cues and prioritize self-care by taking adequate recovery time, avoiding exercise while injured, and prioritizing sleep and proper nutrition to feel stronger during workouts.
PRINCIPLE 10: Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
For athletes, flexible structure and adequacy are crucial. Flexible structure gives options from all food groups, including nutrient-dense foods AND fun foods. Emphasizing a balance of fluids, protein, carbohydrates, fat, and produce support well-fueled training sessions and game days. Gentle nutrition can also provide specific recommendations for endurance sports vs. short-duration sports.
For personalized guidance when integrating Intuitive Eating and sports nutrition into your fueling strategy, reach out to the Registered Dietitians at Memphis Nutrition Group.
By Emily Gause, MA, RDN, LDN