Mindful Eating for Athletes: Is it Possible?

Published on: 03/11/2023

Mindful and intuitive eating are becoming popular alternatives to restrictive diets – but is mindful eating for athletes possible?

You don’t need to be training for the next Olympic games to be considered an athlete. Even recreational athletes need to eat enough to meet the physical demands you are putting on your body.

Diet culture surrounds us all but many people promoting trendy diets and weight loss plans just aren’t qualified to be giving diet advice. 

I’m Allison, a registered dietitian, runner and gym member. I grew up surrounded by diet culture and I want to debunk all the myths surrounding physical activity, training and weight loss. 

It is possible to achieve peak physical performance AND enjoy your food without obsessively counting every gram of carb and protein. 

Let’s explore mindful eating for athletes and how to start your journey towards loving the body you have and enjoying food. ALL food. 

You may be wondering, what is mindful eating? Or is it different from intuitive eating? In the next section I’m going to explain them both.

Mindful Eating: Is It Different Than Intuitive Eating?

Mindful eating is becoming in tune with your body’s signals for hunger and fullness and using them to decide what and when you need to eat. This helps you to learn more about your food choices and why you are eating.

Intuitive Eating is moving away from diet mentality and eating for enjoyment and to nourish without restriction.

Mindful eating is an important component of intuitive eating which has 10 core principles(1):

  1. Rejecting diet mentality
  2. Honoring your hunger
  3. Making peace with food
  4. Challenging the food police
  5. Discovering the satisfaction factor
  6. Feeling your fullness
  7. Using kindness to cope with emotions
  8. Respecting your body
  9. Moving for enjoyment
  10. Incorporating gentle nutrition 

Diet culture is the opposite of intuitive eating. Diet culture gives you external rules to follow like eating at certain times of day or lists of forbidden foods. Examples of this include intermittent fasting or unnecessarily following a gluten free diet. 

In diet culture the focus of physical activity is to burn calories and to lose weight. This can lead to feelings of obligation and less enjoyment. 

Intuitive Eating shifts away from weight based goals, focussing on the many other benefits of physical activity including (2) :

  • Improved mood like reduced anxiety and depression
  • Improved thinking and cognition for ages 6-13
  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome
  • Reduced risk of some cancers
  • Stronger bones and muscles 

It is possible to reject diet culture, while focusing on eating for athletic performance and the enjoyment of food. Let’s look at the benefits mindful eating can have for athletes.

The Benefits of Mindful Eating for Athletes

Mindful and intuitive eating have many benefits for everyone (athletes included). These benefits include (3, 4):

  • Improved psychological well being 
  • Improved body satisfaction
  • Increased pleasure while eating
  • Improved cholesterol and blood pressure
  • Protection against diet messaging 
  • Reduced incidents of eating disorders

Athletes particularly benefit from the protection against disordered eating (and I’m not talking about anorexia or bulimia). Have you heard of low energy availability? We’re going to explore how this affects athletes next.

What is Low Energy Availability?

Low energy availability (low EA) is a type of eating disorder that affects athletes (5) – and it’s not just affecting elite athletes. Research has found that even recreational athletes are developing low EA (6). 

Low EA happens when your caloric intake does not cover the needs of your physical activity plus all the other essential functions your body needs to perform (7). 

Think about your energy balance like a bank account. Every time you eat, you are depositing money into your account. When you are physically active you are withdrawing energy funds to cover the cost of activity. But you need to make sure you have enough money left in your account to cover your energy expenses like:

  • Maintaining your body temperature
  • Pumping blood
  • Breathing (your diaphragm is a working muscle too!)
  • Digesting food
  • Fighting Infections
  • Growing

Your energy availability depends on your activity level. This means that for some athletes, they may be eating regular meals but still not meeting their energy needs. So how do you know if you have low EA? Keep reading for all the signs!

Signs of Low Energy Availability

Imagine you’re 6 weeks into your marathon training program and you start feeling tired. It’s more difficult to get up for those early morning runs. Or maybe you are coming down with frequent colds. 

These are both symptoms of having low EA and the research is showing that it’s not the stress of the exercise causing them. The symptoms of low EA are from the negative balance in your energy bank account (5)

Other symptoms of low EA include(7):

  • Stress fractures
  • Metabolic and endocrine abnormalities
  • Increased illness and absence from training
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Psychological stress and depression
  • Changes in your heart rate
  • Increased digestive upset

Becoming familiar with your body’s hunger and fullness cues by practicing mindful eating will help to prevent low EA and ensure your body can function its best both during activity and at rest.

Are you ready to improve your physical and mental health by transitioning to a non-restrictive mindful eating approach? In the next section we’re going to look at how you can start your journey towards having a positive relationship with food and your body. 

How to Start Mindful Eating 

Let’s clarify what Mindful Eating is NOT. Mindful eating does not mean that you eat whatever you want, whenever you want. Mindful eating is being very intentional about why you are eating. 

Are you eating because you are bored? Sad? Lonely? Are you eating because it’s a habit while you watch TV in the evening? Are you hungry – truly hungry?

If you are craving ice cream or chips. Why are you craving them? Did you miss a meal or snack that has left you feeling over hungry? Did you eat too little at lunch and now it’s mid-afternoon and now you’re hangry? 

If you are an athlete, mindful eating includes making some specific choices about food and fluids based on what your practice or training schedule is like that day. 

Maybe you’re eating a mid afternoon snack not because you’re hungry but because you know you’re going for a run at 4:00 pm and you need to make sure you give your body the carbohydrates it needs to fuel that run. That is mindful eating! 

Shifting your mindset about how you think about your body and the food you eat won’t be something that happens overnight. Here are some tips that you can use to start mindful eating (8):

  1. Appreciate your food. Take a minute before you eat to really appreciate the food and everything that went into making your meal. 
  2. Avoid Distractions. That means no screens and no work. Give all of your attention to your food.
  3. Engage all your senses when you eat. Notice how your food looks, feels, smells, tastes and even sounds. 
  4. Don’t skip meals. Eating regular meals and snacks prevents you from feeling over hungry and overeating  at your next meal time.
  5. Eat slowly, chew your food well and enjoy it. 
  6. Become aware of how much you are eating – are you eating enough to feel satisfied? Or are you eating until you feel stuffed?

Journaling can be an important tool to reflect on how you feel before and after meals. This is also very true for athletes. In the next section we’re going to discuss how the process of mindful eating can be used to improve your training and performance.

Using Mindful Eating to Improve Athletic Performance

Mindful eating is becoming aware of your body’s natural hunger cues, aiming to move away from emotional eating (from stress, depression or boredom) and eating out of habit at certain times of day (like when you’re watching TV). 

For athletes this includes evaluating how you feel when you eat certain foods before and during activity. How does your training go when you drink less water the day before? How do you feel when you do or don’t eat before your morning workout?

Using a food and training journal can help you reflect on what you ate/drank before and during your activity and how your training went – did you have enough energy to complete your activity? Did you feel good when you finished? Did you struggle to maintain focus and motivation at the end? 

Let’s discuss how mindful eating can help you before, during and after activity so you can get the most out of your training session. Spoiler alert – Sometimes this means eating and drinking when you do NOT feel hungry or thirsty. 

1. Before Training

The guidelines for nutrition and athletic performance recommend having carbohydrates 1-4 hrs before activity that will last greater than 60 minutes (7).  

Depending on the time of day you are training, you may or may not feel like eating. This is a common issue for early morning training. Depending on the type of workout you are doing that day – it may or may not be ok to start on an empty stomach.

The importance of carbohydrates before and during an activity is not an exact science. The longer your workout or the higher intensity (long runs, speed work, or weight lifting) the more your body will need carbohydrates.

Finding the right pre workout meal or snack will require some trial and error. This is where your food journal can really pay off!

2. During Training

If you are struggling with taking the right amount of energy and fluids during activity – you are not alone!

Your food and training journal will be useful for keeping track of your intake during activity so you can learn what works best for you.

At what point during activity do you need to start taking carbohydrates?

It may surprise you that there is a benefit to having some carbohydrates for activities as short as 45 minutes. Although your body doesn’t need the fuel, tasting carbohydrates (even just swishing in your mouth) can stimulate your brain and nervous system to help you concentrate and stay motivated to work hard (7).

If your activity will be lasting more than one hour, then your body will need carbohydrates during your workout – whether you feel hungry or not. There are many options available including gels, sports drinks, sports gummies or my personal favorite, the OG sports nutrition supplement – a banana!

Last but not least is your recovery meal or snack. This can often be overlooked as an essential part of your nutrition plan but don’t underestimate its importance!

3. After Training

After long and strenuous physical activity, your body’s natural hunger hormones can be altered. This might reduce your appetite after exercise (9). For people who are focussed on weight and burning calories, this might seem like the perfect opportunity to restrict.

The truth is, eating or drinking something that gives your body carbohydrates and protein within 2 hours after training helps your body to build and repair your muscle tissue more efficiently. Here are some post recovery meal or snack ideas to get the carbs and protein your body needs:

  • Egg sandwich on an english muffin
  • Smoothie made with milk, greek yogurt and fruit
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Trail mix with nuts, dried fruit and pretzels 
  • Oatmeal made with milk

To get the best muscle growth and repair, it is better to have protein after exercise and every 3-5 hours over multiple meals. Including a source of protein with every meal and snack will help your body repair muscle tissue and help to prevent injuries (7). 

Protein sources of food include:

  • Meat, fish, poultry
  • Dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Eggs
  • Beans and legumes
  • Fish

Transitioning to mindful eating is a process and a change in the way you think about your food and your body. Let’s review some of the key points we covered. 

Key Takeaways

Studies have shown that over the long run (no pun intended!), restrictions and diets do not work for weight management (10).  Restricting caloric intake can lead to depression, anxiety, injury, illness and missed days of training.

The principles of mindful eating will help you become aware of what types and how much food/fluid your body needs to perform your best during training and competition. 

In some circumstances, athletes need to eat and drink when they may not be hungry or thirsty. This is still considered mindfully eating because you are intentionally fueling your body to meet your physical demands. 

Ready to fuel your life without restriction? Book your discovery call here for a personalized approach to incorporating mindful eating into your active life.

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Welcome to my blog! I’m combining my love of writing with my love of food to bring you evidenced based information on sports nutrition and mental health – specifically ADHD.

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