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When Fueling for Performance Becomes an Obsession

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

I was recently interviewed for by Jared of for his podcast and blog. Jared is an intuitive eating counselor and in this podcast we discussed this very topic. In this podcast we discussed which type of athlete might be at risk, but we talk quite a bit about runners since this is a specialty of mine. We discussed some of the signs an athlete’s eating might have become an obsession and when to be concerned. We also discussed intuitive eating in athletes, which can be challenging for athletes because sometimes they do need to eat when they are not hungry in order to supply the necessary nutrients and energy for fueling. I also shared a personal story related to eating for performance and some of my struggles.

Click here for listen to the podcast and view his blog.

Most athletes want to compete at their best and are often trying to find the thing or things (food, training plan, supplement, gadget) that will give them a competitive edge. When it comes to diet, there is no doubt that what an athlete eats can have negative or positive impact on performance. When an athlete fuels their body with the right types of nutrients at the right times, there can be a noticeable boost in performance. If an athlete does not fuel with the correct nutrients at the correct time, they can notice a huge detriment in performance. This is precisely why so many athletes turn to me and other sports dietitians for nutrition advice.

Athletes are often getting information from many sources. Some of these sources provide incorrect information or do not apply to athletes. In some instances, the information an athlete gets (often on the internet and from so called “influencers”) can be downright dangerous. I remember when I was in high school I was reading an article in Shape magazine about how to eat. This particular article was written for older women wanting to lose weight and was blaming fat for weight gain (this was in the 90’s). I decided to start cutting fat from my diet. The problem was that I was not a middle age woman with excess fat to lose. I was 17 years of age, very lean, and running cross-country in high school at the time. This article did not apply to me. I am sure at some level I knew that, but the article definitely did a good job of scaring me into thinking that fat was bad. Now I know better, but at the time it was dangerous. Now our young athletes are bombarded with this type of information every day and often from people that don’t have a degree in nutrition and really have no business giving nutrition advice.

I often see athletes who come to me because they know that what they are reading online is not good. Often they are confused about all of the information (mostly misinformation) they are reading online. They come to me because they want to talk to someone who can help cut through the BS and give them advise that is evidence-based, but also individualized for their needs. Most of the time these athletes may have a few misconceptions, but are willing to make changes and have not developed a fear of food or disordered eating.

Unfortunately, I do see a subset of athletes who have developed a fear of food and/or disordered eating. They have listened to the coaches that tell them they need to lose weight, or that lady on facebook that swears keto is going to be the answer to lasting energy, or teammate that swears supplements are the answer to better performance. Maybe the athletes started innocently enough with cutting back on certain foods deemed “unhealthy.” They were doing it for performance after all. Then maybe they started eating only non-processed foods or cutting back on carbohydrates because they heard they were “bad.” Then their performance starts to suffer and they are confused. They thought for sure if they ate clean, or cut out the sugar, or ate less carbs or fat, they would perform better. They come to me because they are struggling to train and compete. Their initial motivation to eat healthy has morphed into disordered eating and they need my help.

The problem is that, initially, this athlete is not aware their eating habits have become a problem. I often have to work with them to help them realize what they are doing has become a problem and that they need help. This is a tough conversation to have and often it has to be gentle because I do not want to scare them away. In many instances their eating behaviors will only get worse if they do not seek help.

Having a professional working with athletes, such as a coach, counselor, or dietitian, can be so important (and often overlooked). Often we think we know what is best for ourselves, but even if we have the knowledge, we can get off track. It is so important to work with professionals that can help us realize that we need to take an easy day or that we are not eating enough or to make sure we are maintaining a good relationship with food. This is powerful. These professionals can often see things that we cannot and help us keep on track towards our goals when we start to veer off.

If you feel that the effort to fuel for performance has become an obsession, please reach out. If you are not sure, here are some warning signs:

· Getting on the scale daily or multiple times a day to see if you have lost weight

· Counting every calorie and gram of carbohydrate, fat, or protein that enters your mouth without any flexibility

· Started a new diet plan or meal plan and you feel like your energy levels are low and your workouts are suffering

· Avoiding certain foods because they are unhealthy or “bad”

· Thinking about food often and constantly worrying about calories or fitting your macros

· Avoiding anything social that may involve food

· Not eating before a workout to help save calories

· Saving calories for the end of the day to be able to eat more

· Not eating during training in an effort to cut back on calories

· Not listening to the body’s hunger signals – not eating when you feel hungry

· Going for an extra run or exercise session because you want to burn more energy

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