Updated: Oct 31
The first of the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating is Reject the Diet Mentality.
This blog will provide an overview of this principle and discuss why it's so important for endurance athletes.
We'll cover the prevalence of dieting and disordered eating in runners and walk through some practical tips for rejecting the diet mentality.
The Diet Mentality in Endurance Athletes
Dieting is extremely common in the athletic world, and the repercussions can be severe.
A 2021 study surveyed 1,000 female athletes, ages 15-30, about their diets and screened each participant for disordered eating patterns.
234 of the athletes reported following a diet and 68.5% of them screened positively to at least 1 of the 3 disordered eating screening tools. What's more, athletes following a low-carbohydrate diet were more likely to have positive screens for disordered eating.
Endurance athletes may choose to following a specific diet for various reasons, like managing a medical condition or environmental concerns. However, our society has placed an emphasis on what an athlete should look like and we can't ignore the pressure many athletes feel to look a certain way.
Athletes are also more likely than non-athletes to follow a restrictive diet and are at a higher risk for developing eating disorders.
Restrictive diets can lead to low energy availability (LEA), which has a startling prevalence of 18% and 58% with the highest being among athletes in endurance and jump events. 60% of elite middle and long-distance athletes, and 23% of elite sprinters, were also found to experience amenorrhea (loss of period) as a result of LEA.
LEA can have a number of negative effects, including, but not limited to:
increased risk in injury
increased risk of cardiovascular disease
decrease in muscle mass
decrease in immune function
impaired bone health
It can also result in RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport), a defined syndrome of poor performance and overall health, including the female athlete triad, which is marked by irregular periods, disordered eating, and bone loss.
Needless to say, it's important that endurance athletes are eating enough to support their higher levels of training, and thus,dieting can be incredibly
The Problem With Diets
There's nothing wrong with wanting to make healthy changes or having a goal to change your body composition (assuming it'd be a healthy change).
However, dieting can have negative consequences, particularly in an active individuals who have higher needs.
This hasn't stopped a large number of individuals from regular dieting attempts. A 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis had 42% of surveyed adults report that they had tried to lose weight in the past year.
Weight loss and dieting are everywhere, but there's reason to believe that dieting doesn't work for many individuals.
A common result of restricting food is binge eating, and the act of restricting itself is actually a good predictor of a binge, and the longer someone restricts their food intake, the more likely they are to binge eat.
Another study, done in children, found that the children who were prohibited from eating a certain snack had a significantly higher desire for that snack and when they were allowed it, they ate a significantly higher amount than their peers in the control group who were not prohibited in any way.
By restricting or not allowing ourselves certain foods or amounts of foods, something in our psychology makes us want it more, making long-term calorie restriction incredibly difficult to sustain.
Another study investigating the relationship between military members and dieting found that veterans who have gone through "making weight" were more likely to report disordered eating habits including binge eating and purging, as well as body dissatisfaction later in life.
We can conclude that dieting down to a goal weight can have detrimental long-term effects on eating habits and body image.
It's not just the mental game of dieting that we need to be concerned with. Dieting and calorie restriction has physiological effects on the body as well.
When we under eat, whether intentionally or not, the body perceives the pattern of not getting enough food.
The body is going to do whatever it needs to do in order to keep functioning. So it adapts to a lower energy intake by slowing things down to preserve things. This results in a slower metabolism and in most cases, weight regain after loss.
This especially appears to be true in individuals who diet often and experience weight cycling. These individuals tend to end up at a higher weight than before dieting due to the body's adaptations.
Over time, caloric restriction has also been shown to increase appetite
as well as cortisol, the "stress hormone", which is associated with abdominal fat.
In the absence of enough food, the body is forced to prioritize some processes over others. This can result in things like a loss of period, frequent illness, and even GI distress.
Intuitive Eating Principle #1: Rejecting the Diet Mentality as an Endurance Athlete
So what's an athlete to do?
First, let's talk about how the diet mentality can show up in the endurance world. Dieting can be:
a fear of carbohydrates despite strong evidence supporting them for athletic performance
a belief in "lighter, faster"
hesitance to use sports nutrition products due to their calories or sugar content
skipping post-workout recovery fuel to "save calories"
adding in an extra workout or more miles to make up for eating more
following specific food rules, like avoiding certain foods, not eating after a certain time of day, avoiding caloric beverages, etc.
Making weight or cutting weight for specific events
With such an emphasis on the appearance of an athlete, it's hard not to separate your athletic ability and performance from your body image.
In order to fully reject the diet mentality, it's important to be a
ware of where and how it tends to show up.
Then, you can take intentional steps to remove it from your lifestyle:
let go of any and all food rules you've set for yourself
stop tracking food
embrace food neutrality - no food is inherently good or bad
eat regularly throughout the day
honor your hunger and listen to your body's cues
throw away any books or magazines that promise weight loss results or recommend any type of dieting or food rule
clear your social media feed by unfollowing individuals
selling body results, dieting tips, or weight loss coaching
stop weighing yourself regularly and consider asking for a blind weight at future doctor appointments
consider how your food is fueling your body to perform and recover at your very best
set boundaries and expectations regarding diet talk with those around
Ditching the diet mentality won't happen overnight and you'll need to come back to some of these steps more than once. Remember, we are rejecting diet mentality, which is going to be a strong, active, intentional refusal to partake in
Over time, this will come more naturally for you.
How Using the Intuitive Eating Principles Can Help Runners
Intentionally embracing intuitive eating and letting go of a diet mentality can yield incredible benefits for runners, such as:
a decrease in disordered eating patterns
better sense of hunger and fullness cues and self-regulation of adequate intake
a trust in one's body
improved relationship with food
improved body image
lower instances of depression and anxiety
Not to mention it can help runners stop dieting and ultimately under-fueling, which can result in not only better health, and a decreased risk of RED-S, but also some big performance improvements as well.
Dieting is extremely common in the general population, but we know it can be detrimental for health, particularly in athletic individuals who are at a higher risk of developing RED-S.
Rejecting the diet mentality takes intentional work, but yields great benefits for runners who are looking to improve their relationship with food and optimize their performance.
The first principle of the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating is Reject the Diet Mentality. Next up, we'll be covering #2, Honoring Your Hunger as an endurance athlete.
Let's work together!
If any of this has resonated with you, I'd love to hear! My 1:1 clients work on various areas of nutrition including this and other intuitive eating principles, fueling for performance, and more. Check out some of the ways we can work together here.