Anyone who takes their fitness seriously knows that food plays a part. For athletes, though, this can involve following overly prescriptive diets in a bid to pop out high-level performances. But here’s a suggestion: What if mindful eating was put into practice? What if athletes and active people ate what made their bodies feel good? What if they respected internal cues like hunger, appetite, and fullness and became more mindful of what they’re actually moving from bowl to belly?
According to Susan Williams, a dietitian and founder of Zest Nutrition Consulting in Sydney, Australia, who works regularly with athletes, this attitude doesn’t neglect the body’s nutritional needs during training and events. Rather, it’s an incentive for competitors to become more curious and aware of what food best improves their performance.
Williams quotes US professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn. “His definition of mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” she says.
Apply that in the context of mindful eating for athletes and it means, “Paying attention to your body’s needs, signals and sensations. Being ‘on purpose’ in relation to your performance goals. And using ‘non-judgment’ to do what you need to do without it causing you physical or psychological anguish.”
So whether you’re schooling yourself for the next big Spartan race, or trying to stay healthy and committed to your fitness goals, here are a few ways that adopting a mindful eating practice can help.
Mindful Eating: How to Manage Food Intake
Depending on the kind of training you’re doing and whether it’s before or after your race, your food intake can vary greatly. “Athletes often need to eat very differently from general dietary guidelines,” Williams notes. “Sometimes for their best performance they might need to eat more food than they enjoy at a time when they don’t want to. I’m specifically talking about recovery meals and carb loading.”
While Williams believes it’s important for athletes to stand by the basics of sports nutrition, she also maintains that it is equally important that they avoid strict food rules or forced eating habits that make them miserable.
Instead? Do what needs to be done but pay attention to the food being consumed and why, she suggests. The more athletes serve their bodies’ needs while being aware of what they’re eating, the more skilled they will become in selecting the best food in the best quantities for themselves as individuals.
How to Eat Mindfully: Reduce Binge Eating & Stressing over Food Choices
A common complaint that Williams hears from athletes is that they feel they “miss out” on eating foods they enjoy. This, she says, can result in binge eating or dangerous yo-yo dieting.
For example, athletes who know they train and recover best by avoiding alcohol or fried food may follow a diet plan of regular meals and snacks that don’t include either in the lead up to an event. “However, they may feel miserable, as though they’re missing out,” explains Williams. “This feeling of deprivation means they binge or ‘go off the rails’ once their event is over. Many athletes are either ‘on’ or ‘off’ a diet of some sort, and when they are off, they are really off!”
Sound, solid mindfulness practice allows athletes to respond rather than react. In doing so, they can return to their regular way of eating without it feeling like they’re rebelling or breaking a drought. “Their mindfulness means they mostly avoid overeating or drinking to excess because it feels uncomfortable, not because they’re ‘being good.’”
Mindful Eating & Avoiding the “Diet” Trap
“There are probably as many nutrition ‘secrets’ or tactics as there are athletes,” says Williams. “If athletes try to follow every recommendation, they’ll tie themselves in knots.” Ditching the diet mentality and allowing their needs to be led by how hungry they feel and how much food it takes to feel sated is a much healthier approach.
Equally, it’s important not to turn mindful eating into another kind of diet. “Some athletes may find that their weight or body composition changes as a result of becoming more mindful with their eating. This is not the case for everyone, and it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong if it’s not the case with you,” Williams claims.
“Fit, strong bodies come in all shapes and sizes,” she reminds us. “And the goal of mindful eating is to take the stress and confusion out of it and allow us to feel fully in charge of our eating instead.”