Episode 54: The Secret of Intuitive Eating for Athletes | Ditching Diet Culture and Improve Performance with Kia Bourne


In this episode we’ll go through what Intuitive Eating (IE) is and we’ll unpack how it can be used in conjunction with training to optimize performance. I bring TD Wellness Teammate and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Kia Bourne on the show. She is going to tell us about how IE can enhance your performance during your training, and after you’ve retired. We’ll meet an athlete who was down, struggling with her body image, and viewing her sport as a chore until she discovered Intuitive Eating. She was able to improve her performance while falling in love with her body and sport again.

Imagine a world where being healthy is not correlated with being skinny or any kind of body image. Where working out is not just a means to burn calories or to get a slimmer waist and bigger butt. Imagine being taught as a young (and older) athlete that exercising can build strength and confidence; that nutrition can be sustainable, supportive, and fulfilling. Diet culture has taken this away from many of us and is something we struggle with, but good news is we don’t have to.

Intermittent Fasting, Keto, Weight Watchers, Flexitarian, Vegetarian, Jenny Craig, South Beach, Beach Body, Shakeology, Anti-Inflammatory… the list goes on.

Diet culture is everywhere we look and spread over every media platform. It’s with the friends and teammates we talk to and even our coaches and trainers. Are you tired of trying to find ways to shift and shape your body in order to look a certain way or to change in hopes of being better in your sport?

So, how does it work?

The 3 Pillars to Optimized Performance for Athletes
There are 3 pillars to optimized performance. When only one of these pillars is met adequately, or focused on, it’s tough for athletes to reach full potential. When using all 3 together, an athlete can then see the gains they are looking for. Let’s break them down.

  • Training: This may be obvious, but you can’t make progress without putting in the work. Training may come easy to athletes. It’s where they get to practice their sport and put the time in to reach the top. Disciplined training can lead to performance gains, but without attention to stress and nutrition, it could be counteracted.
  • Mindfulness: Athletes are under a lot of stress, so mindfulness represents a range of mental, emotional, and physical aspects that affect an athletes performance.. The physical stress being one of the most obvious forms. It is important for athletes to be in tune with their bodies, to know when they need a break or to rest, and to find best practices to alleviate this stress. The same goes for mental stress. Being an athlete can be demanding on the body and brain and it is important to take time to care for our mental health along with physical. Adequate sleep is a very important part to alleviate stress and promote healing. Be kind to your body and pay attention to cues for needed rest, attention to mental health, and aiming for at least 8 hours of sleep for recovery, and enhances an athletes emotional state as well. Check out One Small Bite Podcast Episode 14: How Sleep Affects Our Performance.
  • Nutrition: Our bodies need a wide variety of nutrients to support growth and healing to go with training. Optimizing nutrition can help optimize training gains. Fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fats, dairy, and protein are all important in balancing meals to support immune function, physical function, and recovery. This is where Intuitive Eating can play a role.
    There is a lot of noise when it comes to sports and nutrition. It can be difficult to find the best thing to do or to know the best way to eat. As an athlete, we are disciplined in nature and we want to be the best. Intuitive Eating can play a role in aiding us to listen to our bodies, to eat what we need to support performance and have peace in our minds.

The Story of Track and Field Athlete, Katie
Meet Katie. Katie grew up playing sports. She was always the fastest on her team and she loved being an athlete. In high school, she began track and field and was quickly recognized as one of the best athletes in the state. She eventually was offered her dream- to run on scholarship at a Division 1 school.

When she got to college, track became more of a chore. She started to notice changes in her body. She began to carry more weight and largely attributed that to being in the weight room 3 days a week compared to none in high school. However, she felt this was slowing her down. She began struggling with injuries and her mentality was no longer where it was when she was a top athlete. Weekly weigh-ins in front of her team were causing a lot of anxiety and she soon began hating her body. Her performance dropped as her relationship with her body did. Restricting her diet to look like other girls on her team in hopes to be faster only harmed her performance.
It wasn’t until she began working with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) that she found Intuitive Eating. She learned how to appreciate her body and show herself compassion and kindness. She began to nourish herself and pay attention to her needs. There was a lot of stress and hard work that lead Katie to Intuitive Eating. She began to love her body again, nourished her body and mind, and performance gains followed. She went on to be a top runner in her NCAA conference.
Katie’s transition to Intuitive Eating didn’t happen in one day, it was a process and IE habits were built over time. So, let’s break it down.

What is Intuitive Eating?
In their book Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch define Intuitive Eating as “a self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought.” Intuitive Eating is not a diet. The 10 principles are meant to guide individuals in breaking free from diet mentality and to eating intuitively.

The 10 Principles to Intuitive Eating:

  1. Reject the Diet Mentality
  2. Honor Your Hunger
  3. Make Peace with Food
  4. Challenge the Food Police
  5. Feel Your Fullness
  6. Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
  7. Respect Your Body
  8. Movement—Feel the Difference
  9. Honor Your Health—Gentle Nutrition

Intuitive Eating is an anti-diet approach to eating that could be helpful for every population. The principles could be applied to athletes along with common sports nutrition practices. However, athletes can have demanding schedules and very specific needs to meet their training. Let’s take a look at some research and how IE can best be applied to athletes.

What are the Oppositions?
Sports RD Lori Russel argues that “most well-trained athletes need to eat beyond hunger” and “eating intuitively can have you missing nutrition targets needed for optimal performance.” She makes an excellent point! Sometimes athletes may struggle with knowing their needs that go along with their demanding training schedules. It may be difficult for some athletes to eat enough food to fuel their training. However, Intuitive Eating is not made with rules to be followed. Eating intuitively takes practice and can involve reflecting on training and recognizing what and how much fuel is needed to support performance. Sports RD Kelly Jones lays out the 10 principles of IE and how they can be applied to athletes and active people.

Planning out intake for athletic performance can often become overwhelming to the athlete. The research in sports nutrition includes specific intake parameters and such strict recommendations can be what leads to an increase in eating disorders and disordered eating in athletics. The principles of intuitive eating are created to combat the strict dietary guidelines and can be helpful in preventing an athlete from going down that path or to combat disordered eating patterns.
A common theme in the research on sports nutrition includes dietary restrictions or guidelines to benefit gastrointestinal (GI) health or to reduce the symptoms associated with GI discomfort and sport. A study was done to review 4 diets in track-and-field athletes: gluten-free, low FODMAP, vegetarian, and fasting. The review found there are no direct benefits associated with a gluten-free diet in healthy athletes. A low FODMAP diet may aid in improving GI symptoms. This could help in reducing uncomfortable GI symptoms while practicing IE and recognizing what causes discomfort. The review also included vegetarian diets and found they can adequately support an athlete’s demands but a lot of attention and planning may need to go into this to ensure adequate nutrition. There is limited research on fasting but strict strategies should be in place to meet athletic demands if an athlete chooses to go this route. One Small Bite podcast episode 15 discusses more on intermittent fasting.

Some athletes focus on weight loss or muscle gain to improve performance. One way to do this is through altering their diet. Keto diets have been popular in the media for some time in promoting weight loss. Essentially, a keto diet involves low carbohydrates with high protein and fat. A study done with 24 healthy men for 8 weeks observed the effects of a ketogenic diet on body composition with resistance training. The men saw fat mass reduce significantly but no significant increases in muscle mass and no significant changes in total body weight. There is research to support diets work in altering body composition (depending on goal) and improving performance in athletes, but it is important to take into account what will be beneficial in the long term. This may be dependent on each individual athlete.

Research on Intuitive Eating has been increasing throughout the years, although there are not many studies known on Intuitive Eating and athletes specifically. A literature review on IE and health indicators provides insight in associations between IE, lower body mass index (BMI), and better mental health. Another study on IE aimed to determine IE practices in retired female college athletes. The study included 218 retired female college athletes and asked them to fill out a survey that was analyzed on permission to eat, hunger and satiety cues, and eating for physical needs. The analysis found athletes feeling liberated with eating following retirement—although the process to get here is described as effortful in relearning the bodies signals of hunger and satiety.

Can an athlete practice intuitive eating and still meet their needs for optimal performance?
Of course! We can eat intuitively and still meet the demands of training. Intuitive eating involves being in line with your bodies needs and demands. If we need extra sodium or carbohydrate pre or post training sessions, it’s important to know how your body feels at this time and what it feels like to fuel for success. IE principles may not be practical for every athlete at every point in their training routine, but every athlete can benefit. Practicing intuitive eating can help the athlete in their journey towards ditching diet culture for a lifelong healthy relationship with food.

How to Get Started with Intuitive Eating

  • Check out One Small Bite Podcast Episodes 13, 37, and 38 to hear from special guests and authors of Intuitive Eating- Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
  • Download The Athlete’s Guide to Intuitive Eating
  • Be on the lookout for a new podcast all about Intuitive Eating and Sports Performance
  • Find a Certified Intuitive Eating counselor near you through IntuitiveEating.org Counselor Directory
  • Make an appointment with Certified Intuitive Eating counselors and RDNs at TD Wellness

OK, I truly hope you enjoy this show, and I’d love to hear what you think. Feel free to hit me up on my social channels Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or feel free to message me at my website.

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Once again, I greatly appreciate you for listening and supporting my show. Remember, it really only takes One Small Bite over time to transform your life, so let’s – Chop the diet mentality; Fuel your body; and Nourish your soul!

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