Thoughts on Eating Style and Athletic Performance

Thoughts on Eating Style & Athletic Performance.png

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about intuitive eating and it’s potential to positively effect the health of female athletes and workout enthusiasts. Since then I’ve been deep diving into the topic of intuitive eating for athletes.

Unfortunately it feels like I’m deep diving straight into the abyss – I’m anticipating an attack from giant squids, 20,000 League’s under the sea style, anytime now. Because the truth is, while there is some research regarding the psychological effects of intuitive eating among current and former female athletes, there’s pretty much ZILCH on how normal/intuitive eating effects sport performance, rates of injury, etc.  If you know of some such research CONTACT ME. And if you are in a place to perform a research study, please CONTACT ME!

But, regardless, at this point what I’m about to write is mainly extrapolation from what I do know to be true based of research but also a little conjecture based off of my own experiences and observations as an athlete. Mainly it’s a compilation of thoughts from my crazy, curious brain. But hopefully it’ll help raise a few thoughts of your own.

Let’s start with some observations:

  1. Athletes are told that in order to perform at their best they need to really focus on good nutrition: pre, during and post workout fueling, along with an overall balanced, health promoting diet.
  2. Many athletes are encouraged to lose weight in the name of improving performance: i.e. runners, swimmers, divers, high jumpers, dancers, gymnasts, wrestlers. Weight loss goals permeate nutrition discussions in each of these sports
  3. Athletes, both female and male, are at a higher risk for eating disorders and disordered eating
  4. Characteristically, elite athletes are high performing, perfectionistic, rigid, earn what you work for types

Taken together, these form a perfect storm for athletes to be what we term ‘controlled eaters’. Controlled eaters are individuals who eat based off of a set of rules, utilizing willpower to decide what, when, and how much to eat. This includes athletes who count calories, follow a strict meal plan, eat only certain foods that they deem ‘clean’ and those that restrict foods in the name of weight loss or ‘performance’.

A recent research article published in the Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention surveyed former collegiate athletes, asking whether their eating habits had changed since college, and if so, how.  Participants reported increased freedom and decreased anxiety with eating since stopping their sport. They reported eating based off of their hunger and satiety cues as opposed to the rigid format with which they ate as athletes. Beyond this, they reported decreased binging and feelings of being out of control with eating (1).

In essence, the female athletes in this study, who by the way were all former gymnasts or swimmers/divers (both weight conscious sports), were experiencing binges and ‘out of control’ eating while they were collegiate athletes. Also during their time as collegiate athletes, they were eating in a controlled, rigid manner that resulted in higher rates of anxiety.  This doesn’t really come as a surprise. It’s well known that rigid eating and diets often lead to disordered eating, binges, and feelings of anxiety and being out of control around food.

This information alone should be enough motivation to stop the controlled eating amongst athletes, but as a former collegiate swimmer, I know that it’s not. We need to be able to say that normal/intuitive eating results in better sport performance than controlled eating. Because sadly, for many of these kids long-term health isn’t really on their mind, but performance definitely is.

Until we have research to definitively support that intuitive eating athletes perform better, have decreased rates of injury, recover better, etc. than controlled eaters we have stories, case studies and hypotheses. But just because these things aren’t double blind randomized control trial (RCT) studies, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take them into consideration. So, here are some things to think about in the mean time:

We tend to believe that a lower body weight will translate to better performance in certain sports (running, high jump, swimming to name a few).  But what are we basing these beliefs on?

Let’s take high jump for example. My husband was an All-American high jumper, so I’ve watched my fair share of ‘Fosbury flops’ over the years.  It is true that many of the elite college high jumpers were tall and skinny. Because people with this body type tended to perform well at high jump, the athletes who weren’t already naturally tall and skinny did everything to get there and the ones who had this body type tended to did all they could to prevent weight gain. In essence, there was a lot of restricting calories among high jumpers in an effort to emulate the best athletes in the sport. But this thinking has a major flaw. Correlation between lower bodyweight and performance is not the same as a lower bodyweight causing good performance.

In fact, I remember one athlete who jumped around the same time as my husband. He was a fair bit bigger than the ‘typical’ high jumper. And by bigger I mean he met normal weight standards for a man his height while most high jumpers toed the line between underweight and normal weight. But you know what, that kid’s name was Erik Kynard and he ended up winning silver in the high jump at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Although one example does not make a case, there are countless similar examples out there of athletes who don’t follow the expected strict weight and diet rules or their sport and yet succeed. I mean look at Rich Frohning, four time CrossFit Games champion. While most of the sport of CrossFit restricts foods that don’t fit into the ‘paleo’ framework, Rich Frohning is famous for eating what he wants (sounds like an intuitive eater to me). What if we didn’t force our bodies or our athletes ‘bodies to be something they weren’t designed to be by means of restricting calories and overworking? What if instead we fueled them well, eating when hungry stopping when satisfied, giving permission to enjoy food and discover foods that make us feel good? What if instead we had well fueled athletes who used their unique strengths to excel at sport in their own way?

Personally, I think we’d have a lot less injury and a lot less burnout. Beyond that I know we’d have less eating disorders and healthier, stronger people who would be able to leave their sport behind and step into a nourished life with a few less scars and a better relationship with food.



1. Carolyn R. Plateau, Trent A. Petrie & Anthony Papathomas (2017) Learning to eat again: Intuitive eating practices among retired female collegiate athletes, Eating Disorders, 25:1, 92-98, DOI: 10.1080/10640266.2016.1219185