Is Your Relationship with Food Undermining Your Athletic Goals?

Relationships with food are complex, particularly for athletes. Adequate and ideal nutrition for health, appearance, and performance can suffer when the focus primarily is on reaching a fixed “ideal” body weight. While a high power-to-weight ratio is essential for success in endurance sports, weight loss can be especially tricky for athletes who still train hard. Focusing too much on getting lighter and skinnier, and not enough on nutrition for improving performance can become harmful to one’s health.

Healthy eating should provide adequate calories and nutrients to support effective athletic training and recovery. Deliberately modifying the diet in such a way that it becomes nutritionally inadequate can be disordered eating. Two clues to whether one is doing beneficial, “performance-oriented” eating versus counterproductive, “skinny-oriented” eating are how much time one spends thinking/stressing about food, and the extent that essential nutrients are withheld from consumption.

To distinguish between beneficial and counterproductive eating, it’s important to realize that disordered eating and eating disorders exist on a spectrum – ranging from mild tendencies to more extreme eating habits. Eating habits that are beneficial for athletes may share some characteristics with disordered eating behaviors. This article poses some questions that will help you check-in with yourself about how YOU pursue your own weight loss.

These Questions Can Help You Decide If There Might Be a Better, More Positive Way of Losing Weight

What is my goal with weight loss?

  • Is it to improve performance?
  • Did I choose the target weight range and weight-loss rate with the guidance of a coach who is cognizant of harmful eating behaviors, or with help from a dietitian, doctor or qualified medical professional?
  • Did I choose a healthy, performance-oriented weight or am I aiming to weigh the same as competitors who are out-performing me, perhaps even if they are taller or shorter? Am I aiming for my weight from 10 years ago when I was fit and performing at my best, even though I am now more muscular and ten years older?

It’s important to know where you are coming from mentally, the reasons for your weight loss, and if your goal weight or weight-loss rate is achievable without putting your health at risk.

The risks of an unhealthy approach to weight loss can be disastrous for athletes: reduced performance, more frequent illnesses, change in mood (being grumpy all the time), increased fatigue, sleep disturbance, shortened attention span, increased injury frequency and low bone density, just to name a few… A coach who understands the details and dangers of weight loss along with the importance of optimized weight for performance, or a health professional, can play a pivotal role in helping you choose a target weight and rate of weight loss. The goal of weight loss is always secondary to the goal of improved performance. Wenzel Coaching has both qualified coaches and a dietitian to help establish and oversee safe weight loss with performance focus.

How intensely do I think about food?

  • Are my thoughts and dreams about food distracting me from everyday life? Are they interrupting my work frequently?
  • What types of foods do I think about?

Note how much you think about food over the course of a day. If overwhelming hunger is interrupting every-day tasks, the approach to weight loss or the goal should be re-evaluated. Please discuss this with the professional that is overseeing the weight loss. Obsessing over food is a stress that is not conducive to good performance.

Often times, disordered eating involves intentionally pursuing a sense of continual hunger because the self-control that it involves provides comfort and a sense of power. Continual ultra-focus on food restriction is not supportive of health or physical training. If you are obsessing or stressed about food, I would suggest seeking support from a qualified professional.

Am I being extreme or rigid in my approach?

  • Am I attempting to completely avoid a food group or macronutrient (protein, fat or carbohydrate) to reach my weight loss goal?
  • Am I obsessing over eating only “clean” foods or am I making truly healthy choices?
  • Am I choosing to pursue weight loss unrealistically fast?

Taking extreme measures to lose weight and being rigid about food rules can be signs that one is losing weight for reasons other than performance. Completely removing a food group (eg. starches and grains) from the diet is never a healthy approach. Reducing caloric intake excessively can cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies/toxicities, reducing performance and causing the health risks mentioned earlier. It may also cause your metabolic rate to lower, whereby your weight will increase – exactly the opposite of what you want to achieve!

Moderation, rebalancing, and adjusting portion sizes without removing a food group promote healthy weight loss without compromising athletic performance. Resist the urge to follow dieting fads with extreme food omissions in pursuit of rapid weight loss. Work on balanced meals, moderate dietary limitations, and controlled portion sizes to achieve a gradual, continuous weight loss until the your goal is reached. The vast majority of athletes who are above their ideal competitive weight can lose 0.25-0.5 pound per week without compromising their health or performance. If you are frustrated with your rate of weight loss, rather than adopt a more extreme diet or avoid a food group, consult a professional dietitian who can help you determine an appropriate rate of weight loss and guide you to adjust your diet successfully.

Am I intentionally avoiding food-related social gatherings?

  • Have I stopped attending meals with my friends/family/teammates?
  • Does food continually stress me out so I am unable to enjoy the experience of eating?

Has your concern with dieting changed your enjoyment of social activities that involve food? If so, the food-focused regimen is controlling you rather than the other way round, and it’s causing unnecessary stress, undermining performance. If you find yourself in this situation, chat with an expert about what has happened. There’s no shame in asking for help. Remember, meals can be enjoyed without sabotaging your weight loss goal – even around holidays.

Am I using weight loss pills, laxatives, or diuretics?

Magazines and websites are packed with advertisements telling us that we need to take a pill or drink a shake to rapidly lose weight, or get leaner, fitter, or stronger. If you find yourself using supplements that claim to “melt fat away” or make you “lose 10 pounds in 10 days,” then you have lost your way. Many of those pills and powders are not safe. Dietary supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry whose profits depend on consumers using their products, not on whether those products are safe or effective. They are unregulated and often contain dangerous unlisted ingredients. Even some listed ingredients can do permanent damage to your health. Don’t waste your money on weight-loss supplements. You’ll make more progress towards your goals by spending the same money on a dietitian or coach.

The questions above are meant to help you better understand how you relate to food. If you find yourself plagued by thoughts of food and dieting, or you are allowing your happiness and self-worth to ride on the number on the scale, then I urge you to seek the support. Remember that, although cycling, running, triathlon, and other endurance sports require a high power-to-weight ratio, lighter weight is not always better – critical strength could be lost by losing too much weight or losing weight too quickly, creating a weaker rather than stronger you. If the questions above or your answers to them raised any concerns, a qualified dietitian or nutritional coach can be of assistance.

Sarah Weber, MS, RD is a performance dietitian at Washington State University. She works daily with endurance athletes as well as figure skaters to help them refine their food choices and portions and improve performance. She is available for nutrition coaching packages, from four weeks to four months, or ongoing consultation. 

 

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