Eat to live, or live to eat? Well, both, actually… Food is both necessary and for pleasure! Proper fueling gives us the energy and mindset that we can transfer into improving our athletic performance. As athletes, our basal metabolic rate is typically higher than average, and thus we require more fuel for body maintenance. Nutrition can play an invisible, but nonetheless critical role in the training and recovery process.
But just like training for your sport, nutrition also takes time and practice to get right. No one does it perfectly the first time through. For many of us female athletes especially, we struggle with body image, which can make proper nourishment even more challenging. We also tend to be hard-workers and perfectionists, which can lead us to be unforgiving of ourselves, and sometimes make us our own enemies.
Around two years ago, I started falling into this trap just a little bit. To be clear I have never had an eating disorder, but I did develop certain food rules that I couldn’t seem to be able to get out of my head. I feared eating anything “fatty” and would avoid fats whenever possible (yes, I know we’re not in the 1980’s anymore). My eating habits, combined with running, somehow caused my period to disappear near the end of 2018.
Luckily, I was able to catch myself before I fell too deep. I now have a much healthier relationship with food and eating. But through this experience, I learned a couple of important lessons, and I hope that by sharing these lessons, I will be able to help someone out.
- Don’t restrict food groups.
The three macronutrient classes (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) are all essential towards athletic performance and recovery.
Carbohydrate-rich foods often get a bad rep., but in reality, they are what fuel our muscles and our brain. When we do not eat enough carbohydrates and our muscles are deprived of glycogen, they will take much longer to recover. Pasta, rice, and bread are all good sources of carbohydrates.
Protein is used for muscle repair and growth, so that after we put stress on our muscles during training, they can then become stronger. Protein-rich foods include lean meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy, lentils and beans, and tofu.
Fats are not only a source of energy, but also essential towards our hormonal health–hormonal imbalance can lead to a host of issues, including (but not limited to) changes in mood, sex drive, menstrual cycle, and ability to recover from workouts. Rich sources of fats include red meat, oily fish, dairy, and oils. Eggs, salmon, and flax seeds are all a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Other healthy fats include nuts, nut butters (such as peanut butter), and olive oil.
As for me, after revising my eating habits, I was able to get my period back 2 months ago. While this process took close to a year, I now feel so much better physically and mentally.
- Don’t compare yourself to others.
Everyone has a unique relationship with food. Some people may think they eat too much while others may think they eat too little. Some people may live being obsessed with thinking about food, and yet for others, food may be the least of their concerns. But our end goal is all the same–to eat with balance and a healthy mindset. And, you don’t need to have an eating disorder to be able to improve your mindset towards food, because this is something many of us can benefit from.
- Don’t overthink it.
I think intuitive eating is great, which is eating by listening to your body. This means that if you feel full and satisfied, you should obey these feelings and stop eating. On the other hand, if you feel hungry, you can and should eat. The thing with restrictions is that you want what you can’t have. Once you normalize your relationship with food, you will no longer feel obsessed with the “unhealthy” foods that you previously restricted.
- Progress is not linear.
Improving your relationship with food and eating takes time. Sometimes you will fall back down a couple of steps, or swing too far in the other direction, and that’s fine, because it’s all a part of the process. You need to trust yourself in order to grow.
- Balance and forgiveness, not shame and restrictions.
For anyone who is currently restricting themselves or has food rules, you are creating so much unnecessary stress for yourself! You are also missing out on so much enjoyment in life–food is a necessity, a hobby, an art, and so much more. We should all just take a breath, relax, and lift the feeling of guilt off of our shoulders. Life is too short to be constantly feeling fearful and ashamed.
My experience may be limited, but I believe that these lessons are important and I will stand by them. Different people may have different reactions to this article, and I’m open to any feedback or suggestions. Finally, if you need someone to talk to, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me (or any of us on the SEA team).