An Athlete’s Guide to Intuitive Eating

by Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
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An Athlete’s Guide to Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating is a dietary concept that promotes listening to your instincts and basically eating what and when you want. This eating style aims to put an end to dieting, restriction, labeling, stress, counting and feeling guilty or pressured.

Studies have found people practicing intuitive eating tend to have lower BMIs and more positive health markers than those who aim to overly control food intake through restrictive diets. This is because eating intuitively lessens the preoccupation with food that comes with many other diets, thereby reducing cravings and increasing feelings of acceptance. Put simply, it promotes a ‘go with the flow’ style of eating that emphasizes listening to your body and mind and choosing foods accordingly.

Doing this helps cultivate a healthy food relationship by distinguishing what your body needs and wants, and how to translate those dietary desires into feeding your body appropriately. If you’re an intuitive eater, you’re not pledging to stick with a labeled diet (ketoPaleovegan, the list goes on and on), instead you are committing to satisfying and nourishing through mindfulness, balance, appreciation and understanding.

This might all sound a bit vague and with good reason; intuitive eating is the non-diet diet, which means there shouldn’t be guidelines, rules or regulations to follow. Adapting this style of eating takes a lot of individual assessment and time to adapt.


To put it in more practical terms, here are some basic principles of intuitive eating:

  • Stop Dieting. No more calorie counting, feeling deprived, having to ‘earn’ calories or classifying foods as good or bad. Basically, stop treating food as the enemy. There are no villainous foods and no magic secrets; it’s a lifestyle.
  • Find Balance. This process is about being open to all foods. That doesn’t mean gorging on whatever is around, but rather enjoying foods that make you happy and nourish your body. If you want a donut one morning and avocado toast with poached eggs the next, or a steak and fries for dinner one night and tofu over buckwheat the next, then so be it.
  • Listen to Your Body. If you crave a burger and fries, have it. But if that burger and fries leaves you feeling gross, next time you crave it, have a smaller portion or enjoy the burger with an apple or side salad. In short, use your body’s response to indulging in your cravings to understand what makes your body feel good and what doesn’t.
  • Be Mindful. Learn to slow down and truly enjoy the food choices you make. Be present in your eating moments so you can take in the taste, satisfaction and sensations of satiety. Use these cues to guide your future food choices.
  • Acknowledge Your Hunger. Simply eat when you feel hungry and stop when you are full. To do this properly, you need to get to know your hunger scale ratings. (I am ___ on a scale of 1–10, for example.)

Intuitive eating is a lifestyle approach centered around listening to your body, and it’s actually surprising it is only having its moment now. While the research on these eating behaviors is limited, initial signs point to intuitive eating being a positive lifestyle change for the general population. However, for serious athletes, this practice has a few potential flaws.


Elite athletes of all sports have unique nutritional demands concerning total energy intake along with the breakdown and timing of that intake. Most nutrition protocols for athletes are precise and fine-tuned like daily carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight, sodium needs during trainingsweat rate and tolerance of different foods that can make or break performances. Being in control of nutrition in this way works against intuitive eating since most athletes cannot match these specifics simply by eating to feel.

Intuitive eating also tells us to eat what we want, which may work against performance. If you stop at a coffee shop on your ride and order a cinnamon roll because that’s what you really want, it won’t help your performance. You should order what you need for that training session which might be a banana and a latte. Also, many athletes do not want to eat four gels or drink bottle after bottle of sports drink. Eating what you intuitively want to eat at that moment (a nice salad or a burger?) is not likely to help you perform. Another example of this is carbohydrate loading. This practice, shown to have performance benefits, takes extreme preparation and focus to execute the 10–12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight needed to be effective 48 hours prior to the goal event. Intuitive eating is likely to fall short of those needs.

Another key component of intuitive eating is to meet hunger and appetite, yet eating to satisfy appetite is inadvisable for athletes, especially endurance athletes. This is because prolonged, intense training is known to suppress appetite and therefore eating to feel full would be insufficient. Most well-trained athletes need to eat beyond hunger. In short, eating intuitively can leave you missing nutrition targets needed for optimal performance. Athletes needing a large intake often suffer from food fatigue and need to almost force feed to get enough fuel, which is opposite from an intuitive practice! Intuition isn’t always right and an athlete’s views on how nutrition affects health and performance can be very skewed. One study found college track runners lack the knowledge of how particular nutrients play a role in performance. Another study assessing college swimmers reached similar conclusions. Therefore, eating to feel and perception might work against performance and health.


Athletes can be more prone to disordered eating due to carefully planning intake, being overwhelmed with ‘what to eat’ thoughts, and trying to meet certain body image standards of their sport. Non-diet intuitive practices can help athletes begin to understand how to nourish their bodies and include a balance of sport fueling and satisfaction eating.

For example, a training athlete may need to focus strictly on meeting post workout protein needs or consuming enough iron each day, but still allow for flexibility based on what the body is craving. Athletes who feel hunger, or have constant cravings for certain foods and simply ignore those feelings and tell their bodies ‘no’ are at risk for under-fueling, disordered eating, associated health problems and long-term performance issues.

Elite athletes also suffer from a large amount of mental stress and giving in to foods that make you feel happy (even if they don’t necessarily promote performance) can be very beneficial to overall well-being. Indulging in a scoop of ice cream or slice of pizza every now and then will not derail one’s performance goals. Applying some components of intuitive eating can help athletes maintain balance in food intake and promote a healthy relationship with food.


In the end, athletes can greatly benefit by being more in-tune with their bodies and developing a more positive relationship with food so they can choose foods that promote happiness, nourishment and performance enhancement. It is fine for athletes (regardless of performance goals) to give in to food choices simply because they crave them, not because they will promote the best performance.

Of course, if performance is your goal, you’ll need to keep a tighter focus on what, how much and when you eat than a non-athlete. If you are having trouble balancing needs with wants, contact a sports dietitian for assistance.

About the Author

Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD

Lori, MS RD CSSD is an accomplished sports dietitian; she holds a Master’s Degree in Human Nutrition and Certification as a Specialist in Sports Nutrition. As a current professional road cyclist and previous elite marathoner and ultra-runner, Lori knows firsthand that food can enhance or diminish performance gains. She understands the importance of balancing a quality whole food based diet with science-backed performance nutrition and strives to share this message with others. Learn more about her @HungryForResults.


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