There will inevitably come a moment when we wear our uniform for the last time. The early morning practices will cease to exist and we will begin the next chapter of our lives. With that shift comes a flurry of changes, new hobbies and opportunities, so it’s normal to feel like the whole world is changing around us.
Many women athletes deal with disordered eating and tricky relationships with food. This can be exacerbated by a change in lifestyle.Katie Spada MS, RDN, LDN, is a VIS Expert and nutritionist specializing in former athletes. She works with athletes on how to be intentional about nutrition in a post-sport world to maintain a healthy relationship with food. We talked with her more about important nutrition keys to remember as we transition out of our sport.
Relearning Hunger Cues
Spada describes the period of time after finishing sport as a “recalibration period” for hunger cues. Intense training can mess with our hunger cues and create distrust in our own bodies.
Here are two steps Spada recommends to relearn your hunger cues:
Eating with as few distractions as possible: Mindful eating allows us to pay attention to what our body is telling us about how full we are, and we’ll even enjoy the food more.
Develop a curious over critical mindset: Being critical over ourselves sets us back, while being curious helps us to move forward. An example: “If you just ate four cookies and now you're upset because you ate four cookies, instead of criticizing yourself, ask yourself why?” Spada says. “What led me to the four cookies? What was I looking for in the cookies? Have I eaten enough today? Have I gone too long without eating? Am I using food for comfort or emotional refuge? Did the cookies just taste really good and I wanted more? Curiosity leads to understanding and understanding leads to growth and trust.”
Trusting ourselves around food will help us more than being constantly stressed about it. Learning to listen to our body’s cues is the first step in this process.
“Especially as a former athlete, intuitive eating has been associated with greater body satisfaction, confidence around food, weight stability, improved mood, and reduced risk for chronic diseases. There are significant physical health and also emotional health benefits to learning to eat intuitively.” says Spada.
“Especially as a former athlete, intuitive eating has been associated with greater body satisfaction, confidence around food, weight stability, improved mood, and reduced risk for chronic diseases.”
Food is More Than Just Fuel
This is something that we hear all the time as athletes: “make sure you’re fueling your body!” And yes, that is beneficial while competing. But once we retire, the “food is fuel” mindset is something that can actually be harmful. “It insinuates that food has one purpose only, to physically fuel your body,” Spada says. “This can create a very unhealthy relationship with food, leading us down the path of questioning whether or not food is even deserved if you haven't worked out enough to ‘earn’ the fuel.”
Fueling our body is important, but we live in a time where food can do so much more than that. Looking at food in one dimension robs us of the experiences that it can bring us. Food is how we share cultures, show our love, revisit memories and make new ones. Here is an activity Spada suggests we can do if we find ourselves struggling to build a peaceful relationship with food:
Write down “Food is ____”. Try to come up with as many words as possible to fit in the blank that isn’t the word ‘fuel’. Continue to add to the list every time you think of a new way food can enhance your life. Every time you catch yourself questioning food because it won’t fuel you or you didn’t earn it, look back at your list.
Nutritional Knowledge is Key
For many of us, exercise still exists after we step away from our sport, just in a different capacity. Since hunger cues are affected by exercise, It can be difficult to distinguish how much we should be eating based purely on those two metrics.
Nutritional needs always shift depending on activity levels, but in reality, exercise only accounts for a small fraction of our body’s daily energy needs. Most of our energy needs come from things such as breathing, circulation, and supporting organs and muscles.
“While activity level does impact your nutrition needs, I recommend becoming proficient in body cues for hunger and fullness and using body knowledge (cues) + nutrition knowledge (understanding nutrition 101) to determine food intake,” Spada says. “If we only use daily activity levels, we could unintentionally under or over fuel our bodies.”
When still figuring out our bodies, it can be difficult to trust the cues it gives us or to know if it is giving us cues at all. There’s sometimes a period of time where eating needs to be more structured to maintain adequate nutrition while gaining trust with cues. For this, Spada recommends working with a dietitian to guide us.
It’s okay to feel nervous about how our relationship with food will change when we transition out of sports. But by relearning our hunger cues, remembering that food is more than fuel, and understanding our new nutritional needs, fueling after sport will be that much easier.