Listening to your body, Part 2

and the WHY behind your nutrition choices.

In my last blog post, I wrote about working on the skill of “listening to your body”.  I had gotten sick, ignored my body’s needs, and had felt some suffering as a consequence.  As I train for the Leadville 100 trail run under a new coach who stresses the importance of listening to one’s body, I figured it was time to learn better what that means for me.

Unfortunately after my last post, I became more sick and spent the better part of two weeks out of commission.  During this time, I was obviously out of my normal routine of working, training, doing household-related tasks, running errands, etc. I also got out of my routine of eating - not just what I would eat but how often I would eat… and why I would eat. I thought about this more in relation to “listening to the body” and many of the mainstream diet approaches which completely ignore this aspect when changing nutrition patterns.

I estimate about 80% of my athletes have weight loss or a reduction in body fat as one of their top goals. When done correctly and carefully, weight loss can improve health and decrease risk for chronic disease. It also can improve performance (e.g., faster and more efficient running, improved power to weight ratio on the bike, etc.). So, the main question athletes have is “what should I eat to lose weight?”  That’s all well and good to learn WHAT to eat to support weight loss, however, there is another aspect to achieving weight loss and being able to maintain it:  learning the WHY of your nutrition habits and choices.

In the context of “listening to your body,” this really means being able to identify true biological hunger cues versus habitual or emotional hunger cues. For example, many athletes eat because of the time of day: 7am, 10am, 12:30pm, 3pm, 6:30pm, 9pm. No matter if they are biologically hungry. Others may eat for emotional comfort - out of boredom, stress, or to fill a void. There may be associations between certain types of foods that we were given as a child to “make us feel better”. As adults, we can perpetuate that ritual and be unaware as to its negative effects. I also have worked with a number of athletes who simply are afraid to let themselves get hungry. It is a frightening state for them to be in. They lack trust in themselves as to what will happen when they start to feel hungry. Consequently, they never let themselves get to that point. There are numerous other reasons that we eat that have little to do with biological hunger.

As a sport dietitian, of course I want to educate athletes on what to eat for their unique health and performance goals. But for those athletes who do have weight loss goals, the nutrition intervention goes beyond nutrition education. After establishing the reasons why weight loss is important (which is an entirely different topic!), we must delve into that other nitty gritty aspect of “listening to the body”. The majority of us have little awareness of the reasons we eat and we don’t truly know what it feels like to be physically hungry.

If you’ve had weight loss goals in the past and were merely given a meal plan or told to “eat this, not that” but were unable to achieve your goals or sustain them, perhaps it is because you need to get to this next level of identifying the reasons why you eat and learning how to listen to your body in a new way.  It may not be an easy process and the findings may be difficult to accept, but it’s a crucial step in the path to success.