Tips for athletes who want to invest in health and performance

These words -- "I know what I should do to lose weight; I just don't do it" -- are inevitably the first words a new client confesses at his or her initial consultation with me.

Or "I know I should eat more vegetables; I just don't do it."

Or "I know I should drink less -- my family would be thrilled; I just don't do it."

Why is it so hard to lose weight, improve eating behaviors, drink less alcohol and eat healthier -- like you know you should? Because changing the way you function in your daily life is difficult. Losing weight takes more than just willpower, and is far more complex than simply eating less and exercising more.

Eating fewer treats at night often means feeling the loneliness that might have otherwise been smothered with hot fudge sauce. Eating more fruit might mean eating less candy (your treat). Drinking less beer could mean spending less time with friends at the pub.

Change rarely happens overnight, in a single step. Change is a complex process. That is, you are unlikely to just "stop drinking." First, you need to do mental preparation, including making a detailed plan of action before you actually try to change.

And don't get discouraged if you revert to old ways. Change often involves taking one step forward, two steps backward.

The benefits of change

When you can enjoy benefits from the change, you'll find yourself progressing through the stages of change. For example, for Peter, a high school athlete who initially saw no benefits from eating breakfast, the stages looked like this:

1. Why would I even want to eat breakfast? I'm not hungry ...

2. I might eat a midmorning snack; I am hungry by 10 a.m.

3. I sometimes eat candy at 10:30 so I'm not starving by noon.

4. I generally eat a bagel with peanut butter on my way to school; I'm far more alert and more productive when I do.

5. I always eat a hearty breakfast, even if it means waking up earlier. Breakfast helps me concentrate better, curbs my sweet cravings, improves my afternoon workouts, and helps control my weight. Breakfast is the most important meal of my sports diet!

In this example, you can see how Peter enjoyed benefits from his changes. Like Peter, you'll maintain dietary improvements when the benefits of the change become more desirable than the negative aspects.

For example, you'll choose to eat a good breakfast when it feels better than being hungry at 10 a.m. You'll choose to lose weight when you're tired of worrying about your high blood pressure and health. You'll choose to drink less beer when you find yourself enjoying waking up fresh instead of hung over.

The stages of change

If you are contemplating making changes that will enhance your health (a common vow on January 1st, a 49th birthday, a 25th high school reunion year), you might want to read James Prochaska's informative book Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward.

The information explains the complex process of change and can help you change "for good" -- not lose 20 pounds only to quickly regain 25 (and feel demoralized, depressed, embarrassed).

The following are a few tips based on Prochaska's theory of change. They might enable you to enjoy 2004 with better eating habits, better nutrition and better performance.

  • Get in touch with your personal values. That is, do you really want to put excessive amounts of pepperoni into your body and clog your arteries? Do you really want heavy drinking to be your preferred lifestyle -- especially 10 years from now when you will likely have lost most of what you cared for?

    Could life be better without overeating or overdrinking? What are the pros and cons of trying to overcome your problem behaviors? For Sherri, a runner who wanted to stop having Pepsi for breakfast and lunch and instead consume better meals, the pros included better-fueled muscles, better workouts and less moodiness.

    But the cons were feelings of deprivation, added responsibility of food shopping, and more meal preparation. Over time, the desire to take care of her body became stronger than the urge for Pepsi.

  • Change is threatening; it feels less secure. Who will you be if you are no longer 20 pounds overweight? Will you be more attractive? A sex object? Will people expect more of you? Will you feel like a failure if you get slimmer and are still single?

    Yes, achieving a healthful weight is wise, but the paralyzing fear of failure can make people hesitant to try to change. Sometimes just "wishing I could lose weight" feels safer than actually losing weight. Sound familiar? Confront your fears; believe in yourself.

  • For some people, a barrier to making changes is that serious consequences seem too far in the future. ("I doubt these donuts will give me a heart attack ...") If you can bring the consequences more into the present, they'll feel more real. ("I feel better about myself when I eat more quality calories and less junk food.")

  • Think before you skip a meal. Think before you eat that second piece of cake. Think before you drink. Will any of these behaviors help you reach your health and performance goals? Will they really make you feel better?

    What benefit will you get from eating more cake: Is this your "last chance" (before going back on your diet) to have a treat that tastes good? (If so, you need to have cake more often; plan to eat a small slice every day!) Are you feeling sad and cake will smother your feelings (for the moment)? Are you angry at your boss and are retaliating by eating? Do you "deserve" a second piece of cake because you exercised extra hard today?

    The goal is to try to not let that one little self-indulgent part of you take over the whole of you that truly prefers to be healthier. By stopping to think and reflect and figure out what (short-term) benefit you get, you can then gain a sense of control over the undesired behavior. Perhaps you are just bored, not hungry?

  • What will your life be like if you do not change? Will you hurt your athletic performance? Will you get heart disease or cancer, or be less available for your children? How will you think and feel about yourself when you do change? Will you feel relieved? Freer? Healthier?

    The answers are obvious. Just do it -- step by step, that is!

    Copyright 2003, Nancy Clark, MS, RD

    Read the review of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook in our Gear Guide.

    Nancy Clark, MS, RD offers private nutrition consultations at SportsMedicine Associates in Brookline MA (617-739-2003). Her new "Sports Nutrition Guidebook," Third Edition ($23) and "Food Guide for Marathoners: Tips for Everyday Champions" ($20) are available by sending a check to Sports Nutrition Services, 830 Boylston St. #205, Brookline MA 02467 or via

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