"I think about food all the time. I finish one meal and start thinking about the next."
"I don't keep cookies in the house; I end up eating them all."
"I'm afraid if I start eating, I won't be able to stop..."
If any of those thoughts sound familiar, you are among a large group of athletes who struggle with food. I routinely counsel food-obsessed exercisers/athletes who fear food as being the fattening enemy. They think about food all day, stay away from social events involving food, give themselves permission to eat only if they have exercised hard, and white-knuckle themselves to one meager portion at dinner.
If you (or someone you know) struggles with food, keep reading. This article can help food-obsessed athletes take a step toward transforming their food fears into peaceful fueling patterns and a better quality of life. Much of the information is from Glenn Waller's book Beating Your Eating Disorder, an excellent self-help book for adults at war with food and their bodies.
Food Is Not the Problem
Food is not the problem. Food is fuel. Food is health. Food is an inanimate object, just like a desk, a rug or a book. It has no inherent power over you. But if you feel as though a food (let's say, bread) has power over you, bread is the symptom; not the problem. That is, the urge to overeat bread can stem from:
1. Getting too hungry and, as a result, craving carbs. The solution is to prevent hunger, so you don't start craving carbs in the first place.
2. Denying yourself permission to eat bread because it is a "bad" food. The solution is to learn to routinely enjoy bread and other carbs, which are the foundation of a quality sports diet.
Living by rigid, restrictive "food rules" can be a symptom that something has gone awry. Food rules serve a purpose. Often times they can be a coping strategy to block out emotions and distract you from feeling your feelings. That is, if you are spending 99 percent of your waking hours debating whether to eat bread, you are not thinking about how angry you are with your boyfriend, how scared you are to go away to college, or how sad and lonely you've been since your dog died.
Being able to abide by strict food rules also gives you a (sick) sense of superiority that you can say "no thank you" to pizza, sandwiches and even birthday cake with your friends. You can then take pride in being able to sustain yourself on lettuce leaves and Diet Coke. Why would you want to change this menu when you are so in control, have such a perfect diet, and are exercising seemingly well? Why? Because your quality of life stinks and you are losing your friends.
Some of my clients can revise their restrictive eating patterns with simple nutrition education. I teach them how much is OK to eat, how to fit bread (or whatever) into their sports diet, and how to enjoy food as one of life's pleasures. For example, one client believed eating an English muffin plus an egg and a yogurt at breakfast sounded "piggy." After one English muffin, she would stop eating because she "thought she should," but then would succumb to the hungry horrors by 9:30 a.m. When she added the egg and the yogurt into her breakfast, she felt satisfied all morning, with no nagging food thoughts until she was appropriately hungry at lunchtime.