Found on USATriathlon.org and written by Marni Sumbai
Have you ever been so hungry you can’t even think straight? Sometimes it feels like our appetite is never satisfied, whereas other times it’s non-existent.
As you are aware from experience, your appetite is important because it regulates food intake and helps you fuel your active lifestyle. It drives you to eat and it also tells you when you can stop eating.
Although the appetite mechanism works well to help you meet your body’s energy and nutrient needs, it is likely that as an athlete, you feel that you do not have a “normal” appetite.
Here are seven tips to better understand how you are eating and how it affects your quality of life.
1. Know your hunger rating and reflect on your typical diet.In the chart to the right, numbers 4 and 5 are ideal when you think about when you eat and how you feel when you eat. It is normal to feel number 3 as an athlete and oftentimes, you may experience number 6. You should be able to identify the numbers that you do not want to experience as an athlete and if you do experience an unwanted number, recognize how to prevent that from happening again. Feeling very full or irritable are not enjoyable outcomes from eating (or not eating).
Use this chart to think about your current eating habits on a daily basis and if you are eating too much or too little, focus on that one specific meal/snack in your day to try to tweak. Ideally, you should be eating three meals that leave you satisfied for at least 2.5-4 hours. Although a mid-morning snack may be needed to honor a little biological hunger, almost all athletes would benefit from having an afternoon snack to avoid lower numbers on the hunger rating scale and additionally will prevent 6+ numbers in the evening. For many athletes, there is often a missing link in a meal that is causing hunger too soon after eating. Adding a little more carbs, fat or protein to a meal will help you feel more satisfied. Neglecting fueling before, during and after workouts may be causing you to not meet your energy needs, which leads to more fatigue during or after workouts and to overeating, overindulging or low blood sugar.
Before you blame a food or food group, reflect on your typical diet. Do not overthink the chart — become aware of how your current eating style is working (or not working) for you.
2. Listen to your body. Every individual has an appetite control switch, even if you think you don’t. Depending on what you eat, you may not receive the signal to stop eating and depending on your energy, mood, emotions, sleep or stress level, you may ignore that signal. Processed foods are much more calorically dense than real foods, and per bite it takes much longer to feel satisfied with processed food despite providing your body plenty of “energy” while eating. A diet rich in nutrient-dense food, like fruits, veggies, high-quality proteins, healthy fats, grains/high-fiber starches and low-fat dairy will help to control your appetite so you feel more satisfied without over-exceeding your energy needs.
3. Know that a little hunger is not always a bad thing. For example, if your belly feels empty before a workout this may in no way affect your performance because your liver and muscles are stocked with available fuel, along with thousands of calories worth as stored body fat to use for energy. Also if you allowed one hour to digest your pre-training snack, you may not only feel light but you will also more effectively metabolize fat for fuel (yes, even if you have a pre-training snack). Many athletes prefer going into a workout feeling “empty” in the gut for the sake of feeling lighter, less bloated and less uncomfortable while working out. However, you can still feel this way and eat before a workout but allow time for digestion and consume low residue/fiber foods, which clear the gut in less than an hour.
4. Don’t let your blood sugar fall too low. If you experience a drop in blood sugar and ignore No. 3 on the hunger rating chart and find yourself in a place of No. 1 or 2 on the chart, you are putting your body into a dangerous and uncomfortable situation as you have low blood glucose levels with extreme hunger and it isn’t until you eat food that will raise your blood sugar (not nuts, fat or fiber but instead sugar/high-glycemic carbs) that you control your irritable mood, depressive/angry state and extremely weak/vulnerable body. Don’t keep putting yourself in this situation! Many times, the athlete who has let their blood sugar drop (intentionally or unintentionally) will find themselves overeating at the next snack or meal which is no less uncomfortable than low blood sugar. Consuming a low glycemic index diet has not been shown to solve the issue of low blood sugar but instead, a balanced diet that is timed appropriately with your life. Many high glycemic foods are healthy and when combined with protein and fat, they do not affect blood sugar levels and can leave you satisfied and nourished.
5. Prioritize sleep. Sleep, stress and exercise intensity/volume all affect your appetite. Sleep deprived athletes will often find it harder to feel satisfied when it comes to diet and will additionally seek pick-me-up options that are often not healthy (ex. energy drinks, sugar, sweets, etc.). Regulate your appetite by focusing on restful sleep most days per week. Ideally seven to eight hours per night and an additional 30 minutes after very intense or long workouts.
6. Seek a healthy way to manage stress. We all know that cortisol increases belly fat as commercials have embedded this into our brain. It is true that stress affects appetite and hormones. Food doesn’t solve problems so seek a healthy alternative to alcohol, sweets, processed food or overeating when you feel stressed out. I like to watch cute doggy videos on YouTube.
7. Respond to appetite signals as exercise volume and intensity increases. You will receive a natural increase in appetite as this is a signal that your body requires more energy to support the increased training load. Although you may feel like you are eating all the time compared to your co-workers or family, it is your responsibility to meet your nutrition, health and energy needs through your diet and sport nutrition regime. If you don’t understand how to do this on your own (and fear gaining weight or overeating/causing GI issues) consult a sport registered dietitian to help.
If you can eat in a way that improves your quality of life, we can assume that health, happiness, performance and a better relationship with food/body will also improve. Happy eating!
Marni Sumbal, MS, RD, LD/N is the owner of Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition LLC and holds a Master of Science in exercise physiology, is a USA Triathlon Certified Coach and a nine-time IRONMAN finisher. She enjoys public speaking, writing, plant-strong cooking and traveling. She will be racing in her fourth IRONMAN World Championship this October with her husband, Karel. Learn more at trimarnicoach.com.