Ahhh, January 1st. The day where we’ll be bombarded with messages about the new diet we just “have to” try. You’ll see companies, celebrities, influencers, and many of your friends talking about the hot new way to lose weight. We may even see more of this than we are used to as 2021 rolls in, with talks of getting rid of the “quarantine weight.” SIGH.
Let’s talk about why you should say “no thanks!” to all these empty dieting promises in 2021.
The Dieting Dilemma
First, I want to shed some light on dieting in a more general sense. For the majority of people, the process of dieting is a lot like a roller coaster. They start a new diet or program, restrict some calories or food groups, and do see results initially. However, the longer we go depriving ourselves of certain “off limits” foods or trying to ignore our hunger, the harder it becomes not to feel deprived. Deprivation eventually leads to a loss of control around food, or perhaps the desire to quit the diet altogether. And that’s when the weight comes back. For many people, more weight is regained than they originally lost. Even after failed attempts, many dieters will try to lose the weight again in the future. And thus the dieting cycle continues.
This process of weight loss and regain is called “weight cycling.” Weight cycling has been found to be an independent risk factor for many chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance and high blood pressure. The stress that restriction, bingeing, large weight swings and inconsistent eating patterns put on our bodies are a much bigger concern than being in a “healthy BMI” range (BMI is one of my least favorite metrics ever, but more on that in another post!). For the sake of our mental and physical health, what is most important is that we remain relatively consistent with the way we nourish and move our bodies. Unfortunately, the dieting cycle promotes patterns that are the exact opposite.
So what does this have to do with athletes? Keep reading to find out.
Why Athletes and Diets Don’t Mix
Athletes are not impervious to the shiny promises of the diet industry. In fact, it’s very common for athletes to struggle with weight concerns and poor body image. Why is that? For some athletes, the body type that makes them incredible at their sport doesn’t line up with societal beauty standards. For others, pressure from coaches to be lighter or leaner for the sake of performance is hard to escape. Athletes may control their food as a way to cope with the stress of competitive sport culture. Really, the reasons that athletes may be drawn to diets are endless.
The problem with this is that dieting is that it is a major risk factor for developing an eating disorder. And unfortunately, athletes are more at risk for eating disorders – and disordered eating behaviors – than the general population. To learn more about disordered eating in athletes, check out our previous blog post. Because athletes are already at a higher risk for serious eating problems … dieting is CERTAINLY not a risk factor that we want to throw into the mix.
For athletes, diets also should be avoided because they are not helpful for athletic performance. Athletes may believe that losing weight can improve their performance; however, the caloric restriction required to achieve weight loss is more likely to hinder their game than benefit it. Athletes who acutely restrict their caloric intake may notice the following performance effects:
- Trouble concentrating (both in sport and at school or work)
- Poor energy levels during practice & competition
- Disrupted sleep patterns
- Elevated injury risk
- Undesirable changes in body composition
- Inability to gain or maintain muscle mass
- Decreased muscle strength
- Fatigue and irritability
Additionally, athletes who are chronically under-fueled may notice more severe consequences including:
- Loss of menstrual cycles (when applicable)
- Poor bone health and higher risk for stress fractures
- Hormonal imbalances
- Gastrointestinal problems
- More frequent illness
- Prolonged recovery time from injury or surgery
- And more!
What To Do Instead
Instead of starting a new diet in the coming days or weeks, I challenge you to start by identifying what goals you have for yourself in 2021. What do you want to accomplish in your training, sport, health, and beyond? Maybe you want to perform better, lower your injury risk, improve your mental health, or nourish your body for long-term health. Perhaps you want to qualify for a specific marathon, get a scholarship to play your sport in college, or improve your relationship with food.
Regardless of what your goal is, take it from a dietitian: diets are NOT the path that will get you there. Diving headfirst into keto, paleo, vegetarian, low-carb, or counting macros may temporarily give you a sense of control and success, but it is short-lived.
What will help you achieve your goals in 2021, you ask?
- Do an audit on the information you consume. Are there influencers, apps or teammates that make you feel badly about your diet or your body? Find a way to get some space from those people or things.
- Work on your mindset. This looks different for everyone but may include reading, a daily gratitude practice, meditating, yoga, or spending some time each week disconnecting from social media.
- Fuel your body & make peace with food. Food is not something to be feared, restricted, or labeled as “good” or “bad.” If you are constantly at war with your weight or food, it will stand in the way of you being able to fuel for optimal performance and reach your sport goals.
- Ask for help when you need it. If you are struggling with your mental health, disordered eating, an eating disorder, or something else that is too big to take on alone, ask for help. Even if you cannot spend the time and investment working with a mental health professional or a dietitian on a regular basis, there are resources out there.
- Side note: If you are struggling with a diet mentality or restrictive eating, I recommend the book “Intuitive Eating” by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole. If you suspect you are under-fueling unintentionally and aren’t sure how to fix it, I would recommend reading the book “Finding Your Sweet Spot: How to Avoid RED-S by Optimizing Your Energy Balance” by Rebecca McConville
Ready to Ditch the Diets in 2021?!
If so, I’d love to help! I am a sports dietitian who loves showing athletes how to fuel for their sport while also eating the foods they love. Diets, restriction, and worrying about food are SO 2020. You can make peace with food and also optimize performance – I promise. If you are interested in learning more about what working with me looks like, book your free introductory call right here.
Need more non-diet sports nutrition inspiration in your life? Be sure to follow me on instagram at @fueledandwell, too!
Happy New Year, friend! Let’s make 2021 our best year yet.