Thinking of Joining USA Triathlon?

Be a part of our 550,000 member community of multisport athletes. Membership benefits include a subscription to the quarterly USA Triathlon magazine, discounts from USA Triathlon partners, inclusion in the national rankings, excess accident insurance at events, and savings at races. To see why you should join or renew today, visit the membership benefits page. Already a member? Login below.

Forgot Password | Help Renew Membership Become a Member

Calorie Counting is Not Necessary, Part II

By Bob Seebohar

To read part one of this article, click here.

In part one of this article, I described the physiological aspects associated with calorie counting. Part two will explore the psychological side of the calorie counting game.

Psychology of Calorie Counting

I have certainly peaked your interest by now which was my goal. The next thing I want to discuss is the most important (and first) step in this process: instinctual eating.

The model that I have used with athletes for years has centered on using food smarts and instinctual eating rather than focusing on numbers. The use of daily calorie counting in most athletes is abused in the sense that athletes are forgetting the most important thing when it comes to fueling: your body knows best and it will guide you. I know, I know, you lack the willpower or are not motivated or do not trust yourself. I have heard all of these excuses before and these are truly nothing more than excuses that you are making because you have forgotten how to use your innate ability to make wise food decisions.

We are born instinctual eaters. We lose this skill as we age due to many things including media, social and family structure and peer pressure, to name a few. I am not going to go into detail about the reasons why we lose our ability to listen to our bodies. Let’s focus on looking through the windshield more than the rearview mirror. We all know the challenges that exist in today’s society which impacts our ability to make good choices but what is not discussed frequently are the solutions. What can you do to get back to the instinctual eater that you once were?

Step 1: Give yourself permission and abolish the guilt

“I can’t” or “I shouldn’t” are the key terms that are associated with guilty eating. By reinforcing these messages, you block your ability to trust your body. By all means, give yourself permission to eat a food. It certainly doesn’t have to be on a daily basis but by simply telling yourself that it is okay to eat that chocolate cake (or your favorite food that produces the guilt response), you will begin to develop your instinctual eating knowledge once again. This is a very empowering (and difficult) step for athletes and I often recommend seeking the food that you have been craving or not allowing yourself to eat the most, buy it, sit down and take the time to eat it while connecting with what you are thinking and feeling at the same time. I know it sounds a bit “zen-like” but the emotional connection to food is what we are trying to re-establish. I witness far too many athletes eating to fulfill another emotional need because they guilt takes precedence in making food choices.

Step 2: Connect with your hunger cues

This may seem relatively easy but the psychological cues to eating often take over and blunt our ability to truly assess if we are physically hungry or not. Often times, we eat out of emotions. That is, stress, boredom, social interactions or fatigue trigger the food response. During these times you are not biologically hungry, you are eating to fulfill a void. The easiest method for relearning this skill is to experience physical hunger again. It is the sensation that you get when your stomach is grumbling, feels like it is tying itself into a knot and you begin to get a bit grouchy. Blood sugar is decreasing and the brain is not getting enough glucose. This response will trigger you to eat something. I am certainly not saying that you should always wait until you have this sensation as that will typically lead to overeating or the infamous “eyes are bigger than the stomach” phenomenon.

What I do recommend is connecting with your body at first to know what physical hunger feels like again. Then, structure your eating regimen to maintain your blood sugar so that you do not have significant decreases in energy or mood status. Becoming grouchy or irritable is a good sign that you are getting close to physical hunger. Be careful not to overfeed your body though. Eating every few hours is typically the recommendation but I have noticed that this may not teach athletes the skills needed to assess their hunger levels at first. Educate yourself on what physical versus emotional hunger feels like.

Step 3: Allow yourself to enjoy food

Last but certainly not least is the part of eating athletes most often forget: the enjoyment factor. When I ask triathletes why they eat what they eat the most common response is that they are eating to fuel their bodies. They are using food as fuel. This is fantastic and follows suite with my nutrition periodization mantra of “eat to train, don’t train to eat”; however, focusing on food as fuel 100% of the time will take you away from the instinctual nature of eating. You must enjoy some of the food you eat in order to remain connected with the emotional side of eating. Enjoy the various aromas of your food. Make time to sit down so you can fully appreciate your meal and most importantly remember that your taste buds are in your mouth not your stomach. Slow down!

Instinctual eating and becoming more knowledgeable about your body is a journey and one that will never end. Developing these skills and straying away from counting every calorie that you consume will truly help you become more aware of what your body is telling you which will lead to a greater sense of empowerment in whatever nutrition goals you have. If I have not encouraged you to move away from counting calories, please do me one favor and begin to record WHY you eat what you eat. This in itself will help you begin your journey of leaving daily calorie counting behind.

Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS is a sport dietitian and elite triathlon coach. He traveled to the 2008 Summer Olympics as the U.S. Olympic Committee Sport Dietitian and the personal Sport Dietitian for the 2008 Olympic Triathlon Team. He has served as head coach for Sarah Haskins, 2008 Olympian, was a performance team member (sport dietitian and strength coach) for Susan Williams, 2004 Olympic Triathlon bronze medalist. He is the current coach of Jasmine Oeinck, 2009 Elite National Champion.

Bob's new book, Metabolic Efficiency Training: Teaching the Body to Burn More Fat, will teach athletes how to structure their nutrition and training program throughout the year to maximize their body's ability to use fat as energy and improve body composition.  For more information and to order the book, visit www.fuel4mance.com or contact Bob at coachbob@fuel4mance.com

Active.com