Diet has a tremendous impact on an athlete’s life. Fueling up on nutrient poor foods can short circuit hours of dedicated training. Not only can performance be lackluster, nutrient deficiencies can result in a host of problems that frequent exercise does not prevent, such as a depressed immune system, anemia, bone fractures, heart disease and cancer.
If you were one of the many athletes who made a resolution to change your eating habits on January 1, only to find months later that the well intentioned promises were already broken, don’t be disheartened. As a sports dietitian, I have found that many athletes find it easier to change exercise habits than diet habits. Why? There are several reasons. Let’s take a closer look.
Why Are Nutrition Resolutions Difficult to Keep?
Athletes love working out, and the immediate feedback after a training session is generally positive. First, there is a sense of achievement that comes with physical conditioning, and second, there is the bonus of mental relaxation and stress reduction. This paired association of exercise with feeling good increases the likelihood you will repeat this behavior pattern. Exercise becomes something you look forward to.
Diet changes, on the other hand, may result in less immediate positive feedback, even though they will have long-term benefits. For example, if you made a resolution to cut down on fat and calories, then pizza may be ruled out as a “forbidden” food. That might be OK until the smell and sight of your friends eating pizza leads to the rather unpleasant experience of settling for grilled chicken instead. The feedback coming from your brain says chicken just isn’t as good. Seeing, smelling, and almost tasting something you really love—but can’t have—creates psychological stress. This is not a positive experience and it is less likely you will repeat the behavior pattern.
Perhaps it isn’t particular foods that are a problem, maybe it is more a situation of stress relief. For example, you come home from work starving and dead tired, and once you start eating, it seems you just can’t stop. In this case, it is important to choose low fat foods, but just as important would be a resolution directed at stress reduction, which triggers an episode of overeating and/or poor food choices.
By now you may be starting to understand why nutrition related resolutions are difficult to keep.
Understanding that behaviors which result in immediate positive feedback are more likely to be repeated is an important concept when it comes to diet change. Your brain does not realize that sugar + fat + salt is unhealthy, but it does remember the enjoyment factor and the short-term effect of stress reduction.
Making Nutrition Goals Happen
Nutrition related resolutions are often stated in the negative: “I can’t eat high fat foods.” The problem with a negative resolution is the difficultly of truly committing to something that is not clearly linked to a strongly desired positive goal. Notice how different this sounds: “I want to run a sub three-hour marathon, and will feel great when I achieve that goal.”
If you know that losing eight pounds of body fat can greatly increase your chances of running a faster marathon, then a nutrition goal can be stated in positive terms. For example, it may be as simple as stating: “By consistently choosing low fat foods I can lose body fat, which will enable me to run a faster marathon.”
For athletes, performance goals can provide motivation to remain committed to diet changes. Once a goal is identified, outline a plan to reach your goal and stay on track with these goal-attainment tips.
Staying On Track with Resolutions
- Set a goal you are passionate to achieve.
- Keep in mind that a resolution is a process, not a one-time event.
- Have fun and enjoy the challenges along the way.
- Focus on a positive mental image of yourself achieving your goal.
- Outline short-term steps that will lead to the long-term goal.
- Don’t listen to failure talk.
- Understand that reaching for a goal is a process of self-improvement.
Nutrition Specific Strategies
Find healthy alternatives to the foods you love. Love burgers? Try marinating portabella mushrooms with light Italian dressing, sauté or grill, and top with low fat mozzarella cheese.
Little by little, shave the saturated and trans fat and portion size. Skip the bagel and cream cheese and sub a whole grain English muffin with a half tsp. of peanut butter or almond butter.
Try new foods more than once. Like getting used to a new piece of equipment, your taste buds adapt over time. You can learn to enjoy new flavors.
Treat yourself to quality foods. You may think organic is expensive, but your health is priceless. Choose the freshest, healthiest food you can find.
Written by Donna Marlor, RD, BSN, MA