If you know me at all, you know that I am a big fan of snacks. Snacks are fun, tasty, and an important tool in any athlete's toolkit when it comes to meeting fueling needs and promoting adequate intakes. Unfortunately many athletes associate snacks with cheating, guilt, and overeating. Why is this?
When I first meet with a client, we start off by going through their normal eating habits and the things they find to be a struggle. It's pretty common to hear things like this:
"I really do a good job with my meals, but I eat a lot of snacks at night."
"I can't seem to kick my sugar cravings."
"I don't keep sweets in the house because I just overeat them every evening."
If you resonate with those, let me just be clear: the problem is not that you lack willpower, that you're addicted to sugar, or that you can't be trusted with "bad foods". You need to reframe your thinking, and I've got a few suggestions.
Increase Your Intakes Throughout the Day
One of the most common reasons you can't stop sneaking food at night? You're not eating enough during the day! Most of the athletes I work with need to increase their energy intake, sometimes significantly, to support their high training load. If you never snack, skip meals, or eat the same amount as your non-athlete friends, you're almost certainly not meeting your needs. Make sure you're getting in a meal and snack every 3-5 hours throughout the day - including around your workouts - and don't wait until you are starving to eat your next meal.
Include Carbs with Every Meal
A closely related error I see athletes make often is not eating enough carbs. Carbs are the body's favorite source of energy, and when we don't get enough, we tend to get cranky, tired, and hungry! Nine times out of ten, the athlete who can't resist bingeing on sugary sweets in the evenings is eating a yogurt for breakfast, a salad for lunch, and a protein with vegetables for dinner (or something along similar lines) - guess what's missing from that mix? CARBS!
Want to kick your nighttime sugar cravings? Include high quality carbs like potatoes, sweet potatoes, whole wheat, quinoa, oats, polenta, peas, corn, beans, and barley into your daily routine. You should be eating a source of starch (read: not just fruit) at every meal.
Don't Restrict Your Fun Foods
So many people are all about cutting things out these days. From dairy, to gluten, to refined sugar, to meat... there's a dietary restriction out there for everyone, it seems. But you know what happens when you cut things out? Typically, those are the foods you feel out of control around. They're the ones you'll be more likely to binge on or overeat when given the chance.
It might sound counterintuitive, but if you're restricting foods or food groups from your diet out of fear you'll gain weight or lose fitness by eating them - you need to include them in your diet. When we think of things as being scarce or forbidden, they become more tempting. It's very hard to restrict the foods that you love forever. Eventually, your willpower will probably crack, and you'll likely overindulge in those forbidden items. Reframe your thinking and consider that all foods provide nutritional value. If you can have a food whenever you want, it loses some of its power over you and becomes less special or tempting.
Mind Your Mental Health
Stress is a hidden factor in many of our dietary decisions. Feeling burned out or beat up by the daily frustrations of life? Sometimes it's fine to call it a night with a large glass of wine and a greasy burger, but it's important to have non-food ways to deal with stress, too. Think about going for a walk, doing some yoga or meditation, calling a friend, or playing with your pup. By giving yourself a mental break, you can make a more clear-headed decision about your fueling. Be sensitive to how you respond to anxiety when it comes to food. It's not wrong to use food as a comfort mechanism occasionally, but you don't want it to be your go-to. You want to be able to make smart decisions about your meals without relying on emotional cues alone to tell you want to eat.
Interested in more guidance when it comes to nutrition and making good fueling choices? Get on the mailing list to be notified when my fueling course for female runners, Fast + Fueled, goes live!