Food, Anxiety & Soccer Players: A Troublesome Trio
In the midst of the coronavirus shutdown, many athletes are struggling with food issues. I hope this timely article offers some helpful guidance.
As I write this column, the date is April 10th, 2020, three weeks into the coronavirus shut-down here in Boston. I continue to counsel clients from my virtual office. I am talking with soccer players and other athletes who are stuck at home, hating what they see when staring at themselves during Zoom meet-ups, and are spending too much time fighting with food (Do I eat? Don’t I eat? Am I hungry—or just bored?). They are feeling anxious and self-critical.
Little is wrong with a bit of comfort food in the midst of chaos and crisis.
When life feels out of control, soccer players commonly end up trying to control other things, such as food, exercise, and weight.
Some may be striving to chisel themselves into a perfect body (no excess body fat) and eat a perfect diet (no fun foods). Unfortunately, the same dedication and discipline that help them be good athletes are the same traits that foster eating disorders.
For example, perfectionism is common to both elite soccer players and people with anorexia. How else could they rise to the elite level without demanding perfection from themselves?
Yes, discipline, dedication, and perfectionism are driving forces that help good athletes become great.
Genetics is fundamental, as is adequate—but not necessarily perfect‑-fueling.
That is, eating a cookie will not contaminate an athlete’s health nor ruin his or her ability to perform well.
If you are relentlessly pushing yourself hard right now out of fear of getting fat and losing fitness, please consider being gentler on yourself.
This is a difficult time for many folks.
Perhaps you can allow yourself to be “bad” and do something out of character, like bake cookies and enjoy some for an afternoon snack. Giving yourself permission to enjoy some fun food is a part of normal eating, assuming you also have other coping skills such as writing in a journal and relaxing with yoga.
Nutrition For Soccer Players: When Food Has Power Over You
If you are spending too much time trying not to eat (Fill in the blank with cookies, cheese, ice cream, chips?) because you can’t eat just one serving, think again.
Depriving yourself of your favorite foods makes them even more enticing.
They can needlessly become too powerful. To take the power away from a “binge food,” you need to eat it more often. (Trust me!)
Here’s the analogy: Pretend you are caring for a four-year-old boy. You take him into a room filled with toys and tell him he can play with all of the toys except for the green truck. You leave the room and then look through the two-way mirror. What is he playing with? The green truck, of course! The same analogy holds true with food.
If you give yourself permission to eat, let’s say, some Oreos every day, after a few days, you’ll either have little interest in yet-another Oreo because other foods actually make you feel better or you will be able to eat just one Oreo; it will no longer have power over you.
Yes, to gain control over foods that have power over you, you have to allow the food back into your life and eat it more often. Be curious; give it a try?
Nutrition For Soccer Players: When the Mirror Makes You Feel Sad
Are you spending too much time these days critically evaluating your body in the mirror? Or hating what you see in the Zoom training session? Please, just, stop the body-hatred talk. Few humans have a perfect body. The imperfections you see are perfectly beautiful and acceptable.
Instead of being self-critical, be grateful that you are healthy.
Grateful that you have two strong legs that help you be a good soccer player. Grateful for your muscular thighs that help you sprint to the ball.
Turn your attention to how your body feels throughout the day, particularly before, during and after you exercise. Does your body feel hungry? tired? sore? Respond appropriately to that feeling by nourishing it with food, rest, a warm bath.
Daily killer workouts that feel like a punishment inevitably end up with the athlete being injured or depressed.
Nutrition For Soccer Players: When Mindless Eating Gets Out of Control
If you find yourself grazing on snacks incessantly throughout the day and have fears about getting fat, try scheduling regular meals and snacks. Also give yourself permission to eat enough breakfast and lunch, so that you are fully satiated. Don’t stop eating those meals just because you think you should but rather because you actually have had enough to eat. Soccer players who graze all day rarely feel fully fed.
Hunger is a physiological request for fuel.
Hunger does not mean “Oh no, I’m going to eat and get fat. Rather, hunger is your body’s way of saying it has burned off what you fed it and now needs more fuel. Yes, food is fuel, not the fattening enemy. Honor hunger.
Another way to bring control to your eating is to eat only when:
- You are sitting in a specific place, maybe the kitchen table?
- The food is on a plate, and
- You are tasting it mindfully. I.e. you are not standing in front of the open cupboard, wolfing down handfuls of chocolate chips.
My hope is the above tips will help you find peace with food and your body. Enjoy food for nourishment and survive the coronavirus shut-down with sanity.
The day will soon come when you can run free and enjoy soccer games with your team again.
SIDEBAR: Nutritional and medical advice changes with new discoveries and interpretations. Always check with your medical provider and/or nutritionist for what is best for you and your family.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her best selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook and Food Guide for Soccer offer additional information. They are available at www.NancyClarkRD.com. Her online workshop, www.NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com is popular with health professionals and athletes alike.