Develop a Healthy Relationship with Food

By Marni Sumbal | Aug. 30, 2011, 12 a.m. (ET)
We live in a society where much of our population (both the active and sedentary) is quick to try the latest fad diet and food trend in an effort to lose weight. Enter the ‘Diet and Fitness’ section at any bookstore and without hesitation as to possible nutritional deficiencies, your next rapid weight loss diet plan is only a credit card-swipe away. While it is the intention of qualified health professionals, such as Registered Dietitians, to demonstrate the wonderful interactions between nutrient-rich food, body composition and disease prevention, our society has a deep obsession between body image and numbers on a scale. In all honesty, when was the last time you ate a tomato and found yourself thinking about macular degeneration prevention?

While it is recommended for individuals of all fitness levels to discover realistic and practical ways of reaching and maintaining an ideal body weight, it is important that athletes seeking body composition changes should recognize the differences between scaled weight versus body fat percentage as well as eating for fuel and for health. While increasing lean muscle mass and decreasing fat mass may encourage performance gains by improving metabolic efficiency, speed and strength, the foundation of any successful training plan is built upon quality foods providing powerful nutrients. If the body is deficient in vital macro and micronutrients, what’s the point of having a lean body if you can’t do anything with it?

Perhaps multisport athletes start with good intentions when eliminating foods and reducing calories in the daily diet. But far too often, the type-A athlete who lacks no motivation or discipline, find him or herself in an endless quest for the perfect body image, which often results in a disordered or obsessive way of eating. Whereas once the focus was on healthy eating and reaching a “goal” weight, many athletes struggle with poor body image, thus leading to a very unhealthy relationship with food.

As an active individual, it is great to set short and long-term personal weight and/or exercise goals to keep you motivated and excited to live an active and healthy lifestyle. However, it is important to your long-term success in your sport of choice that you learn to build a healthy relationship with food. Rather than viewing food as good or bad, think of the foods in your diet as performance enhancing or performance limiting. Specifically, by emphasizing performance-enhancing foods that include little to no ingredients (ex. whole grains, fruits, veggies, dairy, legumes, nuts/seeds and quality protein), you will gradually find yourself appreciating the foods that you put into your body.

By focusing on a balanced and varied diet, along with nutrient timing, it is only a matter of time before you find a realistic nutrition plan to support your daily needs. Keep in mind, however, that as your training routine changes, so will your dietary needs. Nutrition, just like your love for swim, bike and run, is a lifestyle with no set rules or perfect plan. 

In reference to recent popular diets that often exclude food groups for the reason of health concerns, it is unnecessary to eliminate wholesome foods, especially when they have been proved to provide beneficial nutrients when consumed in suggested portions. If you remove something (voluntarily or involuntarily) from your life, you likely miss it and crave it until you get it back. Then it is up to you how to respond when you get that food back into your life. Whether it be foods rich in fat, carbohydrates or salt, or running again after an overuse injury, it is your habits and mentality that you must change in order to develop a healthy relationship with food and exercise. Create a lifestyle that works for you so that you are in control of your eating and that you aren't letting food be in control of your life.

With the overwhelming amount of research, rules and experts that are guiding your decisions as to how you should fuel your workouts and meeting your daily needs, use your best judgment in order to make the best choices that you can make on a daily basis. First and foremost, have an understanding that every choice that you make, builds on one another, and will help you become a more balanced active individual. Not every choice is going to significantly impact your performance and/or body composition goals. Ultimately, consistency and progress, as opposed to perfection, will help you live a quality-filled life. 

With a little daily planning of meals and snacks and an understanding of how to change (time) eating habits to properly fuel and recover from workouts, the only “diet” that you need to follow is the one that helps you meet your short and long term goals. As a health-conscious individual, you do not need to follow a popularized diet in order to reach performance and body composition goals. While it is recommended to emphasize balanced meals with food that is grown straight from the earth, it’s important not to be too restrictive in your food choices. As for your food lingo, “cheating” is not an appropriate word to use in our daily vocabulary, especially in terms of athletics or diet. If you eat well most of the time, you won’t have to worry about the rest of the time.

Marni Sumbal, MS, RD, is a Certified Sports Nutritionist (CISSN) and holds a certification by the American Dietetic Association in Adult Weight Management. She is a Level I Certified USA Triathlon Coach, a 4x Ironman finisher and an Oakley Women ambassador. Marni is currently training for her second Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Marni enjoys public speaking and writing, and has several published articles in Lava Magazine, Hammer Endurance News, CosmoGirl magazine and Triathlete Magazine. She also contributes monthly to and To contact Marni, email or visit

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.