Performance vs Looks. “I know I should fuel for performance, but what if I gain fat?”

by | Sep 18, 2022 | Nutrition

Maybe it’s your case too. You know that you need to eat right for your health and performance, but in the corner of your mind you hear a voice: “Don’t eat so much! You’ll gain weight.”

This is common in people who have managed to lose weight and now want to avoid gaining it back. The problem is that our goals change. Now you may want to improve your performance or even gain muscle, and your mind will only prevent you from doing so. Even if you know that you have to change the way you eat for your new goals, emotions, especially the fear of gaining weight, often win over reason.

We often see in practice that athletes know they should eat for performance…

“I guess fuelling is quite a huge part of competition nutrition for us and a real key driver for success.”

“I think one of the biggest areas is in terms of fuelling because of the volume of training I do.”

Knowing and doing are not the same thing…

Despite the apparent importance of fuelling within the performance narrative, many athletes and practitioner participants didn’t readily employ this within practice:

“I’ve never measured any foods, as I think overthinking it is too much. I mean, it could be helpful in terms of me getting more food in, but most of the time I think I do a good job.”

“Every time I read a literature article it gives me a ridiculous range athletes should be having, for example, 3-8 grams per kilogram of body weight in carbohydrates.”

…because a thin ideal persists.

More specifically, a thin ideal permeates general culture and for many women, this difficult to attain but often referenced body image, can influence nutritional habits and practices leading to undereating (Barrett & Petrie, 2020).

“I feel like I got so wrapped up in how I was looking in a certain kit, I didn’t want to look at photos of myself because I didn’t like how I looked or I’d weighed myself the morning of and I knew that I was maybe heavier than normal, so I was often stressing about that.”

There is a discrepancy…

“…when I’m on National Team training camps and I’m looking at what some of these girls are eating and I’m, like, ‘you literally have a leaf on your plate and we have a game tomorrow’.”

The fear of fat-gain is deep rooted

“I’ve had players that wouldn’t want to eat any carbs before games because they’re worried they’re going to get fat because in order to improve their body comp they’ve cut carbs” (Team Sport Researcher)

“It’s about reiterating the benefits of fuelling, whereas some others I know have had a different mind-set of being lean is the best way to perform and now there’s more of the science behind you need to fuel yourself to perform.” Athlete

Having information is not enough…

“They’ve seen it’s worked (carb-restriction), not realised it’s calories and they now don’t want to eat carbs again and not realise they need it to perform. So that balance between body comp and fuelling is huge.”

“I had one athlete who came down and sat next to me and she just said ‘look, I’m so confused, I follow this person, this person and this person and I haven’t got a clue what’s true or what’s false’. None of them are verified, they’re just influencers you know…

Getting them to fuel appropriately is key…

“Getting them to fuel appropriately is key.
I want them to understand ‘this is what I need, this is what my plate needs to look like’ and have a visual of portion size and understanding of ‘how hard have I trained? What do I need to replenish that energy store and what does that look like relative to me as a person?’” (Team Sport Researcher)

“When it went into extra time, I just knew we were the better team because you’re always banging on about carbs, you’re always shoving gels under our nose.” Athlete


Both athletes and researchers know how important fueling is for athletic performance but there are deep-rooted fears and false beliefs about carbohydrates causing fat gain.

The media and even coaches sometimes promote a thin ideal that further creates tension between fuelling for performance and striving for a socially desirable body image, and cause athletes to underfuel consciously or subconsciously.

“So, it’s almost like what we had to do first was heal them all, emotionally, like they’d all been beaten up about their weight and told they’re fat and told not to eat, so trying to intersect body composition from performance, as far as coaches are all concerned, lighter is better.” (Team Sport Practitioner)

These observations underline several factors:

Hearing about good nutrition practices from a coach or reading it in a book once a day is not sufficient to erase years of exposure to the “thin ideal” we can see all around.

Having good information is not enough. We are emotional beings and that is where the conflict between what we know and what we do is rooted. If you are worried or afraid of gaining fat, you will not fuel properly despite having the best information.

From the coach’s perspective, I have experienced both sides and that is why I value coaching highly. Even when I had all the information, I still hesitated for years before I started eating adequately to my body’s needs. You don’t need to wait that long.

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