Eating for Health vs. Eating for Performance

Good morning fit foodies! Happy FriYay. What are your weekend plans? Ours are a little scattered, I know there is a lot of work involved, but I think there will be some climbing in there too. Today, I have a bit of a heavier topic. I want to talk about something that is extremely important to discuss both for the fitness industry and for alternative health and wellness care (i.e health coaching, wellness, nutritional therapy, coaching etc.). This post is for those of you that live with athletes or people counting their macros and don't understand why they are so picky. This post is for those of you that have to eat for performance and are struggling with the social implications. This post is also for you if you are caught up in mixed media messages!


Media Messages are Confusing!

If you have ever felt like you have to eat perfect, crush hard workouts every day, say no to drinks with friends and fore-go special events in order to have a healthy lifestyle, then you know what I am talking about today.

It’s that feeling of: “I just need to go on a diet and cut out the foods that could be bad for me: gluten, alcohol, caffeine, dairy, maybe all grains….” eventually you are left with just fruits and vegetables (I’ve been there) and you are eating in isolation. If you have watched a body builder go through prep and then feel like, if you want that body then you have to do that too. Or if you have ever felt the pressure to run as many races in a year as your competitive runner friend from book group….then you know what I am talking about. The messages of eating for health vs. eating for a certain type fitness get confusing.

Eating for performance is extreme and stressful, but it does take this extreme amount of precision to reach peak or elite fitness. But it does not take this amount of precision to be healthy.

Why Do We Get Mixed Messages? 

What commonly happens here is that fitness advocates and those who are educated enough (hopefully educated) to become authorities in the fitness industry, are often living for a sport - not simply for a healthy lifestyle. I don’t want to say that every fitness advocate or personal trainer is taking things to an unhealthy level, absolutely not, but often athletes that are passionate enough to go to dietary extremes are also the ones passionate enough to share what they are doing. Their outcomes are inspiring enough to want to mimic their eating or workouts. But what is important to keep in mind is that eating for performance does not always equal eating for health. You do need to eat healthy to perform at your best, but athletes often take things to extremes in a way that is not actually healthy for their bodies long term.

Performance Eating vs. Healthy Eating

A side by side comparison. 

Let me give you an example from my life. I live with a group of people that are on the same page when it comes to food. They believe in sustainably, ethically, locally and cleanly produced food. They easily and happily cook for the groups dietary preferences (we have no gluten, no dairy and no meat coming from various people in the group). And on top of it all, the food is absolutely amazing. Like absolutely, in every way, delicious. One of their favorite things to do is to share food communally, so when I told them that I have a hard time eating communally, it was as if I stuck a needle into their happy balloon. I am often trying to manipulate food intake times and amounts of certain foods to reach my athletic goals, and this is extremely difficult to do when someone else is putting food on your plate. The healthy thing to do is to share good food with good people, and that is what I would recommend most people do. The performance minded action in this situation is not the healthy action.


The best way I know how to explain the differences is to show you two different people in the same context. Given the circumstance of a wonderful dinner, quality ingredients, and eaten with good people, here are the two different ways of eating side-by-side:

The Healthy Lifestyle Response

Eat all the food. It’s good food, made by good people, with healthy cooking methods, it comes from good sources and the food around the table is well rounded, providing a whole array of wonderful nutrients that will nourish the body. Enjoy, go to town, eat until satisfied (just don’t overeat) and while you are at it, have a glass of wine with the group and enjoy a taste of the dessert. You are also reaping social, mental, and emotional health benefits.

The Performance Lifestyle Response: 

Enjoy the experience, enjoy the food. But, before you do, there are a lot more things to consider: What workout is planned for the next morning? This will largely determine your food choices and the amount you eat. Can you have a glass of wine and not impact your sleep, recovery and workout? How many carbs does that athlete need or feel good on? Is this athlete eating high fat, or does fat upset the stomach? He/She may have to say no to some foods or pick at some dishes to make the meal work. How many grams of protein does this athlete need for proper recovery? Have they met this goal for the day? How many more grams do they need to eat? Where can it come from among the food presented? He/she will have to carefully measure this out. Depending on the athlete’s goals and digestive system, he/she may also have to forgo dessert.


Do you see what I mean? Eating for performance is extreme and stressful, but it does take this extreme amount of precision to reach peak or elite fitness. But it does not take this amount of precision to be healthy. I repeat, it does not take this amount of precision to be healthy or fit-there is a huge difference. Both are noble goals.  

If you are living for performance or you share meals with someone who eats for athletic goals, I hope this helps you understand them and/or communicate to others better. It’s a big deal. Those of us in the fitness industry need to be careful how we communicate what is necessary for health and wellness, even general fitness. To eat for performance takes high amounts of dedication, confidence and motivation. It’s not for everyone and its not for every occasion. For some people, a performance mindset can have negative impacts on their health.  

Just keep that in mind. I hope this helps. 

Please comment below if you have any questions or thoughts on this topic!