Have you ever had a trainer recommend that you lose weight, choose a goal weight for you, and proceed to make comments about your appearance? Have they said that once you hit that magical number, you’ll suddenly become a better rider, lighter in the saddle, and that you’ll be “letting the horse do its job better” because it has less weight to carry?
Unfortunately, this is all too common in our sport. It’s something that many of my clients have had to deal with growing up in the horse world and has triggered a cycle of yo-yo dieting and disordered eating as adults. It’s time for a paradigm shift. We need to stop focusing so much on body weight and appearance and focus more on how we can improve performance and overall health instead.
I want to start with the very basics and simply define weight. Oxford defines it as: “a body’s relative mass or the quantity of matter contained by it, giving rise to a downward force.” OK. So in other words, weight is a number that tells us nothing more than how much we weigh on this earth. It doesn’t tell us how much of that weight is muscle, body fat, type of body fat, or fluid. It doesn’t tell us about our energy levels, how we’re feeling, and it certainly doesn’t describe riding ability.
Sure, being a certain weight to lighten your horse’s load may make sense on the surface. But in reality, focusing on weight alone is detrimental to athletic performance, health, and body image.
Let’s Zoom Out
I’ve seen the emphasis rapidly shift from riders working toward improving in the saddle to zeroing in on that new arbitrary goal weight provided by a well-intentioned trainer. To get there, people may begin restricting food, they may set a rigid eating pattern, weigh themselves multiple times a day, and ignore internal hunger cues telling them their body needs more fuel. These strategies to lose weight tends to result in riders feeling tired, irritable and fatigued. This also often results in riders tying their self-worth to their appearance and a number on the scale…and we are so much more than a number.
“We need to stop focusing so much on body weight and appearance and focus on how we can improve performance and overall health instead.”
The reason weight loss is recommended in the first place is usually to improve riding ability and “make your horse’s job easier”. You don’t need me to tell you that riders are athletes, and our teammates happen to be 1200-pound animals with a mind of their own and the power of a freight train. To be effective in the saddle requires strength, balance, agility, and focus. Under-fueling and hyperfocusing on appearance will compromise these crucial aspects of riding, therefore impairing performance and increasing the risk of injury.
Focus On What’s Real
So how can you use food to actually improve your riding that has nothing to do with your weight? There are a number of strategies that can be implemented to accomplish this. One strategy is taking the focus off numbers and instead focusing on how meal/snack timing and food composition can fuel rides and recovery. For example, I might suggest eating a banana and nut butter 30-60 minutes before a ride. Why? The banana is an easily digested carbohydrate that can be quickly broken down and used by the body for fuel. The nut butter is a protein and heart-healthy fat that promotes satiety and allows for a longer energy release when paired with the banana. Avoid eating this too close to a ride will help prevent gastrointestinal distress while giving enough time to break it down so it’s ready to be used as fuel.
When working with someone who struggles with negative body image, I often pair the exercise above with an exercise to help improve perception. For example, I may recommend a journaling exercise designed to shift the focus from appearance to the function of different body parts that spark feelings of insecurity.
With all that said, weight loss can be a reasonable and appropriate goal for some people. It can be achieved in a healthy way that’s sustainable, doesn’t compromise performance, health, or overall body image. However, it can be a slippery slope into developing disordered eating patterns and a negative body image that can be hard, but very possible, to undo. If you’re struggling with disordered eating and are looking to improve your relationship with food and body image, consider contacting a sports dietitian for guidance.
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Natalie Gavi is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who is passionate about the power that food plays in health and athletic performance.