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Numbers…everywhere and all the time numbers

In sport science and sport nutrition we work a lot with and talk a lot about numbers. Already the assessment is usually full of numbers. Height, weight, age, body fat, watts, maximal heart rate, morning heart rate, maximal power output. And we continue with the numbers when we talk about blood values, power-to-weight ratio, calorie needs and many more.


Nowadays we find so many different devises that give us some numbers too. Watches tell us not only the heart rate but the steps we make, the hours we slept (and the quality!), how many calories we burnt, how fast we ran or drove, the distance we covered and the watts. And, yes, there are athletes who almost cannot train without a device anymore. Not even an easy run or ride because they need something that tells them the numbers. That is a sad trend and more and more athletes become obsessed by those numbers. All they do is check their numbers, talk about their numbers, think about their numbers. But when you ask them, how did you feel on the bike? How was your run?, they almost don’t know anymore what to say without their numbers. And if we take those numbers away, some almost stress out about their lost feedback. Isn’t the body providing you with enough feedback?
Humans have feelings and emotions! Damiaso and Carvalho (2013) are only two of many who researched feelings in humans. Sometimes we should listen to our feelings and body signs as well and put all devices aside. When was the last time you exercised without checking your heart rate, power, without thinking about calorie content or grams of carbohydrates? It’s true, some of the graphs on our devices just look too good to not be true. But aren’t we at risk of focusing too much on those numbers?

Nutrition is one field where numbers get more and more into the centre of attention of many athletes. Instead of enjoying their meal, they think about how many calories are in their food. Some take it to the extreme and have thought about calories and carbohydrate content before they even chew and swallow what they’ve on their plate. They have lost the joy of eating! Eating has become something mechanical, a tool to fulfill energy requirements but nothing more.


Ancient people used to enjoy food. Food and meals used to be important and luckily we still see this in some countries. When you speak to an Italian, a meal with the family or friends has a completely different meaning and importance compared to an American. I think we should go back to the Italian way. Enjoy our food, use the time at the table to socialize, laugh, enjoy and take time to eat. We shouldn’t think about numbers when we eat but about the taste and flavour, the odour – using our senses instead of our brain [to calculate and count]. That is healthy eating!


This also translates into nutrition consultation. Ok, when I do the maths for a plan, I think and work in numbers. Carbohydrate needs, calorie needs, protein requirements…but when I speak to an athlete, I try to avoid numbers. How can you measure the grams of the pasta when you are in an hotel, when you stand in fron of a buffet. You find your way through that better when you have a feeling for your portion size. I agree, we need the numbers, but when numbers become the main focus, then something is wrong. Believe me, weight loss is also possible without counting the calories of every bite that goes into your mouth. Unfortunately, athletes get caught into the cycle of counting calories and in some cases that’s only one symptom besides others which all together are characteristic for people with eating disorders or disordered eating (see DMS-V Manual by American Psychiatric Association for diagnosis of mental disorders, including eating disorders). And we know, this exists in elite sports (see for example Sundgot-Borgen and colleagues 2013).


By using volume instead of grams, athletes have a better understanding of their portion sizes. Several dietetic associations have published portion sizes for reference and there are also measuring cups which help us to understand how much is enough.


ÖGE Portionengrößen


I heard more than one story where athletes got to focused on numbers and thought only about numbers: calories, grams of fat, grams of carbs and weight. Athletes get lost in those numbers.
As with training and efforts we should use satiety and hunger as signs when to eat and how much to eat. I know it’s not always possible but by focusing too much on numbers, we lose the ability to listen to satiety and hunger, to listen to our body’s messages. Unless we step back and rediscover this sense again, we will never be able to enjoy eating and what we eat. Only then nutrition may also become less of a problem because the control and preoccupation are elsewhere. So, athletes, move back one step. Listen to your body; and many challenges – even losing weight – can and will become less difficult and stressful.


And now get yourself a piece of chocolate, enjoy it and don’t think about calories 😉


Österreichische Gesellschaft für Ernährung
Academy of nutrition and dietetics (USA)