- Alex Morgan said it took years to learn how to fuel her body properly for performance.
- Pressure to conform to diets or body image standards can drive athletes to disordered eating.
- An expert said eating intuitively can help athletes meet their unique needs.
Editor’s note: This article mentions disordered eating.
As a star of the US Women’s National Team (USWNT), Alex Morgan said she fuels up for peak performance by not comparing what she eats to other athletes’ diets, and wishes she had learned to do so sooner.
“Early in my career, I would look at the person to the right and the left of me, what they were eating and think that’s what I needed to eat,” Morgan told Insider in an interview coordinated by her partnership with Equip, a virtual eating disorder treatment program.
Eating like an athlete can be challenging, Morgan said — it takes a lot of energy to power intense training, which means getting enough to eat, and the right balance of nutrients like carbs and protein to optimize performance. Then there’s the constant pressure on athletes, who are scrutinized by media and fans and more.
She said eating for her own unique needs, instead of comparing her plate to teammates’, helped her tune out external pressure around food choices. In doing so, she optimized her diet for better performance and recovery.
“I have a really good relationship with my body and understanding what it needs and nourishing it in the right way,” Morgan said. “That comes with years of experience, but you have to start somewhere, and I think a lot of female athletes aren’t given that support early in their career.”
Morgan said it took years to learn how to fuel her body optimally
Through working with a USWNT nutritionist, Morgan said she learned eating extra carbs helped her and her teammates reduce fatigue and recover faster during intense competition.
“We found a lot of us weren’t getting enough carbohydrates that we needed to sustain a major tournament like the Olympics or World Cup,” she said. “We’re just not getting enough sometimes and that has consequences on how quick your body can bounce back from one game to the next game.”
Carbs are a crucial energy source for athletes and should be the foundation of meals, sports dietitian Nancy Clark previously told Insider. Some evidence suggests athletes should get 200-300 grams of carbs before competition, and 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour during long bouts of exertion.
Morgan started eating a mostly vegan diet in 2017, for ethical reasons, and found it to be beneficial for faster recovery and reduced fatigue. In the years since, she said she has worked with a nutritionist to make sure she gets enough protein and other nutrients, adding some eggs and dairy back into her diet.
“It works for me, but what works for me isn’t going to work for the person next to me,” she said. “I was ok with seeing my teammates with different foods on their plate and knowing each person is different and their needs are different.”
Athletes are often pressured to fit in aesthetically, Morgan said
In competitive sports there can be a lot of pressure, both internally and externally, to look lean and have a similar body to other athletes on the field, according to Morgan.
“You feel like you’re scrutinized if you don’t fit into a certain mold,” she said. “As much as you’re playing with your teammates and looking for the success of the team, you can’t help but compare yourself to teammates or opponents.”
And trying to force your body to look like someone’s else’s can drive unhealthy eating habits, she said.
The drive to perform well, and misconception that dieting is necessary to do so, contributes to athletes having up to three times higher risk of eating disorders than non athletes, said Dr. Katherine Hill, head of medical affairs at Equip.
“There’s a general perception that leanness equals better athletic performance, but that’s often not the case,” Hill told Insider. “Athletes may start with good intentions to be healthier or ‘get in better shape’ so they count calories or cut out carbs but that can become obsessive.”
People of all genders and sports can develop eating disorders, Hill said, and athletes may be at risk whether they compete at the Olympics or do recreational exercise.
Intense exercise and calorie restriction can impair mental and physical performance, worsen fatigue, and increase injury risk, a condition known as RED-S (formerly called the female athlete triad, since many high-level female athletes report symptoms like loss of menstrual periods, and broken bones).
Since there’s no ideal diet for every body, Hill said one helpful tool is intuitive eating, or focusing on internal cues of hunger and fullness instead of calorie counts, to fuel athletes.
“If you’re an athlete and you’re hungry, that’s probably a sign that you need more fuel in your body, even if you feel like you’ve eaten enough,” she said.