Jennifer Sygo is a registered dietitian and the performance nutritionist for the Toronto Raptors. Sygo also works with Athletics Canada and Swim Canada and recently spoke to the CBC about her nutrition philosophy for the Raptors players. While a recreational athlete doesn’t need to be as careful as a professional runner or NBA player when it comes to diet, there are some key pieces of advice from Sygo that are applicable across the board.

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Sygo told the CBC that while quality food is important for performance, so are treats, “It’s not uncommon for me to put something like dark chocolate or a treat or some ice cream into an athlete’s plan intentionally because otherwise you create this white knuckle behaviour of ‘I have to do it right’ or ‘It has to be perfect everyday’ and that’s not realistic for anyone.”

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She continues, “The trick is to find balance and to destigmatize food so that they don’t feel guilty if they eat something that maybe isn’t the most nutritious.”

This advice rings true in the running community as runners are typically quite interested in wellness and eating healthy foods, with some even developing what’s known as orthorexia. Canadian Running spoke with physiologist Trent Stellingwerff last month on the topic and he said, “My non-scientific definition of orthorexia is someone who can’t eat apple pie at Grandma’s at Christmas time because it isn’t a clean food. The actual definition is really, really grey. There’s such a huge contextual element to orthorexia.”

Stellingwerff noted that over the past two decades he’s seen a huge increase in orthorexia, which he believes is due to the prevalence of social media. For example, the hashtag #cleaneats has nearly seven million associated posts on Instagram. Stellingwerff says, “There are many people on social media portraying their diets and there’s a perception that you need to eat in a very specific way to be successful. Part of me would smile when Usain Bolt would talk about winning Olympic medals on Chicken McNuggets.”

Group of happy young friends running together. Running club members exercising.

It’s not that Stellingwerff recommends a highly processed diet, but runners should strive for emotional and contextual balance. This balance leaves room for a bit of everything and permits an athlete to let go of total control. “You have to have room to live your life and be happy.”

With some runners erring on the side of too healthy, Sygo’s approach serves as an important reminder that if the Raptors can eat some ice cream, so you can you.

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