Team USA Rugby Player Ilona Maher Says This Is What She Would Tell Her Younger Self About Body Image

Plus, the pro athlete sits down with EatingWell to talk about what she eats in a day, her favorite way to stay hydrated and more as part of our Eating Well to Feel Well series.

a photo of Ilona Maher with a gradient background
Photo: Maher: Michael Kovac/Getty Images. Collage: Cassie Basford.

Ilona Maher is the current face of women's rugby.

The Team USA star became a viral sensation when she started documenting her experiences at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on TikTok. Since then, she has accumulated over a million followers by promoting body positivity, enjoying her favorite foods, making "train with me" content and more.

For our Eating Well to Feel Well series, we sat down with Maher to learn more about her relationship with food, fitness and body image. Read on to find out what the athlete eats in a day, the drink that she cannot live without, and what she wishes she could tell her younger self.

EatingWell: What do you normally eat in a day?

Maher: Usually I do a lot of meals where I work. In the training center where I work, we get all of our meals for free, and those meals are very balanced as it is tailored for athletes. Starting with breakfast, eggs are so great with the amount of protein they have so I'm always eating eggs. I love bacon—it gives me joy—so I'll eat some bacon with it and a piece of toast or some other carb, whether it's oatmeal or potatoes. But I do love toast with butter and jam. I always drink coffee in the morning, I wish I could get my day started without it but I'm unable to! My lunch and dinner are about the same. On a good day I'll have a lot of protein, carbs and a lot of vegetables. I snack a little more than I used to. I love having a protein source in that snack, whether that's an apple with peanut butter, beef jerky, cold-cut meat, but I don't really like protein bars. I try to drink water, but I do love a Powerade when it's a hot training day. I always have to end the night with something sweet. I have to eat chocolate or something like that.

EatingWell: If I say the word "diet," what usually comes to mind? And how does that make you feel?

Maher: I guess I've been able to change the narrative, being on the USA team and being with dietitians and having great people around. So when I hear "diet," I don't think, "Oh, I'm going on a diet and I can only eat this, this and this." I think "What's my diet? What do I eat to fuel my body?" It's a good way to change it because I don't think I've ever been on a diet in my life. That's just something that doesn't resonate with me. To me, diet is what you eat.

EatingWell: What food could you not live without because it makes you feel so good?

Maher: I don't know if it's a food so much, but I do love coffee. Sugary, creamy coffee. I love having cream and sugar—not a lot, but it's something that brings me a lot of joy at the beginning of the day. It's something that gets me going and gets me excited to get up. I love lattes, pumpkin spice lattes, all of it. That's something that really gives me excitement. I've tried to drink black coffee, and I just can't do it.

EatingWell: Do you usually make your coffee at home, or do you prefer going to a coffee shop?

Maher: I do love Starbucks. If I'm heading to work, I'll go through the Starbucks drive-thru because it's easier. And I think it's a big thing for my team and the culture of my team to go out and get coffee together. On the weekends, I'll go out to a nice coffee shop somewhere and get a latte there. That's an activity we like to do together.

EatingWell: What's your favorite way to stay hydrated?

Maher: If I could, I would only drink sugary drinks and fruit juices because I love that, but I shouldn't drink big quantities of that. So sparkling water and seltzer is a good way for me to get my hydration in. I love working out, [and wanting] water when you're working out is so fun. I wish I was better [about drinking water]. My sister has a water bottle on her at all times and is always refilling it.

EatingWell: What does your motto "beast, beauty, brains" mean to you, and what do you hope it inspires your followers?

Maher: "Beast, beauty, brains" is showing that you can be multifaceted and that you don't just have to be one thing. I think we put people in boxes like "Oh, they're a rugby player. Oh, they're a nurse," when people can be so much more than that. For me, I'm a rugby player, and that's what everybody sees, but I'm also smart. I like to be beautiful and feminine in my own way. To me, I think girls get afraid of trying out new things in fear of being pigeonholed, but I can be all of those things because I get to decide. It's my own narrative I get to write.

EatingWell: What do you wish you could tell your younger self about body image?

Maher: One thing I always tell people that's helped me is, it's not so much loving your body—which is what I got wrong when I was young. I wanted to love my body, but it was so hard because that's not what I'm seeing everyday [online]. Even now I don't love my body all the time, but I appreciate my body. So as a young girl, I think I wish I could've told myself to appreciate it more, and that it's less about looks and more about what your body is capable of. That will make you have a different perspective on your body. It's not just there for the human eye to look at.

EatingWell: What does "eating well" mean to you?

Maher: Eating well to me is fueling your body, but it's also enjoying life and enjoying what you're eating. I think I eat well, but I don't only eat vegetables, chicken and rice. That's not me. Eating well is having that balance of eating healthy foods, but also having a piece of cake when you want to, being able to have two scoops of peanut butter. Eating well is fueling your body and your mind and having that happiness that comes with eating and enjoying things while making sure your body feels good.

EatingWell: What's the one thing you hope your fans take away from this interview?

Maher: Food is such a vital part of my life, and it gives me so much comfort. I grew up with a mother who cooked so much, so for me, it expresses love and it expresses warmth. There is no bad food, there's only excess amounts of food. You [can be] fueling your body to feel good, but it's OK to have something that you want to eat for other purposes [and] to really appreciate what your body is able to do for you. If you're trying to consistently love your body, it's going to be hard. But if you can really appreciate your body, I think it will change your narrative around food.

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