Lindsay Ford, MS, RD
PSE FUEL Head Coach
Want a reality check? Research suggests 14% of endurance athletes struggle with an eating disorder. I personally believe that number could be higher…closer to 20%. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, orthorexia, binge-eating disorder, eating disorder otherwise not specified and more. Eating disorders among athletes is common yet no one wants to talk about it. No one wants to admit the ability to perform, excel in a specific sport and train hours per day may outweigh the risks of negative eating and behavior patterns. God forbid your coach or training partner tells you to sit the bench or take a break from training so you can regain your health. DENIAL. PERFECTIONISM. COMPETITIVENESS. Those things aren’t worth the cost of the eating disorder. It isn’t normal to go months without a period, it isn’t normal to socially withdrawal, it isn’t okay to rapidly lose weight, it isn’t normal to be 5% body fat as a male, and it isn’t okay to be losing the hair on top of your head. It becomes denial if there is chronic engagement of extreme eating behaviors (e.g., frequently skipped meals, using exercise to numb out and burn off food intake, use of unsafe supplements, etc.) AND the perspective that “everything is fine.” I believe it is time to talk about it. It is time for more awareness. Time to take a stance against the culture of dieting, fat phobia and excessive exercise.
I’ve had the honor to work at an eating disorder facility located in Brevard, North Carolina over the past 14 months. I have been the Registered Dietitian to roughly over 100 adults and adolescents. I work with them anywhere from a few days to five months. I get to know these women and young men. I have learned most of their “ways” with still being mind-blown by how loud the eating disorder can get in their head. “This food is poison to my body.” “I don’t deserve the food.” “I can’t eat dairy, grains or meat. I just can’t digest it.” “I eat 300-500 calories per day, but I feel most comfortable with 350.” “I abuse ____, _____, ______, and _______ in order to compensate the food or if I feel bad about eating something.” “I go to the gym for 2 hours every day after work.” When I review pre-admission information it is everything from big traumas, repetitive traumas, diagnosis of cancer, obsessive compulsive disorder, moderate to severe anxiety, being told to lose weight at the age of 10 years old, to sexual abuse and more. There is something going on beyond the eating disorder…something internally, something driving the eating disorder. One common theme I’ve seen is the eating disorder regularly starts between the ages of 10-12. Go figure those are the years of puberty for most and once the eating disorder starts it can persist for years. I’ve worked with those that are 9 years old to 65 years old. Here is an alarming stat: children, specifically young girls, are starting to think about their weight and size at the age of 8 years old. 8 years old.
If you can’t understand, if you can’t relate, relate to this…take a moment to imagine your body going down a strong flowing river. This particular river represents life and life’s journey. Now, imagine holding on for dear life to a log that is keeping you alive. This log is your lifeline. If you let go of the log you may drown within the rapids of the river. You have no other support and the only other way to stay alive is the attachment to this log. For those with an eating disorder, their log is the eating disorder. The eating disorder becomes the safety net, friend, support system and number one coping mechanism in which one can get through life and get down stream. Unfortunately, eating disorders are detrimental to health and using negative eating behaviors to navigate life is not ideal by any means.
Here is when hope comes in. Can you see the shore??? If you can look forward and use your peripherals there is a shore waiting upon your arrival. Yes, we can pretend it becomes an epic beach party. Guess what it takes to get to shore? It requires leaving the one solid and trusted attachment, the log or eating disorder, and fighting to get to land. Every time you start to leave the log it is as if you are going to drown… “I can’t breathe, I don’t know how to swim, I can’t see the shore anymore.” Yep…those that genuinely want recovery will go through a period in which things get worse before things get better. In the ED world, we call it the drowning phase or the storming phase (storming phase may be more accurate in regards to my personal encounters, ha). Here is the challenge…when things get tough the natural response for that person is to go back to the log, back to the eating disorder and rely on the short-term safety net. The person diagnosed with an eating disorder has to re-wire the brain and train the brain and body to actually do something positive and better for their bodies versus relying on restricting, purging, bingeing, and more. This doesn’t take days….it can take months and years. It takes time for the brain to body AND body to brain connections to rewire. Talk about a reality check.
When it comes to disordered eating, the fitness, strength and endurance world can be a doozy because we know that movement is essential. We know that movement is foundational to us as humans. It starts to get tricky when the all-consuming desire to manipulate our body shape and size becomes the priority. Things become less about performance and more about feeding something deeper. PERFECTIONISM. CONTROL. LOOKING THE BEST. COPING MECHANISM. Don’t ever think disordered eating may never happen to you. It absolutely can. The right genes mixed with the right environment can absolutely kick-start disordered eating. Once it starts, it can be difficult to stop if one doesn’t’ have a wake-up call. If I had to encourage athletes to consider the following to prevent negative eating behaviors and disordered eating this is what I would suggest…
1. Rid the Diet Mentality. Structured eating can be extremely valuable; however, the answer is never in restricting and/or avoiding numerous food groups. If you avoid certain things be sure there is a specific reason and purpose…a RATIONAL purpose. Eliminating tree nuts because you are allergic is rational. Eliminating all animal foods because you think you are saving the planet and meat is “bad for you” is irrational.
2. Set Boundaries with your Training. Some of you should take a moment to set very clear boundaries in regards to your training hours per week. This factors in everything from running to strength training to yoga to play time. Two-a-days are for elite athletes. You probably have other things you could be doing other than working out twice a day three days a week. Just saying.
3. Avoid Supplementation that Makes Promises. I don’t think I need to go into this too much, but too much of something doesn’t mean it is a good thing and the body always prefers food over anything. So many supplements are contaminated and you never know how it will impact your heart, electrolyte levels and more. Just say yes to food.
4. Better Understand Your Body and Weight/Size Trends. Go back to when you were a child and recognize where your body naturally wants to sit up to the age of 24-25 years old. We all have a weight range and growth trend. For example, Jeff’s body has always been its healthiest and strongest around 157-167 pounds. He knows it. If he were to try and force himself to be lower than 150 pounds I would be concerned. I am not suggesting it isn’t valuable to have goals and want to get stronger…I am suggesting that SOME prefer to be smaller than where their body has always told them. If you can’t handle that internally then I strongly recommend considering sitting down with an expert in the arena of eating disorders, body image, etc.
5. Respect the Training & Your Sport. So much can get lost if the priority becomes about body composition or following a very restrictive diet to the point that someone would isolate and dis-engage in social activities. What do you lose out on? The ability to perform at your best. You are missing out on your FULL potentially if you engage in negative eating patterns. You are probably not a joy to be around…just saying. You may lose the JOY of why you even started that sport in the first place. Respect your ability to move and do your thing.
Eating disorders are nasty diseases. No one chooses the eating disorder. It can just kind of happen…the food and exercise becomes a way to cope with life. It isn’t anyone’s fault. It becomes the outlet to numb and avoid the realities of life. If you believe you are going down this path or are already in it please seek help. Seek help before it goes too far. If you are concerned about someone in your life please share this article. Share your concerns. Don’t avoid them. Avoid hiding from them or potentially yourself. Over and out.