The scary truth: many eating disorders go unnoticed in athletes because of how normalized disordered eating behaviors have become in the world of sports. Eating disorders are harmful for anyone, but are especially concerning for athletes because of their intense activity levels. High-level athletes in high school and college typically have physically demanding practices twice a day, five days a week, burning thousands of calories. Adding severe food restriction to an active lifestyle is a recipe for disaster and, as we will discuss in this post, can lead to decreased athletic performance and a host of physical and mental health issues.
A study conducted by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) found that one-third of Division I athletes reported beliefs and behaviors that placed them at high risk for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder . One of the main ways that sports can promote disordered eating is through the enormous emphasis placed on athletes’ bodies and appearances, especially at more elite levels. In collegiate level cross country, I was weighed twice a day, six days a week to ensure I was keeping my weight at a number that was acceptable to my coach.
The pressure to maintain a specific weight range or body size causes many athletes to engage in disordered eating habits. Looking back now, I can recognize the restricting behaviors my cross country teammates and I engaged in, such as skipping lunch, not refueling after our practices, opting for low-calorie foods, and avoiding cookies and chips at all costs. I was always ravenously hungry and irritable as a result of my inadequate food intake and high energy expenditure. I also had trouble focusing, felt lethargic, and began having joint-related injuries. My running times took a hit as a result.
Unfortunately, experiences like mine are extremely common among athletes throughout the country. Coaches, parents, and trainers who lack education on sports nutrition teach athletes that eating less will improve their athleticism and endurance. But nutritional professionals know that the opposite is true – increased energy expenditure in athletes requires more food for optimal performance, not less! We can’t expect our cars to run on an empty tank of gas, and our bodies are no different.
Athletes struggling with eating disorders are at risk of a multitude of illnesses and injuries. Without enough food it’s hard to concentrate properly, which can negatively impact performance on the field and in the weight room. Chronic fatigue, mood swings, and social isolation are also commonly experienced in individuals suffering from eating disorders, affecting the individual and their teammates. Females often experience loss of their menstrual cycles, which leads to hormone imbalances and loss of bone mineral density. Over time, this can result in arthritis, bone fractures, and/or osteoporosis. Among both males and females, eating disorders can cause muscle degeneration & weakness, electrolyte imbalances, constipation, swelling, dizziness, and increased risk of ligament tears and muscle fractures. All of these symptoms negatively impact sports performance by reducing speed, reaction time, and strength.
If you are an athlete struggling with disordered eating of any kind, know that you are not alone and that full recovery is possible! The first step for many people is to acknowledge the problem and ask for help – confide in a trusted friend, relative, teammate, or coach. The next step in ditching disordered eating habits is to establish care with a registered dietitian and therapist, preferably ones who specialize in eating disorders. Your treatment team will help you to meet your dietary needs and adequately fuel your body; to challenge disordered thoughts, rules, and behaviors; and to heal your relationships with food, exercise, and your body. Over time, anxiety and fear around food will decrease, and you will learn to eat intuitively again. You’ll also realize that with proper fueling, your performance during practices, meets, and matches will greatly improve, along with your physical and mental health. When you’re ready to start your healing process, our team at Restore is here to support you!
Written by Simone Gmuca, nutrition volunteer at Restore Family Therapy.