By Emily Edison, MS.RD.CSSD.
WINForum Sports Dietitian and expert in disordered eating
Does this sound familiar?
“You are such a perfect eater. You never eat anything bad for you.”
“I’ve never seen anyone eat so many vegetables. You are so disciplined in your eating.”
“You are so fit, you must run all the time.”
Comments like the above are viewed to most as well-intended compliments. They are meant to encourage honor and dedication in an athlete’s eating and training. It could be hard to imagine how comments like these can encourage athletes to become obsessed, overly disciplined and restrictive in their eating. But they do. How could these seemingly well-meaning compliments encourage disordered eating?
In honor of Eating Disorders Awareness Week I wanted to shed light a topic that I see all too frequently in my practice. As a Sports Dietitian, I have the honor of working with athletes of all levels, ages, shapes and sizes, and “food weirdness” is a part of the game. But when does eating differently than your peers become a problem? When does being a “perfect” eater cause a problem?
Disordered or shall we say “messed up” eating is on a continuum. This chart illustrates healthy eating and normal body weight on one end of the spectrum and clinical eating disorder on the opposite end. “Messed up” eating lands right in the middle and progress one of two ways, towards healthy or towards clinical eating disorder.
Disordered eating and clinically diagnosed eating disorders are far more frequent in the athlete population and can be life threatening. Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa are psychological disorders that require treatment from a qualified team of medical professionals.
Weird or messed up eating can arise from a number of situations ranging from inaccurate or mis-directed messaging in a health class to alluring promises of weight loss presented in a popular magazines. These behaviors can build very slowly over time- An athlete adopts a habit because “teammates are doing it” or a general comment is made to a team about weight loss, causing a diet revolution.
Good Eating Gone Bad
Orthorexia, a condition where a person becomes overly obsessed or preoccupied with avoiding foods that are perceived to be unhealthy, can be destructive not only to an athletes performance but also to their life. Athletes who become overly obsessed with eating healthy can struggle with performance decline, social isolation, and injuries, all related to restriction of food intake.
In my practice I have seen Orthorexia develop from health class curriculums that highlight overly healthy eating, restriction of fat intake, and eliminating so called “junk-foods”, as ideal. Inaccurate testing of body composition in these classes can also contribute to the onset of Orthorexia. Be aware of the curriculum being taught in your child’s health class and encourage schools to adopt mindful eating and a health at every size (HAES) approach to nutrition and wellness.
Clean Green Eating
Cleaning up your diet, focusing more on colorful foods and whole grains, is never a bad thing… until it is. Young athletes who develop eating patterns that focus on consuming only unprocessed whole foods can make eating and getting enough fuel in the tank challenging, especially when traveling with the team.
Kim, a 17 year old soccer player, in a recent sport nutrition training session expressed that she was only able to eat two meals on a 30 hour road trip with her team because she felt she was unable to find foods that fit into her “clean eating” diet plan.
An athlete’s eating plan needs to be flexible and accessible at home and on the road. Foods need to be available in rural areas and the big city. Whole Foods is not around every corner. Athletes need to have skills to make the best of a sticky eating situation like eating at fast food or making a meal at a convenience store.
Fasting and Cleansing
Restriction of food for the purpose “cleansing the body” or “taking a break from food” can be detrimental to an athlete’s performance and their health. Eliminating (fasting) or restricting (cleansing) food intake depletes the body’s energy stores and can cause a significant decrease in performance. In some cases both fasting and cleansing can put an athlete at risk for injury, due to low energy availability, electrolyte imbalances, and lack of nutrition available for recovery. In addition, depleted nutrient stores can increase risk of colds, flus and general grouchiness.
So often athletes find themselves getting caught up in the latest and greatest fad diets or food rules (Low carb diets, dairy or wheat free eating, dieting). Restriction of food groups, such as dairy, can leave your body missing vital nutrients, lacking energy, and create risk for long term consequences such as loss of muscle and bone strength.
Some athletes affected by lactose intolerance are misguided to avoid all dairy products. Here are the facts: Lactose intolerance can be easily managed through the use of lactase enzymes, moderating the volume of dairy consumed, and choosing lactose free dairy products. Click here (lactose intolerance) for more info or plan a visit with your local registered dietitian. No need to hold the milk!
In other situations athletes are mis-diagnosed as having food allergies or intolerances leaving the athlete wondering what the actually CAN eat. Certainly, true food allergies exist and should be treated accordingly, however food intolerances can be managed and should be retested over time. WINForum recommends using a pediatric allergist for testing and following up with a Registered Dietitian.
All foods are ok.
Moderation has different meanings to different people but for athletes, the foundation of the athlete eating plan is calories or energy. Many of the challenges and eating styles above limit the amount of energy an athlete can get into the body. An athlete must get enough energy into the tank in order to perform. Create an athletic eating plan that allows for energy, flexibility, and taste and follows the 80:20 principle. Eat mostly healthy stuff (80% of the time) and eat whatever you want for the rest. Enjoy!
Listening to your body’s own internal hunger and fullness cues is the best way to support athletic performance. Eat the foods your body is asking for, when you are hungry. Try to stop eating when you are full, and not stuffed. If you need help figuring this out, a Sports Dietitian in your area who works with Intuitive Eating can help.
FEED YOUR GAME.
Momentum Nutrition (Seattle)
Opal Food and Body Wisdom (Seattle)
Photo credit: Stacy Spensley via Creative Commons