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Managing your eating disorder recovery as an athlete

Managing your eating disorder recovery as an athlete

Written by Dr. Alyssa Hertz

Close your eyes and picture an athlete. What comes to mind? If you pictured a person with a nearly perfect physique, you are not alone. Keeping that image in your mind, how do you think those athletes achieved their “athletic figure?” If you said through rigorous training, exercise, and a thoughtful eating, you are right … kind of. Studies have shown that 13.5% of athletes overall and up to 45% of female athletes, and 19% of male athletes, struggle with an eating disorder. However, detecting eating disorders or disordered eating in athletes can be challenging because symptoms can be easily masked and/or normalized by teammates and coaches. Recently, I have been helping my clients to navigate a lot of challenges around weight, body image, and food consumption while maintaining their status as an athlete.

There can be a lot of conversation around food, body size, weight, and exercise in the life of an athlete. It makes sense, then, that athletes may put more pressure on themselves to fulfill a training schedule, body size, or routine that might not work for them or even actually help their performance. Here are a few of the common myths I hear in treatment that are prevalent in the competitive sport space:

  1. A lower weight will enhance performance
    For many athletes, a causal correlation is made between their athletic success and low body weight. In some sports, like gymnastics, dance, wrestling, to name a few, this is more prevalent than others. That said, this is a shared common belief but this isn’t always the case. No matter your size, if your body has less fuel and energy resources to pull from, performance will ultimately suffer. Extra weight with a nourished body will allow you your peak performance, not a small body without nutrients it needs to compete.
  2. There are good and bad foods
    “Food shaming” is a common phenomenon in our society, not just in the athletic space. Generally,ats, carbohydrates, sugars, and processed foods are placed into the “bad” category and therefore people are often told that they should be avoided. In reality, a diet that includes carbohydrates, fats , proteins, and all different types of foods will help to meet your body’s energy needs. Let’s say goodbye to dietary restrictions and food rules. Enjoy the food you love while playing the sport you love!
  3. Success in sports is related to hours of training
    Athletes receive high praise from their teammates, coaches, family, and friends when they show high levels of commitment and dedication to their sport. Maybe you’ve even had some major successes or broken your own record from putting in extra time. This can encourage an unhealthy relationship to training. Contrary to popular opinion, more is not always better. Overtraining, which is characterized by prolonged periods of intense training without adequate rest time, puts stress on the body that can have counterproductive results such as decrease in performance, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Overtraining can be prevented through rest days, varying types and intensity of workouts, proper sleep, and staying hydrated. Mental and physical rest are vital for athletes (and all people).
  4. My coaches know what’s best for me when it comes to my nutrition
    Athletes develop close relationships with their coaches and often they become role models and mentors. Coaches are experts at their sport and have a lot of valuable information to share with their athletes, this is true. When it comes to nutrition education and knowledge, however, coaches may give recommendations that will influence athletes weight and diet that can be harmful to their physical and mental health. Most coaches are well-intentioned and want to provide the utmost support to their athletes, however, even they can fall prey to new diet trends, supplement use, and weight-related beliefs. Each athlete’s body is unique and any nutritional guidance should be tailored to that person. Eating disorder specialists and dieticians are an excellent resource to address these concerns.

If you’re wondering how to tell the difference between healthy forms of eating and exercise, here are a few tell-tale signs that your relationship with food/movement is not the healthiest:

  • Maladaptive eating interferes with a healthy and well-balanced diet. This can look like needing to abide by food rules, food restrictions, binging and purging, or other forms of disordered eating habits.
  • Lack of flexibility and strict goals that must be met in regards to exercise. This might look like exercising while hurt, needing to only do high-impact, high-intensity exercises, needing to burn certain amounts of calories, etc.
    If you simply feel like something isn’t right, your instincts are probably right!

Okay, so what can you do?:

  • Seek out help from a trained eating disorder specialist. Eating disorders can wreak havoc on an individual’s physical and mental well-being and in some cases symptoms can be irreversible. A trained professional can help you address and work through body image, weight, and food-related fears that are hindering physical and mental performance. Reaching out and asking for help is not a sign of weakness. We all need help at times. Becoming fully recovered is possible and can lead to greater athletic performance!
  • Take care of ALL of you, not just a part of you. Being an athlete can become such a prominent part of a person’s identity that it can come at the cost of other important aspects of life (e.g., student, friend, child, etc). You are not JUST an athlete! Try to focus on all the other areas that make you a unique individual. Engage in self-care activities, spend time with friends and family, create non-athletic goals for yourself, and engage in or reconnect with old and/or new hobbies. Taking care of ALL of you means prioritizing both your physical and mental well-being.
  • Find a support group. Meeting people who have gone through similar experiences can be helpful and validating. Organizations like the National Eating Disorder Association and National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders have resources available to help you find a support group that best fits your needs.

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses, but they are also curable with the support of evidence based treatment. Having an eating disorder or struggling with disordered eating doesn’t have to be the death of your athletic career, in most cases. Instead, you may find that you are an even stronger, faster, and happier athlete when you no longer hate your body and penalize yourself through restriction, binging, purging, and other harmful eating behaviors.  That said, recovery is a tough journey and you don’t have to do it alone. There is no shame in asking for help, and we CAN help you live the life you imagined – in all aspects and roles of your life.

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