Oct. 30, 2022

Why Athletes Struggle to Maintain a Healthy Relationship with Food

Why Athletes Struggle to Maintain a Healthy Relationship with Food

In Ep 11. Exploring Your Relationship with Food, I talk about the importance for athletes to manage their nutrition to fuel their performance.

High-performing athletes must have a healthy relationship with food as it directly impacts their physical and mental health. To perform at their optimal level, athletes have to hold their health to a higher standard than the average person. This pressure can negatively impact an athlete's relationship with food and in extreme circumstances can lead to eating disorders. Sports nutrition is much more than proteins and electrolytes. There are external factors which make it much more daunting for athletes.

Magnolia Creek is an eating disorder treatment clinic that published an article on this topic. They mentioned that eating disorders affect all populations, but athletes are uniquely susceptible due to performance anxiety and pressures, high levels of competition and sports that are more weight-sensitive. In this blog post, I will explain why these factors contribute to the development of disordered eating habits to bring attention to the harsh realities faced by countless athletes around the world:

1. Weight Generalizations

When athletes weigh more than what's considered the "optimal" weight, they're at risk of performing less effectively. This is common in sports such as diving where being overweight has adverse effects on their performance. To ensure divers are at peak performance, many are constantly monitoring their caloric intake which can build anxiety around food consumption. A prime example of this is from a Canadian Olympic Diver who admitted in a Sportsnet interview that his disordered eating had developed throughout his career.

"Imbeau-Dulac began to believe that to earn his spot on Canada’s Olympic team, and to be able to compete among the world’s best, he’d have to not only improve his technique but the image he portrayed to the judges — from the moment he climbed onto the board. So he virtually stopped eating. And the best way to hide what he’d later realize was an eating disorder was to eat in front of people and then throw up".

Unfortunately, Imbeau-Dulac's story is only one of countless others. Therefore, it is clear that weight generalizations can develop disordered eating behaviour.

2. Weight Benchmarks 

A second factor contributing to an athlete's struggle in developing a healthy relationship with food are weight benchmarks. Sports such as wrestling which has a weight class component place athletes at risk of not being eligible to compete if they weigh above the set upper limit. 

In a study on disordered eating in high school wrestlers, "the study found that 94% of wrestlers feel High School wrestling coaches need more support in educating themselves and their athletes about eating disorders. When asked if they had any personal experience dealing with disordered eating behaviors and/or eating disorders, 57% of female athletes and 33% of male athletes responded that they have. "

Again, yet another evident side of the negative effects that weight factors have in developing a negative relationship with food leading to mental and physical health issues. 

3. Physical Appearance

The final contributing factor is the hyper-focus on physical appearance. Athletes who compete in aesthetically judged sports such as gymnastics tend to receive tremendous attention to their body composition and weight.

In fact, the National Library of Medicine published a study that revealed some outstanding findings on disordered eating in gymnasts. 

"Many gymnasts, in their quest for the ideal body weight or shape, often follow low-calorie diets and other unhealthy weight-control practices. As a result, many female adolescent gymnasts do not meet the nutritional requirements for energy, macronutrients and micronutrients, and they may be at risk of low energy availability and nutritional deficiencies. Moreover, the use of unhealthy weight control practices puts female gymnasts at a high risk of developing eating disorders (ED) and disordered eating (DE)."

Evidently, by reinforcing body aesthetic stereotypes in sports such as gymnastics, instead of promoting proper sports nutrition habits, an unhealthy environment is created for athletes.

Overall, it is abundantly clear that any of the aforementioned factors can ultimately lead to increased performance anxiety and pressure, and thus negatively influence an athlete's relationship with food.

If you feel like you need more insight on how you can further explore your relationship with food, check out Ep 11. Exploring Your Relationship with Food where I help you figure out how you eat, why you eat, and the best way for you to fuel your body to perform at the optimal level.