BY NANCY CLARK | PHOTO BY LISA WORTHY
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An estimated 30 percent to 60 percent of female athletes struggle with food, as do 10 percent to 30 percent of male athletes. Many such athletes believe they’re not “sick enough” to seek treatment. Others are too ashamed to seek help. Some believe getting treatment will hinder them from reaching their athletic goals. They fear:
1) they will gain weight, and any added weight will impair their performance.
2) they will not be able to participate in training or competition during treatment, hence losing fitness and status with the team; and
3) they might displease their coaches and teammates.
But the questions they really need to ponder are:
What do you think your future will look like with the eating disorder?
Are you satisfied with your current quality of life?
At October’s conference of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, sports nutritionist Page Love of Atlanta and psychologist Ron Thompson of Bloomington, Ind., addressed the topic of athletes with eating disorders. They offered insights from their years of professional experience, which I’m sharing here in the hope that their wisdom helps not only rowers who struggle with food, weight, and body-image issues but also their teammates, friends, family members, and loved ones.
• When dieting goes awry and eating disorders (ED) take hold, relationships and quality of life suffer—to say nothing of athletic longevity. Rowers with EDs often believe they have more reasons to keep the eating disorder than to give it up. Eating disorders serve a purpose. They can distract a rower from feeling difficult emotions; offer a source of power and control; give a sense of security; provide an excuse for anything and everything; sustain an identity; offer a way to be angry, self-abusive, special, rebellious, and competitive inside and outside of sport.
• Because many rowers and other athletes with EDs deny the seriousness of this mental-health threat, Thompson has asked his clients, “Do you realize that people with your disorder sometimes die?” Indeed, athletes can—and have—died from eating disorders, often via suicide. From the inside, life can feel very grim, despite a rower’s appearing happy, bubbly, and “just fine” on the outside.
• Food should be one of life’s pleasures as well as an enjoyable source of energizing fuel that enhances performance. If you stop eating at mealtimes just because you think you should or because your allotted portion of food is gone but you’re still hungry, ask yourself these questions:
What are the food rules and nutrition beliefs that restrict your food intake?
For example, do you forbid yourself to eat refined sugar, snacks, birthday cake, white flour?
What portion of your time do you spend thinking about food and weight?
Thinking about food includes shopping for food, preparing food for yourself and others, reading cookbooks or other food- and diet-related publications, binge-eating, purging, and thinking about how much you ate at your last meal. If you spend way too much time thinking about food, you likely have a problematic relationship with food and are living in a state of hunger. That’s no fun and also limits your ability to recover, heal, and perform optimally. “Normal eaters” think about food as they begin to get hungry at appropriate times—before meals and snacks.
Do you enjoy eating socially with friends and teammates?
Or do you avoid such situations?
Are your food allergies and intolerances real?
Or are they convenient excuses to avoid certain foods?
Ladies, do you currently have regular menstrual periods?
Amenorrhea—loss of menses—can be a sign of under-eating, to the point of disrupting normal body functions.
Gentlemen, do you no longer have morning erections?
Another sign of under-eating, to the point of disrupting normal body functions.
Does your family have a history of eating issues, dieting practices, and/or mental-health problems?
If yes, how have those issues influenced your food habits?
• Chronically underfed bodies can end up “hibernating,” which slows metabolic processes. Symptoms of inadequate fueling include fatigue, lack of energy, dehydration, anemia, frequent injuries, amenorrhea, stress fractures, and “weird” eating habits. These are all reasons to seek help from a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition. The referral network at eatright.org can help you find one near you.
• Most of my clients tell me “I know what I should eat; I just don’t do it.” Given today’s confusing food environment, any rower with nutrition questions and weight concerns would be wise to meet with a sports nutritionist to learn how to overcome barriers that limit optimal fueling. Don’t let shame or embarrassment stop you. Eating right is not as simple as it used to be.
• All food can fit into a balanced sports diet, even fatty foods. Rowers should consume at least half their calories from carbohydrate (preferably nutrient-rich) and at least 20 percent of calories from fat (preferably health-promoting). Fat consumption less than that increases the risk of inadequate energy.
• If you live in Food Jail and consume a very repetitive but “safe” diet, a sports dietitian can help you expand your food options so you can consume a wider variety of nutrients. If you want to try to do this on your own, begin by making a list of your fear foods (foods you’re afraid to eat because they lack nutrient density or because you deem them “fattening”). Challenge yourself to include at least one food each day in your meals or snacks, beginning with the easiest and ending with the hardest. In time, you’ll be able to enjoy social eating with your teammates.
• If other rowers look forward to a special holiday gathering such as New Year’s brunch but you don’t because the foods will be “way too fattening” or you’re afraid you’ll eat way too much, that’s a sign. Other rowers can eat holiday treats. Why can’t you? Your body is no different from anyone else’s, and it will not “get fat on you.” The problem isn’t the food or your body but more likely your self-imposed food rules.
• Few rowers will ever achieve a perfect body. Please don’t measure your self-worth by your body weight or size. You are more than just a person who rows. You are a valuable human, like the rest of us, and good enough the way you are.