If you think this subject is insignificant or over-emphasized, you are wrong. Even if you cannot personally relate, I guarantee that someone you know is battling against an eating disorder. It is hard to identify the disorder because the symptoms look different and are often hidden. Classification is equally as challenging because they occur on a spectrum and the manifestation of symptoms may change.
Research has attempted to provide numerical data on the prevalence of eating disorders. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, more than one-third of female athletes in a Division I NCAA sport display symptoms of anorexia. More than half are categorized as being at-risk for bulimia.
These cases don’t all become clinical, but they indicate suffering none-the-less. Male athletes, although displaying lower rates, have not escaped from the grip of eating disorders either.
Genetics and Culture
Why are they so prevalent in athletics? Like many things, eating disorders are a factor of both environment and genetics. The NCAA released an article citing heritability estimates of close to 80% for an eating disorder. Athletic culture creates a breeding ground for these issues.
For one, being “fit” is ideal for an athlete’s performance. Physical fitness is often mistaken for thinness. Not only that, but athletes face lots of judgment for their bodies. Many sports require skin-tight uniforms to enhance performance which happens to put the athlete’s body on display for all to see.
Fitting into a stereotypical figure can become an indicator of readiness for an athlete. On top of all this, many elite athletes have the same personality traits that are red-flags for eating-disorder development across any population.
Whether it be a comment from a coach, stress, or comparison causing the onset of disordered eating, faulty correlations are what keep the athlete trapped. Somewhere along the line, the inhibiting behavior was perceived as good. It’s possible that compliments or success reinforced the behavior.
Plenty of these athletes are educated about an appropriate diet, but a restrictive diet seems to be more productive. This is not the truth. Their identity may be solely wrapped up in a sport.
In my experience, I perceived my dieting to be performance-enhancing. Because sport meant so much to me, it was hard to let go of these thoughts and trust the experts. I was unwilling to risk performance decrements for the sake of better health. If only I knew the future consequences, I might have been able to see the truth of the matter much earlier.
It was a confusing time. I was happy with my environment. I was achieving more success than ever. My life was so restricted. Everything was scheduled around food. The days were spent trying to avoid eating.
The evenings were spent trying to eat as much as I could for as few calories as possible. I hated eating, especially over-eating. Simultaneously, it was everything I looked forward to.
I had just moved out to Manhattan, Kansas to begin the second half of my collegiate career. Like my first move to college, I had mixed feelings. I was confident about the decision to start training at Kansas State under one of the best coaches in my event.
I had butterflies thinking about my future. The post-collegiate athletes at the school had achieved amazing things, and I hoped to become one of them.
At the same time, I was very anxious. I was coming off of two PR’s in a row over the summer, but I sure didn’t feel like I had my life in order. The struggle with food was taking over. I was finally beginning to understand that the obsession was problematic.
At that point, I wasn’t willing to share these details with anybody. I didn’t feel the need to because I was back on track to achieve my dreams. The fall training season went wonderfully.
I had lost a lot of my speed and power because of the distance runs and weight-loss, but I was crushing it in the tempo-sessions. I embraced the fact that I could perform well in the practices that most people struggled through.
I began thinking of the 800m as my signature event in the heptathlon. I felt that as long as I could stay competitive in the other six events, the 800m would be the difference-maker between winning and losing. Although it makes no sense to put all your efforts into the one event unlike all the others, that’s where my heart was focused.
Thankfully my coach was a lot brighter than me, and the training sessions emphasized strength and speed. I did my best in these practices because I wanted to be fast like I was in high school again. My teammates pushed me in these speed events. I was lucky to be able to learn from much stronger and faster athletes. Endurance days were my time to shine.
Like I alluded to earlier, my days were very structured. I had my “day-food” packed. Eating the same thing every single day because I trusted those foods not to cause weight gain. I tried to eat as little as I could before practice because I wanted to save my allotted calories for the boring parts of the day. After practice, I’d sit in class and eat my first cup of oatmeal. In addition to my pre-practice apple, that was my breakfast.
Most days, I would try to squeeze my lifting session in between classes. During the next class, I’d have my second cup of oatmeal and usually a pack of carrots. Lunch. From there I might head to the training room or do homework somewhere.
Of course, this schedule changed from semester to semester. The idea was to find ways to stay on campus with my given food supply until around 6 pm.
At that point, I’d be starving, so I’d bike home to my well-deserved dinner. Excessive vegetables. I’d try to throw some lean meat in there only because I had been convinced that protein had at least some value. I didn’t want it though. On a “good” night, I’d cut myself off there by going to bed.
When you do this repetitively, your body starts having intense cravings. My key to avoiding junk food was to never buy any of it. I would make bowl after bowl of oatmeal or cream-of-wheat or cereal or whatever I had on tap. Those nights felt like complete failures, and I would spend hours beating myself up for going outside the boundaries.
I’d go to bed feeling miserable at the fact that I had no discipline. I imagined that I was gaining endless pounds on those nights. I hated myself. In my mind, the food led to fat which meant I was farther away from my dreams of being an Olympian. Waking up extra early the next morning, I’d go for a long run or a secret workout. I never did it because I didn’t trust my training.
I felt like I needed it just to get back on track so that my scheduled training could be useful. I’d even try to cut more food from my restricted diet. This thought pattern is an example of how powerfully illogical your mind can become.
I hated weekends because of the free-time (who says that?!?). Lack of structure was scary. I allowed myself a cheat afternoon which usually ended up going overboard. Since I gave myself permission to eat freely, all I wanted to do was eat. I enjoyed my teammates and took advantage of opportunities to socialize around food. I’d go for as long as I could on Saturday without eating to save up for whatever gathering was at hand. Just because it was a “free day” didn’t mean it was a day without guilt.
The winter season rolled around, and my body was beginning to feel that familiar fatigue. I couldn’t will myself to run fast enough and jump high enough. My body just wouldn’t do it. Thankfully, we had enough checks and balances in place to schedule a meeting before I hit the point of hopelessness.
After a discussion, where I very shallowly explained a non-disclosing summary of what was going on, my coach set me up with the team doctor and the sports psychologist. I was unhappily obedient. I didn’t want people in my business, but they ended up being exactly what I needed.
Blood tests showed low iron. Within weeks of supplementation, I was back on track. This doctor and sports psychologist were the first people I opened up to. My biggest fear was that someone would tell me that I couldn’t run until it was all fixed, but this never happened. In fact, they paved a road of support that began opening my eyes to the faulty thinking.
I credit the sports psychologist with helping me to identify emotions and to track the faulty thought patterns that led to my destructive behaviors. He gave me the tools to begin making changes.
Additionally, he helped me stay mentally prepared on the athletic field. The only problem was me. I wasn’t ready to let go of my belief that my weight determined my performance. Years later, when I was finally prepared, this skill set was essential.
When we began traveling, it became easier to manage my food schedule. The motivation of meets was enough to help me out-will starvation cravings. I only ate whatever I had packed for travel days. Once in a hotel room, there was no access to the kitchen cabinet.
We went to restaurants for dinner, and I wasn’t afraid to be picky about my order. In general, I probably ate a little bit more variety to avoid judgment. I did have a teammate that once told me I could save all my itinerary money by just eating dinner in the hotel garden. He was making a fun-loving joke, but I never appreciated those food-related comments.
Here’s the tricky part of the story. I had a fantastic year performance-wise. What I need all readers to recognize is that my eating patterns did NOT contribute to my successes that year in any way.
The year went so well because I had an incredible training plan. I had a coach that was able to elicit progression despite the curve-balls of my situation. I enjoyed my training partners, and I had a support group unlike anything from the previous years. While I struggled to love myself off the track, I had all the confidence in the world while on it.
When the post-season came along, I had gained back my high-school speed and maintained my endurance from the previous year’s mid-distance training. The NCAA meet started with the first round of the 400m hurdles. All season long I had been improving in that event, so we decided to try a double at the big meet. I made it through to the finals with another PR.
The next day, the heptathlon started, and I rounded out the first four (of seven) events in the lead. Day three of the meet was the true test. I had the last three events of the heptathlon with the 400m hurdle final squeezed in the middle.
Because of a rain delay, I ended up racing the 400m hurdles about 45 minutes before the heptathlon 800m. It was the race of my life. Amid pouring rain, I came around the second bend in the lead. I slowly faded to third place, but that was significantly higher than I would have expected.
I remember being elated and seeing my coach in the stands. I went over to him smiling, and he gave me a nod and said: “get ready for the 800m”. Oh, right. Before I knew it, I was back on track. I was having a great time out there. It took a sustained effort to finish the 800m in the first place and secure my first national championship in the heptathlon.
I got to enjoy the moment with my K-state team, my dad, and my high school coach. That’s the best feeling I’ve ever had after a track meet. In reality, I won that event because I was a great athlete who worked hard and had an amazing support team. In my head though, I won that event because I was light and fit.
The Real Battle
There was an aggressive battle happening in my head. I was learning more and more about my detrimental eating patterns. My coaches and the post-collegiate athletes were working hard to help teach me about proper fueling. Simultaneously, I was associating my greatest success with my starvation patterns. I thought it was horrible to binge, but those high-calorie meals may have been what gave me enough fuel to avoid crumbling.
My goals moving forward became to eat enough protein and calories throughout the day that I wasn’t obsessed with food and would never feel the urge to binge. The caveat was that it could only be an increase in food if I weren’t gaining any weight. It’s very difficult to change your behaviors when you are driven by fear. My fear of weight gain was exponentially greater than my desire to change.
Please continue to Part 7 to hear about when the disordered eating caught up with me. Success was temporary, but it created a powerful faulty correlation.
Eating disorders are more than they appear. A bystander may see some of the apparent symptoms, but in many cases, they have no idea. The disorder grows in secret. It may start small with simple calorie-counting or a controlled diet, but it grows into a monster. It feels as though your mind is being controlled by it. Every stray thought is around food or food-avoidance. Your days and decisions are filtered through the lens of the disorder.
In my experience, I struggled with the person I was becoming. My values shifted. I couldn’t find joy in the things I used to love. I couldn’t even find my personality. People you are close to may sense it, but you are alone in it until you open up.
Even if it seems like the eating disorder is helping you get what you want (athletic success), it’s a flat-out lie. You are achieving because you are talented. The eating disorder is only getting in your way of enjoying the process. I hate to break it to you (no I don’t), but if you keep up these patterns, any success you happen to achieve will be short-lived. See you in Part 7.