Normalizing eating disorders in athletics
With the Winter Olympics being broadcast across the world, it is not uncommon to see what most people aspire to look like for their New Year’s resolutions: lean and lithe figure skaters completing near-impossible stunts, as well as bulky and muscular hockey players shoving each other into glass barriers in order to get a good shot. However, what is often overlooked is the diet and exercise regimes these athletes endure in order to stay in shape – and in most cases, these methods are far from healthy.
It is not uncommon to see college students develop eating habits that could eventually lead to full-blown eating disorders once away at school. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, it is estimated that about 20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S. alone will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, and they most often emerge during adolescence. However, student athletes more at risk for developing these types of disorders due to a variety of factors. The Sport Science Institute’s handbook, Mind, Body, and Sport: Understanding and Supporting Student Athlete Mental Wellness gives a more detailed description of these factors. Some of these factors include a prevalence in more “lean” sports where a thinner body or low body weight is believed to help performance, and pressure from coaches and teammates to lose weight and body fat.
To gain a more holistic perspective on this issue from a medical point of view, I had the opportunity to speak with Carolyn Chaffee, a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietician and the current CEO of the Upstate New York Eating Disorder Services. She has also opened the Sol Stone Center (a partial hospitalization program) and intensive outpatient programs in Syracuse, Ithaca and Binghamton, and has worked with the Cornell Healthy Eating Program, a program designed to help optimize the health and performance of Cornell students through good nutrition knowledge and practice.
“Over the many years that I have worked with high school and college athletes, I was shocked to discover how misinformed they were about how they should properly fuel their bodies,” Chaffee states. “For instance, when I worked with the [2004 Olympic] crew team, I found that about half of the athletes on the team were consuming less calories than what they truly needed. Because of this lack of information being shared, the eating habits of these athletes, or any athlete in general, could potentially develop into full-blown eating disorders.”
Later in our interview, Chaffee mentioned that during a period of time in which she worked closely with a collegiate women’s basketball team, she discovered that out of all the team members, about a third of them were found to have some sort of eating disorder. Hearing this statistic in particular shocked me because I was surprised to learn how all kinds of athletes could be affected by eating disorders at some point in their lives. I have seen stereotypical images of how these deadly diseases are represented in the media – emaciated white women. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that these disorders are gaining awareness through popular culture is an important step towards properly addressing this issue. But from my experience of seeing how the media portrays it, they are only focusing on a small demographic within an otherwise immense population, which can cause more harm than good in the long run.
To gain a perspective on what it is like first-hand to be an athlete who also suffers with an eating disorder, I spoke to a close high school friend of mine, Sarah Alleyne, who is currently a biology/pre-medicine major at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. She has participated in cheerleading since elementary school and is a member of the CUA cheerleading team. She is also in recovery for anorexia, which she was diagnosed with in the Fall of 2016.
“I started to diet and cut back on my calorie intake beginning in the fifth grade,” Alleyne states. “The reasons why I did this were unrelated to cheerleading at that time, but the mentality of doing this for cheerleading started in high school so that I could been seen as ‘equal’ to my teammates.”
Numerous studies have demonstrated how eating disorders can have devastating effects on the body, and further studies have shown that student athletes are even more at risk. For instance, according to the NCAA, restricting carbohydrates can lead to glycogen depletion, forcing the body to compensate by converting protein into a less efficient form of energy and increasing the risk of muscle injury and weakness. Intense dieting can negatively affect VO2 max and running speed for some student-athletes. And because of inadequate nutrition, student-athletes with eating disorders tend to be malnourished, dehydrated, depressed, anxious and obsessed with diet and weight. These problems decrease concentration and the capacity to manage emotions and cause hormonal disruptions that lead to compromised bone density and increased risk of bone injuries, including stress fractures.
“I definitely feel that my eating disorder affected not only how I did in cheerleading, but in other aspects of my life,” Alleyne says. “I was a backspot [person who helps steady or balance a stunt and catches the person being lifted into the air to avoid injury] and a base [person who holds the flyer, or the person being lifted in the air, during a stunt] on the [high school] team, and because of my disorder, I was so weak that I could barely lift or do any stunts. It also had an extremely negative impact on my grades and my self-esteem.”
If an eating disorder could have such a detrimental impact on Alleyne’s life, as well as the life of many other student athletes, it is surprising to see how this issue has barely been talked about, if at all. In addition to asking both people I interviewed to share their personal experiences, I also asked them what they believe could be done to raise awareness.
“Although it’s difficult for any one institution to prevent eating disorders, schools can raise awareness and address eating disorders by encouraging students and faculty to go to a local NEDA Walk for eating disorder awareness, as well as including an outreach program,” says Alleyne.
Chaffee offered a similar approach to how this ongoing problem could be addressed.
“The younger you start teaching someone how to fuel the body, it will help students understand that they need to eat to be strong,” says Chaffee. “Coaches can also play a huge role in this as well, because how they interact with and train their team will steer them into either a healthy, beneficial direction, or a dangerous one.”
Although it is unlikely that this epidemic will completely disappear, educating athletes, coaches, and the general population on this issue is one step closer towards this goal. The media can also play a significant role in this by giving more representation to people with eating disorders who may not fit the stereotype; the 2017 Netflix film To The Bone is a well-known example of this, because it shows people of all body sizes, races and genders as characters who have eating disorders. While these suggestions may not seem like much, it is at least a start.
Hannah Fitzpatrick is a first-year exploratory major. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating behavior, call the NEDA hotline at (800) 931-2237 or text NEDA to 741741.