NOVA Sports Nutrition Disordered Eating

Understanding Disordered Eating in Athletes

Eating disorders in sports is a complex issue that warrants attention and support. Let’s explore what disordered eating entails in the athletic context and discuss actionable steps and resources to help you navigate this challenge effectively.

Understanding Disordered Eating in Athletes

Disordered eating refers to a range of behaviors and attitudes towards food that deviate from healthy eating patterns. In many sports, athletes may experience unique pressures that contribute to the development of disordered eating habits. Athletes such as bodybuilders, gymnasts and ballerinas alike for example, can experience aesthetic pressures. These pressures present themselves as body dysmorphia, social pressures, exercise addictions and more. 

Recognizing the signs

It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between behaviors rooted in improving health and athletic performance and behaviors that begin to cross into rigid or disordered behaviors that can cause physical or emotional harm. Below are some common signs of disordered eating to be aware of:

  • Calorie Tracking and Food Restriction
    • Constant monitoring of food intake and avoidance of specific food groups, especially if it leads to significant energy or nutrient restriction or avoidance of social situations due to not having control over the ingredients or amount of food, can often be one of the first signs of an eating disorder.
  • Obsession with Weight or Body Composition
    • In many collegiate and professional sport environments, measuring weight or body composition can be a common way to track progress and use data to inform nutrition or training goals. However, fixation on achieving a certain weight or body shape at the expense of health becomes a concern and can ultimately lead to decreased athletic performance.
  • Excessive Exercise
    • Athletes will often have demanding training programs as part of their sport, but if an athlete is engaging in compulsive exercise to offset food intake or burn calories or is engaging in exercise beyond what is prescribed by coaches and trainers, the risk for a disorder (as well as injury or illness) significantly increase.
  • Emotional Responses to Eating
    • Feelings of guilt or shame associated with food consumption are important to pay attention to and are not feelings associated with having a healthy relationship with food and body image.

Overcoming Disordered Eating: Practical Tips and Resources

If any of the above signs resonate with you, there are many resources and tools that can help you to begin the journey towards a positive relationship with food and body image and true focus on health and performance:

  • Professional Support
    • Seek guidance from qualified healthcare professionals, including registered dietitians and therapists specializing in eating disorders. We offer personalized assistance and nutrition interventions tailored to individual needs and are always happy to provide referrals to local or telehealth therapists.
  • Embrace Balanced Nutrition
    • When selecting foods, it’s important to think about what will fuel you well, what will provide good nutrition, and also what will taste good to you! The focus isn’t just on macronutrients, but also making food enjoyable and finding meals and snacks that are well balanced in all areas.
  • Prioritize Performance and Health
    • Redirect your attention from external appearance to performance and holistic well-being. Emphasize the importance of fueling your body adequately to support athletic endeavors and promote longevity in the sport.
  • Develop Coping Mechanisms
    • Explore healthy coping strategies to manage stress, emotions, and pressures associated with athletic pursuits. Practices such as mindfulness, journaling, and seeking social support can aid in building resilience.
  • Build a Support Network
    • Surround yourself with a supportive community of teammates, coaches, and peers who prioritize health and well-being. Foster open communication and create a safe space for discussing challenges and seeking assistance.
  • Educate Yourself
    • Equip yourself with knowledge about nutrition and its role in optimizing athletic performance. Understanding nutritional principles can dispel myths and misconceptions, empowering you to make informed choices about fueling your body effectively. Be mindful of who you follow on social media, and if you need recommendations for good follows you can always ask us!

Disordered eating poses significant challenges for athletes, but with awareness, support, and actionable strategies, it can be addressed effectively. By prioritizing health, seeking professional guidance, and fostering a supportive environment, athletes can overcome disordered eating and cultivate a positive relationship with food and their bodies. Remember, your worth as an athlete transcends physical appearance and is rooted in your dedication, resilience, and passion for your sport.

What Can You Do If You Suspect That You or A Loved One May Be Experiencing Disordered Eating?

The most important thing to do is reach out for help or additional resources as soon as possible. Both disordered eating and eating disorders have higher rates of recovery when these issues are addressed early. It’s important to find a trusted professional or team of professionals to help guide you or your loved one. Health professionals that can help include registered dietitians, counselors or therapists, psychiatrists, primary care doctors, and social workers. Please note that it’s important to seek out professionals that have experience working in the field of eating disorders or disordered eating in particular. Not all dietitians will be able to help with these issues, just like not all doctors are specialized in cardiology or orthopedics.

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