HOW DIET CULTURE HARMS ATHLETES, AND 4 WAYS TO FIGHT IT

Athletes often face higher levels of pressure and expectation for their bodies so they can compete at their best. Understand the reality of diet culture’s impact on athletes, and what they can do to protect themselves.


BY: MEGAN MEDRANO, RD, LD

It’s no surprise that our culture has an obsession with thinness. Even though it is often proclaimed in the name of health, there are deep social and patriarchal roots pointing back to our desire for leanness. Diet culture has convinced us that if we eat and look a certain way, we’ll be “healthy”, loved, accepted, and valued.

We all live in a diet-obsessed culture. Even for those who have become aware enough to try to remove themselves from it, the stark reality is that diet culture still remains prominent and requires a daily fight. 

What makes it even harder is when there is another subculture within the overall context of diet culture, one that further emphasizes these disordered eating habits and body preoccupation. Those of different races, genders, and socioeconomic statuses have different battles within their lived experiences. 

Athletes do as well.

Allow me to explain. Our general diet culture tells us, very simply, to diet. It promotes disordered eating habits for the sake of being thin. It throws sensible nutrition recommendations out the window, telling people to eat certain foods while restricting others. And it’s done all in the name of losing weight and achieving a physical ideal that most people cannot maintain.

Athletes have an extra layer. Not only do they have to fight the general diet culture to exist peacefully in their bodies, but they also have to deal with sport-specific pressures – adding an extra layer on top of the already daily fight.

As shared by the NCAA Mind, Body, and Sport, some of those include:

  • Sport body stereotypes and belief that losing weight will increase sport performance
  • Pressure (real or perceived) from coaches and others to lose weight
  • Observed eating and exercise behaviors of teammates and competitors
  • Revealing uniforms
  • Similarity between “good athlete” traits and symptoms of disordered eating
  • Presumption of health based on good performance

It is almost considered a moral obligation for athletes to engage in this “athlete diet culture”. Many athletes feel as if they are being a “bad athlete” for choosing not to engage in these normalized behaviors, which is why disordered eating habits become deeply rooted.

In particular, the emphasis on reducing body weight to improve sports performance can easily lead to the development of disordered eating habits. Our bodies are not designed to lose weight easily, so when our body is functioning normally and weight loss does not readily occur, many athletes feel forced to turn to extreme measures. 

As a result, disordered eating becomes the norm. In fact, studies have shown that around 62% of female athletes and 33% of male athletes report disordered eating habits. And that only includes the ones that are reported. 

Many eating disorder symptoms (including a preoccupation with food, excessive training, and dieting before a competition) are perceived as normal or desirable in the athletic sphere. Additionally, many personality traits and behaviors (including perfectionism, rigid and inflexible thinking) may be perceived as “normal” for athletes, but are actually highly disordered. If a behavior is considered disordered for the general population, it is also disordered for an athlete. Athletes are not immune to the dangerous effects of starvation.

In reality, this is all a problem. Athletes are being harmed.

The relationship between body image and athletics is also a complicated one. Not only do athletes face a general pressure to be thinner, but the athlete sub-culture adds an extra layer of pressure to fight through. 

Athletics naturally requires a person to be hyper-focused on their body as they stay acutely aware of every interaction and movement.  It may seem impossible to improve your body image in an athletic environment, but there are ways to do it. Here are a few reminders to help you get there.

1. Your weight does not always equate to athletic success. 

There are other factors that have a bigger impact! Being in a lean body does not guarantee performance improvements; your body is so much more complex than that. When you focus on taking care of yourself, your body will naturally fall into the weight it wants to be at. 

When you focus on taking care of yourself, and your body falls into its comfortable weight range, your performance is also likely to improve. The correlation between being at a certain body weight and performance improvements is more about how you take care of yourself, rather than weight alone.

2. Remove yourself from unhelpful conversations. 

If a teammate is commenting on someone else’s weight or body composition, remove yourself from the conversation. You are not obligated to engage. Fighting diet culture is hard. If you have the strength, say something. If choosing to sit quietly and ignore it is where you find your power, then do that. You do not have to engage in diet culture.

3. Recognize you are more than your body composition. 

As an athlete, focusing on what your body can do is important, but don’t forget to also focus on who you are. You are more than your body and athletic accomplishments. More often than not, your perception of what your body composition means holds you back more so than your actual body composition.

While it’s wonderful to have athletic goals, remember your identity is not found in your athletic ability. That is crucial.

4. Listen closely to what your body needs.

Eat what satisfies you, not what a diet rulebook tells you to eat. There will be some days (even rest days) when your body may be super hungry. If so, feed it. Throw out those performance plates that try to restrict your eating. Eat enough of a variety of foods, and don’t leave the table unsatisfied.

Adapted from the original post.

Megan Medrano, RD, LD is a registered dietitian and nutrition therapist in private practice at Run Whole Nutrition in Lexington, KY. In her practice, she helps people from all walks of life, including competitive athletes, cultivate a peaceful and joyful relationship with food through a weight-inclusive approach. Learn more at Run Whole Nutrition.

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