WHEN HEALTHY EATING GOES TOO FAR: THE LINK BETWEEN ORTHOREXIA AND ATHLETES

While athletes often pay close attention to nutrition to fuel their bodies for performance, it can quickly turn into an unhealthy obsession. Here’s what you need to know about orthorexia in athletes.


BY: MEGAN MEDRANO, RD, LD

There’s a hidden trend in athletics, one where athletes care so deeply about nutrition that it is no longer about how their body performs for their sport. One in which they hide eating disorder behaviors under the guise of being “healthier” or “strong, not skinny”. 

This trend is called orthorexia, which in the most simplest terms is defined as an obsession with the quality of their healthy eating. For a large portion of athletes, their competitive drive can motivate thoughts and behaviors that cross the line into orthorexia when the following factors come into play:

  1. We have a very limited understanding of what adequate nutrition actually looks like.
  2. They get their health advice from other health-obsessed people who aren’t health professionals, and may have their own disordered eating tendencies and are spreading misinformation.
  3. We mistakenly assume that pursuing more health leads to better health, when it can actually do the opposite.

So what does the pursuit of health actually look like?

Health is having a flexible relationship with food. It’s understanding, from a pure evidence-based nutrition perspective, that food is not the end all be all of health. 

The science of nutrition is much more complex than the reductionist approach that many ‘gurus’ make it out to be. Anyone that perpetuates those myths has a poor understanding of the human body and how it’s impacted by the broader environment. 

And while eating nutrient-dense food does play a role in physical fitness, there is a line that many athletes easily cross that goes beyond obtaining the benefits of nutrition, and into an obsession where the risks outweigh the benefits. Here’s how to know.

1. RULES DOMINATE.

An athlete with orthorexia may feel that what he/she eats is directly tied to performance and has strong food rules. Eating decisions are extremely rigid and are based solely on sports nutrition principles with no regard to body cues. Athletes in this stage are highly disconnected from their bodies, and food is divided into “good” and “bad” categories.

2. OBSESSED WITH FOOD.

Eating the “bad” foods causes anxiety, worry, and feelings of inadequacy as an athlete and a person. Food and body may dictate worthiness, and there is an increased interest or preoccupation with what food they are eating. This is typically the stage where athletes start to document on social media showing only rigidly “healthy” meals.  They may take an increased interest in studying nutrition that was never present before becoming an athlete.

3. SHAME TAKES HOLD.

Certain types of food will not only become off-limits, but shameful to even touch. For example, there may not be room for cookies made with butter, flour, and sugar. “Desserts” can only be made from whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fruit. 

If the normal dessert is eaten, it can only be eaten as a reward after a race or a long run. Feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and shame may arise when they deviate from their eating plan. How they eat becomes directly tied to how they feel about themselves as an athlete and a person, with common thoughts and comments such as, “I’m a bad athlete if I eat a dessert”. Eventually, food shaming and judgment become the norm.

So what is a healthier way for athletes to approach food?

1. THEY STAY FLEXIBLE.

When an athlete has a flexible, intuitive, and thoughtful approach toward nutrition, they view it as an ally. They use principles of sports nutrition to guide their eating decisions, while also cultivating interoceptive awareness and attunement to determine the most appropriate choice at that moment. 

For example, an athlete will understand the need for carbohydrates to fuel their performance. They understand that different sources of carbohydrates are appropriate at different times and that their energy and nutrient needs change on a daily basis.  Sometimes, juice may be the most appropriate choice whereas other times, complex carbs are more appropriate. Neither a bite of candy nor a bite of whole-grain toast is superior. They both serve individual, unique purposes in an athlete’s carbohydrate intake and availability.

2. FOOD MORALITY DOES NOT EXIST.

They can enjoy a slice of dessert, calmly, knowing that it will not make or break their performance. They will also recognize that there is no need to ‘reward’ themselves after a competition, because food is morally neutral. They recognize that eating different types of foods won’t make them a “good” or “bad” athlete.

3. THEY LISTEN TO THEIR BODIES.

Listening to one’s body is especially powerful as an athlete. Sports nutrition principles are valuable, but not if they replace what their body is asking for. If an athlete is constantly feeling hungry, sluggish, and out of energy, that’s probably a sign that they need more carbs. Arbitrary calorie or carbohydrate goals don’t matter when a body indicates it needs more carbs.

Remember that sports nutrition principles serve as a guidebook, not a rulebook. It’s meant to fuel performance, and should never take away from normal life.

Adapted from the original post.
HEADER IMAGE: JACOB LUND

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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