A destructive myth runs rampant and widely unchallenged among athletic communities. Its underlying assumptions, unspoken yet pervasive, endanger the mental, physical, social, and emotional health of our athletes. The misconception is this: more slender physique equals more competitive performance. Nothing could be further from the truth.
When athletes fixate on shrinking their bodies, the risk of food restriction and over-exercise intensifies. These behaviors, though common and normalized, inhibit optimal training and performance in all sports. They break down the body, undermining strength, endurance, and recovery. They damage the mind, leading to distraction, isolation, and rigidity.
As clinicians, it’s important to understand that athletes are a high-risk group for developing eating disorders. We must communicate with our athletes, emphasizing that their bodies are on their team and that enhancing their performance requires adequate nourishment and rest. We must ensure that our clients and communities recognize that successful athletes (and athletes with eating disorders) come in all shapes and sizes.
How can you distinguish between a healthy-minded athlete and an athlete with disordered eating or an eating disorder? Here are some key components to keep in mind:
- An eating disorder takes positive qualities within an athlete and twists them into qualities that hinder health, performance, and wellbeing – transforming dedication and grit into obsession and isolation, for instance.
- Athletes with a disorderd mentality often construct their personal identity and worth wholly around their sport.
- The idea of resting, eating flexibly and abundantly, or taking a break from rigid training schedules can feel devastating and life-altering for an athlete experiencing an eating disorder.
Another resource to add to your toolbox comes from The British Journal of Sports Medicine, who published a Relative Energy Deficiency In Sport (RED-S) assessment using a traffic light model to categorizes athletes into green, yellow, or red zones. This can aid healthcare professionals in screening and properly managing the care of their athletes when it comes to eating behaviors and sports participation.
Remind athletes who are struggling that it is absolutely possible to recover and return to their sport with a healthy body and mind. All athletes deserve healthy relationships with body, food, and sport.
Interested in learning more strategies to help an athlete move from the red zone to the green one? Lauren Anton’s webinar, Reclaiming Victory: Guiding an Athlete from an Eating Disorder to a New Relationship with Their Sport and Body, further explores this topic and discusses best practices for working with athletes, promoting healthful and mindful recovery, and returning athletes to their sport in a nourished and empowered way. Find Lauren’s webinar in our members-only library!