In the community of female athletes, an epidemic known as the female athlete triad is gaining headlines. The presence of the triad — a condition characterized by energy deficiency, absent or irregular menstrual cycles and reduced bone density — can almost always be credited to the same culprit: disordered eating.
In the United States, an estimated 30 million people, or 10 percent of the general population, suffer from an eating disorder of some kind. Among athletes, studies attempting to measure this same statistic resulted in mixed conclusions, but it is speculated that disordered eating is much more pervasive. Why? While the true reason cannot be certain, there are many possibilities.
The main explanation is that in athletes, eating disorders can be much harder to diagnose. In order to identify the problem, an individual must first admit that there is one. Athletes who think that their unhealthy eating patterns are helping their performance are much more likely to be unwilling to admit that there is an issue, or they might be unknowing of its existence altogether if it is benefiting their performance.
The concept of improper nutrition helping performance seems twisted and illogical, but more often than not, athletes do see improved performance at first after a dangerous cycle of disordered eating emerges. The reason why runners, especially, see so much improvement after first losing weight is because they have less mass to carry while running, thereby allowing them to hit faster times. In turn, this leads them to develop the mindset that skinnier equates with faster.
As their weight drops, their times will follow, but only for so long. At a certain point, denying the body the calories it needs to sustain long miles can’t lead to anything but injury. Protein is needed for muscle repair, and if the body does not receive it, muscles may begin to deteriorate. Calcium is needed for healthy bones, and if the body does not receive it, osteoporosis and stress fractures become inevitable.
Breaking out of the cycle of disordered eating is both mentally and physically challenging. For runners in particular, once they have developed the mindset of skinnier equating with faster, putting on weight becomes a hindrance to their perceived ability to hit their best times; after putting on a couple pounds, they may no longer feel they have the ability to run their fastest.
With proper treatment, the right support system and, most importantly, a healthy mindset, recovery is attainable one step at a time. Treatment is centered around developing a more logical mindset when it comes to food. Known as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), this is the most commonly used and effective treatment for eating disorders.
For athletes — runners in particular — this form of therapy is especially helpful. CBT for athletes focuses on education about proper nutrition, weight management and other basic information about food and eating disorders. Unlike CBT for non-athletes who struggle with eating disorders, this form of CBT has an additional component.
CBT for athletes involves reminders that there are more important things in life than reading a shockingly low number when they step on the scale. One of those things is their athletics. Focusing on running, which may have originally aided in the culmination of their disorder, can become one of the biggest steps in their recovery; they don’t want their downfall as an athlete to be attributed to something they know they can gain control of.
Lauren Fleshman, former American Track and Field athlete, said it best in a letter she wrote to her past self. After struggling for years with balancing disordered eating and her running career, Fleshman finally came to the conclusion that her constant mental battles about food were hurting her more than they were helping her.
“If you starve your body, attempt to outsmart it, you will suffer,” she wrote. “You will get faster at first. And then you will get injured. And injured. And injured.”
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