February 22-28th is National Eating Disorders Awareness week (#NEDAwareness Week). The goal of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is "to put the spotlight on the seriousness of eating disorders and to improve public understanding of their causes, triggers and treatments. By increasing awareness and access to resources, we can encourage early detection and intervention, which can improve the likelihood of full recovery for millions."
Athletes are at higher risk of developing an eating disorder. Female athletes in aesthetic sports such as gymnastics, ballet, figure skating are at the highest risk for eating disorders, whereas there's also a high incidence among endurance sports due to the emphasis on low body weight for performance. It's important to note that eating disorders affect men and women of ALL ages-- it's not just your stereotypical young females that are at risk.
As an endurance athlete, I continuously battle the notion of "lighter is fitter and faster." I often read articles in the media proclaiming "eat these foods to lose weight, achieve your optimal race weight, and perform at your best." The message in itself is well-meaning, but for some the good intentions of following a healthier diet and losing a few pounds, whether for athletic performance or not, lead to much more than originally bargained for. For some it can lead to the development of disordered eating habits, which are different from but often a precursor to a full-blown eating disorder if left unchecked.
To quote the runner's world article, Running On Empty:
In the three years I've been blogging, I have never once mentioned my previous struggles with an eating disorder. Why now? I don't know. But I feel compelled to share because it is a professional and personal objective of mine to raise awareness, and to help those who are currently battling or have had an ED to understand that they are not alone, that the struggle is real, and there are resources to get help.
Here are a few basic eating disorder statistics that you should be aware of:
Little did I know that nutritionists had a name for this swirl of thinking: disordered eating. At the time, I'd never heard the term. Eating disorders I knew about, but I was hardly a skeletal anorexic, nor did I purge my meals. I was simply a dedicated runner with what I considered serious willpower.
Disordered eating involves less-severe yet still abnormal eating and exercise behaviors, including the elimination of food groups; regularly utilizing meal-replacement bars or drinks, skipping of meals, excessive weighing and/or calorie-counting, or compulsive exercising above and beyond what is necessary for called for. Disordered eating habits are different than "disciplined" healthy eating, as they are often accompanied by feelings of anxiety, guilt, frustration, worthlessness and for many, lead to social isolation from events that involve eating. Disordered eating habits carry their own set of risks, including anemia, loss of muscle strength and endurance, more frequent illness or injuries, increased recovery time after workouts, anxiety and more.
Having had an eating disorder, I am vigilant to the signs and symptoms of that "slippery slope" that I once fell down and am not naive enough to think it cannot happen again. Before I had no idea, but now I do.
As a Registered Dietitian, I have a much better understanding now that "food is fuel" and in order to perform my best, I need to nourish my body with BOTH quality foods and adequate calories. I understand now that consuming inadequate calories to match my activity level, whether intentional or not, can be just as detrimental to my health and well-being as is intentional deprivation and yoyo dieting. As an experienced athlete, I now realize that it is normal to have an appetite that fluctuates, that there will be days of over-eating and days of under-eating and its our habits over the long term that truly matter. And as a person, I consistently remind myself that my self-worth does not depend upon performance, or on the number on a scale, the fit or size of my clothes or whether or not I ate healthy that day. Before I had no idea, but now I do.
What Can You Do To Help ?
It's important for all people to realize that an eating disorder is not a fad, phase or even lifestyle choice. Eating disorders are complex illnesses with complex roots. They are serious and potentially life-threatening conditions that affect a person’s emotional and physical health and require professional treatment. Eating disorders often co-occur with other mood disorders, including depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. They affect all kinds of people and don’t discriminate by race, age, sex, age, and size. If after reading this you are wondering "What can I do to help?" then here are a few ideas:
The main goal of this post, while also sharing a small snippet of my personal story, is to raise awareness. So, please share!
Kristen Chang is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and endurance athlete residing in southwest Virginia alongside her husband and dog. Through this blog she aims to share favorite fueling recipes, general wellness and sport nutrition tips and stories from her athletic endeavors.
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