ATHLETE'S STRUGGLES: Eating Disorders...

and elite athletes

As strange as it may sound to someone, this is a real thing. Elite athletes, both male and female, sometimes struggle with body image. 

It has been quite a while that I wanted to write a post on the subject. Not many of you know, but I enrolled in a Diet & Nutrition course and while reading and learning about eating disorders, I really got the inner urge to share with the world that this thing is affecting also us, athletes, as we too struggle with gaining weight and food choices. This blog post comes just now, because I didn't want to write anything before being able to say I'm speaking as a Certified Diet & Nutrition Advisor, which I already am!

I was a little chubby after puberty hit me. Before that I could eat literally whatever and stay skinny. When my body started changing I had to shift mindset fairly quickly because I got "chubby" and soft for less than a year. So I started reading, even tho back at the time my resources were far less detailed than they are now. Slowly throughout the years I lost and gained weight, despite the fact that I was playing volleyball all year round. It was not a matter of physical activity but more of the food I was consuming. I was not sure what was best so I tried different things and experimented in order to see how my body felt. And when I say I tried many things I mean it very seriously - starting from the Zone principles of 40-30-30, to vegetarian, to plant-based vegan, to paleo and keto. It was always about food, staying healthy, not gaining fat (or more-so losing that fat I gained during puberty). I succeeded a couple of times to get lean, but my hormones got totally wacked after and it was not worth it at all. 

Later on I started to realize that the body image that society presses onto us is way too perfect. Being a female athlete, especially, you need to be super lean or "you don't even look like an athlete"...CRAP! This is pushed through not only by society but by coaches and teammates as well. For a young girl (boy) this can be extremely stressful to the point of developing an eating disorder. And I don't mean only Anorexia Nervosa here (that's the official name of the disorder given by the American Psychiatric Association), there are so many other types of abnormal eating habits that can affect mental and physical health. I will discuss some of them here since I know some elite athletes that have struggled or are struggling with eating disorders and by writing this blog post I wish to bring awareness to the problem and help at least one person who's suffering from a condition like this to recover and be healthy! 

P.S. If any of you would like to talk about it you can PM me at my Facebook page, or send me an email by clicking on the email icon at the bottom of this page! I'd be happy to help even only by listening! 

Anorexia Athletica

Almost anyone has heard about Anorexia Nervosa. But have heard about Anorexia Athletica? According to this is a condition that often starts very innocently: "Sport is very healthy", especially in the beginning it is a way to lose weight, but slowly it runs out of control and becomes compulsive. It is not fun anymore, but but something that MUST be done. 
In this condition the food intake is very low and the body doesn't get the appropriate nutrients to recover from the amount physical exercise. 

Symptoms include: 

  1. Training long and extremely frequently, sometimes several times a day.
  2. Paying special attention to body weight and body size. Attempting to burn as much as possible.
  3. No longer enjoying the sport activities.
  4. Making little to no contact with other athletes in the gym.
  5. Self-esteem rises as training longer and more intensive. 
  6. Feeling guilty and/or unhappy if you skip a workout. 
  7. Compensatory behavior such as "after the hot chocolate with whipped cream I can go running for an hour."
  8. Work, hobbies or social life begin to suffer. Falling behind with chores and seeing friends less and less.

These are just examples. When speaking of professional athletes there have been cases of anorexia nervosa, where they stop eating completely in order to stay skinny. It is one of the most dangerous eating disorders, with the highest death rate by heart arrhythmias. Just as these athletes lose arm and leg muscle, they also lose heart muscle to the point that it can no longer respond to stress and can be a cause of death.
Amenorrhea or the loss of menstrual cycle is one of the consequences of anorexia and the loss of weight and body fat. (source

Bulimia Nervosa

The next common eating disorder among elite athletes is bulimia nervosa. It basically means that a person is binge eating and then rushing to the toilet to purge the contents of their stomach so they don't get fat. It can be pretty scary if you involuntarily witness a scene like this. 
A bulimic person often has greyish teeth dew to the corrosion of constant vomiting, they suffer from acid reflux, difficulty swallowing, and chronic constipation (if purging includes laxative abuse). One of the most severe problems with bulimia nervosa is the electrolyte imbalance in the body and the damage on the trachea, salivary glands and internal organs, lacking nutrients. Amenorrhea is a consequence of bulimia nervosa for the same reasons as it is with anorexia. 

Bindge Eating

Binge eating is another well known condition and a lot of girls suffer from it especially around their menstruation, when having PMS or just because of nervousness. In this case the person eats huge amounts of food at a time without feeling satiety. This condition may lead to insomnia, greater risk for fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome, problems with fertility, complications related to weight gain and obesity, decreased self-esteem, degenerative arthritis is further complicated by imbalances in nutrition and hormones, development of gallbladder disease, avoidance of social situations, problems with relationships. (source

Orthorexia Nervosa

"Orthorexia nervosa is not currently recognized as a clinical diagnosis in the DSM-5, but many people struggle with symptoms associated with this term.

Those who have an “unhealthy obsession” with otherwise healthy eating may be suffering from “orthorexia nervosa,” a term which literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity. They become consumed with what and how much to eat, and how to deal with “slip-ups.”  An iron-clad will is needed to maintain this rigid eating style. Every day is a chance to eat right, be “good,” rise above others in dietary prowess, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise). Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of orthorexics’ diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.

Eventually food choices become so restrictive, in both variety and calories, that health suffers – an ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to healthy eating.  Eventually, the obsession with healthy eating can crowd out other activities and interests, impair relationships, and become physically dangerous." (source

Having said all of that, listed the conditions, the symptoms and the consequences I feel relieved and somewhat sad. 

I know girls (and guys in matter of fact) that have struggled or are still struggling with these conditions. It makes me sad to hear someone say "I'm afraid of the balance..I don't want to know my weight...". And damn sure it makes me FURIOUS when I hear comments from coaches and teammates like "Oh, you gained some weight, ha?" or "You are a couple of kilos more and this is disturbing your performance on the court."

FURIOUS, people, FU-RI-OUS! 

Yes, you, that are making these comments, need to understand that this could be very stressful and damaging to a person who has struggled with weight gain all their life. Do you want to be responsible for the consequences of your words or would you just turn around and pretend you had nothing to do with it? 

I'll tell you it was damaging to me, and luckily I only went through the phase of being super-duper strict about my food (classifies as an orthorexia) which then led me to reading and studying about food and nutrition, and wanting to help other people, other girls and guys just like me...and some that weren't so lucky and didn't get the support when they needed it the most. 

This is the first time I speak publicly about it and that is the reason I know I am in a better place now. I should thank my amazing parents, my dad particularly, for keeping my feet on the ground and telling me to my face "You are becoming obsessive with all that 'healthy stuff'!". 
I have peace of mind and I am still experimenting with what food stuff make me feel good in my skin. I love cooking, I am passionate about it and this blog is the fruit of my passion.
I am also passionate about injustice. In my opinion comments and behaviour like those I described above are not doing justice to anyone. So in conclusion if you are not a licensed psychiatrist and cannot handle the responsibility of your words, I strongly suggest you keep them for yourself! 

Thank you for your attention. Period. 

Gabi K.