A response to “A troubling number of Canadian Olympians are bingeing, purging and starving themselves. Inside the eating-disorder problem in elite amateur sports” by Grant Robertson and Rachel Brady, Dec 2021, Globe and Mail.
Response by Katie Jessop, RD, Sport and Performance Dietitian
When I saw this article https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-canadian-olympians-athletes-eating-disorder-problem-amateur-sports/ , even before I had read it, I felt a tightness in my belly and the clenching of my teeth that told me I was ready for a fight. Some would even describe this feeling as passion. The article described what I already knew; that disordered eating was endemic among athletes, and as I read on, I found my jaw relaxing as I agreed with the experts interviewed. But the passion remained. Because I work with athletes as a sport and performance dietitian. And the more I work with athletes, the more I work with disordered eating and eating disorders.
This was a surprise to me. Back when I was a new Toronto sports nutritionist , I knew that eating disorders were out there and that I needed to tread lightly around them. When I came across them, I was to refer to a specialist. This was an area for specialists because eating disorders can kill in a way most other nutritional issues do not, and the right sort of help is important. When I decided to specialize in sport, I focused on the specialized needs of athletes created by the sheershear increase in movement, as well as the nutrients and timing that could have a positive impact on performance. But what I was not prepared for was the push back from athletes. I found that many athletes were underfueling but were unwilling to eat more because they so believed that “smaller was better”, “less was better” and restriction was a “good hurt”, regardless of the sport.
Surely, I thought, once they understood the science of sport nutrition, they would consider my suggestions. The value of dietetics as a nutrition method is its scientific basis. I showed them yearly nutrient goals related to yearly training plans, graphs, before and after’s, stories of success. What I was offering was performance improvement, and what athletes were asking for was strategies to lose weight, and look leaner, often when they were already underfueling. These athletes needed more than nutritional science. They needed someone to recognize their behavior for what it was, and tactics to help them talk back to the critical voice in their heads.
What I was yet to learn was that I was not pushing up against the will of an individual athletes. I was pushing up against a whole society that prizes, (hell, expects) the lean, cut, ripped, striated, muscular athlete, regardless of performance. I was pushing up against the cultural norms of diet culture.
Within all human populations there are ranges of behaviors. A certain percentage of people will have eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. A greater number still will have disordered eating, which includes strategies like calorie restriction, shape or weight preoccupation, laxative use, and excessive exercise to name a few examples. But what I was seeing was blowing up these stats, and that is when I realized I could not in good conscience treat athletes unless I could competently treat eating disorders.
What I have learned is that the traits that can make athletes successful are the same traits that can make them successful at disordered eating. The dedication, the rigor, the coachability, the competitive spirit, the acceptance of pain, the deferred pleasure. These attributes that could make someone so strong could also become a weapon to break them down from the inside.
The work I do with athletes starts with kindness. It starts with me letting them know that our conversations are private, separate from the demands of the sport, athlete centered, athlete paced, based on foods they like. But its more than that. It is so much more. Because food is not just fuel. It is a relationship. It can be less prescriptive and more perceptive, involving body awareness cues and learning and testing fueling methods that can be applied for a lifetime, while also containing elements of pleasure. And what I find is that once we have created this space, my clients look forward to spending time in it. It is often the only place where they can explore what food means to them, how they can use it to gain an advantage, nurture it, how they can manage their body’s constant demands for food and make peace with food with the time and skills they have.
It is encouraging that the Globe and Mail is shining a light on this issue, but their coverage is just a snapshot. I am here for the long term, helping athletes where they are at, regardless of whether the need is newsworthy or not. I am in it for the long haul, helping to drive systemic change one athlete, one team at a time.