Food is Fuel

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Food is fuel. Within the world of athletes, there can be many approaches to the relationship of food as fuel. According to a 1994 review of eating disorder risk in athletes, sports that place emphasis on aesthetics and weight are the sports that have athletes at highest risk of eating disorders.

In the mid-1960’s, a team of University of Florida researchers gathered to solve an important problem: keeping athletes at peak performance in adverse hydration conditions. They worked together to develop a method of hydration that would result in better utilization of fluid and improved athletic performance. Their invention was Gatorade, of course.

Gatorade was simply the beginning of what has become a billion-dollar sports drink industry. Sugar-sweetened beverages account for 47% of individual’s annual sugar consumption, and sports/energy drinks have continued to grow in market share.

In addition to sports drinks, we have gels, gus, chewable blocks, jelly beans, bars, shakes, mixes, and a wide variety of food-like products that are marketed to athletes and exercisers, reinforcing the concept that food should be fuel for athletic performance.

“Body dissatisfaction is disproportionately high in female athletes, but male athletes tend to experience challenges with eating disorders as well.”

Within the world of athletes, there can be many approaches to the relationship of food as fuel. The sport of sumo wrestling has a deep tradition that includes the diet that is attributed to building a bigger competitor. There are no weight classes in sumo, so bigger always creates the greatest advantage.

The Japanese diet is not generally known to be able to create large amounts of body fat, so the tradition always has been to create a special stew in which large amounts of protein are mixed with vegetables in a meat broth. Hard to imagine that a stew could create such massive bodies, but they intentionally combine sleeping after eating to try to encourage gains in fat mass.

In the World’s Strongest Man competitions, body bulk is an advantage as well, so the competitors tend to also focus diet on options that will pack on muscle. Their approach, however, is not always as intentional as the sumo tradition.

Brian Shaw, one of the World’s Strongest Man champions, documented his daily meals and tends to focus on high-frequency meals with high levels of protein and healthy fat. He consumes up to 10,000 calories per day in his pursuit of muscle mass.

This mass is extremely important for successful performance in competition, but these large contestants have a tendency to develop significant health issues associated with their size. Many competitors develop obstructive sleep apnea, degenerative spine issues, and muscle injuries are relatively common.

“Many athletes may not develop eating disorders, but they may sustain patterns of eating that are at the subclinical level of eating disordered behavior.”

In sharp contrast to sports where bulk is desired, many athletes experience extreme pressure to try to make their bodies as small as possible. Weight can significantly affect running speed, which is why there is even a different weight class for heavier runners: Athena for women and Clydesdale for men (lovely, right??).

According to a 1994 review of eating disorder risk in athletes, sports that place emphasis on aesthetics and weight are the sports that have athletes at highest risk of eating disorder (Sundgot-Borden, 1994). Prominent sports that have intense pressure on body size include track, gymnastics, wrestling, and figure skating.

In sports where a small body is highly valued, food can often be whittled down to the lowest amount of fuel necessary to ensure performance. In female athletes, this tendency can result in the female athlete triad- the tendency for female athletes to experience disordered eating, irregular or absent menses, and osteoporosis.

This is most commonly found in aesthetic sports like gymnastics and figure skating, where athletic success can actually be enhanced by delayed pubertal development; gymnasts tend to achieve the first menarche around age 15.5 which is much later than normal.

According to the NCAA, up to 62% of female gymnasts report disordered eating. In the realm of figure skating, some estimate this number is even higher. The size of gymnasts has continued to decline, and their scores can be directly affected by perceived attractiveness.

“Adam Rippon stated that his relationship with food and his body changed when he was encouraged by a trainer to view food as fuel.”

In the 1950’s, the average weight for a gymnast was 120 pounds, contrasted with the current norm being significantly less than 100 pounds. For figure skater Gracie Gold, the Olympics had to be missed to continue intensive eating disorder treatment.

Body dissatisfaction is disproportionately high in female athletes, but male athletes tend to experience challenges with eating disorders as well. Factors that lead to an increased vulnerability to developing eating disorder include performance pressure, increased focus on physical appearance, criticism of appearance, and athletic clothing that is body conscious.

Most recently, Olympic skater Adam Rippon shared his own struggles with disordered eating and body image. Adam Rippon stated that his relationship with food and his body changed when he was encouraged by a trainer to view food as his fuel.

Many athletes may not develop eating disorders, but they may sustain patterns of eating that are at the subclinical level of eating disordered behavior (Beals and Manore, 1994). Research in treating and addressing eating disordered behavior has demonstrated that there are some essential protective factors for managing these tendencies.

Overall, person-centered coaching that takes on a positive/encouraging approach tends to help female athletes have a more balanced approach to body image and eating behavior. The team can also be a healthy community for athletes when there has been intentional work to establish body-positive communication and supportive environment.

Norway intentionally withheld the weight of their athletes in the Olympics so that their weight would not be part of the individual statistics shared publicly. The relationship that athletes have with their bodies has an essential role in their approach to healthy relationships with food and this is best supported through the leadership in the sport and the manner through which the athlete perceives themselves.

References

Beals, KA and Manore, MM (1994). The prevalence and consequence of sub-clinical eating disorders in female athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 4, 2, 175-195.

Sundgot-Borgen, J (1994). Eating disorders in female athletes. Sports Medicine, 17, 176.

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