5 Things That Put Fitness Enthusiasts At Risk For Disordered Eating
Eating disorders can affect anyone, but science is only just learning why it may affect the fitness industry disproportionately.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 12, 2023
A new study published in Frontiers in Psychology reveals that screening athletes and fitness enthusiasts for eating disorders presents distinctive challenges, which are less frequently encountered in the general population.
The study emphasizes that there are five prevalent characteristics within the sports environment that contribute to the difficulties in diagnosing and identifying these disorders. They are:
- Dietary control
- Body weight control
- Training obsession
- Appetite regulation
- Calorie counting
"Without some level of dissatisfaction with ourselves, we would not have the motivation to exercise and the desire to look better. I fear that quite a few individuals from the fitness community are characterized by an almost pathological dissatisfaction with themselves and a problem with self-acceptance," explains Dr. Daniela Stackeová, the lead author of the study and a professor at the College of Physical Education and Sport Palestra in the Czech Republic.
In this study, which was conducted using 100 respondents in aesthetics-based sports like gymnastics, figure skating, and bodybuilding, the researchers performed an analysis of the test questions of the EAT-26, which is commonly used to assess eating behaviors and attitudes.
The focus was on the unique characteristics of athletes in functional sports nutrition, including:
- Control of energy intake
- Nutrient timing in relation to training
- Management of body weight and composition
There are a number of reasons why the elite athlete community could potentially be a breeding ground for body image issues and troubled relationships with eating.
"It may be the pressure of a sports coach, or the pressure of the fitness community to have the perfect physique," says Stackeová. "We then feel that all our qualities are based on how we look or what our performance is. Our whole being and existence then becomes fixated on that, and we are unable to perceive anything else."
Advertisements in the fitness industry often downplay the role of genetics in achieving the 'ideal' body and instead focus on promoting intense training and extreme diets. This can create a misleading impression for both serious and casual athletes and fitness enthusiasts, leading to increased dissatisfaction with their bodies and potentially contributing to the development of eating disorders.
To help members of the fitness community foster healthier self-images, Stackeová suggests setting progressive goals that seek to challenge (but not overwhelm) individuals.
"Successful athletes can be good role models for us in terms of how they go after their goals, their willpower, and other qualities, but trying to match them at any cost can lead to poor health, says Stackeová. "If physical activity is a source of joy for us, and we do it not only for improved performance or for the attractive body that it leads to, the risk of eating disorders will be lower."
Casual and serious athletes who seek to improve their relationship with food can begin by asking themselves questions like:
- How do I want to look? Is this body strictly necessary for improving my performance, or is it a good-to-have?
- When will I be satisfied with my physique?
- What are my personal limits when it comes to training and diet?
In addition to keeping coaches and trainers in the loop about the latest research on pathologies that have to do with training and diet, it is essential that mental health practitioners are also made aware of how important sports and fitness can be to an individual who displays a difficult relationship with food.
"Their behavior is obsessive," explains Stackeová. "Changes need to be gradual. And it's not easy for a top athlete or fitness enthusiast to feel the same satisfaction when they train less, or to start eating like the general population. The focus needs to be not only on eating behaviors, but on all aspects of the athlete's life, including relationships, to try to understand what led to the eating disorder and help them seek balance."
The will to change risky patterns of eating, ultimately, must come from within the athlete, according to Stackeová.
"Think of movement as a means to help you be healthier and feel better, don't be a slave to it. What is important is an overall lifestyle where the different components are well balanced. Plan not only your exercise and diet, but also your relaxation and rest. Be inspired by mindfulness, and live every moment to the fullest."
A full interview with Dr. Stackeová can be found here: How do elite athletes maintain a healthy relationship with food?