How Do Elite Athletes Maintain A Positive Relationship With Food?

Researcher Dr. Daniela Stackeová explores the intricate relationship between passion for fitness and the manifestation of eating disorders.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 5, 2023

A new study published in Frontiers in Psychology reveals five unique factors that differentiate competitive athletes from the rest of the population when it comes to assessing their pathological eating. Here's my full conversation with Dr. Stackeová, a professor at the College of Physical Education and Sport Palestra in the Czech Republic.

Your study revealed that the sports environment is ideal for concealing eating disorders and making diagnosis challenging. How can we raise awareness about this issue and ensure that individuals in various fitness pursuits, including recreational athletes and fitness enthusiasts, have access to the necessary support and resources?

This is a practical (and very important) question. We can try to do this on several levels. It is a challenge for professionals, not only to conduct research studies, as we have done, for example, but to try to get the widest possible coverage in all media.

Recently, I have noticed a great deal of interest from journalists in this subject, they have been approaching me with questions, as you are doing now. It is also necessary to ensure that there are sufficiently erudite specialists, psychologists, doctors, physiotherapists, as well as sports and fitness trainers.

Part of their work should be to promote a healthy relationship to exercise and to one's own body and food intake. It is possible to start with this in schools. In the Czech Republic, children in our schools have a subject called Health Education, where they learn, among other things, about sports, nutrition, and a healthy lifestyle in general.

Achieving high performance in sport is tempting and satisfying, but we all have our limits. 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. 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.

How can individuals who prioritize fitness and exercise ensure a healthy balance between their goals and maintaining a positive relationship with food and body image?

The important thing is a positive relationship with yourself, your own body, and physical activity.

Underlying eating disorders reveal a dissatisfaction with oneself, a negative self-concept that makes us more prone to succumb to social pressure. It may be the pressure of a sports coach, or the pressure of the fitness community to have the perfect physique. 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.

In fitness, setting progressive goals is important, as well as asking the simple questions below:

  • How do I want to look?
  • When will I be satisfied with my physique?
  • What are my limits?

Advertisement in the fitness industry often presents bodybuilders' physiques as the result of hard training and dieting, which anyone can achieve, and this is not true. Genetic predispositions are essential. So, my advice is to respect your limits.

How can we promote a culture of self-acceptance and body positivity within the fitness community, where individuals can prioritize their health and well-being without succumbing to harmful behaviors?

This is a very difficult question. 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. They often suffer from anxiety and exercise helps to alleviate it. They also have a typical value system where body image comes first, and other areas of life are ignored.

I see the key to change as finding balance in the sense of wellness, one should take care of not only their body but also their soul. A deeper knowledge of oneself promotes this balance. We can discover why we are addicted to exercise, what we compensate for, why it is important to us. But to do that we have to be motivated; we have to want the change.

An over-fixation on appearance coupled with physical strength and high muscle tension can be what empowers individuals in the fitness community, it could be that if they couldn't exercise, they would mentally collapse.

How can coaches, trainers, and fitness professionals play a role in creating a supportive environment that encourages open discussions about mental health and fosters a healthy approach to nutrition and training for all individuals, regardless of their level of athletic involvement?

Coaches and sports professionals play a pivotal role. They are often attributed with a negative influence in the development of eating disorders. They should be aware of this issue, able to detect the first signs of pathology, and provide support to their athletes.

The health of athletes must come first, not their performance. This is also part of their code of ethics. They should not promote unhealthy dietary practices. They should not make athletes feel guilty that they could have trained even better or dieted even more strictly, which is, unfortunately, quite common.

Based on your findings, what practical advice or strategies would you offer to individuals who engage in fitness activities, such as working out or running, to maintain a balanced and sustainable approach to their health and well-being, both physically and mentally?

As I said before, we all have different genetic predispositions, and these need to be respected. Consult professionals and set realistic goals. Respond conditions of excessive fatigue or other health problems, don't ignore them.

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.

What advice do you have for a mental health practitioner who interacts with athletes or fitness enthusiasts who display pathological eating behaviors?

Thank you for this question. In fact, a common problem is that mental health professionals who don't understand the issue ask athletes to drastically reduce and/or limit their training or discontinue the diet they are on.

However, this can be detrimental to them, causing them to suffer from anxiety or depression. This is obsessive behavior. 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 in a sense of wellness.